Controversial merger first mooted in 2009 budget

Fri, Nov 16, 2012, 00:00

BACKGROUND:President Michael D Higgins is credited with giving autonomy to cultural institutions when he was minister for culture, arts and the Gaeltacht by introducing the National Cultural Institutions Act, 1997, which came into effect in 2005.

The merger proposal that has sparked controversy in recent months has its origins in the budget of 2009. In October 2008, then minister for finance Brian Lenihan published the budget documents for the following year containing a section on the “rationalisation” of State agencies with a proposal to “merge the National Archives and the Irish Manuscripts Commission into the National Library”.

The contentious plan was never implemented by the Fianna Fáil/Green Party administration. Fine Gael’s Jimmy Deenihan was appointed Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht under the new administration. A paper from the department prepared in September 2011 for consideration by Cabinet showed “active consideration” was being given to abolishing the boards of the National Museum and National Library and reverting to the situation, which pertained prior to 2005, where the two organisations were in effect divisions of the department.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin published the Public Service Reform Plan for State agencies and quangos the following month. In a section on bodies to be “rationalised, amalgamated or abolished” in 2012, a plan to merge the National Archives and the Irish Manuscripts Commission into the library “while maintaining separate identities” was outlined.

With reference to the library and the museum, it said the Department of Arts would “examine the issue of shared services and the board structure of both bodies”.

In May this year, Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at UCD, resigned from the board of the library, warning that “the bureaucrat barbarians are at the gates”. Writing in this newspaper, he said: “It has been made clear to the library that what is being considered is the abolition of an autonomous board overseeing its governance.” Prof Ferriter said the debate was not just about money, and said the centralisation of arts and culture administration in Ireland was “already ridiculously excessive”.

Independent Senator Fiach Mac Conghail warned of a “tsunami of desecration or potential undermining of the whole cultural infrastructure of our nation”.

A Taoiseach’s nominee to the Seanad and director of the Abbey Theatre, Mac Conghail was also special adviser to Fianna Fáil minister for arts John O’Donoghue in the 2002-2007 government.

Last week the former director of the museum, Pat Wallace, warned that the individuality and separateness of purpose of the museum and the library would be diminished. “The new plan is to take us back into the maw of the department,” he told Marian Finucane on RTÉ. The museum board was too big but very good, he added.

However, the national secretary of the Impact trade union, Matt Staunton, said in a letter to the department in May: “I think it is also fair to say that most museum staff feel that the experience of having their own board and administration since 2005 has not been successful or particularly happy.” The letter was released following a Freedom of Information request to the department.