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.
The main role of the centre, based at the Waterford Institute of Technology, is to fill the large gaps in our knowledge of Ireland’s species and habitats as a first step towards honouring our international agreements to halt biodiversity loss.
The council has given crucial financial assistance to NGOs such as Woodlands of Ireland, a small but dynamic force for the restoration of native forests in the most deforested landscape in Europe.
It disburses grants, too, for myriad projects in environmental research, surveying and monitoring. (I should declare an interest here, since I received one in 2010 towards completing Irish chapters in a book on ecological restoration.) And the organisation has commissioned benchmark guides that are now used universally by Irish professional environmentalists (and many amateurs), such as Julie Fossitt’s Guide to Habitats in Ireland, all downloadable free from the council’s website.
Another part of the council’s brief is to give policy advice to government departments, for example on the National Biodiversity Plan and on agri-environmental areas such as High Nature Value Farming.
One of the council’s most remarkable advances has been the promotion and joint-financing of the appointment of heritage and biodiversity officers to local authorities.
This has created a network of specialists who have made invaluable contributions to fostering heritage and environmental projects across the country. Much remains to be done on the biodiversity front, however, with only four such officers appointed so far, as against 28 heritage officers.
There seems little hope of further progress, however. The council’s energetic chief executive, Michael Starrett, warned recently that “disproportionate cuts” had brought the council close to “catastrophe”. No research grants were made last year and assistance to key organisations is faltering.
Bad as the funding cuts are, it is the threat to absorb the council into a Government department that would sound its death knell.
It is widely recognised that one of the keys to the council’s success has been its arm’s-length relationship with government. This enables it to take bold community initiatives and to play a broad creative role across professional and institutional sectors that would be impossible within the rigid demarcations of the formal Civil Service.
Above all, it enables it to give honest expert advice to government without fear or favour.
Jimmy Deenihan has shown himself to be a refreshingly open-minded and accessible Minister at Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. He has postponed a final decision on the council’s fate until the autumn. It is to be hoped he will reflect over the summer on the unique role it has played in our society in recent years, and restore the means to enable it to continue to serve us well.
Certainly, everyone who cares about heritage in Ireland should lobby him to do so.
Paddy Woodworth is a journalist and author.
NATIONAL HERITAGE WEEK: WHAT'S ON
The Heritage Council’s National Heritage Week 2012 runs this year from Saturday, August 18th to August 26th.
There are more than 1,500 events, most of them free of charge and child- and family-friendly.
They include medieval fairs, food fairs, guided nature and archaeological walks, including night-time bat walks, classical music, poetry, theatre, traditional music, storytelling, historical re-enactments, local history walks and talks, tours of historical buildings, maritime and coastal events, traditional skills workshops and archaeological digs.
A county-by-county guide , listing all events, can be accessed on the Heritage Council’s website guide at heritageweek.ie/