Senator calls for unity on Athlone city status

Graham Dockery

Athlone-based Senator, Gabrielle McFadden (FG ), is urging her Oireachtas colleagues from around the Midlands to unite in calling for the designation of Athlone as a strategic development centre.

She made her call after finalising a submission to Minister for Housing and Local Government, Eoghan Murphy, which will feed into the Ireland 2040 Planning Framework.

Critics have hammered the National Planning Framework (NPF ), - a blueprint for the future of the country’s development - after it ignored calls to develop Athlone into a regional city.

“The Midlands needs a city with sufficient population and facilities to offer an alternative to the Dublin region,” McFadden said. “And Athlone is objectively the most suitable candidate to fulfill this criterion.”

The development of Athlone into a city by 2040 would provide a counterbalance to the dominance of Dublin, drive regional development, and ease the daily gridlock as commuters journey into the capital from further and further afield.

“Ireland 2040: Our Plan” was published by the government in September and made no reference to developing a city in the Midlands. Public consultation on the plan ended last Friday, November 10.

The plan called for any population growth in the Midlands to be restricted to 20-25 per cent over the next two decades, while calling for growth of up to 60 per cent in the already congested cities of Galway, Limerick, Waterford, and Cork.

Some 25 per cent of all population and employment growth is planned for Dublin, with 50 per cent allocated to the next four cities, leaving 25 per cent for all of the country’s remaining towns, villages, and rural areas.

In a submission made to the Department of Housing and Planning last week, Destination Athlone expressed its disappointment with the NPF.

Destination Athlone’s submission said that the plan in its current state has “failed to set out a coherent vision for the future planning and development of the Midlands region,” and has left the region “at risk of economic decline and depopulation.”

The group reiterated its earlier calls for investment in infrastructure, employment, tourism and education to drive the population of Athlone to between 40,000 and 50,000 by 2040.

Worries of economic decline are borne out by the National Deprivation Index, recently published by Pobal. The index revealed that rural and small-town Ireland has suffered most and recovered least since the 2008 economic crash.

Fianna Fáil TD for Roscommon-Galway, Eugene Murphy commented: “Unless this Government gets its act together, rural Ireland will continue a downward spiral. Communities will decline and our young people will be forced to head to larger towns and cities in search of work. A rural strategy needs to be put in place to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to attract investment and to encourage local businesses to grow.”

Visions of city status for Athlone are nothing new. In the 1970s, Sinn Féin’s Éire Nua proposal envisioned a united Ireland with Athlone as its capital, primarily owing to its central location. Under the proposal, the four provinces would each have had their own regional parliaments, with a central federal parliament located in Athlone.

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