Other Questions

Army Barracks Closures

Robert Troy

Question:

53. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Defence the concrete steps he has taken to secure an alternative use for Columb Barracks in Mullingar in County Westmeath; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2739/16]

I apologise to Deputy Troy that he was waiting a long time.

That is okay, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to get to this question but the second question will not be answered because the Government could not be bothered to turn up and have a quorum in order that Question Time could start on time. It is simply not good enough.

On this question, in November 2011, the Government, with the support of the Labour Party, decided to close Columb Barracks, Mullingar. The following March, 170 members of the 4th Field Artillery moved from Mullingar to Athlone with a loss of €8 million to €10 million to the local economy. Since then, little or nothing has been done by the Government to source an alternative use for this barracks. Perhaps the Minister could update me on his future plans for the use of this barracks.

Following the closure of Columb Barracks, my Department wrote to Departments and other public bodies inviting them to express any interest in the property with a view to its disposal by the Department. No such interest was expressed at that time. My officials also met local representatives and officials from Westmeath County Council to discuss the future of the barracks.

As the Deputy will be aware, my Department was approached by the Westmeath GAA county board for the use of the barracks as a training centre. Parts of the barracks in Mullingar are used by the county board on a short-term lease. The former barracks is also used by An Garda Síochána and Customs and Excise for training purposes. A number of other local groups, including the Irish United Nations Veterans Association, IUNVA, the Order of Malta and the Midland Youth Services, have also been allocated units in the barracks. My Department has also received numerous requests from other community groups wishing to avail of accommodation within the barracks.

While the Department supports the ongoing use of the barracks by the local community, the financial and administrative burden resulting from the retention of the barracks cannot be sustained, given that the barracks is no longer required for military purposes.

Officials from the Department are scheduled to meet the CEO of Westmeath County Council this week to discuss the long-term future plans for the barracks. They would also be happy to discuss, with any interested groups, any proposals they may have for the possible purchase and future development of the site for the benefit of the local community. This is in keeping with the Department’s policy to dispose of surplus property no longer required for military purposes. We have spoken to all the stakeholders and, with them, we are trying to develop a plan which is in the interests of the local community and other interested groups in the area.

It is disgraceful that, four years on, the Minister is trying to develop a plan. From what the Minister has told me, during the past four years his Department has written to the various State agencies and received some correspondence. Were it not for the proactive engagement of Westmeath GAA, the retired UN veterans and Midlands Regional Youth Service, nothing would be happening in the barracks.

It is part of the process. The Deputy should stop playing politics.

Where is the strategic plan for the long-term sustainable use of the barracks? The Minister does not have one. If he does, perhaps he could share it with us. Four years after the barracks closed, the Minister has no long-term strategic plan for the use of the barracks. If I am wrong, the Minister may correct me. We made a proposal to the Minister to create a national headquarters for the Reserve Defence Force in the barracks. He dismissed it, although it had the support of some of my constituency colleagues. In Mullingar, we are spending €30,000 per annum to rent private accommodation for the Reserve Defence Force while half our barracks remains unused.

The problem is that the Deputy is trying to turn this into a political football. The Deputy should know, although he probably does not, that the approach towards the Reserve Defence Force has changed. We now have a one force strategy whereby the reserves train with Permanent Defence Force personnel so they can work with them should they be required to do so rather than having them operate in a separate structure and training separately from the Permanent Defence Force. It did not make sense to establish a training centre for the Reserve Defence Force when we want reservists training in active barracks to ensure they are integrated into the Permanent Defence Force in terms of functionality, use, training and professionalism.

We are the Department of Defence. Our job is to ensure the defence infrastructure of the country is right. If we have a barracks that is no longer in use for defence and military purposes, we need to work with all the stakeholders to find sustainable uses for it. However, we must work with local authorities to ensure it is consistent with what they are looking for locally, and this is happening.

The Minister said I was playing politics. It was a political decision by his Government to close the barracks over four years ago. Since then, precious little has happened. The Minister said he wrote to the various stakeholders. During the past four years, how many times have the Minister or his officials met the CEO of Westmeath County Council regarding the potential future use of the barracks?

The Minister has talked about a policy of having the Reserve Defence Force training with the Permanent Defence Force. The Permanent Defence Force is not training in a warehouse in Clonmore Industrial Estate, where the Department is paying €30,000 per annum for the Reserve Defence Force training in Mullingar. The Government is wasting €30,000 paying a private landlord while some of the barracks remains unused.

After four years, what analysis, research or audit has been carried out on the future use of the barracks? As I asked at the beginning, have the Minister, his party or the Government prepared a sustainable plan for the long-term use of the barracks? The Minister has not answered my question.

The Deputy can keep asking the same question if he wants, but he will get the same answer. If this barracks of approximately 24 acres is to be developed, a partnership will be needed to find sustainable and good community uses for it. That is why we have been working to accommodate the GAA, the Garda Síochána, Westmeath County Council and other groups, including voluntary groups, in the short term. Ultimately, the local authority in the area needs to engage in planning and zoning to ensure the future use of this barracks is consistent with other things that are happening in the environment. I am not-----

How many meetings has the Minister had with Westmeath County Council?

The Deputy seems to want the Department of Defence to go away and come back with some kind of super plan in isolation.

After four years, how much engagement has the Minister had with the local authority?

We have to go on to the next question.

There is ongoing engagement with Westmeath County Council on the best use of this barracks.

I ask the Minister to quantify that.

I do not have the exact number to hand.

How many meetings have taken place after four years?

An initiative needs to come from the county council and the Department of Defence to ensure there is active community use and benefit coming from the barracks.

It is not happening.

That process is very much under way.

Defence Forces Deployment

Seán Crowe

Question:

54. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Defence the precise role the Defence Forces played in supporting civil society groups as they responded to the recent floods which devastated many homes and communities. [2788/16]

We all witnessed the scenes of utter devastation caused by the recent floods and the stress that families went through at that time. There has been a succession of floods and major incidents of this nature in recent years. I do not think there was any criticism of the Defence Forces themselves, although some people suggested that there were delays in bringing the Defence Forces into the process. Is it the case that there were some delays? I have tabled this question to establish what role the Defence Forces played in supporting civil society and communities.

I thank the Deputy for the question. In accordance with the framework for major emergency management, primary responsibility for responding to severe weather events, such as the recent storms and subsequent flooding, rests with the three designated principal response agencies: the relevant local authority, the Garda Síochána and the HSE. In accordance with agreed arrangements, all the available resources of the Defence Forces are made available on request to support the principal response agencies. At national level, the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces are represented on the Government task force on emergency planning. This ensures the fullest co-ordination and co-operation in the event of an emergency. The major emergency plans that have been deployed by local and regional authorities identify the procedures for requesting assistance from the Defence Forces. The role of the Defence Forces in these circumstances depends on the nature of the incident and the type of assistance requested. In November 2015, each local authority was reminded of the range of capabilities the Defence Forces can bring to emergency responses. They were also advised of the local call-out arrangements. The call-out procedure provides for contact with the Defence Forces 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. During the recent period of severe weather from 4 December 2015, the Defence Forces responded positively to all requests for support received from all three principal response agencies. Most requests were received from local authorities, in line with their central role in the flood response. The extent of the support provided was considerable. The Defence Forces were deployed to multiple locations in counties Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Kerry, Clare, Kilkenny, Wexford, Offaly, Tipperary, Westmeath, Limerick, Roscommon and Cork.

I will come back to the Minister.

I will come back with the actual number of members of the Defence Forces who were out.

It was significant. Well over 3,000 members of the Defence Forces were deployed.

It is important to reiterate our gratitude for the work of the members of the Defence Forces who came out in extremely bad conditions. Everyone has spoken about the fantastic role they played. Some families experienced delays in the use of Defence Forces resources. I do not know if the Minister experienced that.

I remember watching the Minister on television one night where a family said they had been manning the pumps for a number of days and were at their wits end. The Minister responded by saying that no one should be in that situation and that supports existed. Does the Minister, Deputy Coveney, find that, in his position as Minister, there has been a delay over the years during different emergencies? I am not only talking about the last one. What can we learn from that? Is some sort of analysis done after these floods? We know there is a flood expected as a result of Storm Jonas, which is coming down the track. I am trying to tease out with the Minister what we have done and what we can do better in the future.

That is a very reasonable question. By 22 January 2016, which was last Friday, a total of 3,122 members of the Defence Forces had been deployed. In addition, 517 Defence Force vehicles, including ten helicopters, have been provided to support these works. This was a major response by any standards. If we are learning lessons - there are always lessons to be learned from the kind of experiences we have had over the past two or three months - I would like to see local authorities calling for assistance from the Defence Forces earlier. There were thousands of local authority workers out manning pumps and helping people to get water out of their premises. One of the lessons learned is that we have significant capacity in the Defence Forces that is available to be deployed quickly and early. It should not be seen as an admission of defeat by a local authority to work with significant Defence Force capacity earlier in a crisis. The local authorities, on the whole, did a really good job given the extent of the flooding. One of the lessons, from my perspective, is that local authorities should feel free to seek assistance from the significant capabilities of the Defence Forces earlier in a flood situation. That would have been helpful but it still would not have solved all the problems.

I do not want to make political capital out of the hardship of so many families whose lives were destroyed, in many cases by losing what they had worked all their lives for, but I am concerned about the delay. I had some experience of this in my local authority a number of years ago where there seemed to be reluctance on the part of the county manager to address delays. There is an emergency management framework and the Department of Defence is not part of that framework. Would that be a way forward? Civil powers such as the Garda Síochána, the local authority and the HSE are included, yet the Minister's Department is not at the table. The Minister has those extra resources that could be used and perhaps that is something to consider. We are running out of time before the next election but the Minister might address the issue with his Cabinet colleagues. Perhaps we should discuss it in the House when we come back - look at this whole area, learn from what we have done wrong in the past and try to start doing things differently in the future.

We did things differently this time. Most balanced observers would say the level of co-ordination across Government, both locally and nationally, in the context of this flooding was better than we have ever seen before. I would say it was significantly better than we have ever seen before. The task force on emergency planning in Government is chaired by me as Minister of Defence. The Department of Defence is very much involved in the planning and discussion. The co-ordination of an emergency response when it is needed is the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, but very much in partnership with other Departments. County managers - chief executive officers as they are now called - should feel free to ask earlier for assistance on the ground from the Defence Forces rather than putting their staff under huge pressure trying to respond to difficult conditions like we have seen from various storms. I would not like to give the impression that I do not think the response was good; the response was much better than we have seen before but we can always learn lessons and try to do better the next time.

In that context I think we should have a debate on this when a new Government is in place to see how we can improve.

Defence Forces Medicinal Products

Seán Crowe

Question:

55. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Defence if he is aware of the ongoing British inquiry into the prescribing of Lariam by the British Ministry of Defence to its military personnel; if he is further aware of compelling medical evidence that has been presented to the inquiry regarding the possible dangers of Lariam; and if he will use any of this presented evidence as part of his own review into the prescribing of Lariam to members of the Defence Forces. [2786/16]

This question was asked earlier in connection to Lariam. There are significant concerns from Members on all sides of the House on the use of this drug. Has the Minister been following the public hearings in the House of Commons on the prescribing of Lariam by the British Ministry for Defence to its own personnel? The Minister established a review and new evidence was given at the inquiry. Will this evidence form part of the inquiry of the group from which he hopes to get a response shortly?

I am more than aware of the ongoing British inquiry into the prescribing of Lariam by the British Ministry of Defence to its military personnel, to which the Deputy refers. Of course, we are going to watch what comes out of that but we also have to ensure we look at our own systems, whether in having a screening process or in ensuring we follow the best medical advice on prescribing the appropriate drug for the appropriate region and the appropriate strain of malaria. We try to manage risk as best we can when our Defence Forces personnel are going abroad, particularly on missions to sub-Saharan Africa. We have been doing this from the point of view of a screening process but we also have, separate to all that, a working group made up of international experts and they advise the Irish Government on the use of Lariam and all the issues around that, which understandably have been raised by people who have concerns. We will get an updated report from that working group in the coming weeks, and as soon as I have that, we will act on it. We have asked the group to look at international best practice and what is happening elsewhere, and to do this in a way that is non-political but purely about the safety of our Defence Forces personnel when they are abroad. That is my only motivation. I have heard many stories and met many people who have concerns and we will try to make decisions on the basis of good, sound advice when we get it. It is difficult for me to make decisions before the updated advice comes back to me, even though some people seem to expect me to do so.

The Minister said a serious analysis was done of what happens before soldiers are prescribed Lariam. He might elaborate on how this is done within Army structures. He said the review was supposed to arrive at the end of January but that they now have extra time. Does he expect it to be done before the election or will it be on the long finger for the next Administration?

We were hoping to have this report by the end of January and I responded to that effect in November when Deputy Clare Daly raised the issue, something she has done repeatedly. The group has asked for a bit more time, which I am happy to give them because I want sound advice here. If they need more time they will get it. I cannot give the Deputy an exact date as to when we will get that advice back but I certainly hope it will be in the first quarter of this year. I spoke about looking at procedures in the Department. When issues are raised with me on the subject of Lariam, I go back to my Department and ask them to help me understand why people are concerned in this regard, what the issues are and how we screen people before we prescribe the drugs. Lariam is not suitable for some people, so I ask how we ensure those people are not prescribed Lariam and do not go to certain missions that may be in a malaria zone but go instead to another mission that does not have malaria, such as Lebanon or the Golan Heights. The issue for me is around risk management and taking the best medical advice possible. The debate around Lariam is a very emotive one. I am more than aware of that and that is why I want to make sound decisions based on legal advice from respected experts whom we have asked to look at the issue. I hope to have that back within weeks. If not, I hope to have it within a couple of months.