The State should appoint a “cultural ombudsman” or establish an authoritative independent advisory council to protect heritage structures, an Oireachtas committee has been advised.
Changes to the law protecting national monuments made in 2004 sent Irish heritage protection "back into the Stone Age", the Oireachtas Joint Committee was told by the interim chief executive of An Taisce, Gary Freemantle.
In a pre-legislative hearing to consider the Monuments and Archaeological Heritage Bill, Mr Freemantle asked how “it can be acceptable that there is no cultural/heritage court of appeal or ombudsman to adjudicate on the fate of disputed sites and monuments of note”.
At the hearing, An Taisce called for the Valleta Convention to be incorporated into the proposed legislation, with Ian Lumley of An Taisce telling Senator Mary Fitzpatrick of Fianna Fáil that this would have the effect of protecting the landscapes or settings associated with heritage structures.
There had been a “systematic failure over the years” to consider the setting of national monuments, he said, mentioning the Hill of Tara and the M3 motorway among other sites.
Not best model
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh of Sinn Féin said he believed the idea of an ombudsman was not the best model for protecting heritage structures as the objective would be to act “before rather than after the effect”.
Senator John Cummins of Fine Gael said that sometimes a pragmatic view needed to be taken, especially in relation to heritage buildings, so that prohibitive cost did not lead to a building being allowed fall into ruin, rather than being "saved with modifications".
Dr Mark Clinton of An Taisce told Deputy Cian O'Callaghan of the Social Democrats that he thought it was "just crazy" that a person could defend themselves against prosecution by saying they did not know a destroyed structure was a national monument.
The editor of Archaeology Ireland, Dr Sharon Greene, said archaeology was still relevant to Irish society.
“It plays a role, for example, in promoting a connection with your local area, a pride of place that doesn’t necessarily have to be rooted in personal family connections, and it can be used to help people to engage in important issues such as climate change.”
She told Senator Rebecca Moynihan of the Labour Party that there was a problem with people using metal detectors without having the requisite licence.
Dr Ruth Johnson of the Local Authority Archaeologist Network told the committee that seven local authorities had archeological offices.
She said she would like to see the law protect the State’s “industrial heritage” as well as other structures.
Independent Senator Victor Boylan said he believed the Minister had too much power in relation to allowing the destruction of national monuments.
There was a good Minister for Heritage in place at the moment, “but we don’t know who is coming down the line”, he said.
Mr Freemantle told the committee there were approximately 1,000 monuments on approximately 750 sites in the ownership or guardianship of the State.
The remaining approximately 129,000 monuments were in private ownership.