“Ah! Have you given up writing the article for The Nationalist” asked the elderly female caller but before I could answer she continued “I miss it, it’s the first thing I read in the paper every week”. She wasn’t the only anxious enquirer during the two weeks of my enforced absence. How could I explain that, after nearly six years of meeting weekly deadlines, it was politicians who caused me to miss, for two weeks in succession, the Eye on Athy page of your weekly newspaper. The politicians in the lead up to local elections had booked an advertisement to replace your scribes’ weekly jottings. As some wag said to me “maybe it was to make sure you didn’t write anything about the Inner Relief Road”.
The last two weeks have witnessed many changes, some good, others not so welcome. Croke Park was a cacophony of sound mostly emanating from Offaly breasts as the footballers of Kildare went out of this year’s football championship. Even my travelling companion, whose passion for football would rouse a latter day Rip Van Winkle could not raise a ripple of dissent or a muscle in rage as our heroes crumbled under the unceasing waves of the Offaly gaels (sic).
Local hero Christy Byrne, who had a magnificent game that Sunday afternoon, could not save his team mates from the defeat which had been presaged by a couple of lack lustre games towards the end of the league season. We can now take an enforced holiday from football for the rest of the year and still bask in the glory and glamour which Kildare invested in Gaelic football during the great summer of ’98.
The disappointment of Croke Park was compensated for by the happenings in Dreamland Ballroom the previous Saturday. It was here in the hall of so many romances where we once strutted our stuff that the Town Clerk oversaw the election count for Athy Urban District Council. This year there was an important issue before the electorate and one which obviously shaped the outcome of the election. The Inner Relief Road controversy which has raged for some years past, was in danger of being side-lined a week or two before the elections. It would have been if the Council officials who have in the past shown little stomach for public debate on the issue had succeeded in having the Town Development Plan adopted before the 11th June. That it wasn’t owes much to a stroke of luck which saw proceedings in the High Court initiated by a building contractor who possibly felt that his plans were being sacrificed in the headlong rush to get the Inner Relief Road off the election agenda. The High Court decided that the outgoing Council should not consider the plan and that this task should be left to the newly-elected Council. As a result the Inner Relief Road remained an issue before and during the local elections and now has given us a new Town Council with a specific mandate on the issue.
Despite the changes brought about in the composition of the Town Council following the election, arrangements were already in hand for the out-going Council to meet three days afterwards for the purposes of adopting the Development Plan. I have never before come across a record of any out-going Council meeting after an election to make decisions committing those newly elected to a course of action they might not want. That surely was not intended by the legislators and the meeting, if it had gone ahead, would have given cause for complaint that the spirit of the law, not its substance, had been breached.
I was somewhat aghast to read in the papers of the suggestion that the Development Plan would not be considered by the new Council until June 2000. Isn’t it tragic to think that even before the newly-elected Council takes office, they are being subjected to this type of nonsense. The adoption of the Town Development Plan is for the new Town Council and one can expect that the public representatives we have elected will act quickly and responsibly in the matter. Suggestions that the Plan would next be considered in June 2000 is both unhelpful and inconsiderate and can only raise the hackles of those who, rightly or wrongly regard the adoption of the Development Plan as a precursor to an economic boom in Athy. There is no reason why the extraordinary speed with which the officials directed the latter stages of the Town Development Plan consultation process prior to the local elections could not be repeated so as to ensure its early adoption. But don’t hold your breath dear reader for speed is not a natural attribute of council officials. Otherwise why are we still waiting for speed limits to be extended outside the town and why is it that there has not been any concerted attempt to implement any form of traffic management to ease the town’s traffic problems.
Athy Urban Development Group played a highly significant part in highlighting the Inner Relief Road as a local election issue. Those involved in that group are for the most part uninvolved in party politics, being housewives and men whose only interest is their home town of Athy. The forty or so men and women walked every housing estate dropping leaflets which explained to the public the facts surrounding the inner relief road and laying to rest the myth that Athy’s future development depended on such a roadway being built.
Democracy has prevailed even if the whingers on the sideline still refuse to acknowledge that the Inner Relief Road was an election issue. Every excuse under the sun will be canvassed in support of their claim that the election was not an exercise of the local people’s franchise for or against the road plans. The facts show that every candidate who opposed the inner relief road increased his vote substantially while those who supported the road showed a dramatic loss of votes over previous election results. The people of Athy have spoken with a clarity which deserves to be listened to and councillors and officials might now take on board their views. The time has now come for a united approach on a by-pass for Athy with a complementary new street system, which would allow our town to develop in a natural and progressive way. Our new Town Council must ensure that we are not cursed by future generations for complicity in the destruction of our town which could only result from the building of an Inner Relief Road.