Opinion: the plan intends €1.4 billion to be spent enhancing amenities and heritage, so does this show a seriousness about protecting our cultural institutions and historic buildings?

Last week, amidst much hype and hoopla the government launched Project Ireland 2040. According to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar it "is a plan for our social, economic and cultural development. A ten-year plan to invest in the infrastructure of our country". As part of this plan, €1.4 billion will be spent enhancing amenities and heritage.

While this all sounds rather like an election pitch dressed in government clothes, there are certainly elements of it deserving of praise if enacted. Project Ireland 2040 identified 10 strategic outcomes which are priorities of the National Planning Framework. Number seven is "Enhanced Amenity and Heritage". As part of enhancing this, there will be a welcome expansion of the Arts and Capital Culture Scheme which will provide additional support to regional art centres, theatres, museums and galleries (though how, where and when that will happen is not outlined in any detail).

There is also an ambitious plan for increased capital investment in many cultural institutions including the National Library, National Gallery, Crawford Art Gallery, Abbey Theatre and Irish Museum of Modern Art. This is vital as many of these institutions require repairs, renovation and enhanced facilities both for their collections and their visitors.

The Irish Museum of Modern Art

The figures look impressive with €460 million to be spent on national cultural institutions, including €12 million for the National Library in Dublin and €22 million for the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. For the Crawford, the language switches ominously to the conditional tense when outlining the second phase of development in order, it seems, to avoid committing itself to any concrete plan. For example, phase one "will cost in the region of €4 million", while the second phase "would involve the complete refurbishment of the existing building" if it ever came to pass.

Even if all of the proposed investment is made, it would hardy make up for decimation of capital funding experienced by all cultural institutions over the last decade. In 2007, the National Library spent €13 million on library activities; by 2015, this had been reduced to just over €7 million. Core staffing fell from 106 in 2008 to 86 in 2015 (with a further nine on temporary contracts). As funding and staffing fell, visitor figures rose. In 2007, the National Library recorded 136,000 visitors, a figure that grew to 248,000 in 2015. The National Library is far from alone in having to provide many more services on dramatically reduced budgets.

Project Ireland 2040 indicates that additional investment will be made to digitise elements of the national collections. This is to be welcomed because, as the report rightly notes, digitisation "has a major role to play in the conservation, preservation and dissemination [of,] as well as facilitating access to and research on our National Collections".

Crawford Art Gallery. Photo: Cotitoo https://www.flickr.com/photos/cotitoo/

However, actual access to the collections is being restricted and the prints, drawing and ephemera collections of the National Library are currently unavailable. Additionally, viewing manuscripts and rare books in the Library can now only be done by pre-ordering materials in advance. While digitisation opens up access, at the same time steps are being taken to restrict access to researchers visiting in person.

Project Ireland 2040 also intends to revitalise the "historic cores of our cities, town and villages, bringing historic buildings back into use". If only the government was serious about this. The moribund centres of many cities, towns and villages suggest that government and local authorities have largely failed to revitalise these spaces. Dublin's O’Connell Street, the primary street of Ireland’s capital city, is a prime example of a lack of government will to protect the historic built environment.

Perhaps Project Ireland 2040 will change all that, but it seems highly unlikely. Ireland is littered with examples of historic buildings being destroyed with no consequences for those responsible. In 2006, Laurence Keegan of Kimpton Vale Limited tore down the former Presentation Convent in Terenure at 7am on a Saturday morning. Despite Dublin City Council ordering him to rebuild the structure, he defied that order and was fined just €1,000. The site, now known as Terenure Gate, currently has homes for sale costing from €600,000 to over €800,000.

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RTÉ documentary Portrait Of A Gallery about the €30 million six year refurbishment of National Gallery

In July 2016, Vernon Mount in Cork was destroyed by fire. The house, built in 1784 and named after "Mount Vernon", the home of the first President of the United States George Washington, was of considerable architectural significance. Despite an awareness of the importance of this building, there were no penalties for failing to secure or protect the building.

Another historic building with links to President Washington is Belcamp Hall in North Dublin. This too has been allowed to deteriorate, perhaps beyond repair, despite being on Fingal County Council’s protected structure list since 1972. Belcamp was built by Edward Newenham and had a room modelled on the Oval Office in the White House, while the Washington Tower was built in the grounds to honour the President. The house has been repeatedly vandalised and set on fire and the owners Gannon Homes, who have secured planning permission to build 165 homes on a portion of the site surrounding the house, have done little to protect it with no consequences.

If Project Ireland 2040 is serious about protecting and revitalising the historic built environment, then robust structures must be put in place to ensure that there are serious penalties for those who actively or passively destroy it. Project Ireland 2040 is ambitious, but not realistic. However, there are glimpses of insight and imagination and it is worth giving it a (very) cautious welcome.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ