The impact of the Historic Environment Fund Research Stream

The Department has invested £306,200 in 24 research projects in the six years between 2016 and 2022.

Compelling narrative

A key output was the work, led by the National Trust, to develop a ‘compelling narrative’ – ‘Treasure the Past, Enrich the Future’ - on the wide benefits brought by Northern Ireland’s heritage. Linking directly to the concerns raised by stakeholders in the initial development of the HEF, that the contribution of heritage was not well understood outside the sector, this also responded to the lack of any mention of heritage in the 2016 Programme for Government. It involved extensive consultation with the NI heritage stakeholder group and research on the key messages. It has subsequently become a very important advocacy tool for the sector. In a follow up project, a microsite (  was developed to further promote the message. This is currently being hosted by Tourism NI and managed by Northern Ireland Environment Link (NIEL).

Archaeology 2030

A parallel initiative was the curation of discussions among the archaeology sector by the Department on the best way to organise and link the profession in the future. This involved research work and support. NIEL were funded to carry out this work. The final report was published in December 2020 - NI Heritage Delivers - Archaeology 2030: A Strategic Approach for Northern Ireland. Subsequently the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists has been commissioned to carry out research and update archaeology guidance in Northern Ireland. This is due to be published in 2023.

Heritage Skills research

The availability of skilled heritage professionals in Northern Ireland was an increasing concern during the period and in 2017 research was commissioned from the Construction Industry Training Board NI to revisit a 2008 report. The result painted a worrying picture on the availability of skilled construction professionals in the region and has been very useful in subsequent discussions with the sector and education authorities.

Heritage audits

Heritage audits also emerged as an important way of stimulating local interest in the potential of heritage. Focused upon local electoral areas, this took inspiration from the Royal Society of Arts’ ‘Heritage Index’ which uses 120 data sets to highlight potential. The nine audits produced by NIEL, some with matching support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, considered and identified sites of importance and potential in these areas. They drew out some interesting comparisons between places that appeared to have similar assets yet different levels of engagement. A ‘how to’ guide was also developed to encourage future development for other areas and an overall evaluation.

Heritage enabled regeneration

Over recent years there has been increasing levels of vacancy in many of our towns and cities. This is putting heritage at risk and having wider negative impacts upon our society and economy. In 2022, we commissioned research into ideas that work elsewhere that utilise the benefits of out historic environment to help mitigate this trend. The research considered initiatives across the UK, Ireland, Europe and the United States. It followed this up with interviews and detailed research on three medium sized towns in Northern Ireland and made proposals on what might be done here. The results were discussed at a workshop with key public sector and district council decision makers in June 2022 and their views have been incorporated into the final report. The research work was carried out for the Department by the Architectural Heritage Fund and Ruth Flood Associates.

Climate change research

In 2019 the Department commissioned Ulster Architectural Heritage (UAH) to consider how owners might consider and respond to the impact of climate change on their property. Their risk assessment approach and report is available.

In 2021 the Department invested in research by the National Trust to consider the impact of rising sea levels in Strangford lough to ‘create a case study which will guide and inform the stewards of heritage assets (such as government departments responsible for heritage assets, or charitable trusts with such roles) on how, when and whether to adapt their management and conservation planning for sites and assets in their care.’ 

World Heritage research

In 2021, following the inclusion of Gracehill Village on the UK World Heritage Tentative List, the Department supported part of the costs incurred by Gracehill Trust to commission an international consultant to carry out research and prepare a nomination document to UNESCO. This work was carried out in partnership with the other parts of the Moravian Sites bid in  Pennsylvania (USA) and Saxony in Germany. Mid and East Antrim Borough Council also supported some of the costs. The nomination document is currently on track to be submitted to UNESCO in February 2023.

Other research

The Department also invested small amounts of funding in the analysis of two thatched roofs where material was in such poor condition that the historic roof covering had to be removed as part of repair schemes. Support for research also helped give groups seeking to find a new future for the St Columb’s Hall in Derry~Londonderry, and developing a spiritual tourism trail on Lough Erne, the capacity to ensure that their developments were backed up by detailed historical investigations.

Support was also provided to the Rural Health Partnership to research and explore the Slighe Miodhluachra ancient roadway in Co Armagh and to the Ulster Archaeological Society to produce a special edition of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology (No74). Support was also provided for research to contribute to books on the architectural heritage of the modern movement in Northern Ireland and on the Ballynahhaty prehistoric landscape. In 2020 the Follies Trust was supported to carry out condition surveys at three important at risk follies. Support was also provided to assess and date a very early house in Carrickfergus when early timbers were revealed as part of renovation works. Since 2019 the Royal Irish Academy has also been supported to extend its archaeological research grant scheme  to cover research relating to Northern Ireland.

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