South Roscommon saved – or is it?

The first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, actress Maureen O’Sullivan and footballer Jimmy Murray…they all wore their Roscommon badge with pride and when it was revealed last year that up to 38 sq. km. of the south of the county along with ten per cent of its population could be subsumed into nearby County Westmeath it was feared that the history and culture handed down to our children and grandchildren could be greatly diminished. The people of Roscommon were not backing down – and this week they won out, well, at least for the time being.

  Describing it as “a great day for Roscommon” Senator Frank Feighan warmly welcomed the news that the Athlone Boundary Review committee had not recommended any change to the Roscommon boundary. He said he wanted “to pay tribute to the Save Roscommon group and everybody who worked so hard to ensure that no area in the county would be moved into Westmeath.”

  Also pleased, though slightly more cautious, was Roscommon-Galway Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice, who, in welcoming the news, said there “were still conditions and changes in the report that may be a threat to the county’s status in the future.”

  He said people should be very aware that this issue is “not fully over with yet”.

  Deputy Fitzmaurice warned: “There is no doubt that the decision not to alter the actual boundaries is a victory for people power and the massive campaign that was launched in County Roscommon against the proposals. I congratulate everyone concerned with that campaign but there are several elements in this report that would seem to indicate that the proposals are not fully shelved and may have just been ‘kicked down the road’ a bit.

  “There are various strategies that are recommended between both Roscommon and Westmeath with regard to increased co-operation, including a retail strategy, a full analysis for co-operation options, and a proposed merging of services which would include the HSE, IDA, Enterprise Ireland and other state and semi-state bodies. These various strategies have various time limits set for them from 9 months to 24 months.”

  Fine Gael Senator Maura Hopkins said that the recommendation not to change the county boundary at the present time “is positive and reflects the strong support by the people of Roscommon to ensure this result was achieved.”  

  However, she also said that she was “concerned that the report did not close the door on a boundary change in the future.”

  Senator Hopkins: “The report clearly sets out the need for both Roscommon and Westmeath local authorities and other agencies to work more closely.

  “It will be extremely important that both authorities are assisted in every way possible by the Department to work on these recommendations. The ultimate aim of this enhanced co-operation and working together is on trying to ensure this region seeks to attract more people to live, work, visit, raise their families and enjoy a good quality of life.” 

  Fianna Fáil TD Eugene Murphy also warned that celebrations were premature and that the issue has not gone away for good.

  He pointed out that the boundary report indicated that Local Authority services between Roscommon and Westmeath should be shared and this could be extended to other organisations such as the HSE, the IDA and other bodies.

  “When I pressed this issue at the Oireachtas briefing it was indicated that if all of these conditions are not implemented within four years then the proposed boundary change could still go ahead.”

* Ger Aherne, the Chairperson of the Save Roscommon Group, was unavailable for contact on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

‘No change to existing boundary’ – The Committee’s recommendations

In finalising its recommendations, the Committee has undertaken a comprehensive analysis of the issues raised; the documentation provided; international best practice; and government policy at national, regional and local levels.

  The huge volume of submissions necessitated an arduous but fruitful process to distil the many perspectives advanced by the

citizenry. The views of the elected members were elicited both by way of formal

submissions and by dialogue through four  separate meetings. All of the above were considered in the context of the terms of reference provided by the Minister.

  The Committee also availed of the individual skills and experience of its members, which were augmented by the support provided by the Institute of Public Administration.

  The Committee’s recommendations are as follows:

  The Committee recommends that no change be made to the existing boundary. In doing so,

it acknowledges the many strong arguments in favour of a boundary extension.

  As a part of the ‘no boundary change’ recommendation, the Committee, drawing on its experience of good governance in local government and on the in-depth knowledge of the key stakeholders, adds the following crucial proviso: that the process of planned and structured cooperation between the two local authorities for the future planning and

delivery of services in the combined Athlone-Monksland/Bellanamullia area be immediately

accelerated to deliver sustainable development for Athlone.

  The Committee has been impressed by the quality and approach of elected members and officials from both authorities, including a willingness to engage in a positive manner to address the weaknesses that currently exist and so allow the town of Athlone to reach its potential as an entity.

  Specifically, the Committee recommends that the 2 authorities, working together, will produce:

* A unified vision for Athlone;

* A Joint Local Area Plan for Athlone- Monksland/Bellanamullia incorporating this vision in a comprehensive strategy for the sustainable development of Athlone,

including social, cultural, environmental and economic development. This may

necessitate variations to the Roscommon County Development Plan 2014-2020

as a Local Area Plan may not contravene its parent Development Plan;

* A joint retail strategy for the town for Athlone-Monksland/Bellanamullia;

* A joint initiative to improve community cohesion and develop an identity of

belonging to Athlone for all citizens while retaining current Roscommon and Westmeath identities as part of the above process;

* A report detailing the results of a comprehensive review of service delivery of all local authority services and functions analysed as a totality (as per the recommendation of paragraph 6.4.2(c) of the Action Programme for Effective Local Government, Putting People First) and as individual services with a view to 49 creating efficiency, effectiveness and coherence of delivery to the communities and citizens of Athlone who ultimately should be able to access almost all services locally. This will lead to the preparation of a Service Delivery Plan;

* An analysis of services delivered by other bodies, e.g. IDA, Enterprise Ireland, HSE, including recommendations to Government for delivery on an Athlone-Monksland/Bellanamullia basis where deemed appropriate.

  In making the above recommendations to the Minister, the Committee is reluctant to suggest binding time scales for their implementation. It recognises that unforeseen circumstances may delay such processes. However, given the urgency of the need for a coherent approach to the future sustainable development of Athlone, it suggests the following as being reasonable:

1. Joint Retail Strategy –18 months from publication of this report;

2. Joint Local Area Plan – 24 months from publication of this report;

3. Service delivery analyses and Plan– 9 months from publication of this report;

4. Implementation of Service Delivery Changes – progressively from completion of this Service Delivery Plan and completion within 3 years from date of the Plan.

Roscommon and Westmeath County Councils should provide to the Minister a Joint

Implementation Plan within 6 months of the publication of this report to indicate their

proposals and timelines for completion of these tasks, and thereafter provide joint annual

reports to him or her on progress in their implementation. In the event of substantial noncompletion of the above four tasks within a four-year period, it is the view of this Committee that the boundary be extended in order to achieve coherent sustainable development for Athlone.

Murphy wants withdrawal – or a referendum

The Athlone Boundary Report has determined that there should be no change to the Roscommon boundary – but fears remain that changes could go ahead in four years’ time.

  Details of the review were published on Thursday and initially there was great relief throughout County Roscommon at the stand-out recommendation – that there be no change to the Roscommon boundary. However there are stipulations in the report and they have led to concerns that this ‘battle’ may have to be fought all over again.   

  Fianna Fáil TD Eugene Murphy said he is deeply concerned and alarmed at the details of the Athlone Boundary Report which he claimed could very well lead to an annexation of the Monksland area in the next four years.

  Deputy Murphy said that unless a number of stipulations from the boundary report are adhered to, then the controversial boundary changes could still go ahead in four years time.

Deputy Murphy said the Government needs to either come out and take this report off the table completely or else introduce a piece of legislation which would give the people of Monksland an opportunity for a referendum before any boundary change can go ahead.