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’Sledgehammer’ tactics

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Protestors outside the civic offices in Ballina.
MAKING THEIR POINT Protestors having their say outside the civic offices in Ballina during last week’s meeting. Pic: John O’Grady                    

‘Sledgehammer’ tactics

Áine Ryan

ACCUSATIONS of intimidation, abuses of power, sledgehammer tactics and lack of consultation were hurled around Ballina Town Council chamber last week during a tension-filled meeting about the development of a car park to service a proposed theatre, adjacent to the newly-located Arts Centre on Barrett Street. The meeting was also the subject of an on-street protest and attracted a packed public gallery.
At the outset, Cllr Michelle Mulherin urged that ‘the substantive issue’ be addressed after a call by Cllr Padraig Moore that a submission by a former Mayor, Mr Ray Collins, in his capacity as a board member of the Arts Centre, be removed from the file.
“Let’s not have a display of point-scoring here. People [the public] have come here tonight in good faith,” said Cllr Mulherin, urging that the members desist from ‘going down the road of defamation’ during the debate. 
According to Town Manager, Mr Seamus Granahan, all nine councillors were initially in favour of the project after the Council had bought the Beckett property by voluntary CPO in 2005. He summarised the main content of the hundreds of submissions received by the Council regarding the project, which he stressed was an integrated project. The overall project involves the 250-seat theatre, a linear walk, a car park and a pedestrian bridge, he stated. However, the bridge, which was recently allocated €900,000 in principle by Fáilte Ireland, was technically a separate project and not relevant to last week’s voting process.
“We should remember that Westport, Castlebar and Kiltimagh are all looking for the Access Arts funding too. It must be said our case is enhanced by our need for a car park and the fact we are putting money up locally and that we have bought the Newman Institute,” stated Cllr Michelle Mulherin, arguing that a ‘yes’ vote for the project meant progress for the town.
Meanwhile, Cllr Tommy Cooke strongly opposed the car park, while supporting the theatre and bridge, if the latter was built in a suitable location.
“The people of Ballina don’t want a car park beside the last oasis on the River Moy,” said the town’s only PD councillor, who observed he was very encouraged by the large public representation at the meeting. 
The fact that the issue of the car park had been voted upon last July, and was rejected by the majority vote, was of deep concern to Cllr Mary Kelly. She accused Council officials of using ‘a sledgehammer to break a nut’ by re-advertising the project under a different guise, with reduced parking spaces (65 rather than 100). Cllr Kelly stressed that while she was ‘all in favour’ of the theatre, the car park dimension must be excluded.
“I do not accept that the theatre will not succeed unless we have this car park available on this particular site, as theatres in other towns have been successful despite the fact that they do not have a car park adjacent to them,” said Cllr Kelly.
While Cllr Moore concluded that the vote in favour of the car park was effectively a fait accompli, and also questioned whether democracy was dead in Ballina, he urged that no work proceed on the car park until the Access Arts funding was secured from the Department of Arts Sports and Tourism. Otherwise, he suggested, with the town’s flawed history of proposed Arts Centres, the new centre could end up in Bonniconlon, and not Ballina.
A proposal to accept the project in its entirety was passed by five votes to four.

Protestors’ views
“We’re here because they’re planning to put a bridge at the Ballina boxes; we just want the location changed. We’ve been landing salmon there for over 100 years. What provisions are they making for public liability insurance because pedestrians could be hit by the leads on our rods when we are casting them.”
Mr Bobby Cording
Ballina Salmon Anglers’ Association member

“I don’t mind the Arts Centre or the theatre but I have to say not everyone in the town will be going to it and there are certain parts of the town, like the Council estates, that could better do with the €7.5 million that it’s going to cost. I’m against it because it’s the only green area left in the town. This is all about facilitating the Ridgepool Hotel for car parking.”
Ms Mary Ruttledge
Chairwoman of the Canalside Residents’ Association (speaking personally)