Wednesday, 17 February 2010
In mid-2007, a developer began construction of a roundabout at a place called Loro Gate on the periphery of Athenry town. He was obliged under the planning permission granted to him to construct a roundabout at that location and in this regard had liaised extensively with senior road engineers in Galway County Council to ensure the best roundabout design from the point of view of road safety. The site is very tight and, following lengthy discussion, an optimum design was arrived at. In carrying out that construction he retained, although he was not obliged to do so, the services of an archaeologist because he suspected being in close proximity to the medieval walls of Athenry he might come across some archaeological remains, which he did. He exposed part of the old Athenry wall constructed some time in the 14th century. He immediately ceased construction and sought the advice of an archaeologist, Mr. Hugh Carey, who works in the monuments section of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
Mr. Carey liaised with the developer and Galway County Council in regard to how these remains could be preserved for the future. The conclusion reached was that the only way the remains could be preserved was to entomb them in a concrete sarcophagus and build the roundabout over them. It was not possible to leave the remains on view to the public as that would require a minimising of the roundabout or movement of it to another location, for which the site did not allow. Road safety concerns certainly did not allow for the building of a smaller roundabout at the location. This location is one of the busiest junctions in Athenry town. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, knows it well. It is in close proximity to Kenny Park, one of the busiest sporting venues in the country, and is close to the biggest retail development in Athenry. It funnels traffic off the new M6 motorway into Athenry town and will soon funnel traffic into a new IDA development on the periphery of the town.
On the advice of a senior archaeologist in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the developer applied, as required, for a licence. He applied for the licence on 24 September 2007, almost three years ago. The developer and management and staff of Galway County Council have been trying without success for almost three years to secure the licence. Every time we believed we were on the cusp of a licence being issued, the Minister's Department and, I would argue, the Minister seemed to take issue with granting the licence. The Minister first sought further advice from the senior road engineer in regard to whether the roundabout could be minimised or moved to a different location and was assured it could not. Following that advice, he sought the advice of the National Roads Authority which again confirmed that the only solution was that originally proposed. When the Minister was not happy with that advice he sought the advice of the Department of Transport. I understand it has offered the same advice to the Minister.
I will outline the timeline associated with this issue. The application was made on 24 September 2007, supported by Mr. Hugh Carey, the archaeologist working with the Minister's Department. On 9 November 2007 I received a response from the Department stating that the application for ministerial consent for works to the national monument was being processed as expeditiously as possible. In June 2008, I received a long letter from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, which concluded: "I must now proceed with making the decision on the application for ministerial consent, in this case on the basis of the information before my Department." On 22 April 2009, I received an e-mail stating that the Minister has asked the officials to conclude their further examination of the various issues as quickly as possible and would keep in touch with regard to developments.
It is high time that a decision was made, be it to grant or refuse the licence, which is the Minister's prerogative. We urgently need a decision on this matter. It is deeply unfair to the people of Athenry who are forced to drive around a roundabout painted in the centre of the road and marked out by old barrels and to the developer and staff and management of Galway County Council who have done the best they could to try to expedite this matter. I hope that the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, can provide a positive response on this matter.
I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. I thank Senator Cannon for raising this issue.
A section of the medieval town wall, forming a part of the Loro Gate to the town of Athenry, was discovered during archaeological monitoring of development works in the immediate area. The lower courses and foundation of the wall are located under the roadway at a junction adjacent to the entrance of a new housing development. The planning permission for the housing development requires the developer to construct a new roundabout at the junction.
The town defences of Athenry are a national monument within the meaning of the National Monuments Acts 1930-2004 and part of the town wall is already protected by a preservation order. The newly discovered section of the wall is under the public road, is in the ownership of Galway County Council, and the consent of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is required under section 14 of the National Monuments Act 1930 for any works affecting it. Although public safety and traffic management are important considerations, the Loro Gate is an important part of the local historical record in Athenry. Every possible effort must always be made to preserve and protect our archaeological heritage. In this case, that means fully exploring and, if feasible, adapting the configuration of the roundabout to reduce its impact as far as possible so as to allow the monument to be preserved to best effect for future generations.
Following discovery of the remains of the wall, development work ceased and an application for ministerial consent was submitted on behalf of the developer for the preservation in situ of the wall under the proposed roundabout. Submissions were received from other local interests who favoured the roundabout being redesigned to facilitate the wall section being preserved in such a way that it could be put on public display. As part of its examination of the consent application and the suggested alternative approaches, Galway County Council was informed that any recommendation to the Minister to grant consent for the roundabout as proposed would have to be supported by clear evidence that all relevant factors had been taken into consideration in reaching a balanced and reasonable conclusion. A report subsequently produced by the council with the assistance of the National Roads Authority has examined a number of possible options for dealing with traffic at the junction. The Department of Transport has also provided observations on the traffic issue, as has the National Museum of Ireland in regard to the developer's proposal to preserve the monument in situ under the roundabout.
The various reports and observations are being carefully examined in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, taking due account of the archaeological, historical and local significance of the Loro Gate. I have listened carefully to what the Senator has said and I assure him that it is Minister's intention to have the matter finalised as speedily as possible. All relevant factors are being considered with a view to the best solution being achieved.
I thank the Minister for his reply which somehow implies it was the developer's idea to preserve the remains in situ, namely, entomb them in concrete and build the road over them. It was not. It was the idea of the archaeologist working in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, supported by senior roads engineers in Galway County Council. The idea was proposed by the Minister's expert in the field of archaeology. I sincerely hope that when the Minister uses the words "as speedily as possible", they will somehow have a different meaning to the words "as quickly as possible", which he used on 22 April 2009.