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Major redevelopment of the Abbey Theatre a step closer as it awaits government green light

The Abbey Theatre’s long hoped-for redevelopment is awaiting final approval from the government.

The government has pledged €80 million under Project Ireland 2040 to the Abbey Theatre.
The government has pledged €80 million under Project Ireland 2040 to the Abbey Theatre.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Images

THE ABBEY THEATRE is on the cusp of getting a green light from the government for its plans for a significant redevelopment of the site in Dublin’s city centre.

The major redevelopment would see the demolition of the existing theatre and surrounding properties owned by the Abbey, and will come over more than a decade of the Abbey trying to seek a solution to “seriously deficient” facilities at the site.

After a series of high-level meetings over the summer, with the Taoiseach also taking an interest in the project, an announcement on the future plans for the theatre is expected within the coming months. 

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht confirmed that it had received the business case for the €20+ million redevelopment and had reviewed the plans.

However, due to the high cost of the plan, it must also receive a green light from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform before progressing to the next stage. 

‘Progress quickly’

A redevelopment of the Abbey has long been mooted but there has been little development publicly for over 12 months now, since the appointment of UK consultants BOP Consulting to make the business case. 

It was important at this stage to create a proposal that would justify public money being pumped into the project, and it was the preferred option of the Abbey Theatre to put forward a financial model that would demonstrate how an expanded theatre would achieve financial sustainability. 

In documents released to TheJournal.ie under the Freedom of Information Act, correspondence between Abbey Theatre board chair Frances Ruane and Department of Culture secretary general Katherine Licken focuses in on the redevelopment plans that had been discussed at previous meetings.

At a number of occasions over the summer, meetings were held over the proposed redevelopment.

On 7 June, Ruane met Licken with a copy of a draft business case for the redevelopment, and updated her on developments at the theatre.

During the following week, Ruane and Licken met again with Minister Josepha Madigan also in attendance. At this time, Ruane presented Madigan with a draft of the plan.

A further follow-up email came after this meeting.

In it, Ruane expressed her hope that she would send a completed copy of the strategy by the end of June.

“It would be wonderful if, as the minister suggested, it could be used in the context of her making a further announcement about the project,” the chair of the Abbey board wrote.

Following on from our earlier meeting last week, I have asked for work to progress quickly on timelines so that you will have indicative requirements for the financial roll out of the project.

‘Important’ commitment

A further meeting on 26 July went into details of the costs involved in relation to the Abbey redevelopment. 

Following this meeting, Ruane sent a follow-up email to Licken again. 

“This is the indicative cost profile based on the business case (submitted in June) and with work done within the Abbey Theatre following our meeting,” she said. 

The government’s commitment in this regard is very important both from the domestic market perspective and especially from the point of view of [redacted].

Reference is also made to the Department of Culture liaising with the Department of Education on this redacted matter. From the documents, it is clear the Abbey was hopeful for an announcement to be made regarding the redevelopment of the theatre in September. 

“I look forward to hearing form [sic] you in September about the likely next stage of announcement for the project,” Ruane wrote. “We would hope that the clock would start soon so that we are in a position [redacted].”

According to a filing on the Lobbying Register, Ruane also discussed the matter with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar while he attended a production in August.

The filing said that Varadkar inquired as to the status of the redevelopment project and Ruane summarised the situation and advised that further announcements were awaited from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

‘Finalised’

A spokesperson for the department told TheJournal.ie that, under the Project Ireland 2040 plans, €80 million has been earmarked for the Abbey Theatre which is more than the National Library of Ireland, the National Archives and the National Museum of Modern Art combined.  

The department said that “following wide consultation”, a business case for a new national theatre had been submitted in June, and a review has since been conducted.

“As the cost of the Abbey Theatre Redevelopment Project is over €20 million, the Abbey Theatre’s Business Case/Cost Benefit Analysis will also need to be reviewed by the Department of Public Expenditure & Reform in the coming months, as required under the Public Spending Code,” it said.

Once the above reviews are finalised, an announcement(s) will be made on the project.

Neil Murray, director of the Abbey Theatre, told TheJournal.ie that developing the Abbey is a long time coming.

“The current Abbey Theatre building is over 50 years old and is widely recognised as being seriously deficient in the facilities it provides for artists, audiences and staff and in terms of its energy efficiency,” he said. “The Abbey Theatre has been seeking to find a solution to improve this situation, for more than a decade.”

He added that, following widespread consultation, the theatre has submitted its case to the department. 

“We are not in a position to provide a timeline for the project at present,” he added.

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Sean Murray

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