FG-Labour rift over plan to shut Army barracks
Shatter under pressure to row back on proposal to move 500 troops and families from three facilities
A major rift is emerging between the coalition parties over the closure of Army barracks. A Labour senator is calling on the Government not to repeat the mistakes that were made in closing barracks after 1998.
Senator John Whelan has joined his party colleague, Minister of State Willie Penrose, in criticising the proposal to shut down barracks in Mullingar, Clonmel and Cavan. The move will affect around 500 soldiers and many of their families.
He has also appealed to the Minister for Defence, Alan Shatter, to speak to the soldiers and the families involved and said the proposed closures would "make no obvious economic sense".
The Portlaoise senator pointed to the 64-acre site of the former Magee Barracks, just 500 metres from the centre of Kildare town. The barracks has lain disused -- apart from a brief period when it was used to house Kosovar refugees -- since 1998 and has been badly vandalised.
Locals in Kildare are angry over the anti-social activities by teenagers, who have taken over the barracks at night since it was closed.
Rather than selling the valuable land at the height of the boom, the Department of Defence and Kildare County Council entered in 2006 into lengthy negotiations over a plan to provide 400 social and affordable houses and 200 "open-market" homes.
The then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, announced in 2003 that the site should be used primarily for social and affordable housing. It took until 2009 for contracts to be drawn up for the sale -- but by then the market had collapsed and nothing happened.
The department has since had to hire a private security firm to prevent trespass.
Earlier this year, Mr Shatter told the Dail that the old barracks site remained with the Department of Defence and would be disposed of, "taking into account market conditions to maximise the return to the Defence Forces".
Mr Whelan said that the proposal to close Columb Barracks in Mullingar and move the 150 soldiers to Athlone "makes no economic sense but has severe consequences for the soldiers' families and for Mullingar".
He added: "The minister should show the basic courtesy of consulting the people that this is going to affect. The soldiers are the people who know what the closures and move to Athlone mean.
"They have told me that Athlone barracks is already bursting at the seams and there are no facilities to house the artillery in Mullingar. I would say that the attitude so far has been disdain for the soldiers and their families."
Around 200 soldiers are stationed in Clonmel and another 140 in Cavan. It is not yet known where they will be transferred to.
Last month, Mr Penrose also questioned the economic sense of barrack closures and said the proposal to close the three barracks "does not stand up to scrutiny".
The minister of State for housing continued: "The closure of this barracks will actually cost money and will save nothing."
Mr Penrose said that developing the barracks which would receive the soldiers from Mullingar would cost "a blue fortune".
He also pointed out that the 26-acre site in Mullingar was "unsellable" because the barracks buildings were listed for architectural preservation and the site was zoned for leisure use only.
The general secretary of the Permanent Defence Forces Other Ranks Representative Association (PDFORRA), Gerry Rooney, also questioned the Government's decision.
He said the cost of providing new facilities for the Mullingar artillery unit would "be up to €10m", whereas there would probably be only €150,000 savings per annum from the cost of the closure.
From the soldiers' perspective, he said, it also represented a cut in pay.
"The background is that people have had pay cuts, more income tax and pension cuts. The impact in terms of additional travel is another cut in pay. The worst thing is the uncertainty -- not knowing if or when there are going to be closures."
Mr Rooney said PDFORRA would be challenging the proposed closures under the auspices of the Croke Park agreement. He added that he expected there would be up to 800 retirements from the Defence Forces and a considerable number of these could be in barracks under threat.