The introduction of the Historic and Archaeological Heritage Bill 2023 is most welcome. Since 2004 the physical preservation-in-situ of our Archaeological Heritage has proved to be nigh on impossible thanks to the fundamental anti-preservation nature of the monuments legislation introduced in that year. 

The proposed Bill has much to recommend it but ultimately fails to fully redress the horrors of its 2004 predecessor.

The Recommendations made by the Joint Oireachtas Committee (published June 2022) would have resolved the shortcomings in the proposed Bill. To take but three examples of these recommendations:


Recommendation No. 9 – ‘That the proposed Bill incorporate the principles and requirements as laid out in the articles of the European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage, and that the proposed Bill make specific reference to the Convention’.

           The said Convention, generally referred to as the Valletta Convention, was signed by Ireland on the 16th January 1992. It was ratified by Dáil Éireann on Thursday 13th February 1997.

          In the accompanying Dáil debate Ms Sile de Valera TD asked Minister of State Donal Carey TD – “Why has nothing been done about this Convention?”. The same question, 26 years later, can still be asked today.

         Ireland signed up to the Convention in its entirety. It contains crucial guarantees to the integrity of Archaeological Landscapes both in Ireland and across Europe. To now fail to incorporate the Valletta Convention into the appropriate context of the new Bill is absurd, bordering on duplicitous. 

        The new Bill does contain the vague aspiration to ‘give further effect to the Valetta Convention’. Tokenistic vague cherry-picking would be an apt description of this approach.

       To illustrate the absurdity at play here one need only look at our 2 UNESCO World Heritage sites – Brú na Bóinne and Sceilg Mhicíl. The monastic remains only occupy a small area of the island of Sceilg Mhilíl and the tombs at Brú na Bóinne likewise occupy a low percentage of the designated area. Simply put, both World Heritage sites in the Republic of Ireland are Archaeological Landscapes. But! ‘Archaeological Landscapes’ are not specifically protected by the new Bill! To further stretch credibility, amongst the newly announced list of candidates by the State for UNESCO accreditation is ’The Passage Tomb Landscape of County Sligo’!

A simple question for Minister Noonan: Where exactly are the Archaeological Reserves or Archaeological Landscapes, as clearly defined in the Valetta Convention, incorporated in his Bill?


Recommendation No. 4 – ‘That the proposed Bill should provide for a process to be undertaken wherein all landowners with a recognised monument on their lands be officially notified of its presence, significance, and attendant legal protection. Should a monument subsequently be illegally damaged or destroyed, an enforcement order should be placed on its footprint requiring the protection of the surviving subsurface elements of the monument and the associated legally protected objects. 

 In other words - to promote Monument Destruction Prevention, not belated Monument Destruction Prosecution. Threatening landowners and farmers with unrealistic fines of up to €10,000,000 or prison terms of up to 5 years is ridiculous. No court in the land, barring one dealing with the deliberate destruction of, for example, Newgrange, is ever going to impose such ambitious penalties.  Given that the total number of prosecutions since 2007 has been 9, recourse to the law would appear to be a moot point. Hardly a dazzling record of National Monument protection enforcement. 


Recommendation No. 3 – ‘That the National Monuments Advisory Council [as constituted in the original legislation] be re-established and that the proposed Bill provide for an obligation to consult with the Heritage Council and the National Monuments Advisory Council where changes in the level of protection are proposed for a monument, where it is proposed to remove a monument from the register, and where works to a monument with special protection may cause damage’.

           *Currently, there is no Cultural/Heritage Ombudsman.

           * Meanwhile, the Courts have made it clear that they cannot intervene on behalf of our National Heritage.

        The 2004 Amendment to the National Monuments Act, in the words of the Supreme Court, ‘removed a bundle of protections’ from the Act. This was made crystal clear in the decision by the Court of Appeal in relation to the 1916 Moore Street site. It was ruled that, despite the monument having been declared a National Monument, its full extent or historical landscape could only be defined by the relevant minister. The Court concluded that, as the law stands, it was a matter of ‘a purely political assessment’.

         The only concession made to “outside” consultation in the new Bill is that the minister should refer the fate of a contentious monument to the Heritage Council.

       * The Heritage Council has one professional archaeologist on its staff. There are no historians. One archaeologist cannot be expected to fulfil the role of an independent panel of experts by any professional evaluation.

        * Therefore, the Bill, as currently presented, proposes to maintain the unfettered primacy of the Minister de la Jour of Heritage. One individual’s decision shall accordingly continue to determine the fate of an archaeological or historic monument, regardless of its importance to the Heritage to Ireland. There will be no checks or no balances in place. 

        In short, this Bill, in its current form, maintains the Uno Duce, una voce negative status quo of the past for touching on 20 years. So close, and yet ultimately undermined by its shortcomings. 

        All is not yet lost, those members of the Oireachtas interested in the preservation of Ireland’s Heritage and the Environment could still propose and vote for amendments to restore the balance.