Priority Questions

Beit Collection

Seán Ó Fearghaíl


1. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht her views on the sale of paintings by the Alfred Beit Foundation; the action her Department can take on any sale; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24010/15]

In the past few weeks, since the media began to publicise the fact the Alfred Beit Foundation intended to sell quite a number of significant art works, including pieces by Rubens, there has been extensive public reaction and growing public concern about the fact that these art works, if sold, will pass out of the country and that the proceeds will be used to maintain Russborough House on an ongoing basis which many see as an unsustainable action. We would like to hear what the Minister intends to do about the matter.

The sale of these paintings is a matter for the committee of management of the Alfred Beit Foundation which owns and operates Russborough House. My Department has no function in the administration or sale of these art works. However, I did meet on Tuesday night with the chairperson of the Alfred Beit Foundation and two other trustees. I asked the chairperson if it would be possible to delay the sale or consider withdrawing the paintings from auction to provide some time in which to explore all other possible options that would involve my Department and the Office of Public Works. The trustees declined to either delay or cancel the sale, citing the fact that they would incur a liability of £1.4 million sterling for breaking an agreement with the auction house handling the sale, with which they entered a contract several months ago. I was only informed last month of the decision on the sale, several months after the foundation had entered into an agreement with the auction house to have the paintings sold. The fact remains that my Department does not have the discretionary funds necessary - believed to be in the order of €12 million - to buy the paintings. I will, however, continue to see if other possible options can be explored. This will be very difficult, given that the sale is to proceed next month.

I am concerned about the Minister's response. First and foremost, we understand from media reports that the Department was aware as far back as 2013 of the difficulties at Russborough House, although Deputy Heather Humphreys was not Minister at the time, and that Government aid was sought. What we are looking at is a situation in which, to meet the ongoing demand for about €1 million per annum, it has been decided to sell, if not the family silver, art works which were intended to be retained at Russborough House. There is a lot of public confusion about what the position is between the Alfred Beit Foundation and the State. It would useful, therefore, if in the course of this debate we were to clarify for the public that the 17 masterpieces bequeathed to the National Gallery of Ireland are in it and secure. None the less, there continues to be public concern about the works retained at Russborough House. It cannot continue selling art works in order to maintain the house. I put it to the Minister that she does have a responsibility in that regard.

The Alfred Beit Foundation met the former Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht a number of years ago. I am not aware that the specifics of the sale were discussed in 2013, but I want to be very clear that I was only informed of the decision last month. That was the first time I met the chairperson of the foundation, several months after it had entered into an agreement with Christie's to have the paintings sold. During my meeting with the chairperson on Tuesday evening I made it clear that it would have been preferable if the trustees had come to me before making their decision to sell the paintings. The fact that they are now in an auction house in London makes this, as I said, a very difficult situation to unravel. Regardless of this, the fact remains that the Alfred Beit Foundation is an independent trust and I cannot instruct it on how it should do its business. I draw the Deputy's attention to what it stated in a press release yesterday:

The Alfred Beit Foundation (ABF) is the owner of the relevant paintings at the centre of the current sales; these paintings were not left to the State by the Beits ... Before any sales plans were made, the perilous financial situation at Russborough...

The trustees went through the position in great detail. They told me they had a masterplan and that this was part of it. We have to acknowledge the great work they have done in the past 40 years in terms of what they have provided in Russborough House and that they work very closely with the community.

I do not live that far away from Russborough House and I am well aware of what goes on there. I agree with the Minister that a great job has been done. However, the position is unsustainable, given that the cost of running Russborough House is €1 million per annum and the shortfall is of the order of €400,000. Rather than wringing our hands, An Taisce has come forward with a proposal that offers a solution to break the impasse. I recommend it to the Minister and ask whether she will take seriously the proposal made by Russborough House - to bring together the National Gallery of Ireland and all those interested in the art works to form a formal proposal to save the art works remaining in Russborough House.

On the art works in Christie's, I put it to the Minister that were she to engage directly with the Alfred Beit Foundation and, on foot of a commitment from the Government to provide ongoing support - it must be remembered that the foundation has received a lot of Government funding to date - were she and the foundation to approach Christie's, I am sure a negotiated settlement could be arrived at whereby the art works could be recovered, brought back to the State and kept at Russborough House, as intended by Sir Alfred and Lady Beit.

As I have to be clear, I will repeat the point: the Alfred Beit Foundation is the owner of the relevant paintings at the centre of the current sales. I had a meeting with it and asked if it could approach Christie's to delay or postpone the sale. It was clearly said to me that it could not do so because if it did, it would incur a penalty of £1.4 million sterling for not proceeding with the sale as agreed. It stated to me that it was part of a masterplan and that it had not happened overnight. There are representatives of An Taisce and a number of organisations on the board of the Alfred Beit Foundation.

This has been discussed for the past two years, as the chairperson explained to me. They have looked at many different options. This was not an easy decision for them.

We must be thankful that we have 17 of the old masters' paintings in the National Gallery. Sir Alfred Beit donated those to the State, and that is clear.

Otherwise they probably would be sold as well.

They are safe. They are in the National Gallery.

I know that they are safe.

They are safe. He donated those to the State. That is what we must be clear about. We own those.

The Alfred Beit Foundation itself is responsible. Its memorandum and articles of association, which I have gone through in great detail and which Sir Alfred Beit himself, and his good wife, Lady Beit, signed, clearly states that it may "sell, lease or otherwise deal with or dispose of the whole or part of the property or assets of the Foundation". We must respect the trust that was set up by Sir Alfred Beit.

I met two trust members, including the chairperson. They do this on a voluntary basis. As the Deputy will be aware, they give a lot of their time to the running of Russborough House.

National Monuments

Sandra McLellan


2. Deputy Sandra McLellan asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if she will provide a detailed update on the Government's purchase of Nos. 14-17 Moore Street in Dublin 1. [24222/15]

I ask the Minister for a detailed update on developments since the Government's recent purchase of Nos. 14-17 Moore Street. Where do matters stand as there seems to be a delay in the progress?

My primary function in this case arises from the preservation order that was placed on Nos. 14-17 Moore Street under the National Monuments Acts in 2007 in order to protect No. 16 as the site of the final council of war and final headquarters of the leaders of the 1916 Rising. After extensive deliberations, ministerial consent was given to the owners of the national monument in April 2014 for the creation of a 1916 commemorative centre in the monument buildings, involving the full repair and restoration of the structures, both internally and externally.

Proposals that subsequently went before Dublin City Council late last year would have allowed the exchange of two modern 1990s buildings at Nos. 24 and 25 Moore Street, currently used as a cleansing depot, in return for full ownership of Nos. 14-17 being transferred to the city council. The transfer would have been accompanied by NAMA funding to cover the full cost of the restoration project and the construction of the proposed commemorative centre. I was disappointed that Dublin city councillors rejected these plans, which I believe provided a real opportunity to have the restoration work completed and the commemorative centre open in time for the centenary of the Rising in 2016.

Following the decision of Dublin City Council and in order to ensure the long-term future of the national monument, I secured Government approval for its acquisition by the State. This will bring the national monument into public ownership and will also facilitate the safeguarding and restoration of the buildings, and the development of the proposed 1916 commemorative centre to be run as a public facility. My Department is now engaged with the monument owners and other relevant parties with the aim of concluding the transfer of the property into State ownership as quickly as possible. My Department is also examining options for how best the restoration of the buildings for use as a commemorative centre can be effected, with a view to having it open to the public at the earliest possible date.

Dublin city councillors recently passed a motion that five more buildings be added to the register of protected properties based on their significance at that period. A report was to be prepared for the local authority to assess the suitability of the buildings before they can be added to the protected list.

As the House will be aware, Nos. 14-17 Moore Street are protected under national monument status. An additional 13 buildings have been recommended for inclusion on the list by experts at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht as national inventory of architectural heritage. Buildings suggested for protection at the recent Dublin City Council meeting were included in the 2012 Miles battlefield report. In what way will 1916 buildings now deemed worthy of being added to the list of protected structures by Dublin City Council be made presentable for the centenary celebrations and is there a date set for the proposed Dublin City Council Moore Street forum on the future of the area, described by the National Museum as the most important historic site in modern Irish history?

First, my priority is to acquire the monument, secure the buildings, restore them and develop the monument as a public commemorative facility in time for the centenary celebrations in 2016. I understand that there have been meetings with Dublin City Council and that it has plans to look at the wider issues around that area. That is a matter for Dublin City Council because under the Planning and Development Act, Dublin City Council, as both the local government and planning consent authority, is the most appropriate entity to manage the ongoing development of this important inner city area. Already sections of Moore Street, on the auxiliary lanes, are within the current O'Connell Street architectural conservation area, designated in July 2001, and the O'Connell Street area of special planning control adopted by Dublin City Council in September 2009.

My role, as Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, is to assess what is best for the national monument itself in accordance with the terms of the National Monuments Acts. That is reflected in my recent recommendation to Government for the State to have the national monument restored as a publicly-owned 1916 commemorative centre. I do not have any powers under the National Monuments Acts to create a historical quarter in Moore Street. The reality is that the properties around the national monument are in private ownership, they are not subject to my remit under the National Monuments Acts and the redevelopment plans for the area have received fully planning permission from An Bord Pleanála.

The Oireachtas adopted the preservation order. The Members of the Oireachtas are therefore the guardians of the national monument and, as such, are entitled to know the details of the planned purchase, the price of the purchase, how it was valued and by whom, etc. When will the details of the proposed purchase of the 1916 national monument be made available for consideration by Members of the Oireachtas? Will there now be a survey of the national monument buildings and their newly discovered 18th century cellars by suitably qualified staff and experts, and in a way that the 1916 national monument be made presentable for the centenary celebrations? Can the Minister explain what will happen to the €5 million of NAMA funding set aside for its restoration?

My Department is engaged with the monument owners and other relevant parties with the aim of transferring the property into State ownership as quickly as possible. The Department is also examining options for how best the restoration of the buildings for use as a commemorative centre can be effected with a view to having it open to the public at the earliest possible date. In that context, I have set up a project steering committee comprising of all the stakeholders, including the Office of Public Works, to oversee the delivery of the project as speedily as possible and in accordance with overall best practice.

As Deputy McLellan will appreciate, there are fundamental matters to be dealt with before there is any question of getting the work started. The national monument is in the ownership of a private entity, the loans of which are under the control of NAMA. The Deputy can be assured that the intention is to have the restoration work completed and the commemorative centre up and running in the shortest possible timeframe. I cannot say at present how long that will take but all options are being looked at with a view to delivering the project with the minimum of delay. I will be consulting with the relatives. I will also be consulting with the traders on Moore Street because it will affect them as well. I hope that it will be completed in time for the 2016 commemorations and we will be doing everything to ensure that happens.

National Cultural Institutions

Catherine Murphy


3. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the additional funding that will be made available to the National Library and the National Museum to bring safety and security standards up to international best practice; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24085/15]

In tabling this question I am asking the Minister to address the issue of the collections in the National Library, the National Archives and the museum. It is not about the buildings but about the collections.

Both the National Library and the National Museum are statutory independent bodies. While my Department provides funding to these national cultural institutions, the management and board of each institution are responsible for all operational matters, including storage, security and conservation. Accordingly, I do not have a statutory function in respect of such day-to-day matters. It is the responsibility of the management and the board of each institution to determine the spending priorities for their individual institutions, based on the resources available to them, and the need to ensure the appropriate security and protection of collections. I am aware both institutions give the security issue the highest priority. Where incidents have arisen, they have brought in appropriate expert advice to assist them.

I am also aware of the challenges facing the National Library and the National Museum, as well as other cultural institutions, following the significant reduction of resources available to the Exchequer as a result of the economic crisis. In this regard, I was pleased at the conclusion of the most recent Estimates processes not only to have ensured there would be no reduction in funding for the arts and culture areas of my Department for 2015, but also to have secured an additional €2 million in funding for the national cultural institutions. This included increased allocations in 2015 of €600,000 for the National Library and €800,000 for the National Museum. I was also pleased to recently approve a new post in the National Library for a security and facilities manager, which will be key to managing and planning the storage and security of the library’s collection.

The overall funding secured for 2015 gives more certainty to the institutions, allowing them to continue to deliver on their core objectives, including the protection and conservation of their collections. I will continue to keep the issue of investment in the library, museum and other cultural institutions under review in the light of the resources available to my Department.

These cultural institutions do not have an independent means for raising money except through philanthropy. Often, there more is said in that regard than is actually delivered.

Recently, I had the benefit of making a comparative visit to the National Library, the National Archives and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast. I was quite shocked at the lack of protection against fire or flood in the National Library. Its collection is housed over five floors without a solid floor between them. If a fire started in the basement, the collection would be wiped out in less than one hour. In the Public Record Office in Belfast, the firebreak between storage facilities would delay a fire spreading for six hours. The 1922 fire in the Dublin Public Record Office wiped out 700 years of history. Have we not learned from that mistake? It is critical that there is a full understanding of the real risk posed to our valuable and irreplaceable national assets.

I appreciate the Deputy’s concerns about the fire hazards in the National Library. An audit of safety and security of the library's collections was carried out sometime ago and outside personnel were brought in to examine it. I accept there is a need for further investment in this regard. As the economy continues to improve, I hope we will be able to increase investment in our cultural institutions. Unfortunately, we came through an economic crisis and funding was cut. As matters improve, it is my intention that we will provide further funding to our cultural institutions.

We need to be very mindful of any fire risks in the library. I will speak to the library’s management about this and raise the Deputy’s concerns with them. There are arrangements in place to protect the collections.

I know this is a legacy issue and was not created on the Minister’s watch. There has been a general neglect over decades, along with a general absence of understanding of the value of these collections and the protection they require. It is in marked contrast to the storage facilities in the Public Record Office in Belfast. In the Dublin National Archives, many files are stored on pallets when the ideal situation is they should be in enclosed fireproof shelving units.

I am sure the people in the cultural institutions are doing their best with what they have. However, there has to be an acknowledgement that these are invaluable collections and need to be treated as such. It is an urgent matter from that point of view.

There are significant plans in place to have the National Archives building converted with the right conditions to preserve these important records. While the work has not started, the capital investment has been approved for it.

It is important that these archival materials and documents are kept safe. The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, PRONI, has been in place a lot longer and has had much investment over the years.

Irish Music Industry Promotion

Seán Ó Fearghaíl


4. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the measures she is taking to promote the Irish music industry; the other Government Departments she liaises with to advance this agenda; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23870/15]

This question is posed in the context of the Deloitte report launched by the Minister earlier this year which recognises the importance of the music industry in employing in excess of 11,000 people and worth €470 million annually to the economy. The report sets out several critical initiatives that should be taken to promote the sector. My question aims to establish what the Minister is doing to implement the report’s recommendations.

The Government appreciates the importance of the cultural and creative industries to Ireland, including the music industry. My Department provides significant support to the industry through its funding of the Arts Council, through capital supports for the development of arts and cultural infrastructure and through other financial and policy supports. I was particularly pleased the Government introduced a 25% increase in the income ceiling for the artists' tax exemption for 2015. This important measure recognises the invaluable contribution which artists, including songwriters and composers, make to society and to the music industry.

Last year, in response to a proposal from the Irish Association of Songwriters, Composers and Authors, a grant of €50,000 from my Department's capital budget was awarded for the purpose of introducing a digital music system to be available to all Irish musicians and to Irish broadcasters. This system will assist in directing royalties to Irish musicians.

I intend to publish a Culture 2025 discussion paper shortly, which will be an important step in opening up the debate around how we should shape the future of the arts in Ireland. It will include the music industry.

I thank the Minister for the positive initiatives to which she referred to in her reply. Has the Minister given consideration to the proposal by Deloitte to establish a music office, similar to the Irish Film Board? She referred to IASCA, the Irish Association of Songwriters, Composers and Authors, which is doing particularly good work and how funding from the music distribution system is important.

I understand from IASCA that, on foot of the creation of a digital transmission system, it is important to ensure a certain level of airplay is available for Irish musical work. Over the years, this issue has been a cause of significant concern. While we now listen to The Script, Hozier, The Coronas and other bands on radio, other young and emerging artists are voicing concern about the lack of airplay they receive. Has the Minister engaged with her opposite number in the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to identify what can be done to ensure a platform is given to young and emerging artists?

I acknowledge there is an issue with the level of airplay. This matter has been raised previously. While the concerns the Deputy raises do not fall within the scope of my Department, I am anxious to support the music industry in whatever way I can and I would be pleased to work with the Departments of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to address these issues in so far as is possible.

I will invite the submission of suggestions as part of the Culture 2025 policy, and if Deputy Ó Fearghaíl has any ideas on the music industry, I will be pleased to hear them. My Department does some work in the area of music through Culture Ireland and provides significant support for Irish bands and music groups to travel abroad and promote their work on the international stage. I am conscious that the music industry is wide and complex and I hope to highlight it further, perhaps through the Culture 2025 policy. I accept, however, that more work needs to be done on it.

Notwithstanding the Minister's response, does she envisage her Department reaching some form of an agreement with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources that would at least encourage greater airplay for the music of young and emerging artists?

Another recommendation made by the Deloitte report commissioned by the Irish Music Rights Organisation was to establish a music industry task force. Does the Minister have any views on that proposal?

The Minister did not answer my question on establishing a music Ireland office.

Another issue to emerge recently has been the idea of providing additional training for music professionals, not least in business. We have seen the value of successful artists to the country and its promotion abroad. I will never forget, in the aftermath of the Riverdance performance, a meeting I had with senior executives from Hewlett Packard at which they indicated to me that the dynamism and ingenuity evident in the Riverdance experience had prompted them to decide that Ireland must be a wonderful country in which to operate.

I fully concur with the Deputy that successful artists provide significant value to the country. I intend to publish a discussion document on Culture 2025 in the next week or two and the Deputy's suggestions should feed into this process. While the establishment of a music Ireland office would be a good idea, it would involve a number of Departments given the complexity of the music industry, which covers issues such as technology, copyright, broadcasting and live performance. Having said that, I agree that we need to focus on the industry and in that context I was pleased to launch the recent Deloitte report on the sector. I am very conscious of its importance to the country.

Music is a special part of our culture and an important element in the cultural offering that attracts people to visit the country. It should be viewed in a more holistic manner, which will mean having Departments work together in this area. Culture 2025 policy is good forum in which to start the discussion.

Wildlife Protection

Sandra McLellan


5. Deputy Sandra McLellan asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if she is aware that upland habitats are being destroyed at an alarming rate and that the national parks are at huge risk; and if she will outline the measures her Department is taking to protect them. [24223/15]

Is the Minister aware that upland habitats are being destroyed at an alarming rate and placing national parks at risk? What action is her Department taking to protect the national parks?

While some environmental damage to our uplands has occurred in recent years, much of it as a result of illegal burning, as evidenced by the recent spate of fires in various parts of the country, it is important to note that some improvements have occurred. The serious overgrazing that resulted in many western uplands being stripped of all vegetation has now ceased and the hills in question have substantially recovered from this threat.

With regard to fires, my Department continues to work closely with An Garda Síochána, the fire services and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, as appropriate, to investigate the causes of wildfires which have affected a number of our designated sites and national parks and, where evidence is forthcoming, to pursue appropriate enforcement under the Wildlife Acts or other legislation.

In so far as national parks are concerned, departmental staff are vigilant when conditions exist that could result in fires. The Deputy will appreciate that, given the sheer scale of property involved, covering hundreds of square kilometres, the remote locations of much parkland and the sporadic occurrence and dynamic nature of recent fires, it is very difficult to fully discourage and prevent unauthorised burning. In addition, it can be difficult to identify those who deliberately set fires in remote areas without concern for the consequences. In this regard, I encourage members of the public, including landowners and recreational users, to act responsibly at all times, be mindful of their own safety, the safety of others and the need to protect property, both publicly and privately owned, and appreciate the value of our natural heritage, particularly in our national parks, nature reserves and designated sites.

In a recent interview, the Minister maintained that fires were not an issue for the Department, except where they occurred in Killarney National Park. In recent months, fires have also occurred in the Wicklow Mountains National Park and many of the upland areas that have been scorched are within special areas of conservation and special protection areas. These are our most important biodiversity areas. They are managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, an agency of the Department. It has been well-documented that extensive and devastating fires have raged throughout the country this year. Does the Minister agree that wildfires will only be brought under control when the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine stops single farm payments to those responsible? Does she acknowledge that, as Minister with responsibility for heritage, she and her Department have a duty to protect our upland habitats?

To clarify the Deputy's first point, when I spoke about this issue on a local radio station in Kerry, I was speaking specifically about County Kerry. I am aware that fires also occurred in other locations that fall within special areas of conservation and special protection areas, which come within the remit of my Department.

Significant environmental damage is caused by illegal burning, which has become more acute in recent years, as evidenced by a recent spate of fires in various parts of the country. Under section 40 of the Wildlife Acts, burning of vegetation on uncultivated land is prohibited, without exception, from 1 March until 31 August, primarily as a means of protecting nesting and breeding birds and preventing forest fires. There is no evidence, however, that these dates are a cause of widespread fires. There may well be a link between at least some of the burning and other clearance of vegetation to ensure land is eligible for the basic payment scheme beginning this year. The scheme is administered by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. While land eligibility is primarily a matter for that Department, my Department has raised concerns about ecological and other risks posed by inappropriate burning arising from eligibility issues under the basic payment scheme. I understand my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, has pursued options for farmers with marginal lands to meet the requirements of the direct payment regulations.

A guidance booklet has been issued by his Department to address the issue of land eligibility in Natura 2000 sites and burning in the wider countryside.

On the gorse fire epidemic, County Kerry is one of several counties that have been experiencing the fires of late. It is one of the worst affected areas, with a 700% increase in the number of gorse fires in the county in the first quarter of 2015 compared with the same period last year. Given that increase, it is abundantly obvious that the current legislation is not working.

How is the Minister planning on identifying culprits for these actions and what system is she putting in place to prevent further deliberate fires? How does she plan to penalise and prosecute those responsible, or does her Department identify more with the farming community than with the protection of natural habitats?

Section 40 of the Wildlife Act makes it an offence to burn gorse between 1 March and 31 August. What is the Minister's position on the farmers' lobby to change that start date back to 15 April?

We work very closely with the Garda, which is investigating the issues around the fires in Killarney National Park. Where evidence is forthcoming, the Garda is tasked to pursue appropriate enforcement under the Wildlife Act or other legislation. My Department is one of a number of agencies represented on the inter-agency gorse fire group, which explores issues surrounding wildfires. An Garda Síochána is also represented and has responsibility for leading any potential criminal investigations into wildfires. My Department co-operates fully with the Garda and any other investigations that may be initiated by other statutory bodies.

I am carrying out a review of section 40 of the Wildlife Act and have received many submissions from many different organisations. I asked my officials to prepare a report and the working group is to report back to me with a range of proposals. Once this process is complete, I intend to make a decision on the matter and will launch a public awareness process for all stakeholders, including local authorities, landowners and members of the public.

I had a meeting with Wicklow Uplands Council earlier this week. I was very impressed by what it wants to do in terms of the protection of the uplands habitats in County Wicklow. It is trying to bring in all the stakeholders and wants a management plan on how to protect the uplands. We need to strike the balance that protects our biodiversity and also allows farmers to continue to make a living off the land. This can only be achieved through co-operation with stakeholders and perhaps with controlled burning within a management plan. We must comply with our obligations under the habitats directive. They have come together in County Wicklow and are looking at it in a more holistic way. That is the way we should all be going. When people take opposing views, we end up with the extreme of every argument. The best results come from working together to produce managed plans to do something. I agree the fires can cause terrible damage and have done so in Killarney National Park.