*Works in Abbey Street for ‘the big dig’. Photograph: Ray Conway. 

A “heartening change” has emerged within Clare County Council with a greater appetite to listen to the views of others surrounding plans for Ennis 2040.

At the first meeting of the Ennis Municipal District since the local elections, the mood was much calmer when Ennis 2040 was up for discussion with councillors expressing the view that the need to take a deep breath and listen is more apparent than ever while others said the constant rhetoric from opponents was “boring”.

Ennis 2040 has been a lightning rod for debate within the Council Chamber over the past eighteen months while it has generated as much discussion outside of the local authority with Save Ennis Town presenting a petition with 3,500 signatures, holding silent marches and protests in opposition to plans to construct mixed-use developments on Abbey Street car park and Harvey’s Quay car park. Other groups have also voiced their concern over plans to build on the Post Office Field.

No works will commence for at least three years for plans on Abbey Street car park or Parnell Street car park, senior officials in the Council have this week confirmed.

Addressing the July meeting of the Ennis MD, Chief Executive of Clare County Council, Pat Dowling outlined, “we’re entering a new phase for Clare County Council and moreover a new phase for Ennis, there is a lot of talk of Ennis, we know how great it is and that it is the largest town in Munster, specific parts of plan may not be suitable to everyone but that is part of the consensus building”.

He continued, “it is important that Ennis is punching above its weight and that it is a place where people want to come, live, visit and socialise and to stay which I think is most important”. Dowling commented, “We can argue about cars and car parking spaces which is fine, we should never put cars before people or jobs”.

Plans for Ennis extend far beyond the town, “this is about Clare, Ennis is the capital and the centre of the county, figuratively and in every other way, we need to look out as well as looking in. It is not just about developing a town on the west coast of Ireland, it is about developing a regional centre for the Mid-West and beyond, my view is that Ennis should be the envy of every other town in Ireland. Our capital town is a driver for all of the county. The vision is there, we need to get on and implement it”.

Mayor of the Ennis MD, Cllr Clare Colleran Molloy (FF) responded, “your words remind me of six years ago when I was first elected Mayor of the Ennis MD in 2018, the years continue to fly by and I remember you having me up to your office six years ago saying we need to do something for the town and now we must revisit our plan to develop consensus”.

Cllr Tom O’Callaghan. Photograph: Tom Micks

In a proposal before the meeting, Cllr Tom O’Callaghan (FF) referenced how “a majority of the elected Ennis MD councillors canvassed, among other issues, on their opposition to the Ennis 2040 DAC plans to build on Abbey Street carpark, civic space and Parnell Street, taxi rank as they currently stand.In light of this, I propose that the Ennis Municipal District request that the Executive of Clare County Council and Ennis 2040 DAC immediately cease from progressing these plans further, pending a meaningful and transparent consultation process”.

Director of Services, Carmel Kirby in a written response detailed that the Council has now entered the sixth year of “a listening process on the Ennis 2040 Strategy” which has involved “extensive consultation” with elected members, local businesses, residents and the wider public. “The key priority for Clare County Council is increasing footfall in Ennis Town Centre and delivering infrastructure and economic projects that are befitting of Munster’s largest town and for the benefit of the whole county. Ennis must not repeat the mistakes of other towns and cities where out of town developments have had a detrimental impact on town and city centres”.

She added, “Concern raised by the business community regarding car parking has been a dominant feature of the feedback received during the consultation process. Clare County Council wishes to reassure Elected Members, the public and businesses/residents in the town that on-site work on the proposed building projects at Abbey Street and Harvey’s Quay/Parnell Street will not commence for a minimum of three years and until such time as alternative and suitable parking is provided”.

As committed to at the tetchy May meeting of Clare County Council, a briefing will be held with councillors to discuss strategic projects in Clare and all seven wholly Council owned designated activity companies in Clare, this “will likely take place in September,” Kirby outlined. Regular briefings on strategic projects will continue, she added.

All elected members “want what is best for the town and investment for the town which is crucial,” Cllr O’Callaghan noted. Existing plans for the car parks are “contentious issues,” he pointed out. “I welcome the consultations we had but realistically I’d be asking for statutory consultations but the point that has to be brought is it worth building a new building, there are very people favourable of this particular development”.

Seconding the proposal, Cllr Tommy Guilfoyle (SF) estimated that on 98 percent of doors he canvassed in the Ennis MD prior to the elections issues relating to Ennis 2040 and their plans were brought up, “at one door one individual said to me they disagreed with my position on Save Ennis Town, that is one door in thousands, people said they would vote for me because of my position on Save Ennis Town”. He added, “everyone in the room understands this issue is divisive, it has split the town and the county”.

Common ground must be found, Cllr Pat Daly (FF) stressed. “It is going on for six years, it is ongoing, it is not good for the town. People need to go around the table, we need the 2040 Board and Save Ennis Town involved to come up with a proposal that will be for the betterment of Ennis. The majority of people I met during the election were totally against Abbey St, we’re the laughing stock of the county, everyone is saying to me ‘what in the name of Jesus is going on in Ennis’. I’m totally against building on Abbey St, we need to get these people sitting down and talking, at the end of the day Ennis should be the winner”.

Progression of the plan is “going around in circles,” Cllr Paul Murphy (FG) observed. “I have concerns about the proposal as it is but I am for the development of Ennis Town,” he said. From his seventeen years on the local authority, he said the view has emerged from different business people that “the town has been stagnant. Ennis 2040 is a vehicle to try drive this forward and yes there are glitches”. Decay of premises in the town centre and vacant units must be tackled, he maintained, “the town should be for living as opposed to driving around in town, we need a quality space where people can socialise, we need to maximise the wonderful amenity we have in the river”.

A vision for the whole town is provided with Ennis 2040, Cllr Mary Howard (FG) maintained. “I get really frustrated with this talk, we’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater”. She continued, “The only plan we’ve saw is the 39 apartments, this rhetoric is getting quite boring. There is a lot more going on with the 2040 plan, if we have no plan we’re going nowhere fast”. She felt opponents to Ennis 2040 were damaging the town’s reputation, “I was on a meeting with other councillors recently and I was asked where I was from, they said Ennis the town that says no. We’re doing damage for Ennis INC”.

Assurances have been given to councillors by the Chief Executive that nothing will happen to the car parks until the issues regarding car parking are addressed, Cllr Howard told the meeting. She suggested that there is potential for a second floor car park on the Cloister Site.

Deputy Mayor of the Ennis MD, Cllr Antoinette Baker Bashua (FF) stated, “We all value and respect our town but we need the right investment, of course we want to see a flagship store but we want it in the right place”. Additional car parking spaces at the Cloister “would be fantastic,” she admitted. “People are scared, people are coming into town now and can’t get parking. An alternative to car parking spaces was to turn limited green space into car park, I know it has been pulled but there are worries it could be tabled again. Ennis is not a no town, maybe we’re not right now on this”.

Parking for customers, for staff and big trucks will be among the first questions asked by any potential big retailer considering opening a premises in Ennis town centre, the Deputy Mayor added, “right now Abbey Street can’t do that”. “We need to go back down around the drawing board, it is fantastic that we want to invest in our town, if we’ve to let this go because they’re afraid or not willing to change then so be it”.

Completion of a transport plan for Ennis will address parking, cycling lanes and all modes of transport in the town, Director Kirby responded. All strategic projects will be explained in detail at the workshop in September, she said. Vacant properties will be discussed in the coming months with a particular grant set to be making its way for Clare in this sphere, she revealed. Positive discussions are ongoing with the NTA on the delivery of a town bus service for Ennis. “I’m getting a sense today that there is a collective ambition for us to work together and make sure we’re listening to everybody,” she added.

Mayor Colleran Molloy replied, “What we’re getting is a consensus to listen going forward to see if the strategy needs to be tweaked and moreover that it is a county strategy. It is a key takeaway”.

According to Cllr O’Callaghan, there has been “a heartening change within the Chamber on wanting to find a solution. It was a civic space that created the potential, it can be overcome. Ennis is not closed, we have a lot of retailers, we know they are finding it difficult but we are aware this is a necessity, we’re not talking about small issues, it is substantial, it is a very heartening discussion, solutions will and can be achieved”.

Clarity was then sought by Cllr Guilfoyle to ascertain if the motion was carried unanimously. The Mayor advised that it was carried and Director Kirby replied, “it will commence with the workshop in September”.

Guilfoyle responded, “The motion to be carried unanimously is a different thing. Under standing orders, I can ask for the motion to be put to the vote”. Cllr Howard said, “Technically we didn’t agree. We had a debate”.

This prompted Cllr Guilfoyle to ask for a vote to be taken on the motion. “The reply to the motion which is what Cllr O’Callaghan was looking for indicated that there would be a workshop in September, everybody seems to be unanimous in that,” the Mayor advised. Cllr Guilfoyle responded, “When a motion is carried, it reflects the mood of the people, it is either carried unanimously or else we have to take a vote. I have the right to ask for a vote”.

Colleran Molloy said, “there will be no vote on the motion”. Clarecastle based Guilfoyle said, “Standing orders demand the right to call for a vote, I have the right, I’d ask for you to Chair the meeting properly”. “What are you asking for a vote on? We’re all consenting for a motion,” the Mayor replied.

Attempting to offer clarity, Cllr Murphy outlined, “I’m reading the notice of motion, the second part proposes the consultation process, my understanding is that the response is proposing workshops in the autumn, if Cllr O’Callaghan is satisfied with the response then it is carried forward”. Cllr Daly added, “I agree with Paul, everyone seems to be satisfied with it. The last vote split the county down the middle, we can talk about the standing orders until the cows come home”.

Based on this, Cllr Colleran Molloy reiterated that she would not be acceding to the request for a vote to be taken. “A lot of time is put into standing orders, you can’t stop a vote being taken,” Cllr Guilfoyle responded. “What is the vote for when we have consensus in the Chamber. Are you saying every time we have a motion where there is a consensus that we have a vote,” the Mayor asked.

“People are using words to allow a very hot topic move forward in a manner that I’m not comfortable with, I’m comfortable with people embracing Tom’s motion,” Guilfoyle commented.

Cllr O’Callaghan said, “I don’t see a problem with calling for a vote. We’re on about solutions, we value the workshops, we need to address the issue of the priority of the workshop and having the solutions”. Cllr Murphy pointed out that “pending meaningful consultation” is the key aspect of the motion.

Bringing the debate to a close, Cllr Colleran Molloy stated, “the response is accepted by the proposer. I as Chair have the authority to deny a vote, for the third time I am asking Cllr Guilfoyle to move on to his motion”.

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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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