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Topical Issue Debate - Army Barracks

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 752 No. 2

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Deputy Nicky McFadden: Information on Nicky McFadden Zoom on Nicky McFadden I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me the opportunity to speak, and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, for attending the House. I raise the matter of the 4th Western Brigade of the Defence Forces, which is based at Custume Barracks, Athlone, where it continues to operate within the new Defence Forces structure.

Custume Barracks was established at the conclusion of the Jacobite war, when much of the town of Athlone was in ruins following the great siege of 1691. The barracks has always played a vital role in the community and continues to do so. The 4th Western Brigade includes the 6th Infantry Battalion, located in Custume Barracks and Cavan; the 1st Infantry Battalion in Galway; the 28th Infantry Battalion in Donegal; the 4th Field Engineers in Custume Barracks; [269]the 4th Logistical Support Unit located in Custume Barracks; the 4th Cavalry Squadron, which relocated from Longford to Athlone; and the 4th Field Artillery Regiment, which will relocate from Mullingar to Athlone.

This year Custume Barracks will welcome more than 300 new troops as a result of the announcement in December that Columb Barracks in Mullingar and O’Neills Army Barracks in Cavan were to close. More than 170 troops from Mullingar and 130 troops from Cavan will move to the Athlone barracks which already accommodates approximately 900 troops. The closure of Columb Barracks in Mullingar came as a shock to the soldiers and their families. However, the Department has worked to ensure that the transfer to Athlone would be as smooth as possible and that there would be greater flexibility in the training and deployment of the whole Western Brigade.

There is growing concern in the constituency over the future status of Custume Barracks following the announcement that the Defence Forces is to lose one of its brigades, thereby moving from a three brigade structure to two brigades. The Minister has already given assurances that the restructuring will not include any further closures of Army barracks, which is welcome. However, the loss of brigade headquarter status in Athlone is still a major source of worry as it could result in the loss of certain specialised units.

I understand the Minister has requested the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General of the Department to produce a report on the reorganisation options for the Defence Forces. These recommendations are due at the end of the month. I fully accept that a reorganisation of the Defence Forces must take place in order to retain troop levels at a sustainable level and to release people in administration to the front line. However, although no decision has been reached, I urge the Minister, in the strongest terms possible, to ensure the 4th Western Brigade is retained as part of the new two brigade structure.

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter): Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter I thank my colleague, Deputy McFadden, for raising an issue of great concern to her. The defence organisation has an enviable track record of reform and modernisation. During the past decade when public service expenditure and employment levels increased, defence expenditure declined in real terms and personnel numbers decreased. During this period Defence Forces’ capabilities were also progressively improved and the Defence Forces have become partners of choice in international peace support operations. The Defence Forces continue to deliver a broad range of operational outputs on a day-to-day basis, many of which are not to the forefront of the public’s awareness.

It is the Government’s intention that the Defence Forces retain the capacity to fulfil all of the assigned roles to the greatest possible extent. Arising from the comprehensive review of expenditure, the Government has decided to maintain the strength of the Permanent Defence Forces at 9,500 personnel. This represents a reduction in the authorised strength ceiling and will contribute to the delivery of sustainable savings over the coming years.

In response to the revised strength ceiling of 9,500, a major reorganisation of the Defence Forces, including the Reserve Defence Force, has been initiated. This will encompass a reduction in the number of Army brigades from the current three to two. The primary focus of the reorganisation is to free up the maximum number of military personnel from administrative and support tasks. In short, the reorganisation is about maintaining operational outputs and capabilities to best effect within a reduced strength.

This task is a significant undertaking. It is one which will be regarded in years to come as a significant milestone in the history of the Defence Forces. A range of alternative approaches must be considered. I have asked the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General of the Department of Defence to bring forward detailed proposals for my consideration. This will include [270]proposals regarding territorial areas of responsibility. It will also include proposals relating to the Reserve Defence Force which is currently organised along similar lines to the Permanent Defence Force.

I am aware that there will be many competing views as to the best way to reorganise the Defence Forces and this will evoke passionate debate. However, I have not issued directions to the chief of staff and the Secretary General, and I do not intend to do so at this stage, that will limit their scope to bring forward a range of options. The Deputy will appreciate that in advance of receipt and consideration of proposals from them, I will not be in a position to answer detailed questions. However, I can confirm that further barrack closures are not envisaged as part of this process. I also want to state clearly that there will be no loss of employment. Once again, I re-emphasise the Government’s commitment to retain the strength of the Permanent Defence Force at existing levels.

The level of resourcing available to the Government over the coming years will present further challenges and every part of the public service will have to continue to deliver greater efficiencies. The preservation of the strength of the Permanent Defence Force at 9,500 personnel is a clear recognition by Government of the significant modernisation that has been achieved by the Defence organisation throughout the past decade. However, it is vital that we continue to strive for further improvements. The reorganisation of the Defence Forces is an integral element of this reform and will ensure that the Defence Forces maximise their operational outputs within the reduced resource envelope.

I look forward to working closely with the chief of staff and the Secretary General in furthering the re-organisation and the broader reform agenda. I hope this reform agenda will have the support of all sides of this House in the interests of the Defence Forces and in the interests of ensuring their operational capability and continued excellence in the manner in which they serve this State.

Deputy Nicky McFadden: Information on Nicky McFadden Zoom on Nicky McFadden That was a very disappointing answer. I understand the Minister needs to maintain the Defence Forces at 9,500 personnel but with so many new trips coming to the western brigade, I strongly urge him to consider holding on to it as the second brigade.

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter I would have hoped the Deputy would have regarded what I said as a hopeful answer for the future. We had a three brigade structure in the Defence Forces at a time when we had more than 15,000 troops. In the context of where we now stand with the number at 9,500, to ensure the maximum efficiencies, economies of scale and the delivery of service, it no longer makes any sense to retain a three brigade structure. The change to a two brigade structure involves a very considered overview of the best manner in which to proceed into the future and I want to be advised by the experts in this area, in particular the chief of staff and the Secretary General as to the options available. I have no wish to in any way interfere with or pre-empt that process but, ultimately, it will be a matter for decision. I am sure it will be a matter to be discussed into the future.

Based on the financial figures published by the previous Government in December 2010, the actual funding allocated to the Department of Defence and the plans of that Government, if it had remained in office, the Defence Forces, given the manner in which financial matters were being dealt with, could well have fallen to a figure below 8,000.

The manner in which this Government has proceeded to recalibrate financial issues which apply to the Department of Defence and the commitment of this Government have ensured that we maintain an annual number of 9,500 in the Defence Forces. That is based on multi-annual budgeting up to 2014. We have ensured the Defence Forces maintain a strength appro[271]priate and necessary to their continuing to fulfil their international and domestic duties. In that context, the further reorganisation now taking place is in the interests of the Defence Forces and the country. I have no doubt that after I receive the report I have requested, we will return to this issue.

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