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The NRA and the M3 Motorway (II)
Andrew McGrath

The National Roads Authority’s website dedicated to the M3 Motorway,, was set up as a propaganda exercise to counter criticism and concern over the State’s firm conviction that the chosen route through the Tara-Skryne Valley was unalterable, regardless of what new sites might be discovered there. There can be no doubt that, in the light of this resolve, to place responsibility for archaeology in the hands of a body whose raison d’etre is the construction of motorways was unwise. This becomes clear in the “Q&A” section of the website, where the NRA’s attempt to defend its supposed dual role, as both road and archaeology overseer, becomes strained and self-contradictory.    
The attempt to justify the roads programme on the basis that, without it, many new archaeological discoveries would have remained unknown, appears to have enjoyed some popularity in State circles, and for good reason: it is doubly duplicitous. The fact that the State cares so little about the national heritage (except to express contempt for it when it becomes an obstacle to “development”) that it has failed utterly to engage in any serious or sustained excavation, is a damning indictment of State policy. Further, the NRA, a State organ, is in fact saying that knowledge of such heritage properly remains limited to its proximity to road projects, and if no such projects threaten heritage, then it is acceptable to remain ignorant of it. Heritage is to be seen as a disposable commodity.     
The NRA finesses the selected route of the M3 by stating that it was carefully chosen to avoided known sites, as listed in the statutory Record of Monuments and Places. The fact that 160 new sites have since been identified along the route is dealt with by minimizing their importance: “As expected a large number of new sites have been found throughout the route but the frequency and type of sites are very similar to that from other linear developments in County Meath and throughout the country”, as though the only reason not to destroy such sites would be found in the NRA’s judgement that they were somehow exceptional. Indeed, the value judgement as to what constitutes an archaeological site of “importance” is insisted on: “An unprecedented level of archaeological study and investigation has been carried out as part of the planning process and is continuing prior to construction. It is, therefore, unlikely that any major archaeological site would be uncovered during the construction stage.” It is clear that the decision was made in advance that no find would make any difference to the project. Even if there were a “major” discovery, the Minister for the Environment would still have the power, under the 2004 National Monuments (Amendment) Act, to order its destruction. Such powers are not granted if their use is not intended.    
The use of centerline test trenching along the entire route of the motorway brings into question the NRA’s claim to rely on archaeological best practice. Quite apart from the question of how a body whose remit contradicts the best interests of heritage preservation can be entrusted with the oversight of excavation, the use of destructive trenching as a default method renders pointless any non-invasive techniques they employ beforehand. According to the technical description on the NRA website, the use of non-invasive surveying along the M3 route is in any case rather perfunctory; this is understandable given that the entire route is trenched regardless of what is there, but it falls far short of best practice, where a variety of non-invasive techniques are often employed prior to a decision to excavate, and obviously go to inform that decision. Even so, there is little point in excavating only along the route of the motorway, as the road is bound to destroy the integrity and the context of sites that happen to lie along its route.     
What is a cause for concern, however, is not that the NRA should see fit to proceed this way and defend its action in these terms. What is worrying is that its actions and rhetoric should go so far unchallenged, that it is seen as normal that archaeology should play second fiddle to road building, and that the existence of any State-sponsored excavation and research at Tara should depend on the existence of an expensive State whim such as the M3.
© The Tara Foundation, 2006