A scene from last year's commemoration of the centenary of British Forces' withdrawal from Custume Barracks in Athlone. (Photo: Óglaigh na hÉireann, Flickr)

Army national HQ status 'would bring a major jobs boost for Athlone'

Athlone councillors have reiterated their support for the possible designation of Custume Barracks as the headquarters of the Irish Army, saying it would be hugely beneficial in adding jobs and boosting the local economy.

At the March meeting of the Athlone Moate Municipal District, Cllr Paul Hogan tabled a motion calling for a letter to be written to the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and the Tánaiste and Minister for Defence, Micheál Martin, outlining the councillors' support for the Athlone Army headquarters designation.

Cllr Hogan pointed out it was now more than twelve months since the publication of a report by the Commission on the Defence Forces which recommended the establishment of an Army headquarters at a "central location" in the country.

"This would result in hundreds of additional jobs for Athlone and the surrounding area, and would be huge in terms of the local economy as well," said the Independent councillor.

"Overall, I think it would be a very positive move following the disbandment of the 4th Western Brigade (which had its headquarters in Athlone) in 2012. Athlone has so much going for it and here, in the centre of the country, would be an ideal location for it."

The motion was unanimously supported by the other councillors, with the District Mayor, Cllr Vinny McCormack, saying he believed a decision on the location for the headquarters could be "fairly imminent".

"I would certainly agree with Cllr Hogan, and the sooner we get a letter sent out the better," said Cllr McCormack. "I think the advantages Athlone has (as a possible Army HQ site) are clear and obvious in terms of its location and existing facilities."

Cllr Aengus O'Rourke agreed that local representatives "should be to the fore" in lending their support for the headquarters, while Cllr Frankie Keena described the discussion as "very timely and urgent".

"Custume Barracks has brought a lot of employment to the town over the years, and it's important that we keep it high on the agenda to ensure that continues," he said.

Cllr John Dolan praised the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces as "a great piece of work," which was initiated by his Fine Gael party colleague, Simon Coveney, while he was Minister for Defence.

"The best thing about the report was that all ranks were spoken to - not just those at the top," Cllr Dolan.

During years when Fianna Fáil was in opposition, its leader and the current Defence Minister, Mr Martin, gave a commitment that the party would reinstate the 4th Western Brigade when it was back in Government.

Cllr Dolan made a reference to this during the discussion about the possible headquarters designation for Athlone.

"I know that the present Minister for Defence was fully committed to it before the last general election. He is in a position now to do it, so I hope he will fulfil what he was hoping to do when he was in opposition," said Cllr Dolan.

"I wish him luck with it, and I hope it does come off because it is the right location, it's the right place, and I think the right personnel are there."

It was agreed that a letter from the Municipal District would be sent to the Minister and the Taoiseach on the issue.

Last month, Minister Martin responded to a letter from his party's Westmeath TD, Robert Troy, saying it would be inappropriate for him to engage in "speculation" about where an Army headquarters might be established.

He stated that the Commission on the Defence Forces had recommended that the structure of the Army be reviewed, "and in this context, the disposition of Units across the Defence Forces may be considered".

He said military authorities were in the process of establishing "an office of Army Force design" which would oversee the recommended review of Army structures.

"The Implementation Management Office is working on the production of a detailed implementation plan for the remaining recommendations which will include those which may assist with informing any decision about an Army headquarters," wrote Minister Martin.