Seanad Éireann - Volume 158 - 10 March, 1999

Adjournment Matters. - Court Accommodation.

Ms O'Meara: I thank the Minister for coming to the House to deal with this important matter. I assume he has good news for me.

The Minister will be aware that Nenagh courthouse has been closed since 8 February resulting in considerable problems for members of the public and users of the courthouse. The courthouse is a very fine building, as are many courthouses throughout the country. It dominates Banba Square in the centre of Nenagh and is a building of considerable historic, architectural and heritage importance. However, the condition of the courthouse has deteriorated to such an extent that it is no longer suitable for public use. The Department found the building to be unsafe and took the initiative to close it to protect public health. This is very serious given that the county council, who currently has administrative offices in the back section of the courthouse, has indicated its intention to move out of the building into new county council offices in Limerick Road, Nenagh. This raises concerns for the future of the building. In fact, one public official mentioned selling the courthouse and turning it into a hotel. However, I and others are determined this will not happen.

North Tipperary County Council has stated that it is the responsibility of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to provide funds for the refurbishment and restoration of the courthouse, and I would be grateful if the Minister would clarify the matter. I have received correspondence also from the Tipperary and Offaly Sessional Bar Association expressing their concern about the matter and stating that it is their opinion that lack of funds is not the problem; the problem seems to be spending the funds. I would appreciate if the matter could be clarified because it is of considerable importance to the people of Nenagh. This afternoon I spoke to a barrister from the midlands who informed me that there is [754] a similar problem in Portlaoise and that the courthouse in Longford has been closed for two years. I understand from other sources that there has been a local agreement in relation to Longford courthouse.

I want to put on the record that it is the unanimous view of the local community whom I consulted – even if the county council did not – that this building be retained in public hands and not be sold for commercial purposes or to fund the building of new county council offices. That would be an outrage and will be strongly resisted. I know I speak for the community in Nenagh when I say that it would be outrageous if a public building of this stature is sold and turned into a commercial operation in order to fund the expansionist mentality of the county council officials. Finally, this very fine building is badly in need of restoration and my question is who will carry out the repairs?

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): As Senator O'Meara said it was necessary to close the main entrance and the Circuit Court room at Nenagh courthouse as a result of the dangerous condition of the ceilings in these particular areas of the building. The District Court continues to sit in the courthouse at present with access through the county council office entrance.

It was reported to my Department in early February that a portion of the plaster had fallen from the ceiling in the Circuit Court room. My Department immediately asked Tipperary North Riding County Council to appoint an independent structural engineer to investigate the matter and to report on the condition of the courthouse. The structural engineer examined the courthouse in conjunction with my Department's architect on 8 February and a decision was made on the same day to prevent access by the public to the main entrance hall and the Circuit Court room on the grounds of public safety.

My Department has commenced consultation with Tipperary North Riding County Council regarding the actions to be taken to address this serious situation which has arisen. Arrangements are being made to hold the next sitting of the Circuit Court in Clonmel.

Given the extent of the problems identified by the structural engineer it is evident that the best solution to the problems which have arisen lies in the full refurbishment of Nenagh courthouse. My Department had always intended to refurbish Nenagh courthouse when it was vacated by the county council staff but this would not have been for another couple of years. As the Senator is probably aware the county council has plans to move its offices to a new site.

There is a need to act more quickly than previously planned. My officials will meet county council officials in the near future with a view to progressing the refurbishment of the courthouse so that the current difficulties can be addressed [755] and to provide upgraded facilities for all court users in the Nenagh area.

The Senator will be aware that my Department recently carried out works on the Roscrea courthouse. It would be wrong to have a beautiful courthouse in Roscrea and not to have one of equal merit in Nenagh.

I understand the Senator's concern with regard [756] to turning Nenagh courthouse into a hotel. Years ago it was not unusual for people to turn hotels into courthouses but I assure her that Nenagh courthouse will be refurbished at the earliest possible date and I will keep her informed of developments.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 11 March 1999.