Mitchell sparks Coalition rift with row over barracks plan
EMBATTLED Fine Gael presidential candidate Gay Mitchell last night widened a coalition rift over barrack closures by attacking a Labour minister campaigning to keep his local barracks open.
Mr Mitchell criticised housing minister Willie Penrose for his efforts to save Columb Barracks in Mullingar in the face of government cutbacks.
Mr Penrose is the super junior minister who sits at the Cabinet table, and Mr Mitchell said it is time for him to "step up to the plate" and "stop playing petty party constituency politics".
"When you hear ministers getting up and opposing the closure of army barracks in their constituencies, I have to say this is the time to step up to the plate and take responsibility for our country and not to be playing local politics," said the Dublin MEP, who is currently languishing in the polls in the race for the Aras.
"We are on the cusp of massive recovery if we do the right things, take the right directions and stop playing petty party constituency politics," he told RTE radio's 'This Week'.
It comes after Mr Penrose spoke at a rally in Mullingar this weekend defending Columb Barracks.
Mr Penrose last night said Mr Mitchell seemed to be straying out of the parameters of the election debate.
"I couldn't care less what anybody says. I didn't think it was germane to the presidential campaign. I didn't think it was very relevant to the presidential election in my view.
"He doesn't understand there is not a penny to be saved by closing Mullingar Barracks."
When asked if this was a resigning issue for him, Mr Penrose said no decision had been taken over the barracks and he would press his case in Cabinet. Other barracks facing possible closure include Athlone, Clonmel and Cavan.
A spokesman for Mr Mitchell said he stood by his views, and insisted it was a "matter of conviction".
He also said Mr Mitchell wanted to push the limits of the presidency, but knew to operate within the limits.
Justice and Defence Minister Alan Shatter said he would choose closing barracks over reducing army numbers in his attempts to cut costs.
He said he was obliged by Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin to look at all aspects of spending.
"And that means barracks are being looked at as part of the overall expenditure of the Department of Defence," Mr Shatter said. "In the context of that, there is the issue that we have 9,500 members of the Defence Forces.
"Years ago we had in the region of 11,000 and there's the question of using existing resources efficiently, of ensuring that our Defence Forces are focused on tasks that are important. No final decisions have been made in relation to these matters.
"If I have a choice between retaining buildings that those in the upper echelons of the Defence Forces advise me are of no strategic importance, or retaining numbers, I want to retain numbers.
"The reality is there is no strategic necessity to retain the number of barracks we presently have."
Meanwhile, Mr Mitchell also rounded on Independent presidential candidate Sean Gallagher, who was second behind Labour's Michael D Higgins in two polls last week.
It signals a switch in focus by Mr Mitchell and Fine Gael, who had previously directed all their attacks on Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness.
Mr Mitchell said yesterday that a "celebrity" candidate was not what the country needed.
He added: "I think there are people who are really good candidates but don't have the experience or the vision that I have."