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Ian Doyle: Peerless heritage blighted by short-sighted policy

TODAY – UNESCO's World Heritage Day – is a useful time to ask what are the key issues for heritage in Ireland, and how do we measure up to international practice? After all, our natural and built heritage is a pre-eminent part of what we are, and comes second only to the people of Ireland in defining our identity and place in the world.

In sharp contrast to other parts of north-west Europe, where past conflicts, intensive agriculture and longer periods of development have reduced the historic character of the landscape, Ireland has one of the richest and most diverse collections of monuments and historical features to be found anywhere. We have 120,000 protected monuments and these are only the ones we know about. It is one of our most unique selling points.

We know too, from research over recent years, that our natural and built heritage is a vital economic asset, crucial to the ongoing success and further expansion of our two leading indigenous industries: food production and tourism.

Across the world our "clean, green island" is the key marketing brand for our food exports, while the attractiveness of our landscapes, our monuments, our historic streetscapes, our flora and fauna, our wildlife habitats, historic houses, shorelines and inland waterways, are critical to Ireland's success as a tourism destination.

But its capacity to generate economic activity is not the only reason we should care for, and manage, the heritage legacy we have inherited.

Unfortunately, our cultural heritage often appears to be seen as an easy option for expenditure cuts. Accelerated cuts in the budget of the Heritage Council mean that this year, for the first time since its inception in 1997, there is no financial programme to support local communities in protecting their heritage. To put this in context, last year, despite budget cutbacks of over 50pc, the council still managed to allocate €1.4m to over 270 projects across the country.

This now means that local communities are unable to maintain or repair many of the heritage artefacts on which Ireland's appeal rests. For instance, the iconic image of the Irish thatched house, which embodies a long tradition of rural craft, is at risk due to the lack of any meaningful grant supports to keep roofs intact and support the passing on of thatching skills.

Yet some simple actions, at relatively low cost, could help this situation. Getting FAS to support the training of traditional building skills could make a big difference.

We have about 120,000 recorded archaeological monuments protected under the National Monuments Act. Yet their absence in any meaningful sense from the Agri-Environment Options Scheme (AEOS), the successor to the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS), intended to encourage farmers to farm in a more sustainable manner, removes a key means to care for them.

Nor are the organisational structures we have to manage our heritage optimal. Management of State-owned national monuments and world heritage sites is divided between the Office of Public Works and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, while planning policies are implemented by the local authorities.

As Ireland considers new nominations to the World Heritage List, it is vital that we engage local communities in the active planning and management of these sites. There has been a shift in Europe in recent years towards a much greater recognition of the rights of communities to be involved.

The Council of Europe's Convention on Landscape (2000), and its more recent Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage to Society (2005), recognise the active participation of the community as a key element in caring for landscape and heritage resources. The wise development of this dynamic could help shift the burden of care off the State by unlocking the potential for volunteering.

After five years of cutbacks, unemployment and amid collapses in support for energetic local communities and historic property owners, we are faced with a situation whereby the vibrancy and ability of the heritage sector to keep on contributing and coping is in question.

On World Heritage Day, and mindful of the constraints imposed by austerity, let us think imaginatively and creatively about how to use the limited resources we have in a better way.

Ian Doyle is head of conservation at the Heritage Council.

Irish Independent