Wednesday, 25 February 2004

Questions (8)

Jimmy Deenihan


95 Mr. Deenihan asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism the position regarding the acquisition of additional space to refurbish and extend the Abbey Theatre; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6171/04]

View answer

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism)

As I informed the Deputy in response to a similar question on 18 December last, the Government, on 29 January 2003, authorised me to invite expressions of interest by way of public invitation from the private sector in participating, on the basis of a PPP, in the capital redevelopment of the Abbey Theatre in and-or around the vicinity of the site of the existing theatre.

My Department, with the Department of Finance and the Office of Public Works, has been working to implement that decision. To be compatible with the functions, profile, and status of a national theatre and to address the acknowledged defects with the existing theatre a redeveloped premises requires: to be a signature development, representative of a national theatre in the 21st century; to be in an appropriate civic setting and form part of the overall urban regeneration represented by the O'Connell Street integrated area plan and north-east inner city plan; three significant enlarged auditoria — Abbey, Peacock and a third multi-purpose space; a dedicated education and outreach facility; a publicly accessible archive; a restaurant-bar; improved public areas; disabled access for audiences and artists; and best practice theatre production facilities.

For the Abbey and Peacock to function efficiently, effectively and without compromise, their basic functioning must not depend on movement of goods and people by mechanical lift. In essence this means that the stages of both the Abbey and Peacock must be positioned at ground level. In addition, both theatres must have easy access, also at the same level, to the scenery store and the prop store. It is agreed between the management of the Abbey and the OPW that there is a requirement for a ground floor footprint that is considerably larger than now exists. Therefore, for the theatre to stay in its existing location it will be necessary to acquire properties adjacent to the existing premises.

Indications are that such acquisition will prove very costly and problematic in timescale. My Department and the OPW are carefully examining all the issues now arising and I hope to report to Government in the very near future.

Is the Minister implying that it will be very difficult to stay on the present site if we are to refurbish the existing Abbey Theatre? In a recent interview in The Irish Times the Abbey’s artistic director expressed similar sentiments, stating that it would take four times the existing footprint to provide a new theatre. In view of the possibility that it may be very difficult to acquire the necessary space on the present site, is the Minister actively looking at other sites in the city? For example, the Carlton cinema has been mentioned and that site would be part of the regeneration of the centre of Dublin. The Custom House is now unoccupied. Could that be considered? Will the Minister go back to the original site at Grand Canal Quay? That was the original choice of the board in 2001 but for political reasons it was thwarted. Are the Minister and his Department looking at additional sites, apart from those already mentioned, to provide a proper theatre for the new millennium? This is the centenary of the Abbey, which is surely the time to go forward with a new, state-of-the-art theatre.

There is no doubt that for many people the Abbey has a cultural and historic resonance which for obvious reasons would not be replicated in another site. We have not yet actively engaged in looking at alternative sites because the OPW is currently looking at the options for the properties which would be required for a larger footprint at the present location.

I am coming to the conclusion that because of problems of cost and acquisition it may not now be possible for us to proceed with the construction of the new Abbey Theatre at its present location. That has not been ruled out but it is beginning to look more difficult. Obviously once a decision is made on this I will go to the Government for a recommendation. At that point we would look at alternatives.

I appeal to the Minister to avoid a repetition of the national stadium saga. It was not the Minister's fault that the saga went on for four or five years. However, it is important that there is no recurrence of this procrastination in the case of the Abbey. Does he agree that the Abbey is as much a state of mind and ideas and a geographical footprint? Moving it to another location will not damage the future of theatre in the country. I am not one of those people who are hung up on the present site if it cannot be expanded or if the floor space for a proper theatre cannot be provided. When will the Minister make the decision to move away from the existing proposal? When will he decide to examine other sites?

The ghost of Lady Gregory is not likely to be seen at a new location, if that is what Deputy Deenihan is suggesting, but it is necessary for us to finalise opinions on the existing location and on the possibility of acquiring additional properties there to enlarge the footprint. I do not intend to bring recommendations to the Government until we have come to a decision on that. We should reach a conclusion relatively soon but I remind the Deputy I have been in this position for only 18 months. We have a stadium. The conference centre——

We are moving on.

Now we are getting culture.

The Minister implied he is going to move. He has more or less announced that today.