Heritage and a shape-shifting department

 

Sir, – Here we go again. Our shape-shifting department for culture has morphed into the Department of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht. A steady state seems as far away as ever.

In 1996 and 1997, as a member of OPW staff, I was part of a team that negotiated the bringing into being of Dúchas, the Heritage Service, an executive agency to manage all of the heritage functions then under the direct control of government departments (primarily the OPW). Our excellent chairman was Colm Ó Briain, former director of the Arts Council and political adviser to the then minister, one Michael D Higgins. We were all (professional as distinct from administrative civil servants, that is) excited to get it off the ground. We were looking forward to getting out from under the heavy hand of departmental bureaucracy to become part of a professionally-operated agency focused directly on values of conservation and delivery of visitor services to the public. A complete corporate image was commissioned for the new agency. Over about 18 months, the livery was applied to all aspects of built and natural heritage then in State care – signage, vehicles, uniforms, headed paper and so on. There was even a Dúchas tie (I never wore it). Millions were spent. Just when the agency was finding its feet, it was peremptorily abolished by the incoming Fianna Fáil government in 2002. Just like that. It had been a FF-Labour creation, after all.

Our politicians’ philosophy of culture is profoundly Heraclitan – you never step into the same river twice (unless it is in urgent need of drainage, of course). Culture is an ever-flowing, protean governmental form, into which our re-elected and newly elected dip their toes. Between 2002 and 2011, tourism and sport were seen to float along quite happily like rubber duckies upon its surface, only to be thrown out, like babies with the bathwater. Now the heritage duckie has gone missing. It’ll probably be arts next time. The department has never had a stable identity from the moment it was founded in 1993. The new title is a triumph of country and western engineering – the Department of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht. The arts are now the ballroom of romance in a thoroughly rustic scene, lit by healing rays. But heritage appears to have been blow-torched along with the department of environment and local government.

Still, there’s once thing to be cheerful about. This is the first time for an outgoing minister holding the cultural portfolio to actually retain a seat at Cabinet – and it’s even the same portfolio. Well, sort of. – Yours, etc,

PAT COOKE,

Director,

MA in Cultural Policy

and Arts Management,

University College Dublin,

Belfield, Dublin 4.

Sir, – The loss of the word “environment” in a top-line government department appears to have happened without as much as a hiccup! There is nothing progressive in this, and it lacks any kind of thinking. This lack of understanding and respect for the environment should concern us all. But judging by the lack of attention given to this change, it looks like our environment will just have to muddle along, homeless and kicked from one government department to another. – Yours, etc,

GAVIN HARTE,

Dún Laoghaire,

Co Dublin.