I thank the committee for the invitation to discuss the work we have been doing. The expert advisory group on centenary commemorations was established by An Taoiseach in 2011. The role of the group is to advise the Government on historical matters relating to the Decade of Centenaries and to provide guidance to inform the State's approach to the remembrance of significant historical events of the period.
The group is non-partisan, comprising independent historians, cultural practitioners, and custodians of archives from around the country. Since 2012, the group has published three papers. The expert advisory group's initial statement, published in 2012, was widely commended on providing a supportive structure of guiding principles, which underpinned the State's approach to commemorating the significant historical events that took place between 1912 and 1916, culminating with the centenary commemorations of the Rising. The commemorative programme for the first half of the Decade of Centenaries was widely acclaimed for its inclusive, measured and sensitive approach, which recognised the legitimacy of all traditions and valued mutual respect and historical accuracy. The programme remembered not only the seminal events that marked Ireland's journey towards independence and self-determination but also those which enhance our understanding of the wider international context during this period.
The second phase mission statement was published in October 2017. The guiding principles expressed in the initial statement are still significant and relevant and they are reaffirmed in the group's second phase mission statement 2017-23. The guiding principles provide clarity and a broad template, intended to empower and support all those involved in delivering authentic, citizen-focused and appropriate commemorations at national and community level throughout the second half of the Decade of Centenaries. In this statement, the expert advisory group advocated that, "The opportunity to encourage scholarship at national and local level must be used as fully as possible, with particular emphasis on archival investment and development." This significant capital investment will ensure that our cultural institutions and archives will continue to have a central role in continuing the process of broad public engagement, creating an important, tangible legacy that endures well beyond the Decade of Centenaries for generations to come.
The Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht launched a public consultation process to assist the group in its work to provide guidance to the Government over the remainder of the decade. Its objective was to give interested parties the opportunity to submit their views and ideas on how the significant historical events from 1918 to 1923 might be appropriately and respectfully remembered, in line with the principles expressed in the group's second phase mission statement. Some 73 submissions were received and 20 of these were made by local authorities. The rich diversity of ideas and perspectives was of great assistance to the group as it developed its guidance to the Government.
The second phase guidance statement was published in January last and addresses the years 2018 to 2023. It makes specific recommendations on how the significant historical centenaries in the forthcoming phase of the decade might be meaningfully, proportionately and sensitively remembered by the State. These centenaries include the struggle for independence, the Civil War, the foundation of the State, partition and the foundation of Northern Ireland, and concluding with the admission of the Irish Free State into the League of Nations in September 1923. The group was conscious, in formulating its guidance for this period, that the approaching centenaries present particularly complex and sensitive challenges, coinciding with significant 50th anniversaries in Northern Ireland. The backdrop of Brexit and the continued absence of agreement on operating the devolved structures in Northern Ireland also present particular challenges. The group encourages continued co-operation between the two jurisdictions where appropriate. The exploration of potential cross-Border engagement will require careful, thoughtful and sensitive navigation.
The expert group recommends a three-tier approach comprising a small number of State-led commemorations, augmented by local authority and community-led commemorative initiatives. This approach advocates a leading role for local authorities in supporting and driving community-led commemoration, augmented with appropriate State recognition, support and participation. The community-led model was most effective in the remembrance of the centenary of the Soloheadbeg ambush on 21 January 2019. This was a respectful, community-led commemoration, jointly organised by the Solohead Parish Centenary Commemoration Committee and the Third Tipperary Brigade Old IRA Commemoration Committee. Their plans were supported by Tipperary County Council as part of a broader commemorative programme across the county to mark the centenary of the struggle for independence, and by the State. This measured and balanced approach worked effectively in a complex and sensitive local context. It echoes the most recent guidance of the expert group, which states:
Many of the events of this period have great local significance; it is therefore appropriate for local authorities and local community organisations to be encouraged to lead the commemorative process. Some events have been commemorated annually for decades and it would be inappropriate for the State to compete with these established ceremonies ... All commemorative events should be informed by the principles laid down in the Second Statement of the Expert Advisory Group.
The group recommends that the State should continue to support local and county commemorative exercises to widen and deepen a historical understanding of the significance of the events being commemorated among the public at large. The expert group has recommended a small number of formal State commemorations over the remainder of the Decade of Centenaries. A State commemoration for all of those who lost their lives during the struggle for independence is to take place in 2021, the National Day of Commemoration takes place on Sunday, 11 July, so that might be an appropriate date. The existence of this established State ceremonial event may offer a fitting opportunity for an enhanced State contribution. The group recommends a State commemoration, focusing on themes of remembrance and reconciliation, to take place on a neutral date for all of those who suffered and died during the Civil War.
The group advocates that the centenary of the foundation of the State be remembered in terms of a process rather than a single event. It began with the handing over of Dublin Castle on 16 January 1922 and ended with the formal coming into being of the Irish Free State on 6 December 1922, in the midst of the Civil War. To these ends, two formal State commemorations are recommended, namely a State ceremonial event in Dublin Castle to mark the symbolic transfer of power to the newly emerging Irish State with the handover of Dublin Castle; and a State commemoration on 6 December 2022 in recognition of the pioneering leaders who helped to embed the democratic tradition in the newly emerging Irish State. The group recommends that the centenary of the partitioning of Ireland and the foundation of Northern Ireland be remembered with a significant academic conference. It is also recommended that a conference such as this could examine comparative partitions in Europe post 1918, to emphasise that Ireland’s experience was not unique. Finally, the group recommends a State ceremonial event to mark the centenary of the admission of the Irish Free State into the League of Nations in 2023.
On legacy, the group highlighted the fact that the Decade of Centenaries created unprecedented opportunities for people of all ages to consider and explore some of the most significant events and themes in the history of modern Ireland. The group recommended that this positive engagement and the associated tangible, long-term benefits should continue to be supported beyond the conclusion of the decade in 2023 and that State support should be considered for specific, significant Decade of Centenaries permanent legacy initiatives. One such initiative is the Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury Initiative, which the group has endorsed as a potentially significant and lasting Decade of Centenaries legacy, combining historical research, archival conservation, technical innovation and international collaboration.
It seeks to reimagine and recreate, through virtual reality, the Public Record Office of Ireland and its archival collection, which were destroyed on 30 June 1922 in the opening engagement of the Civil War.