Heritage, our best resource, is still being ignored
A recurring theme in Irish economic debate down through the years has been a lament for our dearth of natural resources. If only there was oil, gas or coal under the ground or gold in the hills.
While the benefits of physical natural resources are at best debatable, that particular outlook has served to divert attention away from a very real natural resource which remains largely untapped - our heritage.
While we lose no opportunity to promote Ireland's green and pleasant land and ancient culture in our international marketing to tourists and overseas consumers, we are missing out on potential employment opportunities at home as a result of a potential failure to make sufficient investment in that most precious asset, our heritage.
Our heritage includes our landscapes, our built environment, our culture, our history, our traditional crafts, and much else besides. It's all around us and Irish people from all walks of life constantly voice their pride in and appreciation for it. Yet it remains an underutilised resource. And it is difficult to understand why this should be the case. Austerity measures and public expenditure cuts across all areas were the norm during the economic crisis and it would certainly be difficult to argue for increased spending in one area at the expense of another, such as health or education.
But the proven return on investment in heritage is unarguable. Research undertaken by the Heritage Council shows that for every €1 spent by the council, the Irish tourism industry receives €4.40 in increased revenues. That translates into millions of euro in tourism revenue and hundreds if not thousands of additional jobs. And those benefits spread far beyond the tourism sector. Arts, crafts, sporting, cultural and environmental ventures in rural Ireland also gain from heritage promotion and investment.
In this context, heritage has a definite role to play in offering a solution to the two-speed economic recovery which sees rural Ireland progressing at a slower rate while Dublin and other major urban centres power ahead.
Regional disparities in employment remain stark. The most recent 'Regional Labour Markets Bulletin' published by the Expert Group on Future Skills showed Dublin and the mid-East regions enjoyed the highest employment rates at 66.4pc and 65.1pc respectively, whereas the Border region had the lowest rate, at 57.4pc.
Meanwhile, the Midland and South-East regions suffered the highest rates of unemployment at 13pc and 12pc respectively with the lowest rates again in the Mid-East region (8.5pc) and in Dublin (8.6pc).
With unemployment rates having fallen significantly over the past year, that urban-rural divide may well have widened still further.
The employment-creating potential of heritage in the regions has been proved time and again. For example, an economic report on Youghal's annual, one-day Medieval Festival - made possible by the restoration of its medieval walls support by the Heritage Council - estimated its economic benefit to the town at half a million euro.
The current Programme for a Partnership Government includes commitments to creating 135,000 jobs outside Dublin by 2020 as well as the creation of "a clearing house forum to investigate the best ideas to advance economic and social progress in rural Ireland".
The potential of heritage to make a real contribution to the achievement of that jobs target and the advancement of economic and social progress in rural Ireland simply cannot be ignored.
The Heritage Council is seeking a modest increase in funding of €5m in the forthcoming Budget to support a number of programmes in towns, villages and remote rural areas throughout Ireland. On the basis of our research this will deliver a direct return of at least €22m and will support the regeneration of rural Ireland by helping it capitalise on its natural heritage resources.
Next week, more than 400,000 people will attend National Heritage Week events around the country. This nationwide festival will comprise more than 1,800 local activities, largely made possible by the hard work and dedication of around 16,000 volunteers.
The investment of an additional €5m to turn that energy and solidarity into hard economic benefits should be an easy decision for the Government to make.
Michael Starrett is CEO of The Heritage Council. Heritage Week takes place from tomorrow until August 28. More: Heritageweek.ie