I am interested in this Bill generally but in section 13 in particular. This section states that the Genealogical Office shall, on the establishment day, become and be dissolved. This disturbs me. It also states in 13.3 that:
the board shall, from time to time as occasion requires, designate a member of its staff to perform the duty of researching, granting and confirming coats of arms. Such members shall use the appellation Chief Herald or, in the Irish language, Príomh-Aralt na hÉireann while performing such duties.
That sounds laudable but I am not sure that it is and I look forward to the Minister's explanation.
I take particular exception to the words "from time to time as occasion requires" and "a member of the staff". We are talking about something more than a member of staff in the Office of the Chief Herald. The Minister should be trying to establish the Office of the Chief Herald rather than diminishing it. Every western European nation state is possessed of an inheritance that supports the self esteem of its people and gives them credence as members of a civilised community. That inheritance comprises spiritual and artistic strains and, in the case of historic architecture and artefacts, is tangible and symbolic. Some countries such as Ireland, situated on the edge of Europe, have long maintained distinctive art forms but these, in time, were affected by the intrusion of external influences.
Ireland did not experience the classical world at first hand. The introduction of classical learning and thought came with the Latin language and Patrick's mission. The Norman invasion increased European influence on Ireland as it had earlier done on England. In Ireland it merged with the reforms of the church under Malachy to provide the basis for a new social order, the feudal system.
In that carefully layered feudal society everyone had their place — the nobleman, the knights, the barons, the kings and so on. The military side of the social structure was of primary importance in the maintenance of order. Those who operated it had to be identified if they were to lead and be followed. Special offices called heralds, appointed by authority, signalled out these people and gave them distinctive badges appropriate to their military role. The insignias were painted on shields and became known as coats of arms. These arms were later embellished with symbols of enhancement and, in time, became particular to families.
As the military side of the herald's work diminished their social significance increased as a regulatory device in a society where social conformity was important for official positions. For example, the exiled wild geese petitioned the Irish herald for confirmation of family status in their application for military positions in the armies of Europe. There was a need for an official who could adjudicate in matters of succession, the keeping of family records, the granting of arms to petitioners, the recording of acts of state and the arrangement of ceremonial. All of these functions were the preserve of the herald. This heraldic responsibility has been in operation in Ireland for nearly 500 years, the office having been set up in Dublin as Ulster King of Arms in 1562.
It has always been the duty of the herald to act for the State in the granting and registration of coats of arms of Ireland. This would entail the registration of the seals of office of officials, the protection of the armorial symbols of the State, the granting of coats of arms to corporate bodies, schools, colleges, universities, towns, county councils and boroughs, the giving of ecclesiastical arms at home and abroad, the registration of Irish chieftains and the inspection and granting of personal arms to the many Irish people native to the country or of ethnic origin who petition the Irish herald as an appropriate authority for special enhancement of their family.
This Bill proposes to abolish the Office of the Chief Herald. Perhaps "abolish" is too strong a word but there will be a redefining and, eventually, an abolishing of the office. I do not know if the Minister looks upon this as some kind of levelling, given his philosophy. Let me quote Michael Merrigan, Secretary of the Dún Laoghaire Genealogical Society, who says:
We as Irish genealogists are very proud of our Republic, its institutions and our Constitution. Therefore, we are very concerned that some might erroneously contend that the Chief Herald grants official recognition to titles or nobiliary titles inconsistent with our constitutional position as a republic. This is not the case and to do so would conflict with article 42.1. Though what is actually granted is official recognition of designation, for example, the O'Connor Don or the Maguire of Fermanagh, the granting of official recognition to these designations is not inconsistent with our Constitution. This practice recognises the antiquity of our nation, our culture, and our genealogical heritage is one of the oldest in Ireland and, therefore, is very important in the context of our wider European heritage and identity.
The importance of this office was recognised in 1943 when the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera was at great pains to reserve this position for the Irish State. His Government quite correctly assumed control of the rights and prerogatives formerly exercised by the British Crown. The Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland is the successor to Ulster King of Arms, a Crown office which was established in 1552 to regulate all heraldic matters in Ireland. Originally it was based in Bedford Tower, Dublin Castle, and continued after the creation of the Free State in 1922 to exercise all heraldic functions in Ireland until 1943. In that year Mr. de Valera tasked Edward MacLysaght with the responsibility of assuming the function of the Ulster King of Arms so that it might be brought under the control of the State. In 1945, when it became clear that the traditional work of the office was continuing as it had under the British Government, Dr. MacLysaght was given the title of Chief Herald of Ireland.
The wide ranging scope of the Chief Herald's functions is such that the grants are made not only to Irish citizens but also to the Irish diaspora. This is very dear to the President's heart but also to numerous individuals. For example, a previous Taoiseach, Mr. Haughey, has a grant of arms with supporters, an unusual embellishment in that it is very rarely granted. Many of our top businessmen obtain grants of arms — for example, Dr. Michael Smurfit. These people see it as an important part of being Irish.
The Chief Herald carries out many other functions, perhaps one of the most important being the maintenance of a register of arms. This register dates from the inception of the office in 1552 and contains a record of all heraldic insignia granted over that period, each carefully hand painted on one of its pages. This register is not only a priceless historical document but also provides legal protection to these heraldic insignia as a species of property belonging to the individual or body in whose name they are registered. Such is the prestige of heraldic insignia granted by the Chief Herald of Ireland that no fewer than six Presidents of the United States have accepted grants from this office.
Even if this office was given independence, it would be a money making office for the Government. Rather than it costing money, it would actually generate a profit for the State. I know the Attorney General's Office has been computerised recently and I am sure that the Office of the Chief Herald could be likewise updated.
The staff of the Office of the Chief Herald lecture worldwide to the Irish cultural circle. There is no one more widely versed in the cultural traditions of the indigenous Gaelic families, the Hiberno-Norman families and those Irish families of French, English, Welsh and Scottish antecedents than the Chief Herald of Ireland. As a cultural spokesman, the unique function of the Chief Herald bridges any divide and brings together as Irishmen and Irishwomen individuals from our culturally rich and diverse society. The Chief Herald of Ireland is at once the keeper of our historically important heraldic heritage while simultaneously adding to that heritage for future generations of Irish people.
The Office of the Chief Herald not only keeps alive the artistic skills of the 16th century, of which we as a nation can be proud, but its staff serve as cultural ambassadors worldwide and share with others the richness of our great heraldic past while allowing them to take part in our shining heraldic future. In response to the considerable interest in heraldry among the Irish diaspora, the Chief Herald attends meetings and conferences abroad and represents, if not in a formal sense in the eyes of those who attend, the Irish State, its culture, history and dignity. The Chief Herald of Ireland also deals with representatives of other heraldic authorities, all of whom come directly under the Government or head of state in their respective countries.
The Bill fails to recognise the artistic, cultural and linguistic importance of heraldry. All grants of heraldic insignia are made in the Irish language. One of the brilliant proposals of the Constitution review group is to reduce the status of the Irish language, but that is another day's work. The Bill also fails to take cognisance of the legal standing of the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland and the effect the proposed change will have on the validity of any future grants made by that office.
Every country which exercises its prerogative to grant or regulate heraldic insignia does so by appointing a heraldic authority which functions as an office of the State. These officers, whether coming under the aegis of the ministry of justice, as is the case in Spain, or the head of state as in Canada, function independently. Their grants of heraldic insignia are made on behalf of their respective Governments or states. These grants are considered under law as effective grants in so far as they derive their authority from the sover-eighty of their respective countries.
For far too long the position of Chief Herald of Ireland has been clouded internationally by its attachment to the National Library. As a courtesy, other heraldic institutions have recognised Irish grants as effective on the assumption that, having assumed the prerogatives of the former British authority in the Republic, the Chief Herald of Ireland continued to function as an officer of State. However, under this Bill, which would abolish the office which gives the Chief Herald the ability to make effective grants, it is quite clear the Chief Herald would not be an officer of the State.
It follows that should the proposed Bill come into effect grants of heraldic insignia made by the National Library could not be regarded as effective or as valid by other heraldic authorities which would, quite rightly, decline to record them in their national registers, thus depriving the grantee of any legal protection in foreign heraldic jurisdictions. As a consequence of this lack of recognition, Irish citizens would be forced to apply to Ulster King of Arms in London for effective heraldic grants and protection. That would be appalling. It would be a bitter irony if some 50 years after the de Valera Government secured the heraldic rights of the nation those rights were discarded and Irishmen and women were obliged to deal once more with the British Government to secure and protect their heraldic rights.
In effect, this Bill will greatly lower the status of Irish grants of heraldic insignia. It will remove any prestige from an Irish grant of heraldic insignia. It will effectively reduce the value of a grant to the same level as a reader's card for the National Library — hardly a suitable item for presentation to a visiting head of state of Irish descent. It could be argued that it would be improper for the Government to charge a fee for a document with no more legal validity than a similar document concocted in an artisan's garret in a Hong Kong back street. It would have decorative value but as a valid, effective, heraldic document it would be of questionable value.
Arguably there might be some merit in merging the Genealogical Office with the National Library. Both bodies are concerned with the storage of information for later retrieval, unlike the Chief Herald's Office which actively creates heraldic documents of a personal or corporate nature every day. The Government will have to be very careful to ensure that documents on deposit in the Office of the Chief Herald remain in that office because they are not the property of the Genealogical Office but are private property on loan to the Chief Herald.
Should the Government or the Minister feel it is desirable from an administrative point of view to abolish the Genealogical Office, they must take care to preserve the function of the Chief Herald as an independent office of State, in much the same manner as the Office of the Chief State Solicitor is separate from that of the Attorney General. Just as the function of the Chief State Solicitor is different from the duties of the Attorney General, so too must the function of the Chief Herald be preserved as different from the duties of the Director of the National Library.
To fail to protect the legal rights of our citizens to our heraldic property in the future is to arrogantly turn one's back on a cultural tradition shared by all segments of Irish society, at home and abroad. That cultural tradition was preserved by Mr. de Valera in 1943 when he claimed the heraldic office in Dublin Castle for the Irish people.
I received a letter on this subject from Mr. Thomas Ryan from Robertstown Lodge, Robertstown, Ashbourne, County Meath, the last paragraph of which is very apt. It states:
What no viceroy laid hands on, what Mr. Cosgrave accepted as a useful and enhancing agency in a new state, what Mr. de Valera in similar regard confirmed for the use of the country in the title Chief Herald of Ireland as successor to the departing Ulster, an office whose ordinance encompasses the entire country, and that without contention or political objection, is now, in an action as mysterious of purpose as it is unmindful of history, to be abolished. Should this purpose succeed, it may save a salary but it will diminish a nation.
Will the Minister look again at section 13 of this fine Bill? This is a special office. I approached the Minister before on this issue and we had gentle words about it. He is a man of culture, great learning and intellectual ability who can appreciate what this is all about. Preserving the status of this office would not offend his Labour Party principles; I assure him that it would only enhance the status of the Government and the country.