Priority Questions

Defence Forces Strength

Dara Calleary

Question:

1 Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Defence the current strength of each of the Defence Forces; if any reports have been prepared on potential retirement in each force between now and February 2012; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25203/11]

I am advised by the military authorities that the strength of the Permanent Defence Force as of 31 August 2011, the latest date for which figures are available, was 9,513 comprising 7,722 Army, 786 Air Corps and 1,005 Naval Service personnel.

The approved employment control framework for the Permanent Defence Force is based on a figure of 10,000 all ranks, appropriately configured across the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps. In 2011, the defence organisation, like all areas of the public service, is operating on a reduced budget. The programme for Government also sets out a target for further fiscal consolidation over the period to 2015.

Overall numbers in the Permanent Defence Force, including numbers serving at various ranks, will be subject to ongoing control and monthly monitoring. This is to ensure compliance within the overall parameters and controls set by Government for each sector. The employment control framework, ECF, also sets out that it will be necessary to underpin the re-organisation with the required amendments to regulations and administrative instructions. In this regard the strength ceiling set out in the ECF has been incorporated into a revised Defence Force regulation, CS4. The military authorities are finalising a re-organisation based on this revised regulation.

It is not possible to estimate the number of members of the Permanent Defence Force who may seek to retire between now and the end of February 2012. The matter is being kept under review to ensure the impact on public services of any retirements is minimised.

I beg the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's indulgence to refer to another defence issue. I commend the Minister on the manner in which he swiftly acted and commissioned a report into the deaths of the Army personnel, Corporal Fintan Heneghan, Private Mannix Armstrong and Private Thomas Walsh. Information was provided to the Minister early in his term of office, and he commissioned a report and has brought a 22 year fight for justice to an end. The Minister deserves great credit for the manner in which he handled that. It is a shame it took so long. I understand there may be issues within the report that must be considered for future deployment, and at some appropriate time subject to the agreement of the Whips, there might be an opportunity to make statements on it in the House. I commend the Minister.

On this CS4 regulation, surely it is difficult to finalise the re-organisation of the Defence Forces without having any knowledge of what the numbers will be in February next. In the manner in which the Garda Commissioner has gone about preparing some work that we discussed yesterday, is there not a structure within the Defence Forces that can identify what the overall position of those 9,500 personnel will be in February next?

There are rumours in Clonmel, Mullingar and Cavan this week and there are rumours circulating within the Army community that their barracks are to be closed. The Mullingar issue is to be the subject of a topical issue debate following these questions, but is there some sort of plan, similar to what is going on in the Garda, to anticipate what the reduction will be and what the services will be on 1 March next year?

I thank Deputy Calleary for his comments on the comprehensive report, published by the Department and prepared by Mr. Frank Callinan SC, into the tragic deaths in 1989 of the three soldiers mentioned. I certainly agree that it is appropriate that we would debate that report at some point in this House, and the Whips can make the appropriate arrangements. I hope the comprehensive inquiry conducted by Mr. Callinan SC, the terms of reference that we gave him and his conclusions on those terms of reference bring, in so far as this can ever occur, some sense of closure to the families who for a long time were seeking to ascertain the full background to the tragic deaths of their loved ones. I spent some time with the families on the morning before the report was published and I am personally aware of the grief still caused to them by that incident.

On the question Deputy Calleary raised, there is an ongoing review with the Defence establishment of how to make the maximum use of the resources available. I have had discussions with the Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Seán McCann, in this regard. There are operational issues that fall within his remit and on which there are decisions to be made by him. For my part, I am anxious we maintain the strength of the Defence Forces at or around 9,500. I hope I can achieve that in the context of the internal discussions within Government on financial allocations for next year. As indicated in the response to the question, the approved employment control framework for the Permanent Defence Force is based on a figure of 10,000, but the resources, as we have them this year, create a difficulty in that regard, although I hope there will be some possibility for some recruitment this year. I am anxious to maintain the age profile within the Defence Forces and it is important that new personnel are introduced into the force each year. It is not yet clear what retirements will occur either by the end of this year or by the end of February, and I do not want to give the House figures that may be misleading. I do not have accurate figures in that regard at present.

There is a continuing assessment being undertaken on the manner in which the Defence Forces are structurally configured in the context of the existing barracks. No final decisions have been made in that regard. That issue in the case of Mullingar is raised today, as Deputy Calleary mentioned, on the topical issues debate and will be addressed. No final decisions have been made yet on any particular barracks by Government but we must look at how we maximise the use of the resources. As Minister for Defence, my objective in maximising the use of resources is to ensure we have what I believe to be the number of members of the Defence Forces required to facilitate them meeting all their obligations, both to the civil power and internationally. I am anxious to ensure the preservation of buildings does not create an expense that could be better utilised to maintain members of the force, and that balance will have to be struck.

Defence Forces Personnel

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

2 Deputy Jonathan O’Brien asked the Minister for Defence the numbers of personnel who have been medically discharged from the Defence Forces each year for the past three years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25202/11]

The military authorities have reported that the numbers of personnel discharged from the Permanent Defence Force on medical grounds in each year since and including 2008 are as follows: in 2008 some 19 enlisted personnel were discharged; in 2009, two officers and 42 enlisted personnel were discharged; in 2010, one officer and 33 enlisted personnel were discharged; and to date in 2011, one officer and 24 personnel were discharged. The figures I have provided for enlisted personnel also include any recruits or cadets that may have been medically discharged during each of the years.

The maintenance of a cadre of personnel capable of meeting the physical demands of a career in the Defence Forces is a key human resources requirement. The medical classification of all personnel is kept under review and where it is confirmed as being unfit for service with the Defence Forces, action is initiated towards retirement, relinquishment of commission or discharge, as the case may be.

In the context of the roles assigned by Government to the Defence Forces, military medical services and facilities exist to maintain the health of Defence Forces members and to support them in their operational and overseas activities. In this regard the focus of the military medical services is on primary care, occupational medicine, acute trauma management, preventative medical programmes and field medical training.

Serving members of the Permanent Defence Force, PDF, are provided with free medical treatment within military medical facilities by Defence Forces medical officers. While medical facilities are available within the Defence Forces, the Defence Forces are dependent on public health care facilities for the provision of higher-level hospital inpatient services for its members. Costs incurred in accessing such external medical services are met from the Department of Defence Vote. The services of civilian general practitioners are engaged to provide primary care when medical officers are not available.

I tabled this question because several people have come to me with concerns about how people are medically discharged. I refer to one example. Recently, I met a man who has 11 years of service in the Naval Service. He was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in June 2009. In that year he had 140 days of sick leave which resulted in his medical grade being reclassified. The report stated that he had a chronic medical condition requiring regular medical supervision and that he was unfit for seagoing duties. In September 2010 his medical grade was again reclassified to state that he was below standard for a contract extension. Nevertheless, since 1 January 2010 up to last week he has only been sick for two days in the past 19 months. He is not on any medicine and he has not seen a doctor or anything for the past 19 months but he cannot get an extension to his contract. In February 2011 the appeal board turned down his request for an extension. It confirmed his medical grade as being unfit for seagoing duties. He is still active in the Naval Service. His contract is up at the end of October and he is now facing a situation whereby he must leave the Naval Service although be believes he is medically fit.

Could you frame a question please Deputy?

I realise there is no independent medical board to which he can appeal because the appeal board is convened by the Naval Service. How many other similar cases are there? This man has experience in the Naval Service. He is keen to continue serving and has made a life choice to dedicate his life to the Defence Forces. Unfortunately, he fell sick in 2009 but since 2010 has had only had two sick days and is not under any medical care at the moment but cannot get an extension.

I am sure the Deputy will appreciate that I cannot comment on individual cases. I am not familiar with the case to which the Deputy is referring. When a decision is made with regard to someone's capacity or fitness to continue within the Defence Forces there is a provision that an appeal may be made to the medical director with regard to decisions made. I do not know the reason why in the case of the individual named the contract has not been extended. Ultimately, whether to grant a contract extension is a decision to be made within the Defence Forces and there may be operational or other reasons for this of which we are not aware. If the Deputy provides me with the name of the individual and any other relevant information I can have the matter examined. Beyond that I cannot help the Deputy on the issue.

I thank the Minister and I will pass on the information. As regards operational issues, in his latest report of June 2010 the potential for promotion for the person concerned was deemed above average as was his overall performance and there is no operational reason he cannot remain.

If the Deputy passes on the details to me I will have an inquiry made into the matter. Having said that I cannot make any promises and I do not wish to give unrealistic expectations. There may be good reasons the decision was made.

Naval Service Operations

Dara Calleary

Question:

3 Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Defence the number of fisheries related arrests and seizures carried out by the Irish Navy during 2009, 2010 and to date in 2011; if he will provide the figures by home country; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25204/11]

The Naval Service has powers to unilaterally intervene at sea. Under the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006, the Naval Service is empowered to board and inspect vessels and their cargos and, when necessary, to formally detain vessels and direct them to port. Fishing vessels detained by the Naval Service at sea are handed over at a port to An Garda Síochána for arrest. The Naval Service assists the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, in promoting compliance with and deterring contraventions of the Common Fisheries Policy. The SFPA liaises regularly with the Naval Service and inter alia the Fisheries Monitoring Centre, FMC, and the Air Corps.

In order to achieve strict compliance with quota and other conservation legislation under the Common Fisheries Policy, Naval Service targeted boardings and inspections are agreed between the SFPA and the Naval Service. Boardings are targeted based on the risk analysis carried out by the FMC. The criteria examined for the risk analysis include the fishing vessel's date of last offence, the date of last gear inspection, the number of days fishing in Irish waters, the species targeted and the method of fishing.

In 2009, the Naval Service carried out 1,841 boardings at sea of vessels of various nationalities with 15 fishing vessels detained. In 2010, the Naval Service carried out 1,684 boardings with eight fishing vessels detained. Statistics up to the end of August for this year show the Naval Service has carried out 1,100 boardings and has detained 11 vessels. Further details of vessels detained and their country of origin are contained the following tabular statement.

Fishing Vessels Detained by Irish Naval Service — 2009, 2010 and 2011

Nationality

2009

2010

2011 to date

Total

Irish

4

3

4

11

Spanish

1

3

4

8

UK

5

2

2

9

French

5

0

0

5

Belgian

0

0

1

1

Total

15

8

11

34

I praise the Naval Service for its work this summer and the number of rescues carried out at sea. I have a suspicion that the tabular information will feature one country in particular. This discussion arises from a discussion held in the House involving Deputy Harrington prior to the recess. Given that there were 1,100 operations and boardings to the end of this month and given the close relationship between the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, and the Naval Service, is there any element of cost recovery on the part of the Naval Service from either the SFPA or the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Without the Naval Service input into this area the work of the SFPA would be more or less useless.

Naturally the Naval Service has a particular role to assist the civil powers and the role that the Naval Service plays is important. As far as I am aware there is no costing whereby the Naval Service seeks to recover what could be designated as an expense incurred by it in these activities. This is part of the role the Naval Service plays in serving the State and it carries out important work in this area. I share with the Deputy my admiration for the work it undertakes. We have many dedicated members of the Naval Service who carry out this work.

The Deputy has made a supposition with regard to fishing vessels detained by the Naval Service. If he examines the tabular statement given covering 2009 and 2010 as a full year and to date in 2011, the Deputy might be surprised to discover that top of the list are Irish naval vessels, 11 of which were detained, second are UK naval vessels of which there were nine and third are Spanish naval vessels.

I presume the Minister is referring to fishing vessels not to naval vessels.

I should say fishing vessels not naval vessels. We have not yet detained a submarine or a cruiser coming from any particular location. There are eight Spanish fishing vessels on the list, nine were from the United Kingdom, five were French and one was Belgian. During the period between 2009 and 2011 up to the end of August, there were a total of 34 separate vessels listed.

Official Engagements

Clare Daly

Question:

4 Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Defence his plans to visit Irish troops serving in Lebanon; and if he will use the opportunity to visit Gaza and extend Irish solidarity to the oppressed Palestinian people. [25255/11]

I am pleased to inform the House that I will make my first visit to Irish troops serving overseas when I will accompany President McAleese on her official visit to Lebanon next month. The programme for the proposed visit which is being arranged by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will include a visit to Camp Shamrock, the headquarters of the 104th Irish Battalion deployed with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, otherwise known as UNIFIL. I am looking forward to accompanying the President on her visit to the camp and meeting Irish personnel, many of whom I met prior to their departure to Lebanon. The personnel have been deployed to UNIFIL in southern Lebanon since June this year and we will witness at first hand the dedication and professionalism of our military personnel serving with the mission.

A visit to Gaza is not included in the itinerary for the presidential visit.

I am glad the Minister is to visit the troops in Lebanon, although I am not sure of the timescale for the visit. The purpose of the question was to make the point that, given that the Minister would be in the region, it would be an ideal opportunity to lead from the front and extend solidarity with the people of Gaza by attempting to incorporate a visit there. I would like the Minister to comment on this point. Earlier in the year a vessel on which Irish citizens were travelling was sabotaged by Israel in attempting to bring aid to Gaza. It remains the case that 66% of the people in Gaza are food insecure, that 80% rely on foreign aid and that 300,000 people are living on less than $1 a day. These figures have probably worsened dramatically since the start of the blockade of Gaza. Does the Minister not consider that in his role as Head of State of the Defence Forces he should use the opportunity presented by the visit to the region to attempt to make a visit to Gaza to extend solidarity? Will he respond specifically to this part of the question?

I thank the Deputy for her suggestion I am Head of State, but I have not yet been elevated to that particular post and do not anticipate ever seeking it or being elevated to it.

The visit has been specifically arranged to visit and talk to the troops in Camp Shamrock and to get a sense of the situation in the region in the context of the very important work they are doing. I note what the Deputy said about Gaza. The Palmer report published by the United Nations indicates that in the circumstances the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip is legal. It is, of course, a policy of the Government to encourage both Israel and the Palestinians to engage in comprehensive and constructive negotiations with a view to reaching a peace settlement which will facilitate an independent Palestine and an independent Israeli state in peace and security side by side. Unfortunately, the Deputy has a somewhat simplistic view of the complexities of the issues involved in regard to Gaza. I have very particular concerns about the impact on the population in Gaza of the regime which has taken over in Gaza. Hamas has subjected elements of the population to extraordinary restrictions, is responsible for a number of murders of Palestinians and for making it impossible for President Abbas to visit Gaza for fear of his own personal safety. Of course, while the peace process has been substantially stalled for some time, it is certainly not assisted by the reported rocket attacks that take place from Gaza into the State of Israel. The issues are a good deal more complex than the Deputy may wish to accept, but it is a particular concern of the Government that the peace process be reactivated and dialogue recommence with a view to facilitating an end to what is a very tragic and continuing conflict.

Whatever is the Minister's official role, he has an important role to play in this situation. It is totally remiss of him not to take the opportunity when he is in the region to attempt to visit Gaza. If he is suggesting his schedule is so tight that he can only fit in a visit to Lebanon, that is one issue. However, he should consider my suggestion and if he plans to visit anywhere else, Gaza should be top of his list. I do not believe I have a simplistic view. The Minister's own view is partisan. Perhaps he might develop a better understanding of the situation and the plight of ordinary people if he were to take the trouble to take the not too large a step of paying a visit to view the situation in Gaza at first hand. He might then be better informed and able to come back and brief the House.

The Deputy is obviously unaware that I visited Gaza some three months after the last conflict which took place between Hamas and Israel, that I saw the nature of the difficulties in Gaza and that I am intimately aware of the complexity of the problem. It is a great pity in addressing the issues in the region she sees it all completely in black and white and is not prepared to engage in a manner which might genuinely contribute to the advancement of the peace process.

The Minister was not in his current role at the time.