The closure of Dun Mhuire is not the county council's doing, despite an apparent painting of the local authority as the bad guy on social media. That was the point made by Director of Services Tony Larkin while addressing a motion on the historic Wexford theatre at the December meeting of the Wexford Borough District Council.
In the motion, Sinn Féin councillor Tom Forde called on the members to 'recognise the important contributions of all the groups that use the Dun Mhuire to the social and artistic fabric of the town and oppose any demolition of the Dun Mhuire while these groups do not have an alternative and satisfactory home.'
Mr Larkin was blunt in his view of the motion and said that were these terms to be imposed on the council, they would end up pulling out of the purchase of the theatre and it would shut it's doors permanently in January regardless.
The Mayor, Cllr George Lawlor asked Cllr Forde to defer his motion to February. 'I've been in discussion with the groups as recently as a couple of weeks ago,' he said. 'There's a danger that if this goes through now, it may well tie the hands of the council and they could withdraw from the purchase.'
Cllr Lawlor said that in recent weeks he had secured a guarantee from the Chief Executive that once the purchase is complete, groups will retain the use of the building for at least a year while work gets under way behind the scenes on the redevelopment of South Main Street. Cllr Lawlor said there was a possibility that this could even turn into two years should the project hit any snags. The idea was to create as smooth a transition as possible to a new theatre space planned for Trinity Wharf.
The Director of Services confirmed that this was the case.
'We're all trying to do our best here,' Mr Larkin said. 'The council didn't get involved in this looking to get the Dun Mhuire closed. We were advised that it had come to the end of its life and was going to close anyway. I've met a lot of the groups involved and realistically, the council is not buying the building as a theatre, but as a site for urban development.'
Speaking of Cllr Forde's motion, he added:
'The council couldn't purchase the Dun Mhuire on the basis of "adequately" re-homing all of the groups. Obviously some disruption will be caused to the groups, but the fact is the Dun Mhuire has been in decline for a number of years and is unable to pay its way. The county council didn't facilitate that and we can't get into a scenario where we can't move ahead with our plans until every group is re-homed.'
Mr Larkin confirmed that there was at least a year's work involved before any demolition happens and that this would see the groups through the Autumn/Winter of next year, at which time the situation can be examined further.
'There's a suggestion in this motion that the council hasn't engaged with these groups,' Cllr John Hegarty said.
'But they clearly are. I think the council is being painted as the bad guy here, when realistically there is two options. Option A is that the Dun Mhuire closes in January regardless. Option B is the council purchases the building and limps it along for as long as they can giving the groups some more time to make alternative arrangements.'
'Either way the theatre will close and it's absolutely not the case that this is the council's fault.'
Cllr Leonard Kelly suggested that the work the council is doing behind the scenes in trying to help accommodate some of the groups could be better publicised.
While the focus is largely on re-homing the bigger drama groups, Cllr Davy Hynes pointed out that there are others for whom the Dun Mhuire will be a big loss.
'There's at least four groups meeting there every day,' he said. 'You have AA for example. It's the only place they have on the Main Street. Then there's the likes of the Girl Guides, the Confraternity Band and the Legion of Mary. With all due respect, I don't think the Director has met with them?'
Growing frustrated, Mr Larkin replied:
'The implication here seems to be that the council has to be responsible for sorting all these groups out. The plan was always to look after them the best we could. Some groups were offered an alternative and didn't accept. Offers were made of other community facilities, grant aid etc. In some cases, the church is also exploring ways to help them.'
Cllr Forde agreed to defer his motion until February, conceding that it was not the responsibility of the council to re-home the groups, but it was his aim to create a smooth transition to a new theatre in Trinity Wharf.
He was, however, critical of the amount of time afforded to the groups and said they could have had more time to make alternative arrangements.
'I raised this issue originally back in March and I was told that the council had no interest in Dun Mhuire,' he said.
'That's nearly an extra year the council could have given the groups. I think more consultation is needed.'
Mr Larkin replied that, once the sale goes through, the groups will have a whole year to make alternative arrangements.