With the Government’s National Planning Framework - ‘Ireland 2040: Our Plan’ - set for launch this Friday, the designation of Athlone as the regional capital of the Midlands is now all but assured.
A draft copy of the framework released before Christmas had drawn sharp criticism for focusing too much future growth on Dublin at the expense of the regions. The draft ignored calls to grant Athlone city status, and did not mention the town once in its 100 pages.
While the exact contents of the NPF are still under wraps, Minister of State Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran insists that Athlone will finally get the recognition it deserves on Friday. According to Moran, the Government’s change of mind on Athlone only came about because of “direct ministerial intervention at the highest level”.
“The idea that Athlone would not be designated as capital of the Midlands ran counter to everything that I have done in representative politics and was something that had to be rectified,” said Minister Moran. “Myself and my ministerial colleagues in the Independent Alliance met with the Taoiseach on a number of occasions recently to press home our views in relation to Athlone.”
“Both myself, Minister Denis Naughten and Minister Shane Ross were adamant that Athlone would be designated as the capital of the midlands in order to drive the entire region for the next number of decades,” he added.
“Friday’s news will represent the single biggest announcement for Athlone in decades and will represent a major political statement of intent from the present Government, of which I am proud to be a part of,” the Minister concluded.
The NPF will decide where the Government allocates investment and development over the next two decades, as Ireland’s population is set to grow by a million people in that time.
Some 370,000 people currently live in the Midlands region, many of whom commute to Dublin to work every day. A regional capital would provide an alternative for these commuters and would ease the daily gridlock in the capital.
Local councillor Frankie Keena (FF ) noted that while nothing is set in stone until Friday, he is confident that Athlone will be recognised in the framework.
“The Midland region must be prioritised in the new framework and the recognition of Athlone as the key regional city presents the best platform to do this,” he said.
“I argue that the Midlands must be allowed develop so that people can work and live in the area. If the NPF were not to designate Athlone as a city and gateway then people will be here again in twenty years time debating the hollowed-out Midlands.”
Fine Gael Senator Gabrielle McFadden also expressed her confidence, citing the factors she believes make Athlone ideal for further development.
“Athlone is the largest urban area in the Midlands, it has a key strategic location being almost exactly in the centre of the country,” she explained.
“It acts as a gateway to the West and Northwest of Ireland. It is halfway between Dublin and Galway, and is the meeting point for rail, river, gas and road as well as having a thriving third level college. It is a pharma and distribution hub and is a popular tourist destination. It also has in place a social and cultural infrastructure unrivalled in the region.”
On Wednesday, opposition TDs sought to delay the release of the NPF, saying that such a plan has to be put to a Dáil and Seanad vote first. At time of writing, a meeting between the opposition TDs and Housing and Local Government Minister Eoghan Murphy is due to take place on Wednesday evening.