Speech by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Heather Humphreys TD, on the Sinn Féin Private Members Bill Public Holidays (Lá na Poblachta) Bill 2016
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A Ceann Comhairle,
When this Bill was originally brought forward in October of 2015, preparations were underway for the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme.
Now, one year on, we are in a position to assess the commemorations to date, and to consider whether introducing an additional Bank Holiday on April 24th every year is necessary or advisable.
My view is that it is neither.
The response and engagement from members of the public to the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme over the last year has been unprecedented.
2016 will be remembered as a very special year in our shared history.
We’ve celebrated the centenary of the events that led to the birth of our sovereign nation;
We have honoured the courage, idealism and dignity of those who gave their lives so that the dream of self-determination could become a reality;
And we have reflected on our journey over the past 100 years since the 1916 Easter Rising to imagine our legacy for future generations.
We have revisited our past and embraced its complexities and nuances with maturity and an understanding that there are many different views on the events which took place.
This has culminated in more than 3,500 events being held across the country and another 1,000 internationally – all made possible through community spirit and engagement.
Consultation and the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme:
The Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme has been the highlight of the Decade of Centenaries Programme, which focuses on the significant centenaries occurring over the period 1912 – 1922.
It was developed following extensive consultation with a range of stakeholders, including the Expert Advisory Group on Commemorations and the All Party Consultation Group on Commemorations, where all views regarding the events of 1916 were heard and considered.
I am currently looking at the steps necessary to re-establish the All Party Consultation Group.
There was also a broader consultation process, which included active engagement with local authorities, schools, universities, business and voluntary organisations, arts and culture institutions, historical societies and others to inform, to stimulate debate and discussion about 2016, and to come up with ideas.
We held a total of 84 public consultation meetings right across the country.
It resulted in a rich diversity of inclusive programmes and events which ran throughout 2016, to commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising.
Consultation and proposals for a public holiday:
Throughout these consultations, the idea of introducing a public holiday to take place on 24th April in each calendar year was not identified as a priority.
Neither was it recommended by either the Expert Advisory Group on Commemorations or the All Party Oireachtas Group on Commemorations.
Costs of Introducing a New Public Holiday:
While a proposal to introduce an additional bank holiday is bound to draw populist support – something about which I am sure Sinn Féin is very aware – our job, as public representatives, is to consider the wider implications of such a move, and in particular, the additional costs for businesses.
There are significant economic costs associated with the introduction of a new public holiday in terms of lost national output – both in relation to the private sector and in the delivery of public services.
And we are not talking about small change here – it’s estimated that an extra bank holiday would cost anywhere between €250 and €400 million.
Ireland currently has 9 official public holidays, each of which marks a special date or event.
A preliminary analysis has been undertaken by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation of the direct and indirect costs and benefits for employers and employees arising from an extra bank holiday.
It estimates that the total potential loss in productivity for an additional day’s public holiday would be approximately €396 million.
This covers the public and private sectors, and takes into account those sectors which are expected to remain open for a public holiday, those which have a choice and those which are forced to close.
In all scenarios, there are extra costs for businesses.
The Small Firms Association (SFA) has voiced its opposition to any proposal at this point to introduce an additional public holiday.
The group estimates the cost of an additional public holiday to private sector employers to be a minimum of €250m.
Labour Costs are the biggest concern for small firms in striving to maintain their competitive position, particularly in light of the currency fluctuations we are experiencing since the Brexit vote.
In addition to the direct cost of paying employees for the public holiday, both private and public sector employers face additional charges in giving premium payments to those workers who do work on the public holiday.
It is my view that now is not the time to be heaping additional costs on small businesses, particularly when we are all trying to deal with the unpredictability of the Brexit era.
Remit of the proposed Bord Lá na Poblachta & North/South Considerations:
I also have concerns about the ambiguous language used in the Sinn Féin Bill about the remit of the proposed Bord Lá na Poblachta.
The Bill refers to ‘those who, during the centuries of occupation of Ireland by a foreign power, gave their lives and liberty to pursue the freedom of the Irish nation’.
Furthermore, it asserts that:
‘In promoting, encouraging, co-ordinating or funding the events referred to in subsection (3), An Bord shall ensure that such programme of events will include events to take place in each county of the thirty-two counties of Ireland and shall have no cover charge’.
This Bill appears to seek to provide a remit for Bord Lá na Poblachta across the island of Ireland, which would not sit either within the Constitutional framework or within the inclusive principles adopted by Government in relation to the Decade of Commemorations.
This proposed remit is not linked to the period of the Rising or the Decade of Commemorations.
My Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has liaised extensively with the authorities in Northern Ireland, as well as with local councils, civil society and community groups to help to ensure that this year’s commemorations were both respectful and inclusive and sought to strengthen peace and reconciliation.
The Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme, for instance, included a series of events to commemorate the Battle of the Somme.
I believe the inclusive approach we took this year help to foster new understandings, rather than sow fresh divisions.
We described the Centenary Programme as an ‘invitation’ – it was never about forcing people to get involved, but rather encouraging as many people as possible to explore our shared history.
It is very important that the State takes a balanced approach in negotiating this complex territory and in my view this Bill could significantly undermine this approach.
Cost of the proposed Bord Lá na Poblachta:
The establishment of a new public body – Bord Lá na Poblachta – to organise events on the proposed bank holiday, as set out in this Bill, would also give rise to additional administrative and operational costs.
I fail to understand why the development of a new quango would necessary in any event.
The experience of this year’s 1916 centenary commemorations has shown how the public service was able to come together effectively and collaboratively to deliver a significant programme of major events, without the need for a new bureaucratic entity.
In addition, the role of Local Authorities in delivering the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme cannot be underestimated.
County Councils nationwide each developed their own Ireland 2016 plan, helping to deliver more than 3,500 events across the country throughout this centenary year.
Furthermore, primarily through our embassy network, more than 1,000 events have been held in over 100 cities around the globe, ensuring our commemorative programme has had a very significant international dimension.
It was shown that an additional Public Holiday was not necessary in 2016:
Over the past year, I have been deeply moved by what I have seen and experienced across the country – by the idealism, love of country and pride in community, the power of volunteering and our great hope for the future in spite of the difficulties that we have encountered.
We didn’t need an additional public holiday to drive that public engagement or to create an additional space for the unprecedented level of public participation that we experienced.
The existing bank holiday, on Easter Monday, was shown to provide an appropriate opportunity for a major public celebration to mark the end of the commemorative events, which took place over the Easter weekend.
The core events of the 1916 Centenary Programme took place around that weekend, as they traditionally do, rather than on the calendar anniversary of the Rising in 1916.
On Easter Monday of this year, some of you may have joined with the 750,000 people who came onto the streets of Dublin City Centre to participate in Reflecting the Rising, , a collaboration between my Department, RTÉ, Dublin City Council and numerous other partners.
It was an incredible day.
The atmosphere around the city was electric.
I now intend to look at proposals to develop similar public gatherings on an annual basis, which would extend beyond Dublin, for 2017 and beyond.
These gatherings would utilise the existing bank holiday to create a multi location event, with maximum public benefit.
Legacy of the 1916 Centenary Programme:
Perhaps the most significant learning from this centenary year has been the power of community.
Local communities have shown how they have an extraordinary capacity to come together to achieve great things when the right structures and supports are put in place.
The centenary year has provided a focus for a widely shared desire to talk about Ireland – about our identity, our hopes for the future about our project of creating a society that exists for all of our citizens in which all people believe themselves to be equally valued.
The rich programme of events developed as part of the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme has encouraged immensely valuable conversations throughout the year – conversations about citizenship, about culture and about identity.
I am firmly convinced that in the coming decades, arts and culture will play an increasingly important role in our personal lives, in our society and in our economy.
Now is the time for us to harness the energy and enthusiasm created by our centenary and channel this into future endeavours.
To this end, I am actively working on a significant legacy programme, which will encompass our arts and cultural sectors, with a specific focus on increasing cultural participation in every county right across the country.
That, I believe, is a much more appropriate way to build on the success of the 2016 commemorations for the benefit of all of our citizens.