'All I'm appealing for is people to give this a chance and see how it works'
Controversial plans to merge the boards of the National Library and National Museum will go ahead, says Minister for the Arts Jimmy Deenihan
It is part of a process of reorganising cultural institutions that he says will save €1 million, small change perhaps for some other departments but the Minister insists it is a lot of money when your total budget is €260 million.
“All I’m appealing for is people to give this a chance and to see how it will work,” he says in an interview at his office on Kildare Street, Dublin.
A native of Lixnaw, Co Kerry, he holds five senior All-Ireland medals in Gaelic football. The challenge for him is to show the same kind of leadership in his ministerial role that he displayed when, as captain of the Kerry team, he led the side to victory over Offaly in 1981.
“I was asked to carry out a review of all the boards under my jurisdiction – 12 in all,” he says. Following this request from the Government in November 2011, a reform unit was set up in his department.
“As regards the library and the museum, the proposal was to amalgamate the National Archives with the National Library and then to look at the board structures of the National Library and the National Museum.
“Having considered the report of the reform unit, and obviously having made some consultations myself, I decided that the National Archives should stay as it was – it’s working very effectively and efficiently.”
After that, he says: “I used the National Archives model or template for the National Library and the National Museum. We have a proposal to set up an advisory council similar to the National Archives Advisory Council.”
There are 16 members on the board of the museum and 11 members on the library board but the new council will have nine members. Fees will no longer be paid to members of boards or advisory councils in 12 organisations that are part of the reform plan.
Total amounts paid to boards for 2011 included: National Gallery, €52,881; National Museum, €102,991; National Library, €62,385; Culture Ireland, €56,858; and the Heritage Council, €49,377.
“We’re going to introduce legislation as well to strengthen the curatorial independence of the directors of both the library and the museum: I consider that very important,” the Minister says.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing for Deenihan: historian Diarmaid Ferriter resigned from the National Library’s board last May in protest at the amalgamation plan, while former director of the National Museum Pat Wallace described the proposal as “a very mistaken idea”.
The view expressed more generally by critics of the move is that it is a Civil Service coup to deprive these institutions of their independence.
However, Deenihan rejects this charge.
“That’s not the intention and when people see the legislation they will understand that it’s not the intention.
“I am aware of Diarmaid Ferriter’s concerns and I’m delighted he stayed on the National Archives Advisory Council: that would seem to indicate that he supports that form of governance.”
He says the advisory council “will be academic but also there will be a direction as regards philanthropy”.
“I am very supportive of continuing State funding for all our cultural institutions and for the arts, but I think there are opportunities out there to get extra funding and we should try to capitalise on them as much as possible.”
He says there are significant tax concessions available but they are not well-known because “we don’t really have a culture of philanthropy in this country”.
The Minister chairs the all-party Oireachtas Consultation Group on Centenary Commemorations, a role he finds “very exciting”.
“The big moment this coming year will be the Dublin Lockout; there are events planned, which we are supporting,” he says. An Irish Congress of Trade Unions proposal for a State ceremonial event is under examination.
The following year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the first World War: “This is something that we can share with Northern Ireland and with Britain as well.”
And preparations are already under way for the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016.
Bank of Ireland building
On a separate historical note, he has a particular interest in the site of the former Irish parliament on College Green, now used by the Bank of Ireland.
“I would like to see a part of it, even, being open for public use. It’s a very big site, an acre-and-a-half altogether, so I think it’s rather unrealistic to expect to acquire the whole site for the State, but certainly the House of Lords would be a very, very attractive venue to get.”
It’s still on his agenda: “At the end of the day, people must realise that it’s in private ownership at the moment.
“It’s a very important part of the bank’s infrastructure but, at the same time, it’s an iconic building.”
Bogs: A burning issue
The Gaeltacht element of his brief is firmly in the hands of junior minister Dinny McGinley but Jimmy Deenihan has had to deal with a very difficult issue that affects both Gaeltacht and non-Gaeltacht areas. This is bringing a halt to turf-cutting in bogs deemed a key part of environmental heritage.
“At the end of January 2011, before the changeover of government, the European Commission sent a letter to the then minister for foreign affairs, Micheál Martin, advising him that the commission intended taking the Government to court on this matter. This would result in huge fines for the Irish taxpayer of up to €25,000 a day – €9 million a year – so that was one of the first dossiers/files that I was presented with when I was appointed.
“Overall we have paid €3.4 million under the Cessation of Turf-Cutting Compensation Scheme – that’s a lot of money. The compensation is €1,500 a year for 15 years or, alternatively, they can get a 15-ton supply of turf or relocation and we’re working on relocating people to other bogs. Then, as an incentive, we provided an additional €500 if the bog-owners signed a legal agreement and that process is in train.”
The Minister has defused the controversy, at least for now.