Adjournment Debate. - National Library Manuscript Theft.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity of raising this important matter. There are two issues here. There is the specific theft of an important sixteenth century manuscript map from the National Library and there is the lack of proper security at the library which, I regret to say, makes a recurrence of such a theft a constant danger.

The Minister of State will, I assume, give us all the relevant facts concerning the theft and the recovery since the Department of the Taoiseach have all the facts. However, I feel I should begin by giving a broad outline of all the circumstances of the case.

Last June the police in London were investigating a case of an Irishman named O'Sullivan with an address in Kilburn and he was found in possession of about 20 maps stolen from various British institutions. These or similar investigations led them to another Irishman who was found to be in possession of a sixteenth century manuscript map of Munster about 4 ft. by 3 ft. It was later discovered that this was the property of the National Library of Ireland and had been stolen from there.

I have heard various prices put on this map. Some London sources have put it at a figure of about £30,000; but the monetary value of the map, whatever it is, is not the issue here. Anyway I do not think any of us could attempt to put a price on a slice of our heritage such as this which is something unique and which would not be sold by the National Library or by the country irrespective of the price tag.

I understand that the map has since been returned, first to the Irish Embassy in London, and that it may now be back in Dublin. Naturally we are all delighted with this aspect. At this stage it is only right that I, and I am sure the Minister of State afterwards, would express our appreciation of the good policework in London and in particular the good work of Detective Sergeant James Cranwell and his London colleague, Charles Collins who, I understand, is a Dubliner.

Despite the safe return of the map there are many seriously disturbing matters that require explanation and, above all else, action. For instance, how could the map be stolen in the first place? How is it that the theft did not become known until the London police fortunately came across the map in carrying out other investigations? What system of checking exists in the National Library? What guarantees, if any, have we that this was an isolated case, that only this map was stolen? Do we know if there are any other treasures that may have disappeared? Most important of all, so far as we in this House are concerned, what provisions are now being made to tighten up on security and to ensure that no further thefts of this nature will occur?

I want to pre-fix my following remarks by saying that I do not seek to blame the staff of the National Library for the inadequacies that may be there. Nor do I blame this Government or any particular Government for the difficulties that arose. The fact is, and it is well to admit it, that our National Library has been outrageously neglected by successive Governments. Maybe a good fallout on this unfortunate occurrence will be that attention will now be focused on the needs of the National Library. As a Minister of State I was in charge, for a brief period of about three months, of the National Library when it was transferred from the Department of Education to the Department of the Taoiseach and I am very glad to see that some of the initiatives I introduced there, particularly in the genealogical section are now being pursued vigorously.

In regard to security, the responsibility for the day-to-day security in the public areas of the library falls to the library assistants. There used to be 12 there at one time. In September of last year their number was down to five and, since Christmas, I believe the number was down to three until very recently. Three library assistants are the people who are specifically in charge of security in the public areas. I understand there was some action there this week. After the excellent report by Denis McClean in the Evening Press on Tuesday last revealing for the first time the theft of this map, I understand that a notice appeared on Wednesday last week looking for a library assistant and stating that applications were to be in the same day. If that is so it shows remarkable alacrity on the part of the Civil Service and that is very welcome. I look forward to hearing from the Minister of State as to what the staff position is now and what are the future plans so far as staffing is concerned.

However, looking after security should not be the job of library assistants on the floor. In this day and age other security aids must be provided. For instance, as I understand it, there is no locker room where users of the library are required to deposit their bags or handbags or coats or whatever before going to the reading room. Facilities of this kind are available in libraries all over the country and in museums and institutions all over the world. This is a standard facility but the National Library does not have it even though they first requested such a facility in 1928. Therefore, a thief or a vandal disguised as a reader or user of the library can go in there carrying a bag or a coat with excellent cover for any theft that might be contemplated. In this day and age, towards the end of the twentieth century, we should have in that important institution with such important records and treasures the most advanced, sophisticated electronic and video equipment so that there is unobtrusive but continuous monitoring in all of the places open to the public.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the whole issue of security and staffing generally. I hope he will give us an assurance that there will be no recurrence of this kind of theft because of action that has been taken or is intended to be taken immediately. I would strongly recommend that there should be a full investigation, through whatever means are available to the library, by checking against existing catalogues or whatever, to find out if anything else of major value is missing that we may not now know of. I would like to hear from the Minister if this has been done already. Do we know that nothing else is missing, that there are no other treasures to be found by the police in London, accidentally or otherwise, and that there are no examples of vandalism or damage to books or documents? What is the present information of the Department of the Taoiseach and has an investigation been set afoot in the library to ascertain, by whatever means are available to them, whether any other items have been taken?

I would like to know what accommodation now exists for the mapping section. Where is the mapping section at present and from what part of the library was this map taken? At one time the maps were piled up in a hallway. That section was later moved for a period to Earlsfort Terrace but it is back again at the library What is the present position regarding the investigations into the circumstances surrounding the theft or is there any information in that regard?

I think the Minister will agree that as legislators and indeed as a people we have shamefully neglected our National Library and its treasures down the years. It has suffered greatly from being a relatively small division in the Department of Education for most of its time. Shortly before the Coalition Government, of which I was Minister of State, left office responsibility for the National Library was transferred to the Department of the Taoiseach where it could receive greater attention in the arts and cultural division. In that Department there is a very dedicated and imaginative staff who would be only too willing and anxious to put into operation all sorts of improvements in the National Library, if they were given the facilities and the money, which is the bottom line with a lot of these matters.

It is long past the time that the chaotic conditions — I do not think they can be described as anything else — that exist there are tackled vigorously. There have been some very damaging reports in recent times from the trade union groups — who of course would have a vested interest — and other groups about the conditions under which the staff have to work. One trade union group, are reported in the Irish Press of Wednesday, 8 February as stating that dust and dirt is lying thick in many areas of the library and that valuable and unique collections are exposed to hazards of temperature fluctuations, poor handling and risk of theft. How right they were as far as the risk of theft was concerned.

Last week Michael Yeats opened an exhibition in the library of manuscripts and memorabilia of his father, W. B. Yeats, when he was driven to lash out at the conditions there. He made very unfavourable comparisons between our National Library and the facilities that exist in the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales. Presumably, he was thinking of comparable institutions with which he was familiar. The outburst by Michael Yeats was a most unusual one at an official opening and certainly a most unusual one for a mild-mannered man like Mr. Yeats, but obviously he was driven to it by his knowledge of the lack of facilities that exist and the lack of attention that is being given to the National Library.

A decision was taken recently to close the library in the evenings because of staff shortages but the Taoiseach's Department rescinded this decision. That was a reflection of the difficulties that arose as far as the staff are concerned. These people are most courteous and helpful and would be anxious to have the library open at all times but were forced to close it down in the evenings and on Saturdays until this decision was rescinded. The library is also being forced to concentrate on material of Irish interest because of the constraints on staff, space and money. A major policy issue which is probably well outside the scope of this debate relates to whether it should be a general library for people seeking all sorts of knowledge or whether it should be a library of Irish studies.

We have an opportunity at last — perhaps some good will come from this theft — to focus attention on the conditions in the National Library. We have available to us funds from the national lottery which far exceed our original expectations. Now that the museum has been, to a certain extent, looked after by way of major grants from the EC and otherwise, money should be provided, as a priority, to the National Library. It is a repository of great treasures where there are records of culture and history which have been handed down to us. It is a centre of knowledge and of learning and is visited by many people on a constant basis.

We now have an opportunity to improve the conditions there but what we are concerned with primarily is the question of security. The discovery of the theft of the map was obviously alarming to all people, even those with a casual interest in such treasures as this. At this stage we need an assurance that the conditions will be improved and I have no doubt that the Minister will be able to give us such an assurance. I look forward to hearing further details on the map, which have been extremely hard to get, and in particular I look forward to hearing what new measures have been put in place as regards staffing, sophisticated electronic equipment or otherwise to ensure that such a theft will not recur.

I fully share the Deputy's concern that a valuable 16th century manuscript map of Munster was removed without authority from the National Library of Ireland. That was clearly an act of cultural vandalism and everyone with a concern to protect our cultural heritage will deplore such activity. Happily, the map in question was recovered by the police authorities in London and is now back in the custody of the National Library. This relatively happy outcome reflects the spirit of co-operation which transcends national boundaries when questions arise touching on the safety and security of priceless heritage material. I join with Deputy Nealon in expressing our appreciation to the authorities and to those concerned in recovering this very valuable item.

There is no room for complacency on the matter of safeguarding our cultural heritage for posterity. It must be appreciated that the particular incident which is the subject of this debate did not occur, as has been suggested, due to staffing shortages at the National Library. It occurred unfortunately due to the operation there of rather slipshod security procedures, in essence a failure to check that material returned by borrowers matched that issued earlier in the day to the borrower. Administrative practices and procedures at the National Library have been reviewed in conjunction with the Garda and the museum authorities. A detailed, well considered confidential report has been the focus of attention and considerable follow up action between officials of my Department, the National Library and other relevant State agencies. Given the human factor, it is never possible to say with 100 per cent confidence that the potential for the recurrence of an incident such as this regrettable theft has been totally eliminated. I can state quite categorically, however, that scope for the recurrence of such an incident has been very much minimised.

Clearly, the House will appreciate that it would not be feasible for me to give details as to the improved security arrangements at the library. To do so would be clearly irresponsible and would simply serve to facilitate persons intent on stealing library property. I can say, however, that a depository cloakroom has now been provided at the library. It must be appreciated that the provision of such a depository cloakroom was sought unsuccessfully for several decades by the library authorities, as has been already stated.

There is little point in sterile recrimination at this stage as to why the delay occurred in providing a depository cloakroom, a facility which was self-evident and had merits in the context of modern security arrangements. It must be appreciated that administrative responsibility for the National Library, in common with other national cultural institutions such as the National Museum and the National Gallery lay with the Department of Education when the question of the creation of a depository cloakroom at the National Library was first raised. The provision of a full and comprehensive educational service at primary, secondary and third levels was and is the fundamental concern of that Department. In consequence, the Department of Education possibly did not focus on the cultural institutions for which it had responsibility to the extent which would have been desirable. In January 1984, administrative responsibility for the National Museum, the National Gallery and the Public Record Office was transferred to the Taoiseach's Department. This was in recognition of the need to tackle a number of structural issues relating to culture and the arts. It was clear acknowledgment that national cultural policies had tended to be fragmented and diffused. My Government have recognised the value of that revised, more focused arrangements introduced by the former Government and have continued it.

It must be noted, however, that the former Government procrastinated when it came to decide the question of transferring administrative responsibility for the National Library. While administrative responsibility for the other major national cultural institutions was transferred, as I have said in January, 1984, administrative responsibility for the National Library was not transferred to the Taoiseach's Department until 10 June 1986. I feel it was most regrettable that the former Government failed to behave in a consistent manner in that they failed to bring the National Library under the wing of the Taoiseach's Department when they were so doing in relation to the other major national cultural institutions. The fact that an important opportunity was then missed was tacitly admitted in the White Paper on cultural policy entitled "Access and Opportunity" published in January 1987 — just a matter of weeks before the former Government went out of office.

As I have said, my Government have followed up with substantive action in relation to the National Library. Considerable sums of money have been expended on structural improvements and security works there. In addition, a management survey team have carried out a review of the library and their recommendations will be made available to my Department in the very near future. I can assure the House that these recommendations will be given careful consideration. A new director has been appointed and will take up office in the library in the coming weeks. The Department of Finance are carrying out a management survey of the staffing needs of the library. The Taoiseach already answered a parliamentary question to that effect on Tuesday last. Deputy Nealon has two parliamentary questions relating to the library and security down for reply on Tuesday next. His specific queries can then be answered in full and greater detail by the Taoiseach.

I did not know I was getting the Adjournment.

Now the Deputy can have two bites of the cherry. We have every reason to take quite justifiable pride in the first class service which has been provided by the National Library since its inception in the last century. Likewise, we have every reason to have confidence that that standard of excellence will be continued there in the years ahead.

While the particular incident which is the subject of this debate is most regrettable and most unfortunate and indeed a tragic incident, I believe the consequences of the investigations and the additional safeguards which will now be provided will be beneficial and will serve the very useful purpose of minimising the possibility of a recurrence in the future.

Thankfully the map is back. Out of curiosity can the Minister of State give a brief description of what the map is and who it is by? I found it very difficult to get any details other than that it was a manuscript map of Munster done in the 16th century.

The map is the Province of Munster by Francis Jobson. It is a large coloured manuscript map on vellum. The scale is Irish miles decorated with cartouches, ships etc. with the following description of the province of Munster: "the like whereof was never before done exactly by any ..." CA1589. It is a very valuable 16th century map. The commercial value has been estimated but I shall not disclose it to the House. As stated by Deputy Nealon, it is one of the most valuable exhibits in the National Library. This incident was most unfortunate. As I have indicated, it was not due to staff shortages but to human error, and extreme carelessness to say the least. It is something we hope will not occur again.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.10 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 14 February 1989.