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by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action

Ireland’s December Budget brought in a drastic series of cuts, in both current and capital spending. Tax credits and cut-off points were lowered, and a new ’Universal Social Charge’ was introduced (literally universal – it applies to anyone that earns more than a paltry €77 per week). The intention was obvious – to make more people contribute and to make those that already contribute, contribute a lot more. 

At the root of our present problems is a massive structural deficit – a fundamental gap between what the government spends and what it raises, in taxes, to pay for that spending -, caused, for the most part, by years of dependence on (now-vanished) property-sales taxes and on the tax spin-offs from debt-fuelled consumption; as a funding mine for significant state overpayment for services and for individuals.

But that is only the root. Because the same (Fianna Fáil-led) government guaranteed the collapsing banking system and persisted with that guarantee as bank losses grew (exponentially), it ensured that the multi-billion euro “Irish Developer/Irish Bank/International Financial Market” buck also stopped, bizarrely, with us; the ‘Irish Taxpayer’. And hence the high-interest EMU/IMF bailout; effectively a bailout of those original lenders to the Irish banks (mostly UK and European institutions), but one that will have to be subbed by us, it seems, for the next couple of generations.

It’s easy to see, therefore, why state axes have begun to swing. The question is, are those blows landing evenly; or are they striking more heavily, with the usual smooth follow-through of human/government nature, against those sectors that will cause the least public resistance? According to the Irish Times; “While overall capital spending in the Budget had been cut by 28 per cent,.. the Heritage Council’s capital allocation had been cut by 66 per cent, its current spending cut by 47 per cent and the built heritage heading by 83 per cent.”

The Heritage Council press release adds; “The Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government’s Heritage Unit, which has responsibility for protected structures, including world heritage sites, suffered a 77% budget cut. National Parks and Wildlife, whose remit includes the protection of our natural heritage and running all our national parks, suffered a 56% cut. The Heritage Council, whose role is to protect, preserve and enhance Ireland’s national heritage, suffered a 47% cut. This is on top of a 30% cut in 2010.”

Projects that will have to be abandoned, in the broader area of the environment, include the efforts to prevent Lough Corrib from being, in the words of the Sunday Times; “overrun by Lagorisphon major, an invasive pondweed originally from South Africa”. And the efforts to restore the declining populations of curlew, lapwing, redshank and snipe in the Shannon area. Apart from any moral imperative – our activity is responsible for their danger in the first place (the ‘stampede to dystopia’)  – the fines associated with the extinction of EU protected species are far in excess of the cost of protecting them. Would such a decision really have been made if proper weight had been placed on fairness and value for money?

In a similar vein and in reference, specifically, to the Heritage Council cuts, chairwoman of the Institute of Archaeologists, Finola O’Carroll, points out that this was; “…the budget to look after historic properties, fund Instar [the Irish National Strategic Archaeological Research programme], fund the Royal Irish Academy excavation grants, publications, grants to local authorities for historic buildings etc… This is completely disproportionate and obviously reflects a political choice, at a time when tourism, particularly cultural tourism, is touted as the great white hope. If any other sector had its research and development cut to this extent there would be war.”

In effect, these cuts would; “curtail the conservation of national monuments in State ownership, restrict the funding of research excavations through the Royal Irish Academy and reduce interpretation for tourists at national monuments sites”. And, crucially; “imperil two flagship archaeological projects – the Discovery Programme and Instar”, both of which had “contributed enormously to understanding our heritage and bringing that information to the people of Ireland and further afield”.

A study, referred to in the Heritage Council press release, has demonstrated that investment in these areas returns about five times its original cost, in value to the economy. Will Fianna Fáil ever be capable of doing anything right? And where are the Greens of these last dying days?

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