I thank the committee and wish the Chair well in his new role. I am the assistant secretary in charge of the corporate affairs division of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I am accompanied by my colleague, Mr. John Healy, head of the corporate governance unit, which among other things provides secretariat support to the national Famine commemoration committee, NFCC. The committee is chaired by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Josepha Madigan. Also in attendance is Professor Tommy Cooke, a long-standing member of the national Famine commemoration committee.
On behalf of the Minister, I thank the committee for its interest in this matter and for the opportunity to present the view of the Department on this Bill. As the committee will be aware, the national Famine commemoration was initiated in 2008, following a Government decision to commemorate the Great Famine with an annual memorial day. The national Famine commemoration committee, chaired by the then Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, was established to consider the most appropriate arrangements for an annual national commemoration of the Great Famine. The commemoration, which broadly speaking follows the format of the national day of commemoration, established by the Government in 1985, is part of the State’s annual programme of commemorations.
These events include the 1916 Easter Rising commemoration, held on Easter Sunday, the annual 1916 Arbour Hill commemoration, which is not a fixed date but takes place between the dates of the first and last execution of the 1916 leaders, usually on the first Wednesday after 3 May, and the Daniel O’Connell commemoration, which is held in Glasnevin Cemetery on the second Sunday of May each year, the Sunday closest to his death. The national Famine commemoration is to be held on the third Sunday of May, or its eve, I will come back to that in a moment, by a decision of the Government in 2018. The national day of commemoration is held on the Sunday closest to 11 July, which is the anniversary of the signing in 1921 of the truce in the War of Independence. There is also an annual commemoration of the Somme organised by the Royal British Legion, Republic of Ireland branch. It is held in the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge on the Sunday preceding the national day of commemoration.
At present, each of these commemorations is undertaken on the basis of a Government decision and none are provided for in legislation. To date, no Government has considered it necessary to propose the introduction of legislation in respect of State ceremonial events of this nature. Since the adoption of the current format in 2009, the national Famine commemoration has retained a high degree of continuity in its format. However, the artistic, cultural and other elements of the commemoration can and do vary from year to year at the behest of the local organisers. From an early date, May has been identified as a preferred month for the holding of the commemoration due to the second Sunday in May being noted as Famine Sunday in many areas and the likelihood of good weather. However, it should be noted that there is no specific date associated with the beginning, nadir or end of the Famine and also that there are Famine walks and commemorations in many communities on dates of local significance.
The commemoration has been held during May on six occasions since 2009. It has also been necessary to hold the commemoration in September and October to accommodate the local community or due to other pressures such as the availability of the Taoiseach or President. A key consideration in all years has been to ensure that the commemoration is held during school term to facilitate the involvement of schools. The Deputy has referred to that. At the request of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, however, the Government on 30 April 2018 “agreed to the designation of the third Sunday of May as the National Famine Commemoration Day with the arrangements for the holding a of State commemoration that is commensurate with the Great Famine’s historical, social and cultural significance on this day or the preceding Saturday to be decided each year by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht following consultation with the relevant local authority and host community”. That is because some host communities may prefer not to host an event on a Sunday.
As a result of this decision, the 2019 commemoration will be held on the weekend of 18 and 19 May next year at a Connacht venue. This decision has given effect to one of the primary objectives of the Bill, namely, the identification of a fixed date while preserving a degree of flexibility to vary the day of the ceremony to Saturday in recognition of local community concerns, as was the case for the 2015 commemoration held in Newry. The national Famine commemoration is unique among State commemorations in that the venue changes from year to year. The ceremony programme comprises two parts. The first is a community event organised by the host community and local authority, with support from Department staff, which culminates in the keynote speech by the presiding officer, usually the President or Taoiseach. This is followed by the formal State ceremonial event, which includes military honours and wreath laying ceremonies.
The community programme generally includes readings in the Irish and English languages, music by local musicians and choirs, participation by local school children and prayers for the victims of the Famine led by representatives of various faiths and a humanist reflection. The precise form of each element of the programme may vary from year to year but is always subject to approval by the Minister to preserve the dignity of the event. As I have stated, while the Minister welcomes the interest and intention of the Deputy in bringing forward this Bill, she is appreciative of the concerns of the NFCC that the enactment of the legislation could lead to a number of unintended consequences which may unintentionally hamper the ability of communities to host a national Famine commemoration in future years. The issue of local communities hosting the national commemoration every year has been an important element because the impact of the Famine was felt in all corners of the country. These concerns primarily arise regarding the proposals that the commemoration should include military ceremonial elements and an interfaith service.
As members of the committee will be aware, the Great Famine was a human tragedy of immense proportions but was in no way a military event. This renders it different to the other major State ceremonial events referred to earlier. While the NFCC has considered this issue, the practice to date has been to continue with the standard approach to ceremonial events of including military elements. No such elements, however, were included in the 2015 ceremony presided over by the then Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, when a "no flags and no uniforms" policy was adopted. Nevertheless, the commemoration was considered a great success. In the event that a host community, either North or South, wished to adopt a similar approach at a future date with a view to emphasising the humanitarian nature of the tragedy, the imposition of a legislative requirement as proposed would require amending legislation even if the Government of the day was minded to accommodate an alternative approach to such ceremonies that did not encompass military involvement.
At any time, proposals that might inadvertently impact in a negative way on the capacity of any community on the island of Ireland to host an event of this nature would be a sensitive matter. In current circumstances, these sensitivities are particularly acute and the Department asks that the committee reflect carefully on this issue. The Department also points out that there is no legal definition of the term "inter-faith service". As this is part of the community programme, we have seen a number of different approaches taken over the years. Notwithstanding this, however, all of the major faiths in the country have been invited to participate in the commemoration, as has the humanist society. The inclusion of a term such as this in legislation would require careful definition to avoid imposing a legislative requirement with which a Minister perhaps could not, with certainty, comply. In addition, as Ireland becomes a more diverse country, including as a result of providing refuge to people fleeing often tragic events in their countries of origin, the Department would again request that the committee reflect carefully on the prudence of reducing flexibility for host communities on this issue.
In light of these concerns and the above mentioned possibility of wider implications for the wider State ceremonial calendar, the Minister asks that the committee, taking full account of the Government's decision of 30 April last year to give full consideration to the necessity of legislating for the Famine commemoration at this time. I refer to those key concerns of moving the venue from location to location and also the issues on the military involvement, or the military ceremonial event, and the interfaith service. I acknowledge what the Deputy said in his own contribution about being willing to look at elements of the Bill. That was very helpful.