Political courage required to save Heritage Council
OPINION:The agency has given reliable expert advice to government in a fair and impartial way. The Minister should reflect on its unrivalled role, writes PADDY WOODWORTH
THE WIDESPREAD notion that “we all partied” during the boom years is misleading, as well as insulting, on several counts.
One of them is that it obscures a crucial piece of good news: some organisations gave excellent value for the increases in public funding – overdue and inadequate though these increases often were – that flowed from the boom.
They put in serious, hard and innovative work that has brought rich benefits to our civil society and culture and also brought quantifiable benefits to our economy. And those benefits would be sustainable today, if these bodies were not being subjected to automatic amputations to pay for the sins of much more powerful institutions.
There is a great danger that the scalpel the Government is applying across the board is cutting the heart out of the best of what we are today, and of what we can be in the future.
The Heritage Council is at the core of that still-beating heart. And it has other equally vital, and equally threatened, chambers, such as the Arts Council.
Unlike the latter, however, the Heritage Council has a relatively low media profile. But it has made an extraordinary impact on our environmental culture, in the broadest sense, in recent years.
We tend to associate “heritage” with historical buildings and monuments, with castles and beehive huts, with vernacular architecture and traditional arts and crafts. The council has done sterling work in this field in both conservation and education, work strongly defended some time ago on these pages by Dr Peter Cox (January 4th, 2012). He also reminded us that, partly but not entirely due to tourism, one euro invested in built heritage by the State yields upwards of €300 to the exchequer.
The council’s work here clearly fits within the spectrum of Irish culture, properly celebrated as one of the greatest assets of Brand Ireland by politicians and business people at the 2009 Global Irish Economic Forum in Farmleigh House.
Just how sincere the politicians were is revealed by the Heritage Council’s position three years later: it has suffered 65 per cent cuts and is threatened with dissolution through absorption into the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
On Dr Cox’s arguments alone, the case for maintaining the council’s autonomous status and reinstating at least some of its 2008 level of funding is strong.
But built heritage is not the only beneficiary of the council’s work. It also has broadened our concept of “heritage” to include the natural world, and thus significantly developed our rather weak national environmental ethos.
The Heritage Council has done this at a number of levels, from raising environmental awareness among young people and many local communities, through policy advice to government departments, through research grants, and through assisting NGOs and setting up benchmark institutions.
One of the council’s most familiar initiatives is National Heritage Week (August 18th – 26th, heritageweek.ie) with activities ranging from woodcarving to nature rambles.
Another is the National Biodiversity Data Centre, established by the council in 2007. The centre has initiated another popular event, BioBlitz. This brings together scientists and local communities in a race to identify the highest score of plant and animal species in a given area within 24 hours.