Official Report (Hansard)
Date: Thursday, 03 July 2008
Federation for Ulster Local Studies
3 July 2008
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
The Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr John Dooher (Federation for Ulster Local Studies)
Mr Patrick Devlin (Federation for Ulster Local Studies)
Mr Roddy Hegarty (Federation for Ulster Local Studies)
The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
I welcome the representatives from the Federation for Ulster Local Studies to this morning’s Committee meeting.
Mr John Dooher (Federation for Ulster Local Studies):
I am the chairman of the Federation for Ulster Local Studies, which was founded in 1974. It received Government funding from 1990, from which the federation employed a development officer and an administrative assistant, but that funding was withdrawn early in 2007. Since then, the federation has existed as a voluntary group, to which more than 90 societies are affiliated. It is, therefore, a major player in the field of local studies.
The gap that has been left by the loss of Government funding has meant that the federation no longer has a development officer, and much of the administration work is carried out voluntarily by an 11-member committee. We want to see what help we can get from Government bodies to ensure that the federation can continue to exist and become stronger.
Roddy Hegarty was development officer for the federation from 1998 until 2006, and Patrick Devlin joined us as treasurer when Government funding was withdrawn in 2007 — when the federation was on the point of collapse.
Mr Roddy Hegarty (Federation for Ulster Local Studies):
Raymond referred earlier to local history associations, and there is a danger that the Federation for Ulster Local Studies is known purely for its involvement in local history; however, I must caution against that. A substantial element of the work of the Federation for Ulster Local Studies relates to local history, but, as the title suggests, the federation is involved in local "studies". That is broader than local history. Local historical studies’ contribution to society is much greater than people might think.
I have talked to Committee members in the past about the contribution that local studies and the engagement with the wider community can make to society. For instance, they can affect lifelong learning and they include a social dimension — responsibility for which goes beyond the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.
Nelson mentioned the woman who may only leave the house — apart from going to church on a Sunday — for a meeting of the local history society once a month. We must bear in mind the important social element of local historical studies. They contribute educational benefits and they enhance our understanding of who we are and where we come from. However, local history can also make an economic contribution.
When I last spoke to the Committee several years ago as part of the review of the museums and heritage strategy, one of the issues discussed was the economic benefit of maintaining townland names, which the federation championed for two decades. It is gratifying that many councils have taken that up, if somewhat belatedly, and are at last beginning to recognise the heritage potential of placenames.
There is more involved in the federation than the contribution that local history studies can make — it is not the sole ownership of any one Department; however, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure should have the leading role.
If I may make a small correction: it was not a submission to the review of museums and heritage policy; it was a submission to the cultural tourism and the arts review.
I beg your pardon.
Mr Patrick Devlin (Federation for Ulster Local Studies):
I will concentrate on what the federation has been doing for the past twelve months, as I came to the federation rather late. Like most other members of local history societies, I saw the federation as providing support — mainly the insurance cover that it arranges for field trips and meetings, which is extremely valuable to local societies. The insurance provides them with the reassurance that their activities are covered if anything were to happen to any of their members.
When the federation came under threat as a result of losing its grant, I became involved with the approval of my local society. A group of us got together and agreed that the way forward was to work with what we have — we had to do things that we would usually employ staff to do. However, since we have no paid staff, people shared out jobs; although there is benefit in having to rely on one’s own mettle rather than on paid staff. The result is that the federation has managed to survive. We have a reasonably healthy bank balance, based on funding contributions — my main concern as treasurer is to ensure that the federation remains financially viable. However, we must ask ourselves what our money is for: if, in future, we have plenty of money but no activities, programme or vision, what use are we?
One of the first things that we did was to ascertain what the federation was for: what members expect of us and what they think we should deliver within the constraints of being a purely voluntary body. Based on that analysis, we went back to the conferences and got agreement on how to move forward. The Committee will see in our submission that we have achieved a reasonable amount. The federation is now financially viable; it is stable. We have a vision, a mission and a set of objectives. We know where we are, where we will be, and we have done various activities in the past year. I am reasonably confident, as a member of the federation and as its treasurer, that we are OK.
The federation is constrained by being purely voluntary, so it needs to look at opportunities to provide necessary services and at how the wider community can help us with that. We must look at how we can draw on the resources and help that is available to us through other statutory bodies, including this Committee and the Department. We do not have any particular answers on how to do that, and it may be useful to draw out some of those themes at this meeting.
I can see that you feel constrained by not having a full-time development officer.
The federation had a development officer from 1998 to 2006. Have you engaged with the Department in the recent past to build a case? Often, when we decide to support a particular group, the Department tells us that it has had no recent engagement with it.
We have not communicated with the Department in the recent past, because the struggle to keep going has been our main concern; only now are we starting to look ahead by, for example, coming before the Committee. We have contacted other bodies, such as the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and the Ulster Historical Foundation to seek support, but we are moving to develop a more established role for the federation. That could involve employing a development officer and part-time administrative staff, but that is for the future rather than now.
The federation is re-emerging, which is good.
A development officer was employed from 1990 until 2007; others were in place before Roddy.
The history of communication between the federation and the Department is that between 2001 and 2006, there was an almost constant flow of correspondence from the federation to the Department, although there was not the same level of communication from the Department to the federation. That was a bone of contention for a considerable period, because we regarded the Department’s response, even to simple approaches, as, to put it kindly, lacklustre. On one occasion, I wrote to the Department, and only after contacting several public representatives did we receive a reply five months later. That demonstrates the difficulty that the federation experienced in trying to engage with the Department.
We met officials from the Civil Service several times, and they displayed a lack of empathy and understanding of what we were trying to do. Even when that was made clear, their reaction was almost one of antipathy to doing anything that would contribute in any concrete way to the maintenance of an organisation such as the Federation for Ulster Local Studies.
I am glad that the federation is here today, because an important issue must be teased out. I hope that peace, love and harmony will prevail in this section of the meeting.
The work of the federation and its member groups has social benefits; they recover information about the history and culture of an area that would otherwise be lost. They could boost the social economy, and their work has a crucial role to play in cultural tourism. The value of their work ticks many boxes as far as social cohesion is concerned.
The federation is one of several relatively small groups that fall outside the Department’s system. Chris Bailey from the Northern Ireland Museums Council told the Committee that a review of museums and heritage was carried out at some stage, and Roddy has also spoken to me about that. The review did not produce a policy or strategy for museums, because the Committee is still fighting for one. Only now is the Committee getting the Department to consider that it needs a framework to set out the future of museums.
However, when the Department was carrying out its review of museums, the heritage element, with which the federation is concerned, fell through the net. The result is no policy for museums — although I hope that we are getting there — and no policy for heritage. The Department has no framework to deal with groups such as the federation.
The Department’s attitude almost seems to be that if an organisation does not tick a box or fit neatly into a pigeonhole, it does not want to deal with it.
You said that the federation is financially viable. I assume that the federation is financially viable as long as it does not employ anybody.
It is financially viable in the sense that it can cover the costs of its postage stamps. However, what is needed is someone to support all the groups in the federation. How many groups are there again?
More than ninety.
There needs to be a mechanism to assist those groups, which would not require a vast amount of money.
We have about 8,000 members altogether.
Perhaps each of the ninety groups could employ one person; surely, DCAL should rush to support that idea.
Therefore you are expressing support with no critical engagement.
Did that come across? [Laughter].
It did; we will record that. Presumably, that will lead to an action point when we conclude the evidence session.
It is over to you now, Jim. Jim, ask some really hard questions.
I will try to be as gentle as Nelson was.
First, things changed greatly when the Community Relations Council grant was withdrawn and staff were made redundant. Why did the council change its mind?
Secondly, if each of the federation’s 8,000 members paid a yearly subscription fee, would that not allow the federation to employ someone or to rent a small office?
My third question is about your relationship with the Republic of Ireland, as your submission mentions organising joint events with organisations there. As a result of that co-operation, would it not be possible to access funding there as well; perhaps through the LEADER programme or Peace III funding?
My final point relates to the federation’s work on townland names. That is an area that Kieran and I, and probably the rest of the Committee, are interested in. We fought a case for the townland of Bishop’s Mill in Portaferry, which was not recognised with an official sign; officers of Ards Borough Council even told us that there was no such place.
My colleagues and I produced documentary evidence — letters from New Zealand, South Africa and the United States of America, and even a poem about the townland — to prove that it existed. That information was presented to the council officials who were persuaded of its existence, and as a result a sign was erected.
Is Ards Borough Council losing out under the review of public administration? [Laughter].
Thank you very much for your questions, Jim. I will begin by answering the first two.
Before DCAL was established, the Community Relations Council seemed to have a dual remit; one was the promotion of better community relations, and the other was the promotion of cultural heritage. The presumption was that those organisations —including ours —that the council had supported under the umbrella of cultural heritage would find a natural home in DCAL and that the Community Relations Council would concentrate solely on improving community relations.
With the creation of DCAL, the Community Relations Council was gradually weaned off all organisations that were perceived as cultural traditions as opposed to community relations organisations. Nevertheless, throughout the period that we were funded by the council it was never argued that we did anything other than build better community relations. Indeed, when the federation was evaluated, that shone through.
Was that communicated to you?
Not directly. It was assumed that we would pick it up through conversation.
Were you introduced to DCAL?
No. The difficulty was that, to begin with, DCAL appeared to have a remit for cultural heritage; however, that changed to cultural diversity — the endeavours were amalgamated, and there was no flexibility.
At that time, I was a member of the Community Relations Council, and the Federation for Ulster Local Studies was not the only organisation to be affected; the council pulled funding for the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council and other groups of a similar nature. Mr Hegarty is absolutely right.
The local museum and heritage review resulted in the establishment of the heritage subcommittee. A benefit of being employed as a full-time development officer was that I regularly attended and contributed to heritage subcommittee meetings. The difficulty was that the heritage subcommittee was not solely answerable to DCAL; responsibility for it was shared by DCAL and the Department of the Environment, and, consequently its remit was never clearly established.
At the first two meetings that I attended, I asked pointedly what we were for and whether we could even define what we meant by "heritage". Given that the subcommittee was full of people who were directly employed by DOE or DCAL, such a definition was never agreed. The subcommittee drifted on for three or four years and I do not believe that it has met for the past two or three years — it seems to have no purpose at all.
We attempted to contribute to the heritage subcommittee, which was one of the few outcomes from the local museum and heritage review. However, if we are to contribute in future, the challenge will be, on the one hand, to have our contribution recognised and, on the other hand, for there to be quid pro quo.
Pat Devlin said that organisations had been joining us to avail of the membership insurance scheme, for without that scheme many societies would cease to exist. A local history society’s budget might be £300 to £500 per annum, and if each of those 90 or so societies had to contribute an additional £3,000 to £5,000 per annum via increased membership fees, the extra £5 charged to the old woman who leaves her house once a month to go to her local history society would mean that she would be lost to the society. Such decisions are a balancing act, and that is the difficulty.
Those societies definitely add to people’s quality of life.
If we asked societies to pay us to employ somebody, we would have to replace a salary of £3,000 with one of £40,000, and that would be without covering office and other costs. It would not be viable for societies to pay such sums of money.
Mr Dooher discussed access to Peace III funds with Co-operation Ireland —
I hope to secure some funding from it.
We are in discussions with that organisation about accessing funds for projects that we are planning with the Federation of Local History Societies in the South. We are aware of such funds and are pursuing them.
Nevertheless, those funds are limited to projects —
You seem to be saying that core rather than project-based funding is required.
Mr P Ramsey:
You are all welcome; it was good to hear your presentation. I am inclined to agree with Nelson that such groups fell through a system that failed them. Therefore we have a duty to advocate on their behalf, and I am keen to ensure that the new Minister becomes involved.
One might imagine — [Interruption.] Are the lights changing? [Laughter.]
It is the stars; Jim said that it depends on how you interpret them.
Mr P Ramsey:
The federation has played a major role in promoting interest in townland names. Given that your organisation developed seminars and workshops on the plantation of Ulster and that motions on the theme of community relations will be tabled at the North/South Ministerial Council plenary session in October, one might imagine that Departments such as DETI and DCAL would be keen to find a method, under a service-level agreement, to assist the capacity of organisations such as yours to deliver, highlight and promote local heritage. For example, my city is investing hugely in preserving rural townland names.
I suggest that we write to the Minister requesting that he convene a meeting between Department officials and the federation in order to develop methods to enable the federation’s survival. The federation’s comments are clear and concise. During a previous session, we discussed the protection of culture; this is about protecting and promoting history. I support the federation and am keen to ensure that its skill base can continue to exist.
The DCAL system is flawed; it has failed this group and others. DCAL may not have sole responsibility, as we must all find a way to enable such groups to continue. Perhaps a service-level agreement is the best way to allow the federation and other groups to survive. Why have councils been let off the hook? I am unsure whether, under the review of public administration, funding for cultural heritage — such as museum services — will be devolved to local councils. DCAL should take the lead on that issue.
If the 11 council areas have that responsibility, groups end up having to submit applications to multiple councils. The same principle applies to youth organisations, which have encountered such difficulties. We must determine a way to establish one point of contact — which should be DCAL — that incorporates regional services.
Councils will ask how it benefits their district.
How will we standardise funding arrangements? For example, one council may allocate £2,000, whereas another may allocate £10,000.
Mr D Bradley:
Tá céad míle fáilte romhaibh. Fair faa ye to everyone. I am studying for my —
You will reach O-level standard soon.
Mr D Bradley:
In Irish, there is a "cúpla focal" badge; I am studying for the "kist o wurds" badge in Ulster Scots. Tip O’Neill said that all politics is local, and Roddy Hegarty said that all history is local. The federation promotes that message, and I thank it for its valuable work.
I am shocked at how the federation’s funding was stopped, cutting it adrift. I have only praise for how you have soldiered on without that deserved support. Although you can survive without professional help, I know from my own involvement in projects that professional help provides an impetus to tackle more challenging projects. Have you approached DCAL for funding?
Yes. We had several negotiations with DCAL to determine whether it would supplement the funding from the Community Relations Council.
Mr D Bradley:
Did you ask for match funding?
Not even for match funding — for any contribution. I mentioned quid pro quo: when DCAL needed information or advice from us, it was not a bit shy about asking; however, when we asked DCAL for help, on one occasion we waited for more than five months for a response to a letter.
Mr D Bradley:
How did the Department explain its decision not to grant funding?
The Department said that its budget could not cover the funding that we required. Essentially, it did not want to set a precedent by funding our organisation for fear that it might have to fund others.
Mr D Bradley:
Did the Department argue that the work of the federation did not fall within its remit?
Far from it.
Mr D Bradley:
Therefore it recognised its responsibility, but —
I would not go as far as saying that the Department recognised the federation’s work as its responsibility, although it recognised that it lies in its field of interest. However, the Department said that our work was not its responsibility.
Responsibility leads to funding.
Mr D Bradley:
We should ask the Department to clarify its position. The federation’s work falls into the remit of the Department, and this organisation is of such importance that it should be core-funded by the Department. The Committee should work to achieve that.
Representatives of the Ulster Historical Society told the Committee not so long ago that its funding had been taken away because it is in the black. The Department’s representative told us that because that society was in the black it could manage by itself.
The Ulster Historical Society is a different case: it is a money-making organisation.
I do not want to reduce the discussion to funding; I know that more is involved than funding. What is the relationship between the federation’s member groups? Is it a loose association of organisations? How often do groups meet? How do local groups fund themselves? Have you made formal application to DCAL for funding from a programme and been rejected; or have you expressed a broad interest and been briefed that you are not entitled to funding?
Each member society is independent and can take what it wants from the federation; some join for third-party insurance cover or public liability insurance cover; many want access to federation events: conferences, seminars and workshops are important to them. The federation provides a great way for different groups to meet and build relationships. That is an important part of the federation’s value to groups. We hold an annual general meeting to which every society is invited. Last year saw a good turnout — some 35 or 40 societies were represented, although in previous years attendance was not so high. Our website is a contact point. Pat is considering developing the website so that smaller societies that do not have a website of their own can have a page and use it to establish contact with the outside world. Those are our main functions.
Before I respond to Mr McCartney’s question about DCAL funding, I will continue with this point. One should not see the federation purely as 90-odd societies or 8,000 people: all federation events are open to everyone who wants to become involved. If you are not a member of a local history society or a local studies group, you may still avail of the federation’s services.
The federation focuses on particular themes, anniversaries and moments of importance and approaches them in a manner that encourages broad engagement. It brings together people from Coleraine, Donegal, Crossmaglen or Belfast in one room to learn about an aspect of our common past. The federation creates a forum for people to come together, not primarily for community-relations purposes but for learning. The community-relations dimension is secondary but nonetheless very important to us.
Our approaches to DCAL for funding were made at every level of the Department, from the ministerial level to that of administrative staff. We were consistently advised to make a proposal, but warned that no mechanism exists for considering it. There is no form that we can fill in to apply for funds, although, at one time, there was a mechanism that enabled that to be done.
We submitted a proposal on at least one, perhaps two, occasions, and we met people who gave us positive soundings. However, when we followed up on that, we were told at a meeting that no funding was available and that there were no means of gaining any that would benefit us.
Did you make formal applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund, Peace I, Peace II or any of the local strategy partnerships?
No formal applications were submitted to any of those groups. However, we made occasional ad hoc applications to various funding bodies, which were outside the core funding that we received from the Community Relations Council.
As Johnny said, such applications tended to be for one-off projects or those that would have been in operation for two or three years in order to deliver services. The original moneys that we received from the Community Relations Council paid for the hiring of staff and the renting of an office; they did not pay for anything else.
In order to be part of the federation, do local groups define themselves or do they have to meet certain criteria?
We do have membership criteria. On one occasion, an organisation that was established to study butterflies applied to join us, but it did not meet our criteria. Organisations that may meet our criteria are those that are interested in the broad field of local studies in areas such as culture, linguistics, heritage, history, archaeology and folklore.
The organisation that wanted to study butterflies wants to make a presentation to us about that great injustice. [Laughter.]
I thought that organisation was mothballed, Barry. [Laughter.]
We will certainly give its representatives a favourable hearing, and we will write to you, Johnny.
Raymond asked about local groups, what they need, what they contribute and how we interact with them. Our publication ‘Due North’ is an opportunity for some of our smaller societies that do not have their own journals to get their work published; it serves as a unifying force.
Through our website, we also provide them with an advertising service that enables them to make available to the world any publications that they may have.
The idea is to have access to bodies associated with Government. In many ways, we feel isolated. Perhaps the Committee could consider whether societies such as ours that have to plough a lonely furrow could get access to Government. That would be a good start.
The Committee will definitely assist with that. I can read the members’ minds.
I thank John, Roddy and Patrick for representing the Federation for Ulster Local Studies.