Seanad debates

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Commencement Matters

Army Barracks Closures

2:30 pm

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House regarding an issue I have been asked to raise. The Minister of State will be familiar with the restructuring of the Defence Forces and the various commands within them during the early years of the Government. As part of this, a number of barracks were closed down including Clonmel and Mullingar. The Minister of State was in Clonmel on the day of the last walking out of the soldiers from the barracks, as was I.

Commitments were given to interested organisations that the barracks around the country would be put to good use. I commend the Minister of State on the work he is doing to ensure the Clonmel barracks is an integral part of the infrastructure of the area. However, in Mullingar, a group, which we should all respect, the Irish United Nations Veterans Association, IUNVA, was given the opportunity to use part of a building in the barracks, the officers' mess, for meeting and holding social events. The IUNVA has sought a long-term lease on the section in order to secure tenure and ensure it could develop and upgrade it as it saw fit.

Although the issue has been dragging on for well over a year, the IUNVA has received no positive response, only excuses why the property section of the Department will not make a decision about it. It was told the local GAA club was going to take over the whole barracks area, including the lands, and sub let the IUNVA section to it. This seems to have fallen through. Then, the IUNVA was told it had to wait, given that there was a possibility the barracks would be used for refugees. Based on research I have done, this is clearly not the case. Since then, the IUNVA has received no answer.

In recent weeks and months, Mullingar Boxing Club has taken up residence in the dining room area. It is a great initiative to use the building, as the Government said it would, to provide services in the community. However, surely the IUNVA, whose members have served the country at home and overseas as members of one of the proudest armies in the world, should be treated with respect and receive security of tenure. The foot-dragging that is happening in the Department property section should stop. There is some kind of log jam which should be explained to the local people involved under the chairman, Eddie Robinson, and to the national organisation.

A lease should be put in place, for which the IUNVA is prepared to pay. In other buildings in other parts of the country, the leases were given at a minimal cost and they ensured the buildings were used. No group is more deserving than the IUNVA.The time for dragging the feet on this, a small issue which, has gone on for well over a year. It must finish today. I await the response of the Minister of State.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Landy for raising this issue and giving me an opportunity to explain the position as regards Columb Barracks. Following the closure of the barracks in March 2012, officials in the Department of Defence wrote to Departments and other public bodies inviting them to express any interest in the property, with a view to its disposal by the Department. No such interest was expressed at that time.

As I am sure the Senator will be aware, the Department was approached by the Westmeath GAA County Board for the use of the barracks as a training centre. Parts of the barracks in Mullingar are currently used by the county board on a short-term lease and discussions are taking place with it regarding its future use of the barracks. The former barracks is also currently used by An Garda Síochána and the customs service for training purposes.

A number of other local groups, including the Irish United Nations Veterans Association, IUNVA, the Order of Malta and the midland youth services have also been allocated units in the barracks on short-term basis. In addition, the Department has also received numerous requests from other local community groups wishing to avail of accommodation within the barracks.

The Irish United Nations Veterans Association has occupied the former officers' mess unit in the barracks since late 2014 and has requested a long-term lease on the premises. Officials from the Department have met the association's representatives on site to discuss its plans for the barracks and have raised questions regarding those plans. The premises were initially provided to the IUNVA on the basis that it would be used as a meeting place for members of the association. Since then it has come to our attention that the lUNVA's long-term vision for the premises includes the provision of a coffee shop, overnight accommodation for its members and a bar.

Also, the Department of Justice and Equality, which is the lead Department for the refugee accommodation programme, is considering whether any of the buildings falling within the remit of my Department, including Columb Barracks, are suitable for the purposes of temporary accommodation for refugees. While the Department supports the ongoing use of the barracks by the local community the current financial and administrative burden resulting from the retention of the barracks cannot be sustained given that the barracks is no longer required for military purposes. Accordingly, officials of the Department will be happy to discuss with any interested group, including the local authority, any proposals they may have for the possible purchase and future development of the site for the benefit of the local community. This is in keeping with the Department's policy to dispose of surplus property no longer required for military purposes.

I would say to Senator Landy that the example in Clonmel, where the local authority took the lead with a master plan, would be fitting. I am only representing the Minister here today, but it strikes me that the future of Columb Barracks lies with a master plan and that the lead authority should be the local authority. Many of the local organisations could then be accommodated within the barracks. It is clear from the response that the officials would entertain that.

In this regard, officials from the Department are scheduled to meet the CEO Westmeath County Council in the coming weeks to discuss possible future plans for the barracks. They would also be happy to discuss, with any interested group, any proposals they may have for the possible purchase and future development of the site for the benefit of the local community. In the circumstances, it is not possible to enter into a long-term lease with any of the current occupiers of the barracks.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I am very disappointed with the response. Clearly, if those who served this country played GAA games instead they would have a better chance of getting the necessary premises to carry out their social activities in retirement. The respect that is being shown here to soldiers who have served this country, not only in Ireland but overseas, is despicable. It is not good enough.

I would appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, as somebody who has a bit of common sense.It is clear that nobody wants this building. Since the barracks was closed in March 2012 no interest has been shown in it. This situation cannot be compared with Clonmel where the Minister of State is one of the lead people and made sure that a plan was put in place. That was not the case in Westmeath. If Westmeath County Council was interested in the building then the opportunity would have been availed of by now.

The answer given by the Minister of State is a fob-off generated by Department officials. I ask him to intervene in the situation because I know he is somebody who prioritises people's interests. I ask him to move this matter on much further than has been stated in his response.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I understand the Senator's frustration. If a similar situation occurred in Clonmel then people there would be very annoyed. I bring the Senator back to the fact that there will be a meeting involving the chief executive of Westmeath County Council in the coming weeks.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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After three years.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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Yes, but that has not happened up to now. A meeting should take place to see what could happen.

As the Senator will know, Clonmel was slow to progress. The fact is that if one has a master plan then the Department would be willing to engage. One must have a lead authority. We had success in Tipperary because its county council took the lead and brought along the VECs and all of the other organisations that will now use it. If the same proposal came forward from Westmeath then I believe one can move the situation on.

We need to keep up the pressure. A lot of work needs to be done to get people to communicate in order to reach agreement but there is potential. As the Senator has said, the building has been left idle too long, which is wrong. Such a situation is hard on organisations that want to avail of the premises. I understand where the Senator is coming from. Now that he has raised the matter here we should have a report on the meeting to which I referred. We can then set up a meeting for the Senator to discuss the matter.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State.

Sitting suspended at 3.30 p.m. and resumed at 3.35 p.m.