Shane Ross

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National Monuments Bill gives too much Power to Minister

Posted on: July 2nd, 2004

This Bill is a matter of direct interest to me because I live about 100 yards from the works we are talking about and it has been an ongoing saga for about five years. I am not looking for any sympathy, but I would not wish it upon anybody. There have been bulldozers in place for many years, a series of digs going on, court cases and difficulties in getting in and out of the area because of what has been happening and the saga the Minister outlined to us in his contribution. It is unsatisfactory from all sides, certainly for the residents, the motorists and the archaeologists.

While I oppose the Bill I acknowledge that the situation could not continue as it is currently. The people there and all those involved were living under the threat of court cases going one way or the other and not knowing whether the road would ever be opened, while having a great deal of sympathy with those who believe that the archaeology, the national monument, as we now know it to be, should be preserved.

This is a case of two rights. It is not as cut and dried as many people in the House make it out to be. There is no doubt that there is an unanswerable case for archaeology of this sort to be preserved and that if we bury it, it will be gone forever and we can do very little if it is decided to resurrect it. The lessons of history will be hidden from us.

There is also the argument, which the Government side is making with some eloquence, that there is no justification for holding up the M50 forever, that the practical benefits of the Celtic tiger are great but some of the down side is intolerable, that we have to provide the infrastructure which we failed to do and that we cannot justify blocking a major road for decades, which could be the case, on the altar of some archaeological piety.

…The myth that those who protested against this section of the motorway were headbangers must be dismissed. These were caring people, who protested at some risk to their employment, and not unemployed layabouts. They were dedicated to these archaeological finds with a genuine interest and concern that they were about to be destroyed. When this legislation is passed, it should be recognised that it was mistake for a short-term measure. Those protesters, many of whom I met, had a deep concern, very different from that of motorists, about archaeology and were not doing it for any selfish motives.

I am always suspicious of the words spoken by Ministers when written by civil servants. They always sound so innocent but can be translated into something not so innocent. The Minister of State’s speech specifically used the term “single tier process” which sounds pretty sensible when there is a blockage in the system. However, single tier process means that the various powers held by bodies such as the Office of Public Works, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and the National Monuments are to be transferred to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. This may speed up the process but it also removes a large amount of the input necessary to resolving a problem of this sort that requires archaeological and other expertise. No Minister or civil servant has the expertise to take on these powers and make informed judgments.

Section 5, which substitutes section 14 of the principal Act, makes me more suspicious. The amended section 14 will require the Minister to consult with the Director of the National Museum. However, the word “consultation” in legislation means nothing.

Those Members who are veterans of the Universities Act will know that consultation is not worth the paper it is written on. It simply means that the Minister, if he does make a telephone call to the person in question, will ignore the consultation if he or she feels like it. Recently, regarding a Government appointment to the board of the University of Dublin, the Minister for Education and Science was required by law to consult the provost. However, it never occurred because the Minister realised that whatever the provost said did not matter. The call was never made, such was the ministerial contempt for the clause. The amended section 14 requiring the Minister to consult with the Director of the National Museum is just a fig leaf. What the director says does not matter because the Minister can do whatever he or she likes.

…Why is it necessary to give the Minister the power to administer the discovery of archaeological objects once they have been unearthed? This provision has slipped into the Bill for no reason and has nothing to do with the specific problem faced. It has slipped in unnoticed and causes no controversy because of the Carrickmines case. Why have the penalties for damage to monuments been increased when discoveries are far more important? It would be better to catch those who damage sites rather than simply stating the penalties. Why is there no grading system for national monuments? National monuments are graded as either positive or negative. A building is either a national monument or not. This makes life difficult for legislators. A grading system with little bureaucracy which gives a Minister or an administering body the power to give the monument a grade, subject to different standards of examination and care, should be introduced.

All national monuments cannot be placed in the same category. Some are much more important than others and some must be sacrificed if major roads are to go through. I do not know the value of Carrickmines as an archaeological site. I cannot see the castle when I walk by and I know there is only a small gable end left. One can see a part of the moat and the fosse when walking there, but because I have not got the expertise, I do not know whether this is what Senator Bohan called a pile of old stones or a very precious national monument.

There are different archaeological interpretations with people offering entirely different opinions, coming from different bases of expertise, and it is very confusing. It would be very useful if we had a certain grading of national monuments to give lay people some idea of whether this is a valuable historic site or something we could easily let go. All such sites should not have to go through the procedure which Carrickmines has had to go through, or else no roads will be built.

This Bill is bad because of section 14. Its language is dishonest and it disguises the fact that it gives all powers to the Minister while using the language of archaeology to pay lip service to the environment, in which it does not believe. For that reason, and because it is a massive over-reaction to a specific problem, taking powers to itself which will be used elsewhere and are unnecessary and also because it uses the Carrickmines issue for other areas like Tara and Waterford, the Bill should be opposed.