Wednesday, 21 October 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
104. Deputy John O’Mahony asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism his plans for the future structure of the National Archives, the National Library and the Irish Manuscripts Commission; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37470/09]
Deputy Martin Mansergh: The Deputy will be aware of the 2009 budget announcement of the rationalisation of agencies under the aegis of this Department to include the amalgamation of the National Archives and the Irish Manuscripts Commission into the National Library of Ireland to become the National Library and Archives of Ireland. In the case of this merger, the structure will become clearer when the necessary legislation has been finalised. This will require substantial amendment to the National Archives Act 1986, the National Cultural Institutions Act 1997 and the Heritage Fund Act 2000. The memorandum and articles of association of the Irish Manuscripts Commission, and its position as a guarantee company, will be extinguished while the functions of the commission will be transferred into the new body, mutatis mutandis. As the Minister has previously stated, the Department has considered the corporate and legislative position of each of the institutions in order to draft proposals for the appropriate legislation to give effect to the decision to merge these bodies.
That merger will take place in the context of a federal-type structure whereby the different bodies would keep their identity. To take one example, I would be very familiar with the Irish Manuscripts Commission, which does fantastic work. I can think of a couple of productions last autumn which the Taoiseach launched at Birr Castle, including the 800 to 900 page Ross papers, covering the period from the 1640s through to the mid-20th century. These contained fascinating material both about the Confederate wars and Sir Lawrence Parsons, who later became Earl of Rosse, was admired by Wolfe Tone and was a leading anti-Union member of the old Irish Parliament.
More recently, I reviewed for The Irish Times three volumes of the journals of the Irish House of Lords, which were again fascinating. Deputies might not be aware that the origin of the free envelopes scheme is the mid-17th century. It was a measure designed against Charles I to allow free correspondence between MPs and the people, and its effect was extended to Ireland during the Cromwellian period. Few of us think of that scheme as having its origins back then. An interesting feature of that scheme is that not merely could MPs, now TDs, send post free of charge to their constituents, but their constituents could send letters to them free of charge. Somewhere in the past 300 years, the reciprocal nature of this arrangement has gone missing. Whether it would be worthy of revival or whether we have enough post to deal with is a matter for debate.
Deputy Olivia Mitchell: That is fascinating, although I hope the Minister of State has not eaten into my speaking time. I appreciate that some further consideration along the lines of a federal arrangement between the Irish Manuscripts Commission, the National Library and the National Archives is taking place. However, the keeping of an archive is a State function and I do not believe it should be in a semi-autonomous body like the National Library. Be that as it may, my key concern is when any of this is going to happen. The Minister of State knows, as I do, the state of the National Archives, including the building where it is located and the way it is managed at present. It is in an extremely difficult position because of the uncertainty about when the legislation will be introduced. Staff are leaving and not being replaced, and the whole institution is running down and beginning to moulder.
When is the legislation likely to come? Will the Minister of State agree something must happen in the National Archives given the huge problems caused by staff leaving and not being replaced? Quite apart from the cultural tourism element, the National Archives is part of our heritage, yet is being kept in a biscuit factory. The current arrangement is neither sustainable nor acceptable. After many years of the Celtic tiger, nothing has happened, which is a disgrace. I am sure the Minister of State would agree, if he could do so privately. Is there any hope of bringing forward the legislation so that some new direction is given?
I am particularly concerned with the National Archives, although I realise the Irish Manuscripts Commission will be included in any arrangement that is made. My problem is that nothing is happening. I examined the legislative programme and this legislation is dealt with in the back pages, where it is impossible to give a timeline. Can the Minister of State enlighten me as to when the legislation will be brought forward?
Deputy Martin Mansergh: Broadly speaking, I accept the points being made by the Deputy, in particular, that the National Archives is under pressure, although it has had tremendous successes, for example, putting the 1901 and 1911 censuses online — the website has apparently had 125 million hits.
I wish I could give the Deputy a timeline for when the legislation will be ready but I cannot add to the information she already has from the legislative programme. My main concern is not just with what one might call institutional organisation questions, which consist at the top level of some kind of overarching co-ordination and management and, at the bottom level, shared back office services, which obviously make sense. The proper conservation of our archives and access to them is also important. Brilliant work is being done by historians on the basis of the archives, and new archives are becoming available all the time, such as the Bureau of Military History and the IRA military pension files, which will be available by 2016. For the sake of the economic, social and cultural history of the country, I would dearly like the Land Commission records to be made available to historians.
Deputy Olivia Mitchell: I am not questioning the quality of the work being done, which I agree is incredible given the conditions in which staff are working. I accept that the Minister of State is not responsible for bringing forward legislation in the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, but will he convey to the Minister the degree of urgency attaching to this issue?
Deputy Martin Mansergh: The policy decision is made by the Department concerned — in most of the cases we are discussing it is the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism — after which the Office of Public Works comes into play in terms of finding solutions, particularly space solutions and so on. A considerable amount of work has been done in the background in the past two or three years. The main issue, as with everything else, is funding.
Deputy Olivia Mitchell: There is a statutory requirement for the National Archives to have a fully appointed board, but that requirement has not been met for some years. It is a rudderless organisation.
Deputy Mary Upton: There was an indication in the last budget that the institutions in question were to be merged, but the relevant legislation remains on the C list. Earlier this week, however, regulations from the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism were placed before us to allow for the time trials for a debutante greyhound to be reduced by 0.3 seconds. That can only make one wonder about the Department’s priorities.
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