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Select Committee on Social Affairs debate -
Tuesday, 26 Apr 1994

National Monuments (Amendment) Bill, 1993 [Seanad]: Committee Stage.

The National Monuments (Amendment) Bill, 1993, makes wide-ranging and extensive proposals for amendments to the National Monuments Acts and introduces new types of controls to enhance the preservation and protection of archaeological objects and other physical manifestations of our heritage. In accordance with the Supreme Court decision in the case relating to the finding of the Derrynaflan hoard, the term "treasure trove" used in the National Monuments (Amendment) Act, 1930, is to be abolished. The definition of "archaeological object" in the National Monuments Act, 1930, will now subsume the separate reference to "treasure trove".

The Bill seeks to establish the State's right to ownership of all archaeological objects, with no known owner, found after enactment of the Bill to provide for the retention by the State of such objects, and to provide for the payment of rewards to the finders of archaeological objects.

Procedures for the reporting of the finding and initial preservation of archaeological objects are proposed to be updated and there will be new offences relating to the possession, sale or acquisition of unreported archaeological objects found in the State since 1930. At present the National Monuments Act, 1930, only requires the finder of an archaeological object to report the finding to the Director of the National Museum.

Other extensions to the protection of national monuments also being proposed are further deterrents to the unlawful use of metal detectors and other equipment at national monument sites and other types of archaeological sites, including the seizure and forfeiture of unauthorised detection devices or other equipment found being used at the site of a monument or other type of archaeological site. Enforcement will be assisted by a proposal to allow the Director of the National Museum or a designated person to accompany the gardaí acting on foot of a search warrant.

There is also a new provision envisaged for permitting on-site inspections and excavations relating to new finds to be carried out without impedence by the Director of the National Museum and a provision relating to the taking possession by the Director of the National Museum of archaeological objects with no known owner found after the enactment of the Bill.

Replacing longstanding administrative practice would be a statutory provision for the payment of a reward to a person finding an archaeological object as well as the owners and occupiers of the land. At present there is no specific existing statute law in relation to the payment of rewards but rewards have been given in respect of treasure trove.

There is also a proposed amendment relating to a provision in the National Monuments (Amendment) Act, 1987, regarding the acquisition either by agreement or compulsorily of national monuments by the Commissioners of Public Works. It is planned to extend the right of purchase to include rights, easements, titles and other interests in respect to the land or monument as well as easements over land giving access to or service for the monument in question. A comprehensive procedure which must be adhered to by the Commissioners when they propose to compulsorily acquire any monument or land is also proposed.

It is proposed to provide for the establishment by the Commissioners of Public Works of a list of all monuments and places where it believes monuments are located. This provision seeks to empower the Commissioners of Public Works to establish the record of monuments and places where monuments may be located and to create a map showing such monuments and places on a county by county basis. The main condition here is that an owner or occupier of a monument or a place so recorded would not be permitted to work on the monument or place unless he gives prior notice in writing to the Commissioners until two months have elapsed since givnig that notice.

Protection from the destruction or demolition of a national monument is envisaged in a provision which requires the consent of the Oireachtas to such destruction where it is contemplated for reasons other than those of archaeology, public health and safety. There will be severe penalties on conviction for the new offences created under the Bill. The maximum penalty for summary conviction will be £1,000 and-or 12 months imprisonment and on conviction on indictment £50,000 and-or five years imprisonment.

In addition to the Minister the following Deputies have tabled amendments to the Bill, Deputies Creed, Quill and McManus. Before we proceed it is proposed, subject to agreement, that we adjourn at 5.30 p.m. and resume at 11 a.m. on Thursday, 28 April 1994. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Sections 1 and 2 agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are related and may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:

"3.—The Minister shall, in consultation with the Director of the National Museum, establish a register of approved local authority and voluntary museums in the country.".

When tabling this amendment I was conscious that during the Second Stage debate in the Dáil, and indeed throughout the debate in the Seanad on this Bill, there was widespread acceptance that a lot of good work has been done by voluntary organisations and by local authorities. Given that we paid lip service to work done by local authorities and, to a lesser extent, by voluntary organisations in establishing museums and in view of the provision in section 3 concerning the waiver of the State's right to archaeological objects, it would be of benefit if a register of approved voluntary or local authority museums was established by the Minister in consultation with the Director of the National Museum.

The Bill allows the Minister, after consultation with the Director of the National Museum, to relinquish the State's right to ownership. They should then consult with local authority or voluntary museums with a view too offering them the said archaeological object to display. If possible, that archaeological object should be displayed in the area where it was found. The establishment of an official register would be beneficial because a standard could be set by the National Museum and the Minister which local authority and voluntary museums could aspire to. That would be a great incentive — I am sure the Minister would agree — because local authorities are reluctant to become involved in this area. The establishment of a standard for museums by the Minister and the Director of the National Museum would be of benefit to those already involved at a certain level as it would recognise efforts made, particularly by voluntary museums.

Amendment No. 2 seeks to return the object to the said owner if the Minister, in consultation with the Director of the National Museum, does not wish to display it and if it is of no interest a local authority or voluntary museum. It is important that we make a provision so the object may be returned to the original owner. This would be an incentive to the finder of an archaeological object to report the find to the Director of the National Museum. I ask the Minister to look favourably at these amendments.

I support both amendments. Deputy Creed made a practical and commonsense recommendation. If these amendments were accepted the network of existing museums would be strengthened. The importance of these museums would be recognised and they could be linked to the National Museum. Further interest in the work of local historical and archaeological societies would be generated. These societies have done considerable good work in a voluntary capacity over the years. If these amendments were accepted these groups would be given more recognition and encouragement.

As proposed in the Bill, the Director of the National Museum may view an object of archaeological interest, but may decide it is not important in the context of a national collection. Such an object may be important in a local collection. Although it may not have any great value on its own, in conjunction with a local collection it may enrich and add to our understanding of what is already in a local museum. That avenue should be explored before deciding whether an item is of no significance and should be returned to the finder. For those reasons, I support these amendments.

Tá mé buíoch den méid atá ráite ag na Teachtaithe. I appreciate that the motivation behind both amendments is a sincere wish to have local authorities upgrade their museum facilities where they exist. Deputy Creed has correctly adverted to the fact that some local authorities have yet to take action in this field. I share this sentiment as I do the idea that as people become more knowledgeable about their heritage, it is a real aspiration that an object be assessed in its location for future viewing and so on.

I also see the case in relation to establishing standards. We have to be careful, irrespective of an object's value as part of the national collection, that where such an object will be kept meets criteria relating to conservation, security and good management. I can also see the case for an integrated museum policy. I am already taking some measures in that regard and there will be other opportunities to debate the matter. I am not convinced that this is the way to achieve the desired results.

I cannot support the amendments because the National Museum already works closely with local authority museums, giving advice on matters such as security and environmental controls. Where the Director of the National Museum is satisfied that these reach a satisfactory standard, loans of items, some on a long term basis, from the national collection have been arranged. However, it is important that these standards are reached. I am confident that this process will not only be continued but expand. I hope that in the short term it will be possible for the National Museum to formalise the standards — we are agreed on that — which it requires before loans of objects can be considered.

I do not see the point of a register. A local authority or private person can open and maintain a museum if they wish, but I do not see why they have be be registered with or approved by the National Museum. I invite the Deputy to consider another aspect of my overall strategy in relation to museums with which he may or may not agree.

I have been encouraged quite frequently, not only in the debates on this legislation but at Question Time, to regionalise and to some extent localise and respect local autonomy. I have said that I will try to raise standards through certain strategies and try to speed up the question of loans and so on. If one is doing that, why centralise control bureaucratically or give it to the centralised institution which we are encouraging to divest itself of some matters in a move towards regionalisation.

I accept the thinking behind these amendments but I am satisfied that this mechanism would in fact frustrate other aspects of local autonomy as expressed in the local museum. I mentioned that I do not see the case for a local museum having to be registered with or approved by the National Museum. It introduces a central approval which defeats the principle of local autonomy.

I oppose the second amendment on two grounds. I would not be happy to statutorily provide that local authority museums be offered what are essentially the second class objects or rejects of the National Museum. I would not expect ownership to be waived except in a case where objects were of litte value either from a general, archaeological or scholarly viewpoint. There is a link with the first amendment in that if one is going to encourage local authority activity in this area, one should aspire to having first grade objects.

I do not see the local authority museums as repositories of objects which are of little value or interest. They have to be the local museum in the best sense; they are not the local attic. I hope that, with the advice of the National Museum, local authority museums could raise and maintain their standards thereby enabling them to be considered for loans of objects of significance from the national collection. Loans of this nature have already been made for long periods.

I share the Deputy's desire that access to the physical manifestation of our culture and heritage be as widespread as possible. We do not disagree with that. I appreciate the intention behind the amendment but it would have the effect of formalising a second division status for local authority museums.

With regard to the return of an object in which the State's ownership has been waived, the finder, the landowner and anybody else associated with the find will have to come to an arrangement between themselves as to the ownership of the object. In the normal course of events objects which are not retained by the State will be returned to the person who presents them. I stress that the provisions of this legislation deal with the State's right of ownership to objects found with no known owner.

On Second Stage I quoted from the valuably clear judgment of Chief Justice Finlay, who spoke about the 1922 Constitution but also located the peoples' right to heritage objects. The judgment is brilliant for its clarity. I addressed the issue of the right of ownership of the people when there is no known owner. The Bill does not attempt to arbitrate on the question of ownership once the State's rights in the matter have been waived. That is not the intention of this legislation. I hope what I have said clarifies points for the Deputies.

While recognising that pursuant to section 3, the Minister has to consult with or act on the advice of the Director, how does he intend to legislate to ensure that a situation does not arise where gamekeeper turns poacher? I recognise that the Minister and the Director of the National Museum are extremely conscious of their obligation in this regard and that it could not happen in the current climate. Given the legislation as it stands and the lack of the inbuilt checks and balances which a register would provide, could a situation not arise where the Minister, with a compliant Director, could refuse to return an object to the finder but claim that it was not a sufficient archaeological importance to go on display in the National Museum resulting in the sale or disappearance of artefacts of archaeological importance?

In that regard the establishment of a register and consultation with local authorities would constitute an additional inbuilt checks and balances system to safeguard objects which may not be of such archaeological importance in themselves to merit display in the National Museum or may duplicate items already on display. There should be a formal procedure whereby they can be farmed out on a regional basis to local authority museums. The establishment of a register, apart from raising standards and recognising the effort which has gone in at a local level, would be a further inbuilt safeguard.

It is my intention to give autonomy to the museums. I am putting a separate autonomous museum structure in place and the Director will interact with that. They simply will not be under the Minister's thumb, which is how one respects professionals and operates responsibility at the end of this century.

With regard to the Deputy's point one must think it through. If there is to be a philosophy and policy of museums, one must realise that I do not accept that there are two levels. One begins to say that the philosophy of museums requires that first grade objects, be it in the sense of heritage or in a scholarly or an academic sense, must be capable of being considered in different parts of the system if one is going for any kind of decentralisation that has been facilitated by an upgrading of standards. One must begin at that end of it. Then one moves towards the other end from that point.

Surely it is better to encourage local museums to aspire to the standard rather than saying that a local museum has to be approved by a central authority. I am not enormously impressed by registers anyway, because I am more interested in both the spirit and the reality of museums locally coming up to a standard at which they can aspire to have wonderful objects shown rather than aspiring to be listed. I do not see why I should impose on local authorities the requirement of a register from the centre, ministerially or through the director of the museum.

As regards the rather more interesting speculation as to what would happen should people who do not enjoy the confidence that the Deputy obviously has in both myself and the Director of the National Museum succeed us, people who would want to conspire to move objects out of the public domain into some other ownership, the board would be there in the case of the director. I have every confidence in Question Time, in the Adjournment and in the procedures of the Dáil. I would not expect such a collusion to survive for very long, given the Opposition's interest in this matter. To be very serious about it, if I decided to change that part of the legislation and go for over-control, the outcome on the administrative side would be needlessly bureaucratic. It is a principle anyway of drafting legislation that legislation is drafted for the great majority of good citizens although it encompasses people who are not so and I think that the legislation is fine as it is.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 2 not moved.
Section 3 agreed to.
Sections 4 to 6, inclusive, agreed to.