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The EU & UNESCO: Endangering Our Heritage
national | history and heritage | opinion/analysis Monday August 01, 2011 23:25 by Sean Keir Moriarty seanachai51 at earthlink dot net
“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” Mark Twain
Every World Heritage Site, be it of archaeological, cultural or historical significance, is monitored for violations by UNESCO. Case in point is the Dresden Elbe Valley, which in 2004 was inscribed as a World Heritage Site. However, in 2009 it was delisted because the German government violated its “outstanding universal value as inscribed” by constructing a four-lane bridge over the Elbe, despite repeated warnings by UNESCO, who recommended a tunnel be constructed instead. While their decision was perhaps appropriate, by delisting the site, they’ve set a precedent they can never retreat from, without going down an extremely slippery slope.
Although the dust from the Tara/M3 controversy has settled, the long-term negative effects of its construction; beyond scarring of the landscape, may haunt Ireland for decades to come. Granted John Gormley, former Minister of the DoEHLG, inherited the problem, however, part of his campaign was that he’d rectify the matter, yet upon being elected, reneged on his promise. And in spite of various heritage violations resulting from construction of the M3, for some inexplicable reason believed the Tara Complex could still be named a WHS. Given the facts, however, unless the World Heritage Committee rescinds its decision on the Dresden Elbe Valley, the chances of Tara being inscribed are slim and none.
As in the Dresden case, the Irish government and developers have thoughtlessly destroyed part of Tara’s ‘universal value’, this prior to inclusion on Ireland’s Tentative List. Though this will pose a serious problem come nomination time, a proposal was submitted to the government, in which the steps it could take to over come that hurdle were outlined. First, that the National Monuments Act of 1930 – 2004 and the Heritage Act of 1995 be rewritten in such a manner that no individual or government agency can ever again ‘hijack’ them for their own purposes. Secondly, that a comprehensive, long-term plan be established to excavate, restore and preserve what remains of the Tara Complex. The latter to include banning the use of agricultural equipment on the hill, which has destroyed many of the earthen monuments over the centuries. To obscure the view of the M3 as much as possible by planting native trees and shrubs along the section that passes through the Complex. Most importantly, that any construction within the Core Area and Buffer Zone be severely restricted or banned altogether.
One of the arguments the Irish government will no doubt use in support of their case with respect to Tara, is that the motorway was constructed prior to it being included on its Tentative List. The classic ‘play ignorant’ approach. Additionally, that the motorway is not visible from the Hill of Tara, an argument which fails to take into account the Complex will include not only the Core Area; presumably the hill itself, but a considerable Buffer Zone. As if these two arguments won’t be insulting enough to the intelligence of the World Heritage Committee, the Tara Complex was grouped together with Cashel, Dún Ailinne, the Hill of Uisneach and Rathcroghan Complex, no doubt at the suggestion of Dr. Jukka Jokilehto of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). Given the five year international controversy, how could anyone be so arrogant and/or ignorant as to think the committee won’t see through such a ploy.
That said, if the WHC were to inscribe Tara, the German government would scream bloody murder, and rightfully so. Worst of all, it would open the flood gates for countries to argue that sites they nominate should be inscribed, in spite of issues similar to the Tara/M3 debacle. Should this prove to be the case, it would so cheapen the title of World Heritage Site as to render it meaningless.
In two previous articles, ‘Of Cups, Rings & Cultural Heritage’ (The Irish World, July 30, 2011) and ‘Cultural Heritage & The Economy’ (The Irish World, August 6, 2011) I discussed in-depth a major archaeological discovery and its significant potential cultural and economic benefits, not only for Ireland, but Britain and other Atlantic/Mediterranean European nations. Sadly, the members of the Oireachtas, Meath County Council and Irish archaeologists dismissed the matter ‘out of hand’. In all fairness though, they weren’t the last to have done so. That ‘honor’ belongs to the European Union and UNESCO.
Based on electronic receipts, 79% of the 718 Members of the European Parliament contacted; including the Irish MEP’s, deleted emails regarding the matter, without so much as reading them. Of the remaining 21%, who perhaps read their emails, not one took the time to respond. Overall, only 25% of the 718 MEP’s had the courtesy to return the electronic receipt. Despite the fact that each MEP was urged to bring the matter to the attention of their respective governments, it’s apparent none did. Apparently, MEP’s operate independently of the countries they represent, with their opinions, or in this case the lack thereof, being the final word on the subject. Considering their lack of concern, it’s rather hypocritical on the part of the European Commission to have filed lawsuits against Ireland for heritage violations, when they’re guilty of ignoring the cultural heritage of member nations.
The attitude of the EU and seemingly its member nations, is perhaps best exemplified by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who failed to intercede in the Dresden Elbe Valley matter, insisting that construction of the bridge was a “regional” issue, this in direct violation of her country’s obligations to UNESCO.
As for UNESCO, they too were made aware of all the foregoing, but as in the case of the EU, they ignored the matter, to the point of declining to issue a warning to the Irish government. The response by Ambassador Oliver’s office of the U.S. Mission to UNESCO best sums up their viewpoint, “At such time that the Government of Ireland should propose the Tara Complex as part of its "tentative list", I can assure you that the U.S. Department of the Interior, as the responsible agency within the Executive Branch for World Heritage issues will, I am confident, give every appropriate consideration to the site for inclusion on the World Heritage List.”
Whether a severe warning would have convinced the Irish government to reroute the M3, it would have given them fair warning that Tara likely would not be considered for inscription, should they refuse to do so. The fact that the committee failed to act, demonstrates their indifference with regards to sites they know full-well are endangered. Simply because a site has not yet been included on a country’s Tentative List or inscribed, is not a valid reason for their inaction, but simply a poor excuse.
Given the Tara/M3 controversy, it’s high-time governments read their ambassadors to UNESCO the riot act, as the next endangered site may well be one they feel a strong cultural tie to. All things considered, it’s quite evident government officials can no longer be trusted to protect our heritage, any more than they can be trusted to protect our economies.
“Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks.” Doug Larson