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Tuesday 28 January 2020

'No regrets' for Penrose as barracks set for closure


THE government minister who resigned over the closure of the Army barracks in Mullingar said yesterday he had no regrets and would do it again.

Labour TD Willie Penrose said he would now press for an international language school to be located at Columb Barracks in the heart of the town.

Thousands of people are expected to line the streets of Mullingar on Wednesday as the town comes to a standstill when a 200-year-old military tradition ends with the closure of their barracks.

Columb Barracks is one of four barracks -- the others are in Clonmel, Cavan and Castlebar -- which will close by March 30 after a government decision to deploy a smaller Army into fewer locations.

A convoy of 170 members of the 4th Field Artillery Regiment will parade through the midlands town for the very last time, led by Mullingar Town Band, as they head to their new location in Costume Barracks in Athlone.

The barracks is worth an estimated €10m to the local Mullingar economy.

But despite a spirited campaign on Facebook and elsewhere to oppose the closure, reality will bite on Wednesday when the Regiment leaves the town after decades of supplying troops to UN peacekeeping missions, and involvement in the local community. "It is a sad day to see a great military tradition ended in the town," said Mr Penrose. Asked about his resignation as a minister, he said: "I have no regrets. I would do the same thing this evening."

He said while some people might have the opinion that he should have stayed in government to fight the issue, his views on the barracks go back 30 years.

"I always thought it was strategically important as it is the only artillery barracks left in the country."

Describing the closure as "lunacy", he said he will now press Westmeath VEC, the county council and Government departments to come up with a plan to use the 25 acres at the barracks, possibly as an international language school which could accommodate up to 600 people or more.

"While I am deeply aggrieved, we have to look to the future," he said.

He said he expected people to come out on Wednesday to show their gratitude to the troops and wish them goodbye.

But as arguments continue over the financial savings and costs associated with the closure of the four barracks, Defence Minister Alan Shatter insisted there will be worthwhile savings.

He said military personnel with security and support functions within the barracks would be released for operational duties leading to a "manpower efficiency gain" of around €5m a year.

"In addition, there will be direct cash savings of approximately €1.3m arising from utilities, maintenance and security duties allowances in the four barracks."

He said the Reserve Defence Forces in each barracks would be provided with alternative rented accommodation.

The Department now has 10 permanent rentals and 30 part-time rentals in place for the Reserve Defence Forces, including part-time use of parish and community halls and some commercial premises.

"The annual cost is less then €100,000 for all 40 premises. On this basis there is no economic argument for keeping a full barracks open to cater for a Reserve unit that may only train for a few hours once or twice a week when alternative rented accommodation can be provided for a small fraction of the cost," he said.

Sunday Independent

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