Thursday, October 1, 2015

Drumclay Crannog & Top Men: A non-reply from Minister Mark H Durkan

As regular readers for this blog will be aware, I’ve a bit of an interest in the situation surrounding the Drumclay Crannog fiasco. After much effort, I finally got to see the report commissioned by the then Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood, into the planning and organisational background of the Phase 1 excavation of the site. I published a detailed analysis on this blog [here] and, based on that analysis, I assembled lists of pertinent questions and requests for information for various key stakeholders, including Mark H. Durkan, the current Minister for the Environment. To date, I’ve received only the following reply from the DoE:

Our ref: TOF-1171-2015

4   August 2015
Dear Mr Chapple

Thank you for your e-mail of 17 July 2015 to Minister Durkan about Drumclay Crannóg. The Minister has seen your letter and has asked me to respond.

The Review, completed by Professor Cooney, fully met the Terms of Reference set out for him by the then Minister of the Environment, Alex Attwood.  In his consideration of the Review report, the present Minister, Mark H Durkan, has accepted all of the recommendations made by Professor Cooney, and has published an Action Plan to address those recommendations.  This is now the priority in respect of the outworkings of the Drumclay Review; to address all of the recommendations made by Professor Cooney.

Work is continuing around the post-excavation analysis and reporting of the excavation.  Progress on this activity will depend very much upon available resources.  However, this is recognised as an important work area, and I anticipate that further information about it will be made public, as the post-excavation works progresses.

Yours sincerely

Deputy Secretary

Quite frankly, this is an unacceptable reply that addresses none of the questions and concerns that have been placed before the Minister. It bears striking similarity to the encounter between Indiana Jones and the petty government functionaries at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when their only response to the current location and status of the Ark, only to be repeatedly told that it was being worked on by ‘Top Men’. For this reason, I have written again to the minister in the hope that he will either address the questions directly, or assign someone competent to do so on his behalf. The text of my email to the minister reads:

Dear Minister Durkan,
I wrote to you on July 17 2015 with a series of detailed questions following from Prof. Cooney’s report into the circumstances surrounding the Drumclay Crannog fiasco. I understand that you are unable to personally reply to every piece of correspondence that is sent to you. However, the response I have received on your behalf from Mr Ian Maye (attached) is wholly insufficient and addresses only one of the questions I put to you, and that only in the most tangential and vague manner. I now resubmit the original questions to you in the hope that you will either address them directly yourself or assign the task to someone competent to do so. I would also add one further question to the list: Considering Mr John O’Keeffe’s comments in print and in person that the reporting of the situation around the Drumclay excavation contained ‘many inaccuracies’ have now been shown to be false. Will you not now direct him to make a full apology to myself and all those others associated with the advocacy movement?

The original set of questions are:

Cooney notes that a contributing factor in the Drumclay situation was the disparity in the seniority and authority of those on both sides of the table. He cites examples of meetings where the interests of Roads Service, Amey et al. were represented by a Principal Professional and Technical Officer and a Senior Professional Officer, while NIEA was represented by two Senior Inspectors and one Archaeological Inspector. Cooney also sites an example from April 2012 where Maybelline Gormley (Senior Inspector) was the sole NIEA representative – in a meeting of nine key people – to discuss the implications of a partial collapse of the crannog owing to engineering works at the site. I would ask whether you have already, or intend to, issued guidance to NIEA about providing appropriately qualified people to attend meetings so that a balance of authority and seniority is achieved?

The report clearly criticises Dr John O’Keeffe for his lack of involvement in the project prior to the crucial public campaign in July 2012. Cooney similarly notes that there is no evidence of the early involvement of either the Built Heritage Director or the NIEA Board, even at a time when it was becoming clear that Drumclay was emerging as a significant strategic issue. I would ask whether you have already, or intend to, investigated where and why the failures in leadership occurred and why vital information was either not passed up the chain of command or not acted upon?

With regard to Declan Hurl’s ‘Crannog Trenching Report’, submitted on the 20th of February 2012, I would first say that NIEA are to be congratulated for their swift response and for deducing that it was an attempt to cover up what Prof Cooney describes as an ‘unauthorised and in direct contravention of Article 41 of the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, caused damage to the site and could have constituted a prosecutable offence. Amey’s admission of breach of license was, as stated by NIEA officials, admission of an illegal act (parallel to a breach of listed building consent)’ (Emphasis mine). Cooney does not state how NIEA reached the conclusion that ‘Declan Hurl did not direct the work (as licensed), nor was he even present.’ I would ask if you can shed any light on this process of deduction?

Following on from this, I would seek clarification as to why, when the alleged offence was detected by NIEA and admitted to by Declan Hurl and other Amey employees, was no action taken to escalate this to the Department’s legal representatives, with the intention of bringing a prosecution, or even consideration of revocation of the excavation licence? Cooney also states that the mechanical excavation of an area of soft ground, to the north-west of the crannog, by contractors McLaughlin and Harvey-P.T. McWilliams J.V. (MHPT JV) in April 2012 cut through archaeological features and led directly to the partial collapse of the northern portion of the crannog. I would ask you to supply information as to who from NIEA attended the meetings where Declan Hurl was confronted with these allegations and to whom were these minutes passed? Who made the decision not to pass the evidence to the Departmental legal personnel or to the PSNI? And why was this decision not challenged by other individuals within NIEA? I would suggest that a key issue must be to untangle the words and actions of the two Senior Inspectors. Were they acting in a manner designed to shield their actions from senior management, or acting without adequate managerial support and supervision? Even if vacant positions have been filled, and the NIEA is in the process of transitioning to a new organisation structure, would it not be a valuable recommendation that all senior staff involved in the Drumclay case participate in dynamic retraining and reskilling to enforce the lessons learned and embed their roles and responsibilities? At the very least, should all concerned not be subject to some form of robust internal mentorship where all actions and decisions are critically reviewed at regular intervals? If these methods fail to produce appropriate results, would it not be appropriate to consider either transitioning these individuals to less responsible and onerous roles, or out of the NIEA entirely? I would ask you to make a strong, public commitment to pursuing vigorous disciplinary measures against senior NIEA personnel who failed to act in a manner befitting their positions.

While Cooney’s report is clear that, despite failures to act on these illegal activities, Dr John O’Keeffe was sufficiently concerned with the mismanagement of the excavation that, on the 17th of July 2012, he instructed a Senior Inspector (Maybelline Gormley) to remain on the site and asses its conduct. O’Keeffe’s briefing note to the then Minister, Alex Attwood, on the 23rd of July 2012 noted that ‘1. NIEA has monitored the progress of the excavation as it has progressed and is content with how the site has been excavated and recorded’ and ‘4. All occupation levels have been excavated and fully recorded’. He later (December 2012) added a handwritten note to the file explaining that these two points were incorrect and he ‘… wrote this prior to my own inspection of the site, based on information to hand at the time. Para 12, sentences 1 and 4 [i.e. the two sentences quoted above] are not correct, though this is what I understood at the time. From my own inspection of the site on 26/7/12 it was evident that the excavation to that date was not complete, not satisfactory and not of the standard required’ (Emphasis mine). The logical conclusion to draw from this statement is that his erroneous beliefs, based on ‘information to hand at the time,’ were from a single source: his representative at the excavation: the NIEA Senior Inspector. I would ask you if the implications drawn from this section of Cooney’s report do not provide prima facie evidence that the reliability, competency, and professionalism of the Senior Inspector must be questioned?

While I broadly agree with Prof Cooney’s six recommendations, I would ask you whether or not you see merit in broadening the scope of Recommendations 1-3 (currently limited to road schemes) to include all developer-led/commercial sector excavations in Northern Ireland? As outlined in Recommendation 4, NIEA has already committed to reviewing the process of licensing under the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. I would ask you whether, as part of that review, it is not now imperative that NIEA rules on whether or not Declan Hurl is ever again licenced to direct an archaeological excavation in Northern Ireland?

Although Cooney repeatedly indicates that one key issue in the Drumclay saga was the placement of the ‘green dot’ on the map and how it did not match up with the actual position, or the evidence of the written description of the site’s location, he does not make any recommendations in this regard. It appears to me that – other factors not withstanding – had the location been more accurately rendered on the map, few if any of the events would have unfolded as they did. I would ask if you would not consider bolstering funding for the Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Record to augment and update the resource? While it may appear like a large investment of scarce resources at a time of financial austerity, would to be any more expensive than fully excavating, conserving, and publishing another remarkably well-preserved crannog?

Another point not addressed by Prof Cooney’s report is the situation surrounding the advisability of allowing engineering firms to supply their own archaeological professionals, though it would appear to have been a contributory issue. Cooney notes the ‘considerable personal and professional pressure’ that Declan Hurl was as an Amey employee and repeatedly pressed by his engineer colleagues to supply a definitive completion date. As Cooney states, Declan Hurl eventually attempted to pass off the ‘Crannog Trenching Report’ as archaeologically acceptable and sound, when he knew this not to be the case. While he may have informed his superiors of the illegality of the trenching, he did not mention it in his report and he did not, it appears, pass the information on to the NIEA. While a policy of hiring archaeological professionals as independent subcontractors would not have averted all of the problems at Drumclay, it would have provided a degree of separation between the construction interests and the needs of the archaeological site. Such a separation may have allowed a robustness and independence to the archaeological advice that appears to have been lacking at Drumclay. I would ask whether you have already, or intend to, issued guidance to NIEA on this point?

Although apparently beyond the scope of Cooney’s report, there is no mention of the Cherrymount Crannog Crisis group, or the broad host of professional and public advocate stakeholders that worked to raise awareness of the situation. The terms of reference of Cooney’s narrative omit all but tangential references to the campaign. Shorn of this vital context, his report reads like a series of failings of process, foresight, and leadership were spontaneously rectified by internal corrective measures. While it is true that some change was ongoing by the time the situation at the excavation became public knowledge, there is no evidence that it would have resulted in the positive outcomes that were achieved without the campaign acting as a decisive catalyst. I would put it you that, while presumably not the intention of Cooney’s report, the major force for positive change and a successful outcome has been effectively written out of the story. While no one involved in the campaign did so in the hope of reward or recognition, I would ask you to now consider issuing an appropriate statement to redress that balance, acknowledging the vital role of those who worked so hard and sacrificed so much.

Finally, I would ask you to make public the post-excavation analysis, research, and publication roadmap for the site, if such already exists. If one does not exist, I would ask you to mandate it as a priority for NIEA to ensure that the great wealth of data recovered from this site is capitalised upon for future generations.

I look forward to your response or one from a competent subordinate,

Robert M Chapple

Any follow up will be posted here.

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