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The Historic and Archaeological Heritage Bill moves to Second Stage

My speech from the Seanad today, as I brought the Historic and Archaeological Heritage Bill 2023 to the second stage of its legislative journey:

I am delighted to be here with you today to present the Historical and Archaeological Heritage Bill 2023. I look forward to the debate and the deliberations of the House and I thank Senators for facilitating the second stage of this important Bill.

Irish heritage is the foundation stone of our society. At an international level, our heritage provides us with a uniqueness and an identity that many states and societies hold in high regard. At a national level, it is a source of great pride and confers on us a sense of togetherness. In many ways, our heritage unites us and helps foster a sense of an Irish kinship. At a local level, perhaps the most important level of all, our heritage has created and maintained entire communities and it can provide individuals a powerful feeling of belonging.

This is why the laws protecting our heritage are so important and I support the need for legislative reform in this area that has long been acknowledged. The principal purpose of the Bill is to help protect and conserve our historic heritage so that the Irish people, and visitors to these shores, can continue to admire it and continue to learn from it. Elements of this Bill will also help realise a number of actions set out in Heritage Ireland 2030, our national heritage plan.

As set out in Part 1 of the Bill, our historic heritage is a non-renewable resource of great cultural and scientific importance. It tells us the story of the development of our society; it inspires public understanding and teaches us to an appreciation of the past.

The protection of historic heritage in its original location, or ‘in situ’, is always the preferred scenario. The Bill provides that there is a presumption in favour of this. It is also clear under the Bill that the responsibility for the protection of historic heritage is shared by all. It is through our past that we come to know ourselves and it is through how we mind and value that past that future generations come to know us.

Monuments and archaeological sites are amongst the most visual and significant examples of our historic heritage. Part 2 of the Bill replaces the law on monuments as set out in the National Monuments Acts with comprehensively revised and strengthened provisions.

A core aim of Part 2, and a key innovation when compared to the existing law, is the protection of newly discovered finds of monuments. Regulations will be introduced that set out different classes of structures and sites that are of archaeological interest, and these will be known as ‘prescribed monuments’. This approach will ensure that newly discovered archaeological sites are afforded immediate legal protection, mirroring the existing system for archaeological objects or historic wrecks that are automatically protected without a need for formal designation or registration.

For the first time, a statutory reporting scheme for finds of monuments of archaeological interest will be introduced. Where a person finds, or believes that they have found, a prescribed monument they will need to make a report to the Minister, or a member of An Garda Síochána. A 72-hour time limit is provided for making preliminary reports,although alternative durations may be set out in regulations where appropriate. Once again, this will mirror the existing systems in place for finds of archaeological objects or historic wrecks.

A new ‘Register of Monuments’ will be established, replacing several overlapping designation and registration systems currently in operation. In accordance with criteria set out in the Bill, entries can be made in the Register if belonging to a class of prescribed monument, or are otherwise of heritage interest. Sites entered into the Register will become known as ‘registered monuments’.

The Bill provides extensive administrative procedures that must be followed when making, amending, or deleting entries in the Register. A statutory consultation process must take place by way of general notice in national newspapers, or by direct contact with landowners, as appropriate. A written notice of the changes made to the Register, and the reasons for those changes, must issue in a similar manner.

The Bill will apply a default level of legal protection to prescribed and registered monuments, and this is a crucial point. It will mean that works to a monument cannot be carried out lawfully other than under and in accordance with a licence, or unless a valid notice of the works is submitted and a 3-month notice period has elapsed. In addition, the Minister may impose certain conditions regarding the carrying out of any permitted works.

A higher level of legal protection can be applied to a registered monument so that the notice procedure is no longer available and in such cases, works can only be carried out under licence.

Registered monuments in the ownership of the Minister or a local authority will be automatically subject to the higher level of protection, and where such monuments have been acquired under the enacted Bill, they will be known as ‘national monuments’. There will be a duty to maintain and facilitate access to national monuments and the OPW will discharge the day-to-day aspects of this duty on behalf of the Minister.

The Bill also provides for bye-law making powers that can be applied at national monuments. A new fixed payment notice system can be used to enforce bye-laws, with corresponding powers to issue ‘on the spot’ fines.

Part 3 of the Bill relates to the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention and for the first time, the term “World Heritage Property” will be introduced into Irish law under this Part.

The House might note that the provisions in the Bill relating to monuments are to complement, and not in any way replace, the law relating to protected structures of architectural interest found under the Planning and Development Act, or indeed the wider role of heritage protection in the planning system.

Part 4 relates to archaeological objects. It provides for State ownership of archaeological objects with no known owner and removes potential ambiguity found in the existing law by making it clear that owners of land on which archaeological objects are found are not counted as ‘known owners’. Where the owner of an archaeological object is known, the State will be given the power to acquire the object on payment of appropriate compensation.

Objects falling within the definition of an “archaeological object” will be legally protected through a licensing requirement for their alteration and all finds of archaeological objects must be reported to the National Museum of Ireland.

Part 4 also provides the necessary provisions to allow for the ratification of two important international treaties, the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects.

The ratification of these Conventions would enable Ireland to play its part in the international effort to combat the illicit trade, and the looting of, antiquities and cultural objects.

Under Part 5 of the Bill, provision is made for issues relating to the protection of historic wrecks and underwater cultural heritage, for example, the control of diving in relevant locations.

The Bill enables the State ratify the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, should the Government decide to do so. This Convention contains obligations on the prevention of commercial exploitation, looting and trafficking, as well as promoting international cooperation and assistance.

Part 6 relates to other activities that will be subject to a licensing requirement, in particular, archaeological excavation and the use of metal detectors to search for archaeological objects. Additional provisions ensure that a person cannot sell or supply a detection device unless a warning is clearly legible on the packaging and a person will not be permitted to advertise the sale or use of a detection device to search for archaeological objects unless the advertisement is accompanied by the prescribed warning.

Part 7 will introduce an integrated licensing system whereby one licence can authorise a range of activities and for the first time, a statutory appeals process will be established with appeals officers appointed to review licensing decisions. This will help ensure administrative fairness and transparency in the regulatory process.

The formation and maintenance of inventories of heritage sites underpins effective heritage management, providing the data used to decide which sites are protected and to advise other bodies on the possible impacts of development on heritage.

Part 8 will provide for three statutory inventories (architectural heritage, archaeological sites and historic wrecks) and provide discretionary powers to create inventories of other categories of sites, including World Heritage Property. Provision is made so that information gathered in each of the inventories can be made publicly available.

Under Part 8, the Minister and other relevant bodies will be given powers to promote and publish research relating to historic heritage, and to promote knowledge and awareness of monuments and archaeological heritage.

Under Part 9 of the Bill, provision is made for the Minister to issue guidelines for local authorities on how to deal with historic heritage in the exercise of their functions.

The Minister, in conjunction with the Heritage Council, will be provided with a statutory function relating to the co-ordination and development of public policy on historic heritage. Public authorities and local authorities will be placed under a general obligation to have regard to historic heritage in the exercise of their functions.

Turning to Part 10, care has been taken to ensure that the penalties are reasonable, proportionate, and in line with other Irish legislation. Severe penalties continue to be available for the most serious offences and in order to ensure fairness defences to certain offences have been introduced where appropriate.

A major innovation will be the creation of a system of civil enforcement that can be used as an alternative to criminal proceedings under the Bill. Under this system, breaches of the Bill may be rectified by way of enforcement notices that will be enforceable by, or appealable to, the Courts. This will greatly strengthen, in real terms, the scope for ensuring compliance with the legislation.

Finally, Part 11 and 12 contain a range of miscellaneous technical provisions and consequential amendments to other existing Acts.

Our historic heritage is the motive force of our identity and our society. We are fortunate to enjoy a rich, layered and varied and valued historic heritage in this country and this legislation will help ensure its protection for generations to come.


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