Adjournment Debate. - Destruction of Ancient Monument.

As a freeman of Kilrush I gladly support Deputy Taylor-Quinn's claims.

Deputy Haughey never misses a trick.

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I extend my gratitude to you for giving me permission to raise this matter. I want to assure the Minister of State that I am raising it in a totally non-contentious and non-partisan way. I am concerned about the matter referred to inThe Irish Times this morning relating to the destruction of a late Iron Age monument in County Kildare. I want to draw the Minister's attention to the implications of this happening from two broad general points of view.

There is the serious aspect of the destruction of the monument itself, but perhaps more important than the actual damage done to the monument are the implications of this sort of happening. That would lead us to a decision to take come urgent action. I understand the damage to this monument happened some time ago and it was only given publicity yesterday and today. Normally I would worry about raising a matter like this in case it would direct public attention to the sites and perhaps involve a number of sightseers coming to the site and perhaps doing further damage. We have to be careful in a situation like this not to exacerbate the position and cause unnecessary additional harm.

The monument is one of considerable significance because it is a late Iron Age monument and because, until now, the only visible evidence of any significance was a standing stone. As we know, critics suggest these standing stones are not of any great importance in that they could have been simply of agricultural origin, but this incident establishes that while there is a standing stone, it could indicate that there is an important monument involved. That apparently is the situation here. There is the lesson to be learned that standing stones, even single standing stones, may have far greater significance themselves than they would indicate, and they alert us to the fact that there may be important archaeological remains in the immediate vicinity.

It is a bit disappointing that although there was a preservation order placed on this site in 1973 the site has recently been severely damaged. We have to ask what is the value of these preservation orders if, despite their being made, damage can still follow or, to put the question another way: is there something we should be doing about preservation orders to ensure that they mean what they say that they are instruments for the preservation of important monuments?

The Office of Public Works are the body concerned and have responsibility for national monuments. In this case they must offer some explanation of why the preservation order could be so flagrantly disregarded. We go on from there and ask what action will be taken. Apparently the people responsible for the damage are a commercial concern. It is sometimes argued that protecting our heritage and preserving our archaeological wealth has to be modified by the needs of the farming community and that it is unrealistic, unfair and inequitable to ask farmers to inhibit their farming activities in the interests of ancient monuments. From my experience — I do not know if the Minister would agree with me on this — that conflict rarely, if ever, arises. Most farmers are as proud of the monuments on their land as anybody else. If they are aware of the importance of the monuments farmers generally can be relied on to protect them, and certainly not to deliberately interfere with them. I do not think that applies where commercial concerns are involved. People involved in building and construction, and indeed local authorities, perhaps understandably, give priority to other concerns rather than to the interests of our archaeological heritage.

I hope the Minister will be able to tell us what action she proposes to take in this case, not necessarily from a purely punitive point of view but from an exemplary point of view. Something should be done which would indicate to everybody that people cannot casually or with impunity interfere with our ancient monuments. I am sure there is no need for me to emphasise to the Minister the growing interest there is in our heritage. It is becoming increasingly clear with every year that passes that, particularly in regard to prehistoric times, or in so far as prehistoric monuments and relics are concerned, we have an almost priceless heritage. For a long time we were aware only of Newgrange and its significance. Now there is increasing evidence that there was a civilisation in Stone Age Ireland about which it is important we should know more and more, indeed a civilisation which has left us a unique heritage.

There was a booklet published some time ago —Monuments in Danger, I think, was the title of it — which showed that the situation varies from county to county, that in some counties the heritage is reasonably safe but that in others the rate of destruction is catastrophic. I would ask the Minister to examine the position from that point of view, to have regard to those counties where there is a catastrophically high rate of destruction of our ancient monuments.

I shall revert for a moment to the question of preservation orders. Obviously the situation is not satisfactory. Of course we need an archaeological survey of the entire country and then to go on from there to take the necessary effective action to preserve. Some places have done wonderful work. For instance, in Corca Dhuibhne on the Dingle Peninsula, there was an archaeological survey carried out which is of very great value and another has been carried out in County Donegal. What is really needed is an archaeological survey of the entire country and, based on that survey, we should devise effective preservation mechanisms. It is sad that preservation orders can be made and then disregarded. I suppose the answer there is to try to arouse public opinion. The resources of the Office of Public Works, I am sure, are limited. I do not suppose we can expect them to police every site or even the more important ones in the country. Perhaps if we had a really informed public opinion, it would go a long way towards dealing with the problem. That informed public opinion should necessarily comprise all of the elements of the local community. Perhaps the most important way of arousing such public opinion would be through the schools. There are also many other ways through local community organisations, indeed through the farming organisations. I am quite satisfied that part of the remedy for the threatening situation confronting us in regard to our monuments is an aroused and alert local body of public opinion.

Apart from this monument — which has hit the headlines, as it were — there have been recently a number of other incidents which have been disquieting. There are people who should know better who seem to think there is something desirable, profitable or beneficial from their point of view in taking or removing artefacts from important archaeological sites.

I asked to raise this matter on the Adjournment to get a report from the Minister on this particular incident but also to ask her to talk to us about the legislation on hands for this area, whether in view of incidents like this and others which have been reported over the past 12 months or so, the time has come for major legislation in an endeavour to cope with the problem and to protect our archaeological heritage. It is still enormous, still unique but is under threat and, in some areas, even disappearing. I would urge the Minister to give serious consideration as a matter of urgency to fairly comprehensive legislation.

I commend Deputy Haughey for bringing this matter to the attention of the House this evening. Indeed we have absolutely no disagreement in relation to the horrific act which has brought this to the front page of our papers today. Can I say categorically that I deplore this act of vandalism, for that is just what it is and it can be called no less. The company who own the land and who have desecrated this ancient burial place were well aware of its status as a national monument and of the fact that it was the subject of a preservation order under the National Monuments Acts. Whether it was premeditated or due to negligence is beside the point. They owned the land and had responsibility for the safekeeping of the heritage it contained.

For the record I will outline the facts of the case before moving into the area of new legislation. The Long Stone at Kilgowan is a granite monolith about seven feet six inches high and is unusual among standing stones in that it has a small cross with slightly expanded terminals cut on one face. It stands at the north west end of an esker ridge running north west to south east at an attitude of 400 feet to 500 feet. Gravel digging in this ridge was noted in 1969 and this led to the monument being listed under the National Monuments Acts in 1971. In spite of this, it was noted early in 1973 that gravel extraction was continuing to progress in the direction of the monument. The land in question had then come into the ownership of Naas Concrete Ltd. who sought permission to remove the stone in order to extract gravel without further hindrance. The Commissioners of Public Works responded with a preservation order in May 1973.

The lands then passed to Spollen Concrete (Naas) Ltd. Correspondence with this firm and a subsequent site meeting in September 1975, when the boundaries of the protected area were pointed out, elicited assurances from the firm that no further disturbance would take place within this area. That bears repeating: correspondence with this firm and a subsequent site meeting in September 1975, when the boundaries of the protected area were pointed out, elicited assurances from the firm that no further disturbance would take place within this area. Subsequent inspections indicated that this undertaking was being observed at the time. However, in May 1985 the commissioners were advised by Kildare County Council that an application had been submitted by the Spollen Concrete Group for permission to extract gravel from various lands at Kilgowan including the area covered by the preservation order. The commissioners objected to such operations within the area covered by the preservation order.

On 3 November 1986 the chief archaeologist of the Office of Public Works received a report concerning further damage to the site. He immediately contacted the Kildare County Council who stopped the work. The Office of Public Works arranged also for the site to be inspected on the same day by an archaeologist from the Office of Public Works who found that an access route had been cut through the preserved area to an area to the east of the site where further gravel was to be extracted. Information was also obtained from a local antiquarian that during bulldozing operations on the previous Friday, 31 October 1986, he had noted two exposed inhumation burials, a head to the west and surrounded by flagstones and the scattered remains of other skeletons. At the time of inspection spoil had been thrown up on either side of the new access route and also down the slope so that no archaeological featuresin situ could be seen although numerous pieces of bone and flagstones were visible in the spoil.

Having secured the suspension of the work which was damaging the site, the Commissioners of Public Works are considering the action they must now take in pursuance of their functions to protect our national monuments. They await the advice of the Chief State Solicitor on the one hand in regard to prosecution proceedings. The commissioners are also in communication with the county council in regard to the limits which must be set to any future gravel extraction in this area. I state unequivocally that court proceedings will follow if only for exemplary reasons rather than punitive reasons as the Deputy pointed out. Regrettably, the present law is not a great deterrent in as much as the fines therein would make little difference to a firm such as we are now referring to. I am horrified that a company of such repute should show such disregard for the heritage of the people of Ireland. It is far too great a price to pay for progress. The damage has been done and cannot at this stage be repaired. However, certain saving measures must now be taken to minimise the effects. An archaeological investigation will have to be undertaken to recover as much information as can be retrieved from the archaeological deposits which have been exposed but remain partially intact. The spoil will have to be tilled back and this will have to be done under archaeological supervision. The visual aspects of the site will have to be restored as closely as possible and this will be done. Finally, the law has been broken and the matter will have to be dealt with by the courts.

I should like to refer briefly to some of the aspects the Deputy referred to in relation to the value of a preservation order if this sort of thing can be done apparently without any regard for the law. Our main problem in this area is the very richness of our heritage. We have so many sites worth preserving and so many national monuments that the State alone could never caretake them all, much as we would like to do so. We depend to a large extent on the vigilance of local groups and local historical societies. It was from such a group that initially this act of barbarism was brought to our attention in recent weeks. I commend them for their vigilance and their interest in our heritage. We all owe them a great debt of gratitude.

Basically, the key to the problem of protecting our heritage in future is local vigilance. Members are aware that the Seanad has completed Second Stage of the National Monuments (Amendment) Bill, 1986. I hope to deal with Committee Stage in the next fortnight. Among other things, we increased the punitive deterrents in relation to this type of vandalism of our heritage to the limit that we possibly can in relation to the fact that they are heard in a District Court. Even if we were to increase them further and if the jail sentence were to be longer I do not think it would make much difference in terms of the case we are now talking about. Money is not the object, it is a total disregard for the heritage of the Irish people. This is an appalling aspect of the case we are dealing with today. We have done what we can in relation to increasing the fines and/or jail sentence. We also included specific reference to local interested historical groups in calling them into the whole role of protecting our heritage and caretaking it in as much as they can be our eyes and ears on the sites throughout Ireland.

I hope when this Bill reaches the House — I expect it to be in the Dáil as soon as we resume after Christmas — it will have a swift passage. There is an increasing awareness and appreciation by some of the wealth, not only in monetary terms but in interest terms, that these sites are generating. We see increasing desecration, vandalism and thefts from these sites. It is not wanton vandalism. It is more insidious than that in that those who are desecrating and stealing from our historic sites and national monuments appear to know what they are after and know what they are doing. It would appear they have a market or a destination for what they are thieving. That is why it is up to all of us to ensure a very swift passage of this legislation.

Deputy Haughey asked is it not time for more comprehensive legislation. Would that it could be. Regrettably, if we waited until all the constitutional constraints were ironed out we would have to wait too long and would have to stand by while more vandalism and desecration took place in relation to our heritage. Even though this Bill may fall short of what all of us would like in some areas, it is far better than waiting for Supreme Court decisions to iron out any constitutional implications that may still remain. The whole area of compensation is very vexed. In the meantime it is worth while proceeding with the amending Bill, which we will be bringing before the House and which is now in the Seanad, as an interim measure, until we are all ready to proceed with more comprehensive legislation. I know this will be welcomed by all sides of this House when we can sort out any constitutional difficulties that still remain.

I did a lot of work on it.

As much of that as possible has been incorporated. There have been several Private Members' Bills over the years and there has been tremendous interest shown by all sides of the House in this area. We incorporated all we could without getting into the constitutional area. If we get into an area it will be immediately challenged in our courts—we have drawn interest to these sites — we would not then be in a position to follow through in relation to penalties or punitive measures of one kind or another. We have gone as far as we can go. We will be moving major legislation as soon as we can without any constitutional threat to the legislation. We have taken advice from the Attorney General in relation to this and he feels we have done as much as we can.

To get back to the issue that brought us here this evening. I was appalled when the details of this case were brought to my notice. I was appalled that it was done by people who should have known better and by people to whom we should have been able to entrust our heritage. Unfortunately, that was not the case and I repeat that the full rigours of the law will now be applied.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 25 November 1986.