My thanks to the Chairman and to the members for this invitation to make this presentation. It is always a privilege to come back and speak on behalf of the Heritage Council. Dr. Marie Bourke, who is a Heritage Council member since 2016, is a member of the council's strategy group which developed the strategy document that we will be discussing with members, joins me as does Dr. Helene O'Keefe, the Heritage Council's head of education and communication.
The timing of the presentation on the council’s new strategy is very appropriate. It comes almost exactly 12 months after the chairman of the Heritage Council, Michael Parsons, appeared before this committee prior to his confirmation as chairman. On that occasion the chairman outlined his vision for the future of the organisation and this strategy is now the logical progression of that. His vision was seen through his own community-based experiences, particularly his commitment to education at a national level as an active member of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, NAPD.
It is also very pertinent at this point to be very clear with members that the choice of moniker or name of our new strategy: Heritage at the Heart, is very significant. The chairman of the council in his opening remarks to the strategy emphasises the Heritage Council’s strategic vision is to see heritage at the heart of Irish society and I will come to the definition of heritage so that the committee will understand where the council is coming from in that.
It is important that the committee is aware that in working to secure its vision the chairman of the council also acknowledges the role of the many partners with which the council works, partners particularly but not exclusively within the heritage community.
As the committee is aware, the council is but one small agency within that community; therefore, such a partnership approach is not only desirable but also essential if it is to carry out its responsibilities under the Heritage Act 1995, as amended in the Heritage Act 2018.
In the context of partnership, I am absolutely delighted that the committee will also hear today from the chairperson of the Local Authority Heritage Officer Network. Local authorities have always been identified as key partners of the council as a small agency reaching out to communities. The partnership between the Heritage Council and the local authorities that has led to 28 local authorities employing heritage officers can be considered to be a jewel in the crown of everything the council has achieved in the 20 short years since it was established. Other initiatives such as Museum Standards Programme Ireland and the National Biodiversity Data Centre are built on policy proposals developed by the council. It has to be said - I hope members fully appreciate this - that they have become essential parts of national heritage infrastructure. This serves the people of Ireland and assures quality and excellence in Oireachtas decision-making, our policy proposals and the use of that information as an educational tool.
As legislators, I do not have to remind committee members that all of our work derives from the Heritage Act 1995 which established the Heritage Council as a body corporate. The council has 11 members who are represented today by Dr. Marie Bourke. A key function of the council under the Act is proposing policies and priorities for the identification, protection, preservation and enhancement of the national heritage. Members of the committee are asked to note that the Heritage Council, therefore, enjoys responsibilities for both natural and cultural heritage. All of its work seeks to integrate the relationships between people and place and between nature and culture. As amended by the 2018 Act which I note took a long time to deliver, the council has a particular responsibility which I wish to emphasise to the committee. It is to co-operate with, engage with, advise and support public authorities, local communities and persons on the functions of the council.
I ask members to note the reference to local communities. The reference to local communities was one of the key and substantive amendments made to the Heritage Act 1995 in 2018. No such specific reference to our work with communities was included in the 1995 Act and the change reflects the fact that carrying out our tasks would not be possible without the support of the communities Oireachtas Members are elected to serve.
Members of the committee are also asked to note the council's function of co-ordinating all activities related to its functions. This has allowed the council to collaborate and influence key land use interests such as agriculture and forestry, on which I can expand, as appropriate. More particularly in recent years, it has included educational and other interests such as community and rural development.
From a legislative point of view, the Heritage Council also has specific responsibilities under the Planning and Development Acts, the Heritage Fund Act 2001 as a member of the Council of National Cultural Institutions and section 1003 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 in respect of the donation of heritage objects to the State. In meeting our statutory obligations and translating them into effective actions through implementation of our strategic plan I pay particular attention to why heritage matters, not to the Heritage Council or necessarily Members of the Oireachtas but to people, that is, to all of us. Heritage is the foundation of our culture and has been described as the steady pulse of contemporary Ireland. I emphasise the word "contemporary". It does not just encompass buildings, monuments and museum pieces. As highlighted in the Act, it includes our distinctive landscapes and native wildlife. About 12 months ago we made a presentation on natural heritage. Heritage takes in woodlands, literature, folklore and crafts, all of which have been passed on to us from previous generations. It defines who we are in the present and our efforts to understand our heritage, protect it and interpret it will be our legacy to future generations and - I dare to be so presumptive as to say - the legacy of Members of the Oireachtas.
Whether tangible or intangible, personal or collective, heritage is at the heart of Irish society. Its relevance is palpable at local level. We can expand on this point in answer to questions from members. Heritage drives economies. I refer to the tourism and agriculture sectors, sectors the quality of which is determined by the quality of our heritage. It stimulates innovation. An example is the art at the entrance to the committee rooms. Heritage inspires artists in their interpretation of landscapes. Our craft workers and designers at a local level all seek inspiration from the places in which they live. Heritage also acts as a focal point for festivals and commemorations. This is something about which we can talk in much more detail with reference to Heritage Week and, in regard to culture, European Year of Cultural Heritage, as members choose. Heritage is, undoubtedly, a touchstone of identity. It fosters a sense of belonging and supports social cohesion at local and national level. Simultaneously, it crosses borders and transcends differences, connecting people through shared values, history and traditions. Our plan identifies three specific objectives: to advance national heritage priorities, to nurture belonging and to ensure a vibrant heritage sector.
I refer, first, to our aim to advance national heritage priorities. It is important to note that international policymakers, particularly within the European Union, are becoming increasingly aware of the potential of heritage to contribute to economic growth and social cohesion, as well as to national pride and well-being. All of our actions in the implementation of the plan will emphasise this.
On nurturing belonging, I note that in a world of increasing globalisation, multiculturalism and mobility we tend to lose sight of what is local. Heritage inspires a sense of belonging to both geographic and thematic communities. Heritage lies at the root of our individual and collective identities. Importantly, it is also the seed from which new connections can grow. The Heritage Council sees its strategy as a blueprint for increasing inclusivity. It addresses the inextricable links between heritage, identity, people and place and the absolute imperative to engage with both the diaspora and community-based custodians of heritage.
Our third objective is to ensure a vibrant heritage sector. The Heritage Council has always taken an innovative approach to enabling communities to care for and enjoy their local heritage. This has been pursued through its grant schemes which have been much curtailed as funding has decreased. It is evident in dynamic heritage networks such as the heritage officer network, the Irish Walled Towns Network and the Museum Standards Programme Ireland network, as well as new networks such as the Irish uplands partnerships. We look to provide impetus and small levels of support for community engagement and the development of heritage awareness and participation. The plan includes a strong commitment to educational and research programmes to stimulate curiosity and promote the highest levels of understanding and appreciation of our national heritage.
The plan does not touch on the fourth and probably most significant element. One could say it is a strategic decision; I will leave it to members to decide. The fourth element requires emphasis. In this changing world of compliance and governance, we need to ensure the Heritage Council is effective in its administration and financial management and has the governance capacity to allow it to operate effectively and develop the Irish heritage. The chairman of the council addresses this imperative in the plan by stating the Heritage Council is aware of the constraints of its current capacity and will continue to be imaginative and innovative in the way it both secures and directs its resources.
It is pleasing to note the prominence accorded to heritage in many Government and political manifestoes and recent Government policies and initiatives such as Culture 2025, Creative Ireland, the national landscape strategy, the biodiversity plan, the national development plan, Project Ireland 2040 and the Action Plan for Rural Development.
The commitment given by the Minister, Deputy Madigan, to publish a new national heritage plan in the next 12 months will add further impetus to our work.
Critical to achieving the Heritage Council’s vision for the period 2018 to 2022 is the continued support and development of the dynamic and diverse heritage sector. Heritage can play a key role in helping to resolve complex and changing socioeconomic issues such as the housing crisis and motivating the heritage-led regeneration of the centres of some of Ireland’s cities, towns and villages and the plan seeks to address these contemporary issues. Working with others to facilitate the reuse of existing buildings can help to alleviate aspects of the crisis. Great strides have been made by such things as the rural development plan and village programmes, although more needs to be done.
In a similar way, new initiatives that focus on native woodlands, acknowledging the value of high nature farming and the development of a series of uplands partnerships, can help in alleviating the contemporary issues surrounding climate change and rural decline. To be effective, the Heritage Council needs to enhance its capacity, both its overall staff numbers and the capital and revenue funding required to serve the public. Discussions are ongoing with the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, with a view to securing the enhanced capacity in an incremental manner over the lifetime of the plan.
The Heritage Council very much welcomes the recent launch by the Minister of the public consultation process for Heritage Ireland 2030. The Heritage Council has always received cross-party support and setting a vision for 2030 will transcend Governments. This is a commitment to a revitalised and refreshed national heritage plan which I know local authority heritage officers and chief executives welcome as a framework within which they can allocate funding.
In her foreword the Minister states Heritage 2030 will bring together a tapestry of other relevant heritage initiatives, providing an overarching space for engagement and action in the next decade. I particularly like the word "action" in that context. It will integrate essential national heritage policy principles into the future strategy of the entire Government and be supported by investment under Project Ireland 2040, setting out a real vision which we can all work to fulfil. The Heritage Council looks forward to contributing fully and constructively to this process. In the consultation exercise we will ensure commitments are given and that the most effective frameworks are put in place, as well as fully resourced, to allow all objectives to be met within the lifetime of the plan. I encourage all members to engage with their local community in the consultation process. The challenges are immense, but the opportunity presented needs to be grasped.