By Michael Smith.
Not that it seems to matter but Heather Humphreys is the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. A stranger to a national profile she came from nowhere to succeed Jimmy Deenihan, the only minister to lose that rank in July last year.
Actually, she had been elected to Dáil Éireann in the 2011 general election as the first woman ever to be elected for Fine Gael in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency. She had been Mayor of Monaghan County Council in 2009, having previously chaired the Council’s Strategic Policy Committee on Planning and Economic Development and also served on the Council’s An Coiste Gaeilge, though she spoke no Irish.
Humphreys was educated at St Aidan’s Comprehensive School in Cootehill, County Cavan, married farmer Eric Humphreys, has two daughters, one of whom was involved in a bad car crash last year, and lives on a farm in Aghabog. She worked with Ulster Bank and then became Manager of Cootehill Credit Union.
Before being appointed as Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, she was a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure & Reform, the Joint Administration Committee and the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). Her mentor was Seymour Crawford TD and Humphreys and Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan are currently the only Protestant TDs in the cabinet. None of this, even the last bit, shouts Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht.
According to her website: “Heather’s financial experience in both personal and business matters combined with a farming background makes her a strong voice for the people of Cavan and Monaghan”. So far so humdrum in the cabinet of the man who wants to make Ireland the best little country in the world to do business.
But there’s more: “She is acutely aware of the challenges facing indigenous industries and small business and understands the importance of cash flow to businesses and has made this issue one of her main priorities as a new TD. Heathers [sic] approach to politics focuses on common sense, honesty and practicality. This goes hand in hand with her businesslike attitude and a willingness to roll up the sleeves and get the job done”.
A fair observation is that added to her vapid track record she does not appear to have any vision or ideology (outside improving cash-flow for business).
She is best known for her ignominious performance in the controversy over the appointment of failed local election candidate, John McNulty, to the board of the Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), just days before he was announced as Fine Gael’s nominee for the Seanad by-election last year. Humphreys gave a faltering performance in a doorstep interview with journalists and refused to reveal who within Fine Gael told her to put McNulty on the IMMA board.
More endearing tales are that she was “absolutely shocked” to be appointed a Minister and that she asked her Secretary-General to call her Heather when she first met him. He refused and of course she quickly yielded: “Well if that’s the way you do it, that’s fine with me . And then he goes, ‘Yes, Minister’”.
With the Arts Council dishing out the cash to the luvvies, and Junior Minister Joe MacHugh belatedly brushing up on his Irish and doing the Gaeltacht bit, Humphreys is uniquely lumbered with the unpopular but nonetheless serious legal responsibility for Heritage.
While she seems, after a slow start, to be addressing the Rising centenary, through the National Parks and Wildlife Service she is also required to enforce the fractious and, more importantly, tedious EU Habitats and Birds Directives, and to facilitate Irish compliance with the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
On top of this she is charged with application of the Council of Europe Conventions on archaeology, architectural heritage and landscape, and with the National Museum, Library and Gallery and other cultural institutions.
Concern or action on nature conservation have been startlingly absent since her appointment as Minister. Her vanishing if gamey predecessor Jimmy Deenihan – now Minister for the diaspora or some such – remarked during his time that: “Part of me wishes that the portfolio had been kept to arts, sports and tourism”.
Heather Humphreys has gone one better and acted as if it already had been. Jobs, jobs and the odd forklift truck factory in Monaghan are the staples of her social-media outings. The occasional commemoration here. Maybe a bit of 1916, there. The apex of her tenure is represented by gushings about sitting next to the former First Lady in New York on St Patrick’s Day: “what an honour to meet with Hillary Clinton” etc.
Where heritage issues impose on her busy schedule it is usually some soft-focused divagation like preserving an historic corrugated iron church in…Monaghan. What the new Minister really appears to love is attending nice arts events around the country.
Indeed those following her Twitter account may be confused and think that she is a junior functionary working for Richard Bruton. In mid-March An Taisce reviewed Minister Humphreys’ previous 200 tweets – going back more than 150 days. It discovered that the Minister had mentioned nature or wildlife topics only twice. The lonely tweets addressed the Rural Development Programme and the Deer Management Framework. An Taisce put these findings to the Minister via Twitter, who responded, “Lots of good work going on. For eg this week I secured Govt approval for publication of National Landscape Strategy”.
In early March 2015 the EU European Environment Agency published a report on Europe’s wide-ranging biodiversity loss, explaining how 25% of species are threatened with extinction.
The main drivers for this were identified as habitat loss, urban expansion, agricultural intensification and climate change. Ireland has no strategies to deal with these pressing threats. A weak climate act is passing uselessly through the Oireachtas.
The 50% increase in milk production and other agri-business targets under the meaty Food Harvest 2020 agriculture policy are accelerating climate change and the destruction of habitats, especially wetlands.
Iconic Irish bird species such as the curlew and hen harrier are in danger. Peat extraction for electricity generation as well as for horticulture and to serve the mushroom industry remains largely unregulated. Action is being taken over the cutting of raised bog SACs (but not blanket bogs) only because of legal proceedings by the European Commission, itself under pressure from NGOs. In her statement at the time of the budget, Humphreys betrayed her agenda:
“The Department and the Peatlands Council will continue to work closely with turf cutters who are required to cease cutting turf on Ireland’s 53 Special Area of Conservation raised bogs so as to ensure that their needs are met through compensation or through relocation to a new bog where possible. I remain determined to address this issue in a way that is fair, balanced, and supportive of those affected”.
Her focus clearly is the bog-cutters, not the bogs. The overall sense is of an effort to assuage the pre-modern turfcutters represented by climate-change naysayer Michael Fitzmaurice, TD.
Specific Ministerial interventions in planning issues are rare. The UK company Westland has unearthed a prehistoric wooden trackway on an unregulated horticultural peat extraction site in Mayne, Co Westmeath. The DAHG is dithering on the required action to make the trackway a National Monument and require that any further interference be subject to Environmental Impact Assessment.
When the historic contents of Bantry House were put up for auction last year the Heritage Department went into hiding. While the auction was suspended because of a licence issue, the future of a collection intrinsic to one of the country’s prime heritage tourism attractions festers unresolved.
One inevitable exception to the downgrading of heritage goes under the heading ‘Commemorations’. “2016 is my number one priority”, Humphreys has said. Seven capital projects are underway for the 1916 Centennial. A new interpretive centre at the GPO, ‘Witness to History’ is expected to attract up to 300,000 visitors per year. There is to be development at Pearse’s Cottage in Ros Muc, Galway and at Kilmainham Gaol, the National Concert Hall, the Military Archives, the Tenement Museum and Richmond Barracks.
In comparison to the more fashionable and self-serving Irish contemporary “Arts” world, the great cultural institutions of the National Museum, National Library and National Gallery were savagely cut after the 2008 crash. Only in 2015 were there no further cuts and indeed in the end Humphreys secured an additional €2m in funding for the National Cultural Institutions as part of the Revised Budgetary Estimates.
The Gallery is finally getting a long overdue major refurbishment and temperature and humidity control, but it is unclear if there will be a staff budget to reopen all the rooms next year. The Museum is on a financial precipice having to consider admission charges. The Library languishes way behind international standards in security and the curating of collections.
Perhaps most dramatically, when news broke of the Department of Agriculture’s plundering of €400m from the agri-budget earmarked for nature conservation areas Humphreys maintained a telling and time-serving silence. Her politicking in any event would be no match for Minister Simon Coveney’s.
There is a dearth of vision in the Department. Its website lists only five Ministerial speeches in the last two years. For the same period the Department for the Environment, for example, lists 22.
Ineffective action and anodyne (non) ‘Strategy’ documents are the hallmark of Humphreys’ Department. The National Landscape Strategy is carefully framed not to offend the zealous bungalow-builder, the IFA or conifer-fetishising Coillte. ‘Our Ocean Wealth – Towards an Integrated Marine Plan for Ireland’ does not propose catch limits. The Draft Peatlands Strategy currently progressing through her Department, with destination the Minister’s rubber stamp, ignores the scientific advice and targets provided by the EPA on climate emissions in its 2011 report “Bogland – Sustainable Management of Peatlands in Ireland”, Instead the ‘Strategy’ lacks timetables or targets.
The 20-year Strategy for the Irish language has been underfunded and not implemented even by government departments. A recommendation to appoint a full Government Minister for the language has been ignored. •