*A CGI of the proposed Abbey Street development. 

COMMON GROUND needs to be found to stop “the siege of Ennis”, a tempestuous Council briefing was urged which saw an apology issued following comments by Ennis 2040’s senior official and a call for the designative activity company to be dissolved.

An apology was issued by the Chief Executive of Clare County Council following what were labelled “very unfair comments” by the Chief Operating Officer of Ennis 2040 DAC during a briefing on Wednesday afternoon.

Appointed COO of the Ennis 2040 DAC in September 2021, Kevin Corrigan’s long-awaited presentation to elected members of Clare County Council took place on Wednesday having been cancelled last week.

There were instances of councillors pointing to their watch to criticise the time given for speeches and personal comments made by across the Chamber during the presentation including references to salaries and conducting matters like “a GAA meeting”.

Retailers in Ennis and members of Save Ennis Town were among those gathered in the gallery. They included Joan Duggan, John O’Connor, Cora Hahessy, Edel Cassidy, Michelle O’Connell and local election candidates Hilary Tonge (SD) and Bridget Ginnity (GP).

While tensions were high throughout the briefing which commenced at 14:03 and ran until 15:58, it ended on a sour note when Corrigan took aim at Cllr Johnny Flynn (FG) a former board member of Ennis 2040 DAC. “Every time he appears he resigned from the DAC for a different reason, he resigned with a letter over the data centre,” Corrigan commented.

Kevin Corrigan. Photograph: Paul Corey

Chief Executive of the Council, Pat Dowling swiftly apologised for those remarks and told Cllr Flynn he had a right to resign or not to resign as a board member if he so wished, “you can resign at any time which is your right”. Cllr Flynn said it was “a very unfair comment” by the COO.

Earlier in the debate, Cllr Flynn was pointing to his watch when trying to indicate to Cathaoirleach of Clare County Council, Cllr Joe Cooney (FG) that there had been forty minutes given to speeches from Dowling, Director of Economic Development Carmel Kirby, Head of Finance, Noeleen Fitzgerald and Corrigan.

Actions of Cllr Flynn prompted the Mayor to shout at him during the meeting, “who’s running the meeting, you or me”.

During the lengthy briefing, two of the elected members in the Ennis Municipal District, Cllr Mary Howard (FG) and Cllr Paul Murphy (FG) did not make a single contribution to the debate.

At the April meeting of the Council, Cllr Tom O’Callaghan (FF) requested the briefing to “provide a detailed report on all expenditure since the formation of the Designated Activity Company together with inter alia what steps are taken to protect the commercial footfall affecting existing retail units opposite both Abbey Street and Parnell Street carparks. In the interest of Compliance and Transparency please provide details the procedure used in appointing the current Board Of Directors”.

Prior to the final address which was given by Corrigan, Cllr Flynn complained about the “time wasting” at the meeting. “Are we going to waste more of our time as elected representatives of the county,” he asked to which the COO remarked, “I won’t describe what I’m going to do as a waste of time”.

He was reminded by Cllr Flynn to speak “through the chair” if responding out of turn. “We’re being ignored,” claimed Cllr Tom O’Callaghan (FF) and the Ennis 2040 COO pointed out, “there’s been ten minutes of complaining”. “Who is this unelected man,” questioned Cllr Flynn following these remarks.

Pat Dowling. Photograph: Paul Corey

Chief Executive Dowling assured those present that “due process was followed” when forming the DAC. “We must be ambitious and we must be better than others.. Large retail town which must compete with other regional towns,” he stated. Inward investment “is required” for the county town, he said. Any local authority would be “short-sighted” if they were not planning for the future, Dowling maintained. Investors are attracted to an area with “a track record of delivery”.

It is “the sixth year of a listening process which began in 2018,” Dowling said of Ennis 2040. “As Chief Executive I know the buck stops with me and I must be able to stand over all decisions”. He added, “I want to reassure everyone that Clare County Council is committed to securing unprecedented investment, we won’t make the mistake of other towns and cities where out of town investments were detrimental”.

Plans for Abbey Street and Parnell Street “won’t separate the town from the river as has been suggested, the proposal will do the opposite and have the opposite effect,” the Chief Executive outlined.

He continued, “There may be perceptions that the excavators and cranes are lined up and that the ground is about to be broken on the proposed Abbey Street development, for example. This is simply untrue. There will be no shovels in the ground for at least three years”.

Time allocated to the Chief Executive’s address was criticised by Cllr Flynn, “are we going to waste the hour and not deal with the issues”. He was told by Cllr Cooney “you’re eating into the time”. Following the contribution of Ms Kirby, Cllr Flynn asked for the extension of standing orders.

During her address, Ms Fitzgerald spoke of all the DACs that fall under the umbrella of Clare County Council and the various spending on different projects by the local authority. She said by the end of December, Ennis 2040 DAC had “€1m in the bank” with total assets worth €2.3m.

Ennis 2040 DAC is “not a private company,” Corrigan insisted. He referenced 12 percent of the Ennis’ 25,643 population are over the age of eighteen and are still living with their parents. He said 385 houses in Ennis are held up in the planning process and that house prices in the county have risen by 9.4 percent to €256,000. “This is the most important part of the E2040 plan which is the provision of housing,” he commented.

Cllr Johnny Flynn. Photograph: John Mangan

As he again pointed to his watch, Cllr Flynn asked “where is the answers to the questions”. Corrigan responded, “I’ve already answered one question which is safeguarding the footfall” and added “we’re answering the questions as we go if you give us a chance”.

According to an economic impact study for Ennis 2040, the strategy will result in a €28m additional spend, a sustained annual spend of €3.5m, 220 plus long-term jobs and 526 plus short-term jobs during construction.

Works on Francis Street have been held up in the planning process, the COO lamented. For Harvey’s Quay (Parnell Street), he said it will deliver up to forty cost rental units and is aimed at young couples with a ground floor retail unit, a planning application is to be submitted by the end of this year “with the hope to commence work in early 2028”.

144 new jobs will be created in Abbey Street, he claimed. “It will assist in making Ennis a shopping destination” and offer a large uplift in rates for the County Council “as opposed to the existing car park”. A public consultation report on the events for Abbey Street held in January have yet to be published.

Cllr O’Callaghan told the meeting his motion didn’t request a presentation. “We have a public purse, I have a duty of care, I care for value for money, I’ve every right to ask questions and to be concerned”. An additional three staff have been hired for Ennis 2040 DAC without approval by elected members, he noted, “costing us €295,000 per annum”.

Attempts by Cllr Cooney to bring back in Council officials at this stage were stood down with Cllr Gerry Flynn (IND) pointing out that the Mayor was “out of order” and he said, “follow standing orders or don’t”.

A sitting member of the Ennis 2040 Board, Cllr Clare Colleran Molloy (FF) maintained the county town will only fulfil its potential if the strategy succeeds. “Please remember we are making decisions for the future generations, they are not here, let’s not get this wrong,” the Quin native said.

Respect must be restored to the Council Chamber, Cllr PJ Kelly (FF) stressed. “There isn’t a major problem, there is a small problem with a big project causing a lot of problems, that is parking, like it or lump it without parking you don’t have a business”. He claimed there was a “contempt of procedure” and added, “the manager needs to have a serious chat with himself before siege of Ennis goes further”.

Duties on how to carry out the role of Cathaoirleach were emphasised by Cllr Gerry Flynn. “You’re our leader, just because you’re sitting at top table, there is no reason to blaguard fellow members”. Cllr Cooney “I’ve no blaguarded anyone in my life,” Cllr Cooney responded.

Cllr Gerry Flynn. Photograph: Chris Copley

“This is not a GAA meeting,” Cllr Gerry Flynn responded. “I welcome the opportunity to bring this into the public session, locking out the public and media doesn’t serve democracy”. He informed the meeting he was one of five councillors that voted against the establishment of the DAC, “only five showed resistance”. It was an Executive decision rather than a statutory decision to set it up, he said. “I believe democracy has been handed over by the Chief Executive to a private company, I do not support this way of doing business, we have planners and engineers in the Council, a cohesive plan could have been put together”.

Shannon based Flynn continued, “You CEO should do the decent thing and dissolve the DAC. You can smile away Chief, I’m not on your salary but I’m doing the best I can. We have been ridiculed by the DAC for not being up to the task, the site on Francis St site was purchased by housing dept of Clare County Council but unfortunately the Chief Executive took it off us, we had a plan for feet on the street and step down housing for people with disabilities, in the haste they knocked down six houses”.

How the meeting has been handled was labelled as “very disappointing” by Cllr Johnny Flynn. “This is my last sitting after twenty five years as an elected representative, there is control of the mics on our side but no control on the other side (officials)”. The former Mayor of Ennis claimed a “PR company” has been hired by Ennis 2040 DAC “on a three year rolling contract at nearly €1,000 a week”, he said the focus of this PR company has been to “undermine what members of the public have said including myself”.

There are similarities with the treatment of county councillors in the present day and how ex Clare hurling manager Ger Loughnane described county board delegates in the past according to Cllr Johnny Flynn, “Councillors have been treated like mushrooms, kept in the dark and fed inedible material”. He said “nothing in detail has been presented to us”.

An opinion of a senior counsel was sought by Cllr Flynn which claimed that the DAC “is only required to seek our agreement”. He pointed out the notice of motion from Cllr O’Callaghan didn’t receive a written reply, “it is the first time I’ve seen this in twenty years”. Actions of the DAC are “anti-democratic,” he claimed. Having initially supported Ennis 2040, the Tulla Rd resident said, “I thought this would mean an awful lot of good for the town but support for it is falling away because of the PR and the lack of information”.

While informing the meeting she was “one of those mothers who can’t let their son leave home” due to the lack of housing options and the inordinate cost of property, Cllr Donna McGettigan (SF) expressed her “worry” that an involvement of the DAC with housing would “make us speculators”. She said, “I don’t think the DAC should be anywhere near housing”. The Shannon woman said she is opposed to building on the Post Office Field, “this is a flood plain, it is wild and free, it should remain wild and free, let the animals have a peaceful life”.

Support for Ennis 2040 was voiced by Cllr Joe Garrihy (FG). “We all support the principle, the success of Ennis is intrinsically linked to the success of Clare. I represent a rural area, I want to see Ennis be successful, for that to happen we need investment and to keep up with the times”. He expressed confidence in the Executive of the Council and the DAC system but that it must remain “wholly owned and managed by the elected members”. The Lisdoonvarna man added, “Shovels aren’t on the ground, there is a planning process to go through, we must remain calm, take time, it is a big responsibility for the new Council, a review will have to happen”.

First elected in 2019, Cllr Garrihy added, “We all support the success of Ennis, standing still does not make that happen”. He continued, “I wish for Ennis to thrive and be successful. I’d love to see this level of ambition for North Clare, if there is any money left over I’d gladly spend it on North Clare projects”.

CEO of Ennis Chamber for twelve years, Cllr Rita McInerney (FF) stated, “We love Ennis and we want to see it thrive”. She described the county town as her “second home”. She noted that parking is “a very important issue” and warned officials, “it is unwise to company Ennis to any other town in the country, it is a medieval town with very narrow streets”. Communication must improve, the Doonbeg woman added.

Crowds at Save Ennis Town’s rally. Photograph: John Mangan

Mayor of the Ennis MD, Cllr Pat Daly (FF) pointed out that he has been canvassing for six weeks, “I’ve met thousands of people and only three people are in favour of this, we need to listen. We are split down the middle on this and it is very sad for this town. We can’t agree on anything at meetings, we’re split down the middle. The people in the gallery would love to be at their business, shops are closing in Ennis regularly, concentrate on that and forget about building on Abbey St car park, there’s several sites available, nobody wants to stop progress. We need a compromise and we’re going nowhere at the moment”.

Facts point out “why the town is not thriving,” maintained Cllr Cillian Murphy (FF). He said, “Some of the people who are against it now voted with it, we voted to put the strategy through the system because we saw the potential to transform Ennis”. Having run the successful Murphy Blacks restaurant with his wife in Kilkee for thirty years, he said they previously considered branching into Ennis but opted against because “the town closes at 5pm”. He continued, “it is one of the most attractive towns in the country, it is the opportunity here is stunning, I’m a fan of the DAC system, it is wholly owned by the Council, I don’t have a problem with the structure”.

Sitting board member of Ennis 2040 DAC, Cllr Ann Norton (IND) said she has three children over the age of eighteen all living at home and that it is important to consider the future generations in decisions when backing the strategy.

Ex Mayor of Clare, Cllr Michael Begley (IND) admitted he was “pretty bamboozled by the figures and all the contradictions”. He said, “the parties to all disputes should sit down around the table and get on with it”.

Investment to the county be it through private means or via the Government must be welcomed, Cllr Pat Burke (FG) said. He admitted he was “fully supportive” of Ennis 2040 and that he was “very impressed with the presentation”. Cllr Pat McMahon (FF) said investment in any means for the county town is necessary. Cllr PJ Ryan (IND) commented, “the only way to solve a problem is to get people around the table and solve it”.

“We’re all adults,” noted Cllr John Crowe (FG) when praising the “great arguments on all sides”. Cllr Pat O’Goman (FF) stated, “It is like them against us whether it is a Council meeting or out on the street. In June 2021 we voted for this DAC on the understanding that it would make Ennis great. I’m fully behind the DAC”. He added, “it is time we drew a line in the sand and moved on”.

Chief Executive Dowling thanked all elected members for their comment, “We’ve been listening very clearly”. He continued, “Some councillors have concerns on the particular structure I’ve set up namely the DAC, we have a DAC running the Cliffs, it is a mechanism I set up, I appointed the directors, the elected members chose their elected reps, I also chose the private representatives”. He told Cllr O’Callaghan that “all staffing matters are an Executive function within local government, that is the way it is and I implement that”.

There will be “a full written reply” furnished to the motion to all councillors “at the earliest opportunity,” Dowling promised. A strong ambition is attached to Ennis 2040, he said. “with that it brings a lot of difficult decisions and challenges for us”. He promised that a sit-down meeting with all councillors will be held in September similar to what happened when deciding to acquire the Shannon Heritage sites. “I’d like us to get on with it and to get on with it with as much support possible,” he added.

“Misleading” information has been stated by Cllr Colleran Molloy on the last private investment for Ennis occurring in 1992, Cllr Johnny Flynn flagged. Both Carraig Donn and Easons were built subsequent to this and he said they were “massive investments” and added, “they are misleading facts and it is very important that they are dealt with”.

Head of Finance, Noeleen Fitzgerald reminded the meeting that the DAC mechanism is commonly used, with regards to neighbouring local authoritie and owned entities, she said Tipperary have ten, Cork have ten and Limerick have five. “American multinationals do not want their business discussed in public, they will do business with local authority subsidiaries,” she added. She said she would be happy to sit down with Cllr O’Callaghan to explain the mechanics of the DAC. “I agree with members that we need to get back into the room on this,” she added.

Director of Economic Development, Carmel Kirby said the Francis Street site was acquired by Clare County Council following a recommendation from her predecessor Liam Conneally “with agreement from housing”. The opportunity to develop an affordable housing scheme with thirty units on the site prompted a change in plan. “I am hearing on a weekly basis from companies that they can’t expand because there aren’t housing options available for their staff, in my view we need as many hands on deck to get housing opportunities”.

Kirby said there will be a “long lead in time to the development of any project before it gets to development stage”. She added, “It will be a good three years before we have a shovel in the ground for any of these projects”. She continued, “We will have to find a car park to replace Abbey Street car park, we’ve a joint venture with Clare GAA, there will be a car park built”.

Ennis 2040 COO Corrigan told the meeting, “I am not working for a private company, if I was I wouldn’t be here giving this presentation, I wouldn’t need to be here if I worked for a private company”.

He remarked, “Soundbites on democracy are unhelpful to what we’re doing”. Meetings are occurring on a weekly basis with the private and public sector, “value for money is at the core of everything we’re doing”. He was critical of the planning system which is delaying their work. Ennis 2040 is “not a high risk speculative company,” he said, “we know what we’re doing on that front”.

Responding to claims on the pay of the PR company, Corrigan said, “the PR figure is completely incorrect, please keep to the facts”. However he went silent when requested by Cllr Gerry Flynn, Cllr Tom O’Callaghan and Cllr Johnny Flynn to give the figure. The Chief Executive later committed to providing the figures as requested.

Cora Hahessy and Cllr Tom O’Callaghan dancing at Save Ennis Town’s rally. Photograph: John Mangan

“Something has gone very wrong, that is why we are all here,” said Cllr O’Callaghan as he pointed to the public gallery. He said he has “a big problem” with a “speculative company and when an elected member has no say”.

Cllr PJ Kelly (FF) said he was “shocked” by the remarks of Carmel Kirby that an alternative car park for Abbey Street needs to be found. “I saw common sense prevailing until I heard a sentence which shocked me”.

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Subscribe for just €3 per month

If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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