Other Questions.

National Emergency Plan.

Michael Mulcahy

Question:

85 Mr. Mulcahy asked the Minister for Defence the progress made on the provision of a national emergency co-ordinating centre; the location of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8634/07]

I am pleased to inform the Deputy that significant progress has been made in the establishment of a national emergency co-ordination centre. The centre is located in Agriculture House, Kildare Street. The building work is now complete and the centre will be furnished and ready to open within the next two to three weeks. The technical and communications needs of the centre are being addressed and this aspect of the work should also be finalised in the very near future.

The primary purpose of the centre will be to provide a dedicated, multi-functional facility in which Ministers and-or senior officials may convene to co-ordinate the response in the event of a major emergency.

As I understand it, this is a communications centre in dealing with major emergencies, but it is not built as a bunker or shelter designed to withstand an actual physical attack. When was the decision made to establish such a centre and why was this particular location chosen?

The Deputy is right in saying it is not a bunker. There are no physical protection measures in place such as one might see in an underground bunker. The decision was made by the Government following a recommendation made in the environmental resources management consultancy report. To the best of my knowledge, the group concerned reported to the Government in 2003. In 2005 the Government approved the establishment of a national emergency co-ordination centre and asked the interdepartmental working group on emergency planning to consider the matter, including its location. The reason this location was chosen was that among the criteria was that the centre would have to be secure, easily accessible and have good communications facilities. We were very fortunate to secure a part of Agriculture House, Kildare Street, close to the centre of Government, just up the road from Leinster House. We are in the process of installing robust communications systems. There will also be facilities for an incident room, meeting rooms and other essential services.

Will the centre be permanently manned or will it operate on an on-call basis? If so, is there an agreed timeframe for getting the group together in order that it would be able to react to an incident? There was a minor issue some months ago — a burst water main on the N11 — which caused pandemonium for several hours. Will the Minister say whether his group learned anything from that incident, because there was a similar occurrence on the northern side of the M50 a couple of years ago, following an accident when traffic on the entire motorway came to a standstill for a few hours?

The centre will be run by the Office of Emergency Planning located within the Department of Defence. My understanding is that a few people will be located there on a permanent basis. In the event of an emergency we will immediately contact all those involved in the emergency task force and get them into position as quickly as possible in order that they may respond. That is how it will work. There will also be other functions. There will be facilities for video conferencing, if some individuals are not available etc. Technologically, the centre will be advanced.

What about traffic congestion on the N11?

My apologies to the Deputy. We discussed the matter at the emergency task force meeting. I hope to have another meeting of the task force shortly at which we shall receive a specific report on the incident.

My reason for raising the issue is that the public wants to be assured that there is such a centre and that there will be effective communications in the event of a national emergency. Trucks breaking down on our main roads constitutes an emergency, but thank God — touch wood — there has not been a major terrorist attack in this city for a long time, or a major disaster at sea or in the air. Will there be information programmes to ensure the public will be fully aware of the centre and that it is operational? It might be an idea to issue an invitation to all Members of the Oireachtas and even perhaps county managers to tour the centre when it is fully operational. Opposition Members may laugh, but, frankly, it would be good for public confidence if Members of the Oireachtas were to visit the centre and be shown the full mechanics of how it would operate.

The Minister can bring the Dublin-based Fianna Fáil Deputies to see it during the general election campaign.

I agree with my colleague, Deputy Mulcahy, that there is a need to increase public awareness of the existence of the co-ordination centre and the emergency planning task force. This country is as ready as it can be to deal with any emergency that may occur, including a nuclear accident or terrorist attack. The Department intends to launch a public information campaign involving television advertisements, etc, aimed at every house in the country, to explain in ordinary layman's language how emergency planning works in this country. It has completed a tender process and contracted a company to undertake the campaign, which is ready to roll. Deputy Timmins will be delighted to hear that material containing my photograph will not be sent to every house in the country as part of the emergency planning campaign.

Was that decision taken on foot of PR advice?

An essential aspect of the campaign will involve informing the public about the location, existence and function of the national co-ordination centre. I am interested in Deputy Mulcahy's suggestion that Members of the Oireachtas should be invited to the centre to see it for themselves. I will talk to the appropriate people about that suggestion, which is a good one.

Hear, hear.

If the centre were to be relocated in Limerick, the Minister's photograph could be included in the awareness material. How often does the emergency planning task force meet? Does it meet on a regular basis, even though the national emergency co-ordination centre is not yet up and running? Does it have a permanent staff? Does the Minister propose to establish a hotline to enable contact to be made by the public? While I do not expect people to be able to telephone the centre to say that Martians have arrived, the work of the centre should involve a two-way process.

The task force meets every five weeks, on average. I envisage that a hotline, staffed by people using a bank of telephone facilities, will be made available to the public in the event of an emergency.

Defence Forces Recruitment.

Breeda Moynihan-Cronin

Question:

86 Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin asked the Minister for Defence if there is provision for a person who applied unsuccessfully for admission to the Permanent Defence Forces to reapply; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8887/07]

The day-to-day administration of recruitment to the Defence Forces is the responsibility of the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces. One can enter the Permanent Defence Force through the cadetship competition, the apprenticeship competition, the general service enlistment process or the direct entry competitions which are held to fill vacancies in specialist areas. If an unsuccessful applicant reapplies for a position in the Permanent Defence Force, he or she will be considered within the normal eligibility criteria. The number of applications received each year for positions in the Permanent Defence Force usually far exceeds the number of positions available annually. The nature of the recruitment process, which includes a competitive interview, means that many applicants who meet the eligibility criteria are not successful.

I intend to maintain the Government's established policy of providing for ongoing recruitment to the Defence Forces. Continued recruitment into the Permanent Defence Force will maintain its strength at the level set out in the White Paper as being necessary to meet military needs — 10,500 Permanent Defence Force members at all ranks. Information on careers in the Defence Forces can be obtained on their website, www.military.ie.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Many people from the north inner city of Dublin, which I represent, contact me after their applications to join the Defence Forces are unsuccessful. While I do not suggest they are discriminated against, their applications seem to result in an inordinate lack of success. It seems to me that the Army should be more anxious to get more staff from this area. The Garda is keen to recruit from the north inner city, if possible. The Army does not seem to have a terribly positive attitude to those whose origin, location or postal address is in Dublin 1, in particular.

The Minister responded to my question about whether people can reapply to join the Defence Forces by saying of course they can reapply. Is there any chance of second applications being successful, however? Can the Minister tell me what percentage of people who reapply are successful? If a further application is made by a person who was not successful in the first instance, it is likely that he or she will not be successful on the second occasion. It is rather unsatisfactory that my constituents are experiencing such circumstances.

I do not have figures pertaining to the number of people who make second applications. I can get that information for the Deputy. As of 2 March last, some 1,154 applications had been made to join the Defence Forces. Just 66 of those applications were found to be unsuitable. If one's application is deemed to be unsuitable, one does not get past first base. One might be deemed unsuitable for any of three reasons. One might not reach the specific height requirement of 5 ft. 2 in., one might not meet the prescribed medical or fitness standards or one might not get the necessary security clearance. A small proportion — between a quarter and a third — of those who are deemed to be suitable under those three categories are then successful following the competitive interview process. There are many applicants for every available position in the Army.

The question of unsuitability arises when candidates do not meet the height requirement, do not pass the physical test or do not get security clearance. If candidates do not meet any one of those criteria, they will not be successful. If one receives correspondence telling one that one has been deemed to be unsuitable, or if one is not selected following the interview process, one can ask for further feedback. If one contacts the barracks to which one applied in the first instance, one will be given the feedback that the authorities are allowed to supply. If one has been rejected in the past on the basis of a lack of suitability, but one now feels one meets the relevant criteria because something has changed for some reason, of course one can reapply — there is no problem about that.

I have no problem with the height requirement and the medical test. I would like to comment on the third ground of unsuitability, however. I understand that the Army will deem one to be unsuitable if it learns that one got into trouble with the law in a minor way when one was in one's teens, even if one's minor infringement would not give rise to any security concerns. Are there any proposals to re-examine what constitutes unsuitability on the basis of security matters? We should ensure that this provision is not all-encompassing in a general way. People who were vulnerable at a particular time and came to the attention of the Garda on foot of a minor infringement should be reassessed in consultation with the local Garda station.

Under certain provisions in the Defence Forces' regulations, certain categories of people are deemed to be unsuitable from a security perspective. I can give the Deputy a copy of the regulations if he wishes. The regulations stipulate that a person who has been convicted of a serious criminal offence by the Special Criminal Court, or by a civil court, are not eligible for enlistment in the Reserve Defence Forces on security grounds. The Deputy asked about young people who had a brush with the law at some time in the past. I have encountered such cases in my own city. Applications made by such people are judged on a case-by-case basis. Security clearance is decided on by the Garda in conjunction with military intelligence. As far as I know — I will have to check — local gardaí are consulted as part of that process, although not directly by the Army. I presume this goes to a certain section of Garda headquarters which consults the local Garda to ascertain the position regarding this individual. The person is then deemed to be either suitable or unsuitable on security grounds. If there is any way to make the system more transparent while at the same time not undermining the policy which underlies such a system, I would be prepared to consider it.

Whereas I accept what Deputy Costello says, I wish to put on the record of the House that nobody has ever complained to me in more than 20 years of public life in this city that they believe they had been hard done by with regard to an application to the Defence Forces. I am not saying it does not happen but I reiterate that no complaint has ever been made to me.

I am pleased to hear the Minister's reply. A valid point has been made about transparency.

The Deputy should put a question to the Minister as this is Question Time.

Will the Minister agree that if a period of ten or 15 years had elapsed between a minor offence such as a road traffic matter and a person being refused entry to the Defence Forces, that at the very least there should be some transparent system, subject to security requirements, so the person is made aware of his credit rating, so to speak? If a person fails a credit test with the Irish Credit Bureau, he or she can look up the information on the credit impediment.

The same applies for applicants to the Garda Síochána and they must also undergo a security check. The system is exactly equivalent for applicants to the Army except that military intelligence is involved even though I imagine this involvement is peripheral and merely a formality. The Garda record of an applicant is what is taken into account.

The suggestion made by Deputy Costello and Deputy Mulcahy seems to be sensible. I will have a chat with the relevant authorities. A person who has committed a minor offence 15 or 20 years ago should not be debarred on security grounds. As Minister for Defence I would not regard such a person as a security risk and I admit I have had a few complaints in my constituency, mainly from people who want to join the Garda Síochána and one or two who want to join the Army.

I note the Minister has also had complaints.

We will not wrangle about it. Viewed objectively it seems rather harsh that somebody who has had a minor brush with the law several years ago which might not even have resulted in a conviction or else merely the application of the Probation Act, are told out of the blue they are unsuitable to join the Defence Forces even though they have turned their lives around or there is no other blemish on their character. I will engage in some discussions about that matter.

Charlie O'Connor

Question:

87 Mr. O’Connor asked the Minister for Defence the numbers the Defence Forces expect to recruit in 2007, across all ranks and services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8645/07]

The strength of the Permanent Defence Force on 31 January 2007, the latest date for which detailed figures are available, as advised by the military authorities was 10,426.

The current projected figure for recruitment to the Permanent Defence Force in 2007 is in the region of 560 general service recruits and 40 apprentices. The number of cadets to be recruited is currently under consideration and is expected to be in the region of 45. In addition, direct entry competitions, held to fill a small number of vacancies in specialist appointments, are currently open.

The White Paper on Defence of February 2000 sets out a figure of 10,500 personnel for the Permanent Defence Force, comprising 930 for the Air Corps, 1,144 for the Naval Service and 8,426 for the Army.

It is my intention to maintain the established Government policy of ongoing recruitment to the Defence Forces. Recruitment to the Permanent Defence Force will continue to maintain the strength at the level set out in the White Paper as required to meet military needs.

I thank the Minister for looking after my questions so well. I often muse that in other circumstances I might have ended up in the Defence Forces if I had been accepted because my Dad was a wartime soldier——

That would be a security risk.

Yes, I could have been. My maternal Grandad was a soldier and my paternal grandfather while he was not in the armed forces was killed at sea by a German bomb.

The purpose of my question is to recognise that the world is now a different and more dangerous place, certainly more so than when we were growing up. Ireland now has a superb reputation throughout the world as a super economy and it has defence responsibilities. Is the Minister satisfied that all Ireland's commitments both at home and overseas can be met within the current strength of the Permanent Defence Force? Is this a good or bad year for recruitment?

I am satisfied the Army is at sufficient strength as outlined in the White Paper to satisfy all our overseas commitments. However, Ireland has a standing commitment to deploy up to 10% of its standing Army overseas at any one time, being a total of approximately 850 troops. The current number is 808 which must be as near to the maximum as we have ever reached since we entered into that commitment. Nevertheless, the largest contingent abroad consists of 325 troops in Liberia and most of those troops will be returning home later this year. Our commitment in Lebanon runs to about 165 or 166 troops and is until next July or August at which point the Government will review the position and those troops may well be coming home. The situation in Kosovo is that following the general election and a recent meeting of the GAERC, of the European Union Defence Ministers, it is envisaged that downsizing of the United Nations mission in Kosovo is about to commence and personnel will be returning home.

This is an average year for recruitment. We want to maintain numbers. The standing Army figure on an average monthly basis is approximately 10,500, between all the different branches. There are currently vacancies in the Naval Service and the Air Corps but they are dealt with in more detail in the next question.

Some issues arise from the Minister's reply. Will the Minister indicate whether he has any idea whether the term in Lebanon will be extended or the commitment of troops will be increased, based on the assumption that the return from Liberia would allow an opportunity to supply more troops to Lebanon? Were additional troops or an extension of the period of commitment requested during the Minister's visit to Lebanon?

The Minister referred to the recruitment of 40 apprentices. The apprenticeship school was closed several years ago. My understanding is that this has caused some difficulty. Has the Minister any reason to review the decision to close the apprenticeship school with a view to re-opening it at the Curragh Camp? What are his views on this matter? Will he agree to consider the impact of the closing of the apprenticeship school on the Defence Forces?

I will certainly consider the matter. I have had no complaints in that regard from the military. I understand the recruitment of apprentices is taking place as normal and as is needed.

In answer to Deputy Timmins with regard to Lebanon, I did not receive any request when I was there to either extend the period of the Irish troops being there or to expand the force. The United Nations presence in Lebanon will certainly extend beyond next August. Troops will be returning from Liberia and possibly from Kosovo in the near future. However, there are plenty of other trouble spots in the world and plenty of other possible requests. No formal request has been made but there is no shortage of places which will need the presence of Irish troops with their magnificent experience and expertise in peacekeeping.

As Deputies will be aware, we were in Lebanon for a very long time. We decided in the light of requests, particularly for Irish troops to return there, to make a commitment, despite the fact that we were stretched in our foreign deployments. We made that commitment and went in. We did not have the facilities to provide a full unit but we went in by agreement with a Finnish contingent involved in both reconstruction and ordnance and explosives clearance work. As Deputy Timmins will know, while the troops are there, they are at the disposal of the force commander who can allocate other tasks to them.

The Government decided that we would go in for a period of 12 months. That period will expire in August or September, or possibly October. Expanding the mission, remaining or returning home would require a Government decision at the time. I am sure the Government, whatever Government is in office, will make the right decision based on the circumstances prevailing in Lebanon at the time and on the level of interaction with the Lebanese.

From what I saw during my trip to Lebanon, I am sure work on the tasks in which we are involved as the protection detail for the Finnish contingent, namely, reconstruction tasks and ordnance clearance work, will almost be finished by the time we are due to come home in September or October. The Government will have to consider the matter afresh at that point.

When the Minister was in Lebanon, did he meet anyone from Tallaght? More seriously, how many applications for enlistment are before the Permanent Defence Force? Does the Minster have any sense of the upper age limit applying across the services?

I met people from all over the country. I cannot recall specifically whether any of them was from Tallaght. If I have occasion to visit there again, I will make representations on Deputy O'Connor's behalf. There were 1,154 applicants for enlistment to the Permanent Defence Force, of whom 66 have been found to be unsuitable. With regard to the upper age limits, an applicant for a cadetship must be under 28 years; an applicant for general service recruitment — ordinary troops — must be under 25 and an applicant for an apprenticeship must be under 20.

The Minister might arrange a trip to Lebanon for Deputy O'Connor in order that he can check whether there is anyone from Tallaght there. In a departure from protocol, I extend a welcome to our distinguished guests in the Visitors Gallery.

With regard to the Minister's reference to the recruitment of specialist personnel, will he elaborate on the remarks he made in Lebanon that he would seek to recruit engineers, doctors and others to the Reserve Defence Force in the manner that it operates in Finland and other Scandinavian countries? Traditionally, we have had difficulty in attracting skilled professionals into the Permanent Defence Force. Is the Minister considering this approach?

We have direct entry competitions for professionals such as doctors, dentists, engineers and so on. The point I tried to make in Lebanon — perhaps I did not make it articulately enough — was that there was a fundamental difference between the Irish Army and the Finnish army which is largely a conscript army. People are called up as and when it needs them. Some 80% consists of reservists who can be called up as and when they are needed. If the Finnish army is undertaking a specific operation overseas which, let us say, involves reconstruction, as is the case in Lebanon, it can advertise directly for engineers, architects, carpenters or others involved in construction. People who are on record as being members of the reserve can apply for these positions. Therefore, the Finnish army can recruit more or less directly for such positions. The Finnish commander of the joint Irish-Finnish brigade told me that there were approximately 600,000 members of the reserve in Finland, which means they have a wide pool on which to call.

The point I was making in regard to specialists was that we intended, within the lifetime of the White Paper, to 2010, to allow members of the reserve to serve abroad. The way we may do this is by focusing on persons such as doctors, drivers, cooks — those with a particular skill — and letting them volunteer to serve abroad in foreign missions as members of the reserve. The main issue we must resolve is the need to provide security of employment for the people concerned in order that they will be able to serve abroad for a certain period and still have a job when they return.

Defence Forces Strength.

Pádraic McCormack

Question:

88 Mr. McCormack asked the Minister for Defence the current strength of the Army; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8689/07]

Damien English

Question:

94 Mr. English asked the Minister for Defence the current strength of the Air Corps; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8690/07]

David Stanton

Question:

102 Mr. Stanton asked the Minister for Defence the vacancies in the Naval Service; the establishment of the Naval Service and the strength of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8916/07]

Olwyn Enright

Question:

122 Ms Enright asked the Minister for Defence the current strength of the Naval Service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8691/07]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

299 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence if it is intended to increase the strength of the Naval Service with a view to catering for increased responsibilities in respect of air-sea rescue and coastal surveillance to combat the importation of drugs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9147/07]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

305 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence if it is intended to increase the strength of any or all of the Defence Forces in view of the likely demands for overseas deployment in the future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9153/07]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 88, 94, 102, 122, 299 and 305 together.

The White Paper on Defence of 2000 provides for a Permanent Defence Force strength of 10,500, comprising 8,426 for the Army, 1,144 for the Naval Service and 930 for the Air Corps. It is my intention to maintain the established Government policy of ongoing recruitment to the Defence Forces. Recruitment to the Permanent Defence Force will continue to maintain the strength at the level set out in the White Paper as required to meet military needs. The Defence Forces continue to adopt a proactive approach to all aspects of recruiting.

The strength of the Permanent Defence Force on 31 January, the latest date for which detailed figures are available, as advised by the military authorities, was 10,426. This comprises 8,492 in the Army, 859 in the Air Corps and 1,075 in the Naval Service. There were, therefore, 69 vacancies in the Naval Service at that date. A detailed breakdown of the numbers in the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps by rank are in the form of a tabular statement which I propose to circulate to the Deputy. The Permanent Defence Force manages recruit intakes so as to keep its annualised monthly average strength at or around 10,500.

The White Paper on Defence provides for an allocation of up to 850 Permanent Defence Force personnel to be deployed overseas at any one time through the United Nations Standby Arrangements System, UNSAS. While this may be exceeded for short periods, deployments above this level are not sustainable on an ongoing basis within existing resources. Any commitments to EU or UN missions will be met within this context. There are 808 Permanent Defence Force personnel deployed overseas. This figure includes 165 personnel deployed to UNIFIL in Lebanon.

I am satisfied the current strength is adequate to meet all needs arising at home and overseas.

One of the issues I have raised with the Minister is the concept of increasing the retirement age of the officer corps. This is particularly applicable those at the rank of lieutenant-colonel, a high percentage of whom are serving overseas. With the increased commitments of the Defence Forces, there may be a shortage of that rank at home. In addition, much expertise has been acquired at that stage of service. We are considering increasing the public service retirement age, given that life expectancy is higher. Those serving at the rank of commandant must retire at 56 years and retire on full pension. Therefore, there is not a huge cost saving. Does the Minister agree it is regrettable that this expertise is lost?

Owing to the recruitment policy of the Defence Forces with regard to cadetships in the early 1970s, a number of officers are caught at certain ranks. It is not a huge number. Rather, it is a blip that will last a number of years. Will the Minister consider reviewing the age limit? Will he seek to identify areas where the personnel concerned could work? The monetary cost involved would be minimal.

I accept the Deputy's point but it is not just a question of cost. Similar arguments are often made with regard to experienced members of the detective branch of the Garda Síochána. When an officer reaches a certain age, he or she knows where to look when a crime is committed. Nevertheless, such officers must retire at that age and their expertise is lost. There are certain upper retirement ages in the Army officer class because outstanding young people are coming through at the moment. I met outstanding people of the rank of captain and lieutenant in the Lebanon who had an expectation of achieving a certain rank by a certain age, which is their entitlement. We cannot increase the age limits of any ranks at the moment because to do so would slow the process even more.

I take Deputy Timmins's point about the ageing of the population and the position in the Civil Service. I have seen several cases of young Army officers, highly educated and full of zeal and enthusiasm, who left the Army and we lost their expertise because the promotional prospects were not sufficiently good. Age limits are continually under review but I have no plans at present to make any changes in that regard.

I agree with the Minister to the extent that when I suggested a review of the age limit it was not in the context of blocking promotion for lieutenants or captains because it is very important they have a career path which is not blocked by people being kept on. Could a streaming mechanism be put in place for people caught in this age trap? It would only have to last for four or five years and would not have an impact on the promotional opportunities of those behind them.

I will look into whether it can be done and will talk to the relevant people.

Will the Minister not reconsider the numbers in the Permanent Defence Force? I am aware the White Paper indicated a number of 10,500 but it made provision for that to be increased. We have substantial United Nations commitments but we could only send 155 members to the Lebanon because any more would have exceeded the 10% limit about which we spoke. We also take part in battle groups so does the Minister not feel that, given the current requirements of our Permanent Defence Force abroad, we could usefully look again at reviewing the upper limit?

The current number is based on the White Paper. We decided to reduce the numbers in the Army by approximately 1,000 and to put the savings made into better training and equipment, which we have done. It was envisaged that the situation would continue for the duration of the White Paper until the end of 2009 and there are no plans to change the maximum strength of the Army until that point.

The Irish population has grown significantly because of immigration. Dr. Tom Clonan, a man who always makes sense, said an effective Army should always be drawn from the population. Does the Minister agree that, with our population now quite diverse, we need people from different backgrounds for the Army to be effective? What are the plans to increase the complement of people from different backgrounds in the Army? In the context of a rising population would it not make sense to head in that direction?

People from different backgrounds can join the Army — one does not have to be an Irish citizen.

According to Dr. Clonan the situation is very bad.

At the moment that is the case. However, some changes have recently been made to the cadet competition which will open the door to refugees, nationals of EEA states and nationals of any other state who have been lawfully present in Ireland for five years, among others. If somebody who is not an Irish citizen applies to become a cadet it requires special clearance from the Minister but, unequivocally, I have no objection to the idea and would not hesitate to clear them, provided they met the other criteria. I am conscious of the need to ensure the officer ranks of the Army reflect the population as closely as possible and we are working to that end.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.