*Bunratty Castle. 

GOVERNMENT FUNDING will not be provided to Clare County Council to take over Shannon Heritage sites in the county, a breakfast briefing of local councillors was informed on Wednesday morning even though the Taoiseach has said the matter is not over.

Clare County Council now looks set to call time on its lengthy efforts over the past 20 months to take over the sites with the prospect of the local authority seeking a multi-million euro loan another possible avenue.

Since June 2020, the future ownership of the iconic tourism sites has been up in the air with Clare County Council expressing their interest for them to be transferred from Shannon Group if Government funding was provided.

King John Castle reverted to the ownership of Limerick City and County Council in April of this year while on New Year’s Eve Shannon Heritage ended their management contracts with An Post and Fingal County Council for sites in Dublin and the transfer of the business and employees took place without issue.

A Clare deal was due to be finalised in May of this year, yet the future of Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, Craggaunowen, Knappogue Castle and a retail outlet at the Cliffs of Moher remain in limbo. Between them, the four sites have a total workforce of 150, this is broken down as 90 full-time and 60 part-time staff.

No provision of funding was included in the Budget announced last week which served as a major setback to the Council’s aspirations and to tourism in the region. Officials within the Council “almost full-time on the project” since February 2021.

The Clare Echo understands that the Secretary General in the Department of Finance has informed senior Council officials that their plea to receive €15m annually will not transpire. Four different Government departments have been lobbied by the local authority as part of the long-running process but no funds have been provided.

Costs include an estimated €1.5m repair of the roof at Bunratty Castle, provisions for the 150 Shannon Heritage staff that would be added to the Council’s payroll, repairs to the roofs of the cottages, disintegration of footpaths and attempts to modernise the tourism sites. The capital supports would allow for the essential repairs and further projects to enable a full revamp. €2m is sought to upgrade the IT systems across the sites.

At a breakfast briefing in the Maguire Suite of The Old Ground Hotel, councillors were treated to a full Irish breakfast and informed that the local authority will have to either take out a multi-million euro loan or walk away. A decision on what the Council will do will be made at a statutory meeting that is open to the public, their October meeting is scheduled to take place this coming Monday. Council Chief Executive, Pat Dowling was joined by Director of Rural Development, Leonard Cleary and Head of Finance, Noeleen Fitzgerald when updating elected representatives.

Councillors were told that in the absence of a €15m loan, it would have to consider raising rates were it to take on the various sites. “Specialist services” examining human resources, operational, financial, capital investment, property and assets, legal and taxation matters relating to the properties had been hired by the Council before making their submission to the various departments.

Almost two decades ago, the Council ran into difficulty in securing Government funding for the €25 million Cliffs of Moher visitor centre. A loan of €15m was approved for the local authority to get the project over the line with a €10m grant provided by the Government.

An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin (FF) infamously said the Council should “get on with” the acquisition when speaking in the Dáil in February. The matter was first raised with him on his election as Taoiseach in the Convention Centre in June 2020.

When speaking to The Clare Echo last month, the Taoiseach committed to talking to relevant Ministers “to get the thing resolved”. He said, “I’m a believer that we should move and get it done, I accept that discussions are underway, the Government can play a part in making sure the transfer can be smooth but also the County Council’s worry and genuine concern is that it has the capacity to make a success of this and to deal with deficits that are there, there’s a lot in the various assets and entities”.

These comments and indeed The Clare Echo were referenced by Clare TD, Michael McNamara (IND) in the Dáil this week.

Speaking on Wednesday, the Scariff native commented, “Clare county councillors were told that on Budget day last week that Clare County Council had been informed by a very senior official of the Minister that a decision had been arrived at on their funding application within the Department and that the funding was being refused so that is the end of the matter from Clare County Council’s perspective. Taoiseach, do you want to take this opportunity to contradict that account given to Clare county councillors this morning or do you want to correct the record of the Dáil”.

In response, the Taoiseach stated, “I’m not responsible for what officials may be saying to councillors. It’s not the end of the matter”.

Government funding has been a source of frustration for Shannon Heritage staff in recent years. In August 2020, eleventh hour funding of €2.6m was announced to prevent the closures of both Bunratty Castle & Folk Park and King John’s Castle during the pandemic, however the sum was reduced to €550,000 to keep them open from September to the end of the year.

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