A Government Minister has said a “land grab” that could see a 30sq km section of Co Roscommon subsumed into Co Westmeath will not be going ahead under the current Government’s watch.
A report on the creation of a greater Athlone area, prepared by a three-man review group, is said to be completed but has yet to be submitted to Minister for Community and Local Government Simon Coveney.
However, regardless of the Athlone Boundary Review's recommendations, the proposed annexation will not happen in the lifetime of this Government, if ever, Roscommon-Galway TD and Minister for Communications Denis Naughten said.
He told The Irish Times that “one way or another we will not be proceeding with this land grab.”
“I will not, under any circumstances, be supporting the movement of the county boundary by even half an inch, and made this view known directly to the Taoiseach before my appointment to Cabinet.”
The Department of the Environment last year recommended that the southern part of Co Roscommon should lose 30sq km to Co Westmeath, as this would make it easier to manage the needs of Athlone. This was strongly supported by Westmeath County Council.
Last January, before becoming a member of Cabinet, Mr Naughten spoke of a “set of ‘invaders’ marching from Mullingar . . . to take over the economic heart of Co Roscommon – and we have to stop them.”
In June 2015, then minister for the environment Alan Kelly set up the review group to look at the border between the counties and make recommendations on the area around Athlone in the context of "effective and convenient local government".
It was to report at the end of March but the review group received 27,949 submissions, each of which had to be gone through. It was conducted by retired Cavan county manager Jack Keyes, retired principal officer at the Department of the Environment Donal Enright, and retired Limerick city and county senior planner Gerry Sheeran.
The proposal to move such a significant part of Co Roscommon into Westmeath has met with fierce opposition locally, with Roscommon standing to lose more than 10 per cent of its population (7,000 of its 64,065 people), and approximately 7,500 acres of some of the most prosperous and developed land in the county.
The area around Monksland has been developed by Roscommon County Council over many decades, and at the expense of other disadvantaged parts of the county. It has become a successful location for pharma and food firms, including Alkermes (formerly Elan), Arran, Sidero, Jazz Pharmaceuticals and Carty Meats. It is also worth €2.5 million a year in rates and taxes to the local authority, which has struggled to maintain its commercial rates base.
Concerns were also raised about the effect such a boundary change could have on two GAA clubs – Clann na nGael and St Brigid's – if some of their hinterland disappeared into Westmeath.
A 'Save Roscommon' committee was set up last September and includes former Roscommon county manager John Tiernan, former soldier Gerald Aherne, retired county engineer Paddy Kenny, cofounder of Monksland Towns Committee Deirdre Lennon, and local councillor Tony Ward.
It organised most of the submissions sent to the review group as well as a social media campaign which drew on support from the county's diaspora. Postings opposing any boundary change came from as far away as Paraguay, Abu Dhabi, New York, Australia and Hollywood, with actor Chris O'Dowd, a Boyle native, saying of the proposed boundary change: "They're trying to do WHAT?!"