Time Honoured: Could UNESCO Convention protect Welsh traditions?

Published 22/03/2024   |   Reading Time minutes

The UK Government has decided to ratify UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) (“the Convention”). The UK is one of 12 countries that has not yet done so, but the UK Government laid the Convention in the UK Parliament on 11 January 2024, under which a number of Welsh traditions could be recognised and protected.

This article describes UNESCO’s role and the Convention. It explores possible implications for the Welsh Government and steps taken by Senedd Committees to find out what it means for Wales’ cultural heritage.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

UNESCO is a United Nations specialised agency whose mission is to protect historic sites, promote creativity and innovation and preserve diversity through living heritage.

The Convention forms part of this protection effort as it aims to safeguard and raise awareness of traditions that communities recognise as part of their heritage. The Convention seeks to identify, record and promote ICH at both a national and international level. One of the main ways it seeks to do this is through the maintenance of its lists, including:

  • Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
  • List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding
  • Register of Good Safeguarding Practices

International Obligations

The UK Government enters into international obligations on behalf of all four nations. However, the devolved governments and legislatures must comply with them and are responsible for their implementation in devolved areas. The Convention relates to devolved matters, namely culture and heritage. The UK Government acknowledge this in the Convention’s Explanatory Memorandum, and there has been engagement between the Welsh and UK Government on the lead up to the publication of a consultation on the Convention’s initial implementation.

The consultation proposes an additional two ICH categories to the five currently recognised by UNESCO, including traditional games and sports, which are also devolved matters.

More information on Wales, devolution and international obligations is available in our previous article.

How will it work?

After ratification, the UK will have the opportunity to nominate examples of ICH to UNESCO for inclusion onto its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. However, the UK Government said it will not focus on nominating items to the international list until a few years after ratification and proposes to focus on the creation a UK-wide inventory. It suggests this approach would raise awareness of all the ICH in the UK, rather than focusing on a few nominated items.

As culture is a devolved matter, the governments of the UK will need to work together to put arrangements in place. The UK Government is proposing an ICH inventory for each nation and these would then come together to form the UK-wide inventory.

Welsh communities will have a role to play as they can nominate traditions for inclusion in the inventory. The UK Government expects the launch for nominations to occur next year and has suggested the following Welsh traditions could be protected:

  • Mari Lwyd;
  • St David’s Day celebrations;
  • St Dwynwen’s Day;
  • Nos Galan road races;
  • Plygain;
  • The Royal Welsh Show;
  • Eisteddfodau;
  • The Urdd;
  • Playing of the Welsh harp;
  • Spoken word art of Cerdd Dafod;
  • Bog-snorkelling in Llanwrtyd Wells;
  • Elvis Festival in Porthcawl;
  • Male voice choirs; and
  • Artisanal crafts such as slate-carving, making love spoons and making traditional Welsh cakes with a bakestone.

Committee Scrutiny

The Convention was initially considered by the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee as part of its dedicated treaty scrutiny process. It notified the Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport and International Relations (CCWLSIR) Committee of the Convention, as it falls within its remit.

CCWLSIR Committee wrote to both the UK and Welsh Governments to learn more about the Convention, including practical arrangements and potential benefits to Wales.

The UK Government warmly welcomed the Committee’s interest, and stated it had been working closely with the devolved governments in preparation for ratification. It went on to say that one of the Convention’s benefits was to start a conversation about the range of ICH which exists across the UK. On the importance of shared ICH, the letter stated:

Intangible cultural heritage plays a hugely important role in the identity, pride, and cohesion of people and communities across the whole United Kingdom. I hope that, in ratifying this Convention, we can continue to work together to champion that role and the great value of our shared heritage.

The Welsh Government also welcomed the decision to ratify the Convention, describing it as:

an opportunity to raise awareness and the profile of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Wales for the benefit of current and future generations and to showcase the diverse traditions and heritage that exist here.

The Welsh Government also responded to the UK Government’s consultation, noting the link between ICH and the goal of ‘A Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh Language’ in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act.

In addition to Committee scrutiny, the Senedd may be required to pass legislation to put the Convention in place in future.

Will St David’s Day become a Bank Holiday?

In its letter to the Welsh Government, the Committee also revisited the matter of whether St David’s Day should be a Bank Holiday in Wales. This issue was debated on 2 March 2022 and the motion for it to become a bank holiday received cross-party support.

In its response to the Committee, the Welsh Government highlighted that the creation of bank holidays is not a devolved matter, that the UK Government formally rejected a request in October 2002 and has maintained this position since.

The Welsh Government said it would continue to make the case for the devolution of the necessary powers to the Senedd.

Next steps

The UK Government’s public consultation on its initial implementation proposals closed on 29 February and it is currently analysing responses. Once completed, this will inform a policy paper to outline the details of the Convention’s implementation.

The UK Government said it will continue to engage with the devolved governments to agree next steps in protecting Welsh traditions.

Article by Madelaine Phillips, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament