I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for this opportunity to address them. In particular, I thank the Chairman for his opening words. I could not have put it better myself. As the Chairman mentioned, I have been chairman of the Heritage Council for the past five years so I have an intimate knowledge of it. In summary, I have steered it in the past year and a half through a successful critical review. The Heritage Council, along with quite a number of bodies, was reviewed thoroughly by the Department and we have come out of that with a clean bill of health. Perhaps most importantly in the context of today's meeting, I have steered the Heritage Council through the development of the current strategic plan which runs from 2012 to 2016 so, in a way, my fingerprints and those of the board are all over the strategic plan and it is perhaps not a bad place to start.
Before we begin, and I will develop some of the themes the Chairman has asked me to develop as I go through my presentation, I will introduce myself more directly to the committee. I am a senior lecturer in archaeology at the School of Geography and Archaeology at NUI Galway where I have worked since 1996. My main interests include the archaeology of royal sites and landscapes, most notably Tara, and I am currently co-directing an international project on the life and legacy of St. Columbanus, not to be confused with St. Columcille. Columbanus is the saint who made the major foundations in France and Italy at Bobbio where he died in 615. The Chairman was on Garnish Island recently, while I have recently been in Bobbio. There is a very strong sense of the permanence, durability and impact of Irish culture not just on our shores but elsewhere. The Heritage Council is very aware that this is part of our public face or "shop window". Archaeology is one of the cornerstones of heritage in Ireland with the result that my day job at NUI Galway and my position at the Heritage Council converge to the benefit of both.
The Heritage Council pre-dates its establishment as a statutory body in 1995 by about six years and so has played a central role in Irish heritage management, development and promotion for almost a quarter of a century so it is very much on the landscape. It has been a privilege to be associated with it for the past five years and to be considered for re-appointment. What I find so interesting is how the Heritage Council has managed to shape itself to the different ways people express, celebrate and value their heritage and to its extraordinary diversity. The body I was appointed to five years ago seemed at first sight to have evolved in a way that appeared quite organic but which I came to realise was actually very deliberate. It is a bottom-up organisation that has carefully mapped itself onto the phenomenon of living history. There is almost a tautology in that living history is like a contradiction in terms. It makes it very special and peculiar because of the nature of past and present converging in what we call heritage. For a phenomenon that is so ethereal, the strength of the ties between people and their heritage is remarkably strong and resilient, as the Chairman noted, probably because they are so personal and speak to communal values. Our common heritage is what makes us who we are when we meet together as communities. Yet it is also a remarkably fragile phenomenon and requires a light and sensitive touch, which is why the bottom-up approach is so important. Perhaps we can develop this later on in the questions-and-answers session. The Heritage Council has developed networks and support mechanisms that allow individuals and communities to care for and promote their own heritage not just in line with international standards but regularly setting them. For example, in the past six months, a major delegation from Kosovo came to visit the Heritage Council with a view to replicating it in Kosovo. At the time, I was supervising a Master's student from Kosovo who was funded by the European Commission as part of its efforts to help them rebuild their heritage infrastructure in war-torn Kosovo. It is quite interesting to see that the Heritage Council is an organisation that other countries are looking to replicate. As the Chairman mentioned at the start, one of the unique attributes of the Heritage Council is the combination of natural and cultural heritage. The fact is that they cannot be separated. The man cannot be taken from bog but I would argue that the bog cannot be taken from the man. We shape the landscapes around us and they in turn shape who we are. It is that combination that makes a visitor to our shores very aware that they are in Ireland. It is not just the people and their accent and language. It is the entire ambience that is created by the place we have created, warts and all, good and bad. The Heritage Council is one of the most networked statutory bodies, reaching into every parish in the country. That networking and the need for that type of networking given the phenomenon that is living history was one of the things singled out for commendation in the critical review. It was recognised from the start that this is eminently suited to the peculiarities of heritage. It is not an approach that can be replicated at Departmental level. In other words, a civil service per se would find it difficult to replicate that type of networking. Our connections go from other State bodies right down to individuals. That grouping of associations makes the work very interesting but complex and specialised at the same time.
Networks aside, one of the functions of the Heritage Council that I regard as particularly important is the development of policy. The Heritage Council has been an engine room of policy development concerning Irish heritage since its inception and I am glad to see that the critical review identified this as a core function. In respect of the wide purview or gaze of the Heritage Council, the Chairman mentioned the almost dizzying amount of things that can be categorised as heritage. Standing back from that and with that as its remit gives the Heritage Council a perspective across natural and cultural heritage and a type of expertise that is unique. It positions it really well to develop and recommend policy initiatives. One that the committee has undoubtedly been aware of is the development of a national landscape strategy. This is urgent because it speaks to a type of joined-up thinking about every aspect of the Irish landscape. If we achieve this, and I have every confidence we will, it will be a major milestone in the maturation of the governance of the Irish landscape and will be a box ticked in terms of our commitments as a signatory to the European Landscape Convention, which is a very important document. Many other countries are ahead of us on this curve and have developed what are called landscape observatories. This is something the Heritage Council is developing as I speak. I have already said that I have a particular in landscapes albeit archaeological ones but it is not possible to distinguish archaeological landscapes from all the other types of landscapes. Consequently, my interest specifically in landscape has meant that over the past number of years, I have been heavily committed to and involved in the development of the proposals coming from the Heritage Council in the direction of landscape feeding into the national landscape strategy. We are developing a viewer which will capture all the basic data that decision and policy makers need on the landscape - the state of the landscape - and I expect that this will be delivered within the next year.
One of the pitfalls of being so networked, however, is dissipation of profile. Due to the fact that the Heritage Council's philosophy focuses on support and capacity-building, so much of the work of the council occurs below the radar screen. Success for the Heritage Council is when a community identifies an aspect of its heritage that it wishes to promote, revive, enjoy and share and if we can help it achieve that, that is a success for us. They are small building blocks but they make a big difference to people's lives.
As a consequence we are very much behind the scenes.
This creates a vulnerability because it is too easy to lose sight of the fact that the Heritage Council's ability to assist is based on behind-the-scenes structures we have put in place and networks we have established and nurtured. Our ability to maintain these and support the communities they service has been sorely dented by massive cutbacks in our funding over the last five years from approximately €20 million in 2008 to just under €7 million in 2013. As a result, last year we were able to fund only 250 projects, and only modestly at that. This represents just 26% of the total number of applications for support from the Heritage Council. Approximately 75% of our applicants went away disappointed because we did not have the money to support them in doing what they do in their home localities where their heritage is visible and where they want to make something of it, make it more attractive and sustainable.
A key message from the Heritage Council just before I signed off as chairperson at the end of May was that if the grants are re-instated, at a cost of €1 million to €1.5 million, 250 to 300 communities around Ireland will benefit again. This is a priority of ours for 2014. This year, as a result of the cutbacks, we have had to cancel our grants programme and that was a very difficult decision to make. Many communities around the country were disappointed by that. They understand the circumstances in which we work but the situation is unsustainable and we must claw back that ground as a matter of priority.
It is ironic that the State spends millions of euro every year promoting Ireland as a tourism destination, with the usual emphasis on monuments and iconic landscapes, yet is cutting back wholesale on maintaining and developing those assets and the scientific research and on-going monitoring that is vital to the well-being of the Irish heritage resource. We must reverse this disconnect, particularly because today’s heritage tourist to Ireland is savvy. Notwithstanding the amazing weather we have at the moment, people tend not to come to Ireland for the weather but for the culture and landscapes. As a result of the evolution in thinking among people generally, a tourist coming to visit a place or object, such as the Book of Kells, is often as interested in how it is being cared for and looked after into the future and the science of that as he or she is in the object or the place itself. We call this shared stewardship, the sense that everybody has to roll up their sleeves and take some measure of responsibility for looking after the heritage assets we have. It is all over this morning's news that Fingal County Council had to fill 3,000 plastic bags with rubbish off the beaches in Portmarnock. Everybody has a role to play in this and the Heritage Council is one of the agencies of the State that is trying to get that message across. I will return to this later.
I spoke earlier about structures and networks, and these represent a nascent sector. The Heritage Council sees the need for a sectoral profile and identity for heritage in Ireland and to this end the Heritage Council networks the bodies under its wing, such as the National Biodiversity Data Centre, the Discovery Programme, the county heritage officers and the Irish Walled Towns Network. The Heritage Council tries to harness them together and make them greater than the sum of their parts. The professions we associate with heritage such as archaeology, genealogy, place names and ecology are all professions in their own right and can operate in their own professional bubble. However when one applies the word "heritage" to them it changes that because they have to start working in tandem and in partnership and reimagine themselves in this broader context of heritage.
Although heritage is an old word and concept, it is comparatively new in terms of the management of what we would previously have called monuments, buildings and special areas of conservation. It includes our landscapes. Trying to get a sufficient number of practitioners in each of these disciplines to see themselves as operating under the umbrella of heritage is a way of creating a sectoral identity. That is important for everybody because it results in a much closer proximity and dialogue between the general public and practitioners and makes the heritage and the language more accessible. As a result it begins to engender a sense of shared stewardship and people begin to feel this is their own heritage and they can participate in its well-being and enjoy that process. It has taken time to build up this structure, and protecting it and the 70 mostly non-public sector jobs has been our priority in making that decision concerning our budget distribution last year, but, as I said, our priority for 2014 is to re-establish the heritage grants.
So many of the benefits of heritage are immeasurable, and rightly so. Local heritage projects around the country generate tangible and intangible benefits. Sometimes the way they support local jobs is visible, sometimes it is not. This makes it difficult to ascertain the value added by investment in heritage. Two years ago the Heritage Council commissioned research into one of the more measurable aspects of heritage, namely built heritage, meaning historic buildings, houses, castles etc. The results demonstrate that approximately 37,000 full time equivalent employees exist around built heritage alone. Some 24,000 people are directly supported by the built heritage of the country alone. Irish tourism benefits to the tune of about €700 million out of a total of €1.5 billion to the nation’s gross value added. These are serious figures that highlight the economic importance of heritage and the jobs associated with it and tell us it has not reached capacity. If I leave the committee with no other message it is that there are employment opportunities around heritage, directly and indirectly. If the money is there and is invested carefully in a sustainable way we can deliver more jobs on the back of this amazing resource we have been gifted by history here in Ireland.
Perhaps it is because I am a university lecturer, or perhaps because I am a parent, that I see the wonderful classroom at hand that is our heritage. It takes a gifted teacher to hold the attention of a child, or even a third-level student, for ten minutes in the classroom. If that classroom is a seaside rock pool, castle, worm farm, tenement re-enactment or hedgerow in full bloom and humming with insects, it is hard to drag them away from it. I wanted to finish by talking about education lest I leave the impression that I see heritage primarily as a tourism resource. I do not believe that is the case because first and foremost it is ours to benefit from and share. If we do not look after it nobody will. We can harness so much from it. It is a huge outdoor classroom available to us and we need to exploit that. The Heritage Council does to an extent through its heritage in schools programme. This has reached capacity, not in terms of the number of schools asking for it but in terms of the budget available to us to develop it. We need to be able to pump more money into the heritage in schools programme because everybody is benefiting from it. It is creating jobs for the people who deliver it and really interesting and lasting educational opportunities for children.
Heritage Week is coming up at the end of August. There were approximately 1,600 Heritage Week events last year. A few weeks ago the co-ordinator told me she had turned Heritage Week from an event into a campaign. She meant the spirit of shared stewardship and partnership permeates every event so that the hundreds of thousands of people who attend Heritage Week events are not just entertained but leave with a better understanding of what heritage is. That is why it is important to look after it. It grows every year. The success of Heritage Week speaks louder than any other voice of the importance Irish people attach to their heritage and the Heritage Council plays a role in making that voice heard. It would be an honour to remain part of it.