Penrose quits on barracks issue


Labour Minister of State for Housing Willie Penrose has resigned his post today after a Cabinet meeting that discussed the closure of the Army barracks in Mullingar.

In a statement, Mr Penrose said he had made clear his "unstinting opposition" to proposals to close Columb Barracks, "so arising from a decision that was made at Cabinet today, I had no alternative but to take this course of action".

"I fully appreciate that difficult decisions have to be made by the Government if we are to get out of the economic mess in which we have found ourselves, but I was not prepared to stand over a decision that was not backed up by the facts and figures.

"I understand and appreciate that significant efforts were made by my Labour colleagues in Government, who fully understood the depths of my feelings in this regard, to resolve this matter, but to no avail." He said he could not continue in Government in the context of collective Cabinet responsibility.

Speaking later outside Leinster House, Mr Penrose said he took his decision on a point of principle.

He also dismissed the argument that €5 million would be achieved through the closure. "I understand a comprehensive spending review didn't indicate that [saving]. That's what Minister Shatter said, I have to say I've a totally different view on that context, and I think I'm on reasonably solid ground."

Earlier today, the Tánaiste said: "Mr Penrose has informed me that he can't continue as a minister in Government. “Following his decision, he has informed me that it is his intention to resign from Government. That’s a decision I very much regret,” Eamon Gilmore said.

Mr Gilmore said he was not surprised at Mr Penrose's announcement, given his publicly expressed opposition to the closure of the barracks in his constituency. "His view I think on it has been very well known."

“He’s a very good colleague. Somebody who has worked hard for the Labour Party both nationally and in his constituency. I understand his decision . . . but the Government has to make decisions which are in the best interests of the country.” Mr Gilmore was speaking at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin, where he was attending a conference.

The Taoiseach told the Dáil he had received his resignation with regret. “I commend Minister of State Penrose for his activities as Minister for Housing in making constructive propositions and difficult decisions," Enda Kenny said.

"I can understand any deputy having to make a decision like he made. But this is a case where Cabinet has to make decisions and that is our job . . . the mandate we were given is to sort out the problems of this country, and that is what we intend to do."

Mr Kenny said the proceeds from the sale of Army barracks would be used to fund the upgrading of equipment and infrastructure. He added the sale of barracks was part of a series of reforms the Government had to undertake to rectify the fact that the State was paying €18 billion more than it was taking in.

Commenting, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn said he respected Mr Penrose's decision on a personal basis. "But the country has lost its economic sovereignty [and] we are in receivership. We have a difficult task ahead. There are no easy choices, and nobody and no area of the country and no section of the society can be exempt - sad and all as that is - and we have to do this as quickly as possible to regain our economic sovereignty.

"Willie will remain a good colleague; as far as I’m concerned, he made his own personal decision, and it was with a certain sense of sadness that everybody recognised that he was making that decision.”

Mr Penrose (54) has been a major vote-getter for Labour since he was first elected to the Dáil in 1992. Last February, he topped the poll in Longford-Westmeath with 11,406 votes, having topped the poll also in 1997 and 2002. Before he stood for Labour, the last time the party held a seat in Westmeath was in 1927.

Mr Penrose started his career in politics when, at just 13, he become the branch secretary of the party in his home town of Ballinacargy, Co Westmeath. A trained barrister, he still lives in the town and is married with three daughters.

A number of local county councillors were also said to be considering resigning from Labour over the Mullingar barracks issue.

The Labour leader on Westmeath County Council, Cllr Michael Dollard, told local radio this morning he would resign from the party if the Government ignored the views of Mr Penrose.

Asked what the resignation of Mr Penrose and Cllr Dollard's threat said about Labour Party unity, Mr Quinn said he took from the "extraordinary mandate" from the last election that the Irish people wanted Labour to be in government in difficult times, "and they expect us to take the necessary but fair decisions that being in government means".

Last month, about 1,000 people protested in Mullingar over fear the barracks may be closed. Mr Penrose told the rally Mullingar's 200-year military history could not be sacrificed for a proposal "which does not stand up to scrutiny".

"Decisions should be based on evidence, on rationality and as to whether they make economic sense for the whole of society, not for just one department or organ of State," he said.

A decision to close the barracks would not meet any of those criteria, while developing a barracks to receive the soldiers would cost "a blue fortune".

He proposed developing the barracks, which has advanced communications structures, to support a training centre for the Reserve Defence Forces, Civil Defence or Red Cross.

In September, he told a meeting of soldiers' families in Mullingar that closing Columb Barracks would be an act of "crass stupidity" and made no sense, logistically or economically.