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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 18 Jun 2014

Vol. 844 No. 2

Other Questions

Commemorative Events

Seán Kyne


6. Deputy Seán Kyne asked the Minister for Defence in recognition of the substantial number of Irish men and women who participated in the Great War, if the current Irish Defence Forces will be participating in commemorative events; if so, if he will outline such events particularly in the context of the forthcoming centenary of the war; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25786/14]

This question relates to the Irish men who died in the Great War. Will the Irish Defence Forces be participating in commemorative events and, if so, will the Minister outline those events?

The development of the commemorative programme for the centenary period, to include the First World War, is being co-ordinated on behalf of the Government by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan. I understand that arrangements to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War are at an advanced stage and officials from the Department of Defence are liaising closely with colleagues in the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in supporting commemorative events in Ireland and abroad.

In common with the many nations who share the history of the First World War, it is appropriate that we acknowledge the service and loss of Irish soldiers in that conflict. This was reflected in the significant support that the Defence Forces provided in Messines in December 2013 when the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister laid wreaths in remembrance of the Irish who lost their lives in the First World War. The Defence Forces have been active in acknowledging service and loss for many years. They already play a central role in the annual commemorations at the National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge and in the National Day of Commemoration ceremony in Kilmainham and will do so again this year, in July.

Furthermore, on 31 July next, a Cross of Sacrifice will be unveiled in Glasnevin Cemetery which will be dedicated to the Irish soldiers who died in the First World War. The Defence Forces will provide significant ceremonial and logistical support for this event. Members of the Defence Forces will also attend First World War commemorations being held across Europe, including the Somme ceremony in July and centenary commemorations marking the start of the war in early August. In addition to the support and representation provided at national and international commemorations to mark the First World War, requests for Defence Forces participation in events organised by local authorities and community groups are also received and, where appropriate, representation is provided.

I welcome the involvement of the Defence Forces in the commemoration of the First World War as we approach the centenary on 28 July. I acknowledge the sacrifice of 754 men from Galway and 720 men from Mayo who died in that conflict. It is only in recent years that there has been an attempt to remember the sacrifice that was made and the different reasons people fought, including for the rights of small nations following the invasion in Belgium. The Minister mentioned the peace park in Messines and I was delighted to be able to visit it a number of years ago. There is also a nice exhibition in Galway City Museum. It is a poignant tribute to those who died and fought in the war.

The Minister mentioned the events planned and I have looked at a number of the websites, including the decade of centenaries website and the websites of the Department of Defence and the Irish Defence Forces. I am not saying there is nothing on the Defence Forces website, but it is hard to find it. There should be some acknowledgement of the events. Also, on the decade of centenaries website, the First World War section is blank. The home page provides a list of what has happened over the past number of months but little information on what is planned. The Minister might be able to ask his Department and the other Department to examine that.

I will bring the question of how information is posted on the website to my Department's attention, particularly as regards the matter raised by the Deputy, and see whether anything can be done. Like him, I recognise the great sacrifices made by a significant number of people across our small country during wartime. I assure him that the Department of Defence will assist in any commemoration with which it is asked to be involved, and not only in Ireland, as seen earlier this year alongside the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister.

Army Barracks Closures

Clare Daly


7. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Defence in view of the substantial security expenditure on Army barracks which have been closed in the Government's lifetime, if he will actively engage in proposals to put these premises to active use in association with community groups and other State agencies. [25797/14]

There are four such barracks. One has been sold and another is in the process of being sold, but considerable money has been expended on them. My question relates to the remaining two barracks, in respect of which approximately €500,000 has been spent on security, etc. Could we put them to more productive uses?

I thank the Deputy for her question. During the term of this Government, four barracks have been closed: Kickham Barracks in Clonmel, O'Neill Barracks in Cavan, Columb Barracks in Mullingar and Mitchell Barracks in Castlebar. The closures were effective from March 2012. Agreement in principle has been reached on the sale of Kickham Barracks to Tipperary County Council. The council is developing a masterplan for the entire barracks in consultation with some State bodies that have expressed an interest in the site. O'Neill Barracks in Cavan was sold in 2013 to the then County Cavan Vocational Education Committee and is being used for educational purposes. Columb Barracks in Mullingar remains the property of the Department of Defence and is being used by the Garda and the Customs Service for training purposes. A large part of the barracks has been leased to the Westmeath GAA board for use as a potential centre of excellence. Mitchell Barracks in Castlebar has been sold to Mayo County Council. That sale is expected to close in the coming months.

The Deputy will appreciate that many of the former barracks are or will be used for community, educational and sporting purposes.

I am aware of that, but I am also aware that well over €500,000 had been spent on security. While some movement has occurred, it is not enough in the case of Columb Barracks. We could do much more. The idea of using the barracks as a national emergency training centre has been raised. It is not true to say that it is being utilised. The Reserve Defence Force unit is renting premises at a cost to the Department of Defence of approximately €30,000, Westmeath Civil Defence operates from leaky prefabs in another area and the Garda uses the shooting range, but none of this is enough. Will the Minister of State consider developing the site as a national emergency training centre? All of the State's organisations could use it, the local Reserve Defence Force unit could act as its staff, training could be undertaken during the summer, a crash training centre of excellence could be developed there and it could be used for water rescue training as well as rail disaster training, given its proximity to a disused railway. There is also an airfield. I would like the Minister of State to consider this suggestion as a better use of funds.

Following the closure of the barracks, the Department invited Departments and other public bodies to express an interest in the property. None did. In the meantime, a one year lease was signed with the Westmeath GAA county board for the use of part of the former barracks as a centre of excellence for the development of Gaelic games in the county. Subsequently, agreement has been reached in principle on a long-term lease by the board for the whole of the barracks. This will be put in place shortly.

The barracks is also being used for training purposes by the Garda and the Revenue Commissioners' specialist dog unit. I am unsure of whether there will be space left after the GAA board takes the longer-term lease. If there is, I can contact the Deputy directly.

I am aware that the GAA is using a small part of it. As Deputy Wallace just called it, it is really the "Grab All Association". If the Minister of State is telling me that it will take over such an enormous site, I will be shocked. I would love to know what the GAA is paying for it. The Department's remit covers a national emergency training centre and is spending tens of thousands of euro on renting out facilities that could be utilised in that respect. It is also spending €180,000 on security for the site. If it was being used, the same level of security would not be necessary. Will the Minister of State confirm that the GAA will take over the entire site? If so, I would like published the figure for how much is being paid for it.

Like any other Department, the Department of Defence will not hide anything in this regard. I am surprised that Deputy Wallace called the GAA the "Grab All Association". I appreciate the work the GAA has done in my county, as I am sure is the case for every Deputy. I am involved in the GAA and have never referred to it as the "Grab All Association". I am surprised that Deputy Wallace would-----

-----whisper "Grab All Association" to Deputy Clare Daly.

Just answer the question.

As other Ministers have outlined to the House, the consolidation of the Defence Forces' formations into a smaller number of locations is a key objective in the ongoing defence in moderation programme. It has been recommended in many reports in recent years and is the Government's main consideration when addressing the issue, as releasing personnel for security and support functions enables the operational capacity of the Defence Forces to be maintained, notwithstanding the fall in strength.

While it has been necessary to incur costs in the provision of security to prevent vandalism and in maintenance to protect the fabric of the buildings, it should be noted that such costs are considerably lower than the cost of keeping the barracks open. Military personnel occupied in a security and support function when the four barracks closed on 30 March 2012 have been released for operational duties, leading to an efficiency gain of approximately €5 million per annum. In addition, direct cash savings of approximately €1.3 million per annum arise from utilities maintenance and security duties allowances in the four barracks.

A longer-term lease for the whole of the site will be signed shortly by the Westmeath GAA board. I will find out whether any accommodation will be available and will let the Deputy know directly.

And the price.

Defence Forces Personnel

Pádraig MacLochlainn


8. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Minister for Defence his plans to ensure that members of the Defence Forces can make representations directly to their elected representatives. [25792/14]

Something that frustrates public representatives is the inability of members of the Defence Forces to make representations directly on issues of concern. The people are proud of our Defence Forces and we owe them a great debt for all they have done for us. The least we can expect is for members of the Defence Forces to have the ability like any other citizen to make direct representations to their public representatives.

I thank the Deputy for his question. For the most part, there is no impediment to members of the Defence Forces making representations directly to their elected representatives. The only restriction in this regard relates to service matters, including postings, transfers, promotions, overseas service and other matters connected with service in the Defence Forces. Paragraph 27 of General Routine Order 43/1955 prohibits Defence Forces personnel from making representations directly to their elected representatives in respect of service matters. Paragraph 27 prohibits unauthorised communications by members of the Defence Forces and provides that all communications regarding service matters must be transmitted through the recognised official channels and that communications or requests addressed to Members of Dáil Éireann or Seanad Éireann, public bodies or the press are expressly forbidden. In cases where representations on service matters are made directly by or on behalf of individual members of the Defence Forces, those members are deemed to be in contravention of paragraph 27. There are no plans to amend the provisions of paragraph 27.

In my view Deputies should not make representations around matters such as transfers and overseas postings. That should be a matter for the command structure, based on merits and so on. There is a perception among members of the Defence Forces that they cannot make any representations to public representatives and there is a huge fear around that. It is important to make it clear, for example, if they are allowed to express their concerns around the impact on their families of travelling significant distances because of the re-arrangement of the brigade structure in the State. Are they allowed to talk collectively about the impact of closures of barracks on their communities and make representations on that? It is important it is clarified what matters are appropriate, and what are not, on which members of the Defence Forces can make representations.

The AGSI, Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, recently won a case in Europe to give it trade union rights. In keeping with this, does the Minister believe PDFORRA could establish the same rights, make direct representations to public representatives and its members could come directly to Deputies on matters such as those of the impact on their families and collective impact on communities?

If a member of the Defence Forces came to the Deputy complaining about the distance they had to travel, I would think the aim of the question would be about seeking a transfer. That is not prohibited by the Defence Forces regulations.

Any member of the Defence Forces can go to a representative organisation such as PDFORRA and state their concerns. PDFORRA will then make a case with Defence Forces personnel. I know that with the closure of some barracks the lives of some members of the Defence Forces were upset. All in all, most members have been accommodated in the best possible way either by their line manager or PDFORRA. However, there are no plans to amend the provisions of paragraph No. 27 of general routine order 43/1955 which prohibits Defence Forces personnel making representations directly to their Deputies and elected representatives on service matters.

Defence Forces Properties

Seán Ó Fearghaíl


9. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Minister for Defence the action his Department is taking to address the plight of overholders in military residences in the Curragh; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25805/14]

This question returns to the issue raised earlier by Deputy Clare Daly on the plight of Army overholders and the responsibility of the Department of Defence as a landlord. This is an issue that has gone for many years. It probably was an issue when the Ceann Comhairle was in the Department. While the response to Minister Daly-----

We are not in government yet.

-----I mean Deputy Clare Daly. While the response on this matter earlier was not positive, we would like to hear what the Minister has to say on the matter again.

Deputy Ó Fearghaíl has raised this matter concerning overholders in the Curragh Camp with me before.

Under Defence Forces regulations, personnel are obliged to vacate married quarters within a specified period of being discharged from the Permanent Defence Force. The term overholder is used to describe former members of the Defence Forces and their families who have refused to leave military married quarters within 21 days of retiring or resigning from military service. Currently, there are 28 overholders remaining at the Curragh Camp which represents a small number of those who over the years occupied married quarters but who vacated the properties on retirement or resignation from the Defence Forces, as they are required to do. Some ten of the present group of overholders do not pay charges in respect of their use of the property including for the use of electricity. As a result of the Department’s actions since January 2013, 12 of the properties which were being overheld in the area of the Curragh Camp have been returned by the occupants.

The situation of overholders continuing to occupy married quarters is no longer sustainable and measures to resolve this continue to be progressed. My Department is, therefore, in accordance with normal procedures, seeking vacant possession of married quarters which are being overheld and will continue to do so until the overholding issue is resolved.

Of the remaining overholding cases at the camp, the Department is aware a small number of occupants may be particularly vulnerable due to their personal circumstances. In light of this, the Department has been examining what assistance it might provide to bring about a resolution to their status as overholders.

It is important to remember, however, that the Department of Defence does not have a role in the provision of housing accommodation for the public. It cannot provide housing for people who have no entitlement to such from the public purse and who may well have the means to supply housing for themselves.

The former Minister for Defence was not noted for his softly-softly approach to issues. Accordingly, I am disappointed the Minister of State seems to be adopting a more hard-line approach and rejecting some of the progress achieved by people such as Deputy Clare Daly in raising this matter.

In the course of the past month, I was struck by the plight of a family of a serving member of the Defence Forces whose wife approached me on such a matter. They had lived in Army accommodation for many years and he had over 20 years of service. They had cause to leave their Army accommodation because they had raised serious concerns with the Department of Defence about the quality of it. They had gone into private rented accommodation but it was then offered for sale, meaning they found themselves almost on the verge of homelessness with two young children about to undertake State examinations. When they went to their local authority, they were told there was nothing it could for them because they were not on its housing list. Instead, they were informed they were the responsibility of the Department of Defence.

The Department has allowed this family become homeless. It has failed to step in and come to their aid at a time when it had accommodation that could have been made available to them.

It is important to remember the Department of Defence does not have any role in the provision of housing accommodation for the general public and cannot provide housing for people who have no entitlement to such from the public purse. People are under no illusion that when they retire from the Defence Forces that they must give up their accommodation as well. They understand they are given accommodation for the duration of their service in the Defence Forces. I feel sad for any family that has to vacate a property because of this rule but they can be under no illusion that this would be the case when taking up such a tenancy. My colleague, Deputy Martin Heydon, has brought several such cases to me and there has been much dialogue over the years regarding this issue.

The overholders can take very little comfort from what the Minister of State has said, irrespective of who may have been brought to him by Deputy Heydon. I have given the Minister of State the example of someone who is not a member of the public who is not outside the Defence Forces; I have given him the example of a serving member of the Defence Forces, who has served this country with distinction for more than two decades, and who, at a time when his children were undertaking State examinations, was caused to leave Army accommodation because the HSE was concerned about its quality. He was then made homeless as a result of having to vacate private rented accommodation. The local authority could do nothing for the family because it was not on its waiting list. One met a callous response from the Department of Defence which failed to house a serving member of the Defence Forces. If serving members of the Defence Forces cannot meet a positive response, what chance do the overholders have?

I am not aware of the specific case which Deputy Ó Fearghaíl has outlined. If he furnishes me with the particular circumstances, I will bring it to the attention of the Department of Defence. He stated the family went to the HSE to report the conditions of the house. My understanding is the family would have assumed the accommodation was not fit for purpose so there must be other circumstances. When a person goes to the HSE and states accommodation is not appropriate for his or her family, I am not sure whether the Defence Forces have alternative accommodation. We must take into consideration the financial constraints on the Department of Defence. If it renovates one house, many other houses would also have to be renovated to be deemed suitable for accommodation.

Military Aircraft Landings

Mick Wallace


10. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Defence the number of occasions in April, May and June of this year that the presence of Defence Forces personnel at Shannon Airport was requested by An Garda Síochána in relation to visiting military aircraft; if he will provide the countries of origin of these aircraft; if members of either the Defence Forces or An Garda Síochána carried out searches of these aircraft; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25802/14]

For the record, with regard to the Minister of State's GAA comment, it was Deputy Daly who said it to me and not the other way around.

Stick to the question.

He misunderstood what I said.

No, please stick to the question.

It was interesting that he jumped to political point scoring.

I wish to ask the Minister of State the number of occasions in April, May and June that the presence of Defence Forces personnel at Shannon Airport was requested by An Garda Síochána with regard to visiting military aircraft. Will the Minister of State provide the countries of origin of these aircraft? Did members of the Defence Forces or An Garda Síochána carry out searches of these aircraft?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 14 together.

That is not in order. We have decided this is not the case. Deputy Durkan has been sitting in the Chamber for the past 15 or 20 minutes and his question will not be reached.

We were given a list and the questions have been grouped.

The Deputy was not supposed to have been given a list. It is question by question and it applies across the board. Other Deputies have been waiting for their questions and they will not be reached.

It is my understanding there was a misunderstanding and I apologise for it.

There is a misunderstanding but at the expense of Deputies sitting here. Please proceed.

An Garda Síochána has primary responsibility for law and order, including the protection of the internal security of the State. Among the roles assigned to the Defence Forces is the provision of aid to the civil power, which in practice means assisting An Garda Síochána when requested to do so. There is ongoing and close liaison between An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces regarding security matters.

The Defence Forces have deployed personnel to Shannon Airport in response to requests for support from An Garda Síochána since 5 February 2003. The Defence Forces carried out 32 security deployments at Shannon Airport in April of this year, 35 in May and 16 up to 12 June. The length of each such deployment and the number of relevant aircraft that land and take off during each deployment can vary. For example, if a single aircraft is on the ground for an extended period, perhaps overnight or over a number of days, this would involve more than one deployment of troops as each shift is generally of 12 hours duration.

The Defence Forces have no responsibility for searching foreign military aircraft that land at Shannon and there is no record kept by the military of the country of origin of each aircraft. I understand these records are kept by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as foreign military aircraft are provided with diplomatic clearance to land in Ireland by that Department.

With regard to inspections of aircraft being carried out by An Garda Síochána, I would advise that this is a matter that should be addressed to the Minister for Justice and Equality, but my understanding is that An Garda Síochána does not carry out searches of foreign military aircraft.

The number of flights works out at one a day and I find it hard to credit that we are so lax about what goes on down there. As the Defence Forces have been there so often, did they take any steps to establish whether the military aircraft were transporting weapons or munitions to one or other of the belligerents in the civil wars in progress in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq? If not, why not?

Will the Minister of State comment on the presence of a US Government jet with the tail number N977GA at Shannon airport? This jet was previously used by CIA rendition flights, as recorded at Shannon Airport a number of times by the Shannonwatch group. Recent media reports stated that the jet left Washington on the same night that Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong, with the hope of picking him up in the event Russia did not grant him asylum. Does the Minister of State agree that simply relying on diplomatic assurances from the US with regard to rendition flights is not sufficient to comply with the State's obligations to prevent torture, prohibit ill-treatment taking place in its territory or airspace and ensure its territory is not used to facilitate extraordinary rendition?

Among the roles assigned to the Defence Forces is the provision of aid to the civil power, which in practice means assisting An Garda Síochána where requested to do so. Security assessments are carried out by An Garda Síochána, which determines whether Defence Forces assistance is required. We only provide assistance. I am not sure what date the Deputy referred to with regard to searching aircraft. He should raise this issue with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, or the Department of Justice and Equality and the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. As I stated, the Department of Defence only assists An Garda Síochána at Shannon Airport.

It is appropriate to the Minister of State because if it was not it would have been ruled out of order and moved by the Ceann Comhairle's office. The Minister of State does have a role in this regard. The figures he gave are absolutely shocking. At least once a day Army personnel are involved in protecting US aircraft. The Minister of State told us to ask the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade where the aircraft are from but I am sure this is the answer. I have not noticed any Russian planes stopping at Shannon Airport. What does the Minister of State think all of these aircraft, which must stop and refuel, are doing if they are not carrying munitions or engaged in any activity? It is a hugely costly effort to move military aircraft particularly these ones. Considering that Defence Forces personnel are not bothering to examine what they are doing, but are there on practically a daily basis, what does the Minister of State think the US authorities are doing by moving the aircraft on such a consistent basis?

In March, a report in The Guardian newspaper stated the US had delivered 100 hellfire missiles, along with assault rifles and ammunition, to Iraq at the beginning of that month. It is ridiculous the House cannot confirm that none of these weapons transited through Shannon. Iraq is falling apart at the seams because of the US's warmongering efforts there and we are facilitating it. We do not seem to have any inch or issue with what goes on at Shannon Airport.

In 2013, some 324 Defence Forces security operations were completed at Shannon Airport compared to 381 in 2012 and 327 in 2011. I assure Deputy Daly these figures have not been massaged in any way. I am giving her the correct number of deployments from the Irish Defence Forces to aid An Garda Síochána at Shannon Airport.

The Minister of State is misrepresenting me again. I did not say that.

Regarding Deputy Wallace's question, I believe it would be better asked of the Minister for Foreign Affairs or the Minister for Justice and Equality, as the Department of Defence has no role in searching any aircraft in Shannon. That is a matter for An Garda Síochána, for which the Department of Justice and Equality has primary responsibility.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.