Although the Deputy does not specify Heritage properties in particular, I understand that this is the thrust of the Question and will therefore address the matter in that context. Within my remit at the Office of Public Works, I am responsible for National Monuments in State care and I will confine my remarks to this portfolio in particular.
The National Monuments Service of the Office of Public Works is responsible for approximately 780 National Monument sites in State care. The majority of these sites are State owned and therefore fall completely under the protections of the National Monuments Acts. However a number are privately owned and the OPW has Guardianship arrangements in place in respect of these sites so that they can be afforded a similar level of protection.
On the ground, these properties are safeguarded by a network of 6 National Monuments Depots located around the country in Meath, Kilkenny, Cork, Kerry, Galway and Leitrim, and staff at these locations, together with a number of others in various sub-depots, provide the immediate response in terms of affording protection to National Monument sites. This cohort is responsible therefore for protecting National Monuments, performing various maintenance tasks and mounting larger conservation projects when appropriate. A key role is also occupied by the Department of Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which has responsibility for overarching matters of policy relating to Heritage and provides a key professional Archaeological input into the protection regime at sites. The Department is often therefore joined with the OPW in the first line of defence for Heritage sites under threat. Additionally, the Minister for AHG and his Department are responsible for providing consent to allow works to be carried out at or in the vicinity of National Monuments, either by the OPW themselves or by others and this is a key function in providing clarity about who may work legally at a National Monument.
The number of sites in State care is, clearly, quite significant and the challenge of ensuring that all sites are protected from adverse activity is a considerable one, particularly given that most are unattended by staff for a majority of the time. Physically, the list is comprised of a huge range of types of structures including historic houses, ancient castles, Abbeys, Churches, megalithic burial and settlement sites, protected landscapes, battle sites, high crosses and other carved stones and a wide range of field monuments dotted around the country. Geographically, the various sites and monuments are located in widely dispersed areas which are, in some cases easy to access and in others, physically remote. OPW National Monuments staff regularly inspect sites to make sure they are not under threat and assess the need for small works from time to time. In fact, the Deputy may recall the recent case where a Church font went missing from a National Monument site at Rathmore in Co. Meath. The taking of this object was first noted in fact as a result of a routine OPW staff inspection. Happily, that incident concluded satisfactorily and the item was successfully recovered, but it is noteworthy I think that the initial prompt action of OPW staff resulted in a very fast response by the Department of AHG and other relevant agencies, in cooperation with An Garda Síochána. It is also interesting to note that the site in question is under Guardianship rather than ownership and that this did not affect the rigour of the protection or the speed of the response.
Although the Rathmore incident ended happily, it does, I think, serve to illustrate the risks to our important heritage sites from unauthorised activity. There is clearly a dilemma involved in publicising the wonderful heritage that we have and at the same time allowing access to individuals who, through either ill intent or a lack of knowledge, may cause damage. Given the number and geographic spread of sites, the dangers involved cannot all be monitored all of the time and the OPW National Monuments Service depend on local people in all parts of the country to help keep a watch on sites and bring to the OPW's or the Department's attention any problem issues. Where unauthorised activity occurs, the measures contained in the various National Monuments Acts will apply. The sanctions set out in the Acts are significant and, with the input of the Department of AHG, provide a serious deterrent and a strong level of legal protection to sites under risk. Notwithstanding this, my colleague the Minister for Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht has a new National Monuments Amendment Act in preparation which he will bring to the House in due course to further update legislation in this area.
Having regard to the importance of our National Heritage to both our cultural identity and as a part of the rich fabric of our nation, it is clear that its protection must be of continuing importance. There are, clearly, challenges in terms of the size of the portfolio and the amount of resources available to the Office of Public Works; however, I am generally happy that the OPW, in concert with colleagues in the Department of AHG and with the input and cooperation of interested local people and groups in all parts of the country, can continue to provide an effective response to this issue.