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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 20 Dec 1994

Vol. 141 No. 12

Adjournment Matter. - Army Equitation School.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Before I call Senator Henry I extend my congratulations to the Minister, Deputy Barrett, on his first appearance as a Minister in the House. I welcome him and wish him good luck in his new appointment.

I should like to share my time with Senator Liam Cosgrave who also has an interest in horses.

I welcome Deputy Barrett to the House and congratulate him on his new appointment. I am glad to say he too has an interest in horses.

It is often dangerous to speak about reports which have not been made public. However, I was so alarmed by some of the leaks from the Price Waterhouse efficiency audit on the Defence Forces that I felt there was one question in particular I wanted to take up. It relates to the Army Equitation School which it appeared would be left as it was, privatised or got rid of altogether. As some of these topics may be under consideration at the moment and there might not be another opportunity to bring this up before the budget, I decided to ask for this Adjournment Debate.

The Army Equitation School was set up in 1926 to advertise the Irish horse through international competition and it has done this extraordinarily ably over many years on a very small budget. Even today the budget for the Army Equitation School is only something over £300,000 a year; yet it is incredibly successful. This year Captain Gerry Mullins won the Grand Prix at Hickstead, one of the premier shows in England, riding Pallasgreen and Captain John Ledingham won the Hickstead Derby on Kilbaha. Both of these horses were Irish. In France in La Boule, another very big event, Kilbaha was the leading horse, again ridden by Captain Ledingham and the Irish team won the Nations Cup at the La Boule meeting.

Kilbaha is owned by all of us, but some showjumpers of international quality command such an appallingly high price nowadays that it is impossible for the school to buy them. Again it has shown great initiative by leasing young Irish horses which look as if they have a promising future. One such example is Millstreet Ruby which won the National Championship of Showjumping in Ireland this year partnered by Captain Mullins. The school has great judgment regarding horses and a very high standard of training.

The school is considered extremely successful internationally and its visits to events abroad are highly prized. Recently it was asked to go to Mexico and the fares for everyone involved were paid. However, it may have made a mistake by being too successful. It won so much money at the event that it had to pay back the fares to the organisers. Even after that it came home with money in the kitty. It shows that it is running an extraordinarily professional outfit.

Another initiative it has taken recently is to become involved in three day eventing. This is extremely important because it is a rapidly expanding area. The sport horse and leisure activity, especially three day eventing, is big business now. Lieutenant Gerry Flynn in particular has done very well with several horses in important world class events. In fact, the school competed very respectably in the World Equestrian Games in The Hague this year and the teams have been so newly set up they deserve encouragement.

In 1991 the Minister for Agriculture at the time, when announcing details of grants for sport horses and stressing the importance of this to the country, committed the Government to supporting the Army Equitation School as a means of maximising the potential of the sport horse. The precise value to our economy of non-thoroughbred horses is difficult to quantify but it is probably somewhere between £15 million and £30 million. Thousands of people are involved in the production of the sport horse and it is not only their economic importance that should be stressed but their social importance, especially in rural Ireland.

Our horses come up against stiff competition. Although we sell them abroad our efforts at breeding have not been quite as good as those of other countries and we have been rapidly overtaken by Germany, France and the Netherlands. We have been slow to monitor the breeding of non-thoroughbred horses. I was previously critical about the fact that grants are given to mares for breeding purposes without any inspection. That is serious because hereditary diseases could be passed on. Even the quality of stallions in the showjumping area is not assessed but is judged on conformation. It might be a good idea if, as in other countries, stallions had to show-jump for a few seasons so that we could see what sort of prowess they make. My reason for bringing that up in regard to the Army Equitation School is that we have very fine civilian riders. I have no worry about what sort of team we can produce for international events. Between civilians and Army we have superb riders. However, because of a court case taken some years ago, it was decided that to ride on an Irish team Irish riders did not have to ride Irish horses. This is serious because the Army Equitation School is making sure that the horses they ride are Irish horses. The fact that other countries are coming up so fast behind us and overtaking us in the field of breeding makes it essential that we have a showplace for the Irish horses. The record of the Army Equitation School speaks for itself and we could hardly have a more economic unit. It is important to remember that all the people working there are serving soldiers so we are getting good value for money. Sometimes these soldiers are away in the Lebanon when they are not riding the horses.

Finally, the school makes good use of the horses even when they are retired. We cannot bring back the Blue Huzzars who used to go forth with the Viceroy — it is a pity but it would be far too expensive to get a troop like that going again. It is unfortunate that when the President comes out on ceremonial occasions it is with a group on Japanese motorbikes but we will have to put up with them for the moment. However, I was glad to see the initiative of the Army Equitation School at the Horse Show which is our major showcase. This year when the President came she arrived in a horse-drawn carriage. The last time that happened was when President O'Kelly did so. Sadly, the ponies ran away and Mr. de Valera, who was Taoiseach at the time, forbade them to use the ponies any more. Our President is out again in a horse-drawn carriage and the Army Equitation School provided a small escort of retired recycled showjumping horses. We are getting extraordinarily good value out of this school which has great prominence on the international scene. I am most hopeful that the Minister will be able to tell me that the rumours I have heard about any diminution of it are wrong.

I want to thank Senator Henry for allowing me a few of her precious minutes. I also welcome my good friend and colleague, Deputy Barrett, the first Fine Gael Minister to appear in the Seanad since the change of Government.

I support everything that Senator Henry said. We are all aware of the great service to the country of the Army Equitation School but, unfortunately, in recent years it has been gradually run down. If this were to continue it would spell the end of the Army showjumping team as we know it.

In a reply given as recently as 16 November in the Dáil we were told that the number of staff in the Army Equitation School has been reduced from 65 in 1990 to 50 at the end of September this year. Obviously this trend must be halted and I hope the Minister will give a commitment to reverse it. In 1990 the school bought three horses and in each of the years 1991, 1992 and 1993 it bought four. I understand that one horse will be bought this year and another leased, but I am sure Senator Henry and others will agree that we must think of the future. It is difficult for the Army Equitation School to buy a "ready-made" horse, it must revamp its stock and train young horses.

I am disappointed to note that in real terms funding for the school has remained static. While the horse industry employs a large number of people, the allocation for 1990 was £320,000, for the following three years it was £325,000 and in 1994 it was £334,000. One of the advantages of the show jumping scene is that people like the Minister of State, Deputy Barrett, and I do not get an opportunity to lose money. I hope the Minister of State will consider this matter with a view to ensuring that when matters arise in the forthcoming weeks the equitation school will still exist. We are all aware of the credit brought to this country down the years by the Army Equitation School and by people such as Commandant Gerry Mullins, John Ledingham, Bill Ringrose and Ned Campion. We like to see at least one Army officer on the Irish team competing for the Agha Khan Cup.

I appeal to the Minister to try to reverse the decline in staff numbers at the school and to consider allocating money for the purchase of horses. It is all very fine to lease horses, but if they are purchased it alleviates the danger of a big offer being made from abroad. There is no doubt that Germans and others have more money to spend than we have.

I thank Senator Henry for allowing me a few minutes of her time and I hope the Minister responds positively.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the warm welcome and I am very pleased to be here. It is a few years since we had the opportunity of being in this position. I thank Senators Henry and Cosgrave for raising this issue and for showing a great deal of interest in the area of show jumping. I am told that my late father-in-law was a member of the Irish show jumping team for many years. As show jumping is of great interest to my wife's family, I have a particular interest in it.

Much of the recent discussion about the future of the Defence Forces has been negative in tone. I would assure the House that this Government is committed to the development of the Defence Forces and to ensuring that they are properly organised and equipped to meet the important roles assigned to them.

There has been a considerable amount of speculation about the deliberations of the efficiency audit group and its findings. In fact, the EAG has not yet submitted its report to the Department of the Taoiseach and when it does it will be examined in consultation with the interests involved.

The current review of the Defence Forces did not arise as a bolt from the blue. For some years there has been wide agreement about the need for reform and reorganisation generally. As regards the equitation school, the short answer to the question raised by Senators Henry and Cosgrave is that there has been no change in the status of the school and it would be premature to enter into speculation in that regard.

As pointed out by Senator Henry, the mission of the equitation school, as assigned to it on its establishment in 1926, is to advertise the Irish non-thoroughbred horse. The school has consistently provided horses and riders of the highest quality for Irish international show jumping teams and, allowing for the contribution of individual civilian riders, the Army riders have in many respects formed the backbone of international teams over many years. At present there are 46 horses, six of which are of international standard.

The Army Equitation School has had a very successful year. In 1993, Army riders competed in 16 international shows winning £52,222. This year, riders from the Army Equitation School competed in 24 international shows, winning more than £147,000. Army riders were part of the Irish Team on five occasions in 1993 and on eight occasions in 1994. The Army Equitation School also participated in 36 national shows in 1993, winning £5,031 in prize money. In 1994 to date they have participated in 33 shows winning £12,514.

The equitation school has always been a source of pride to the Department of Defence, the Defence Forces and to the Irish people. I take this opportunity to congratulate everyone associated with the school on their recent achievements in international shows, particularly the victory in the Hickstead Derby. This is a clear indication of the ability of the equitation school to compete successfully at the highest level both at home and abroad. It is a great sense of pride to every Irish person to see the uniform of the Defence Forces worn by an Irish rider at international events in various parts of the world and I speak for every Member of the House when I say I feel very proud that they represent Ireland abroad in an excellent fashion.

Recent speculation has created a false impression regarding the likely outcome of the EAG review. There has been ill-informed speculation about the future of various elements of the Defence Forces, including the equitation school. The review process is still under way and no decisions have been taken regarding changes in the equitation school, or any other unit of the Defence Forces.

The many positive features in the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service are generally recognised and provide a solid platform on which to build for the future. Wherever military personnel serve, they apply themselves to the task in hand with commitment and professionalism. The introduction of a balanced programme of reform will prove a positive experience for the Defence Forces and will be formulated in consultation with the various interests involved.

I will endeavour to meet the wishes of Senator Henry and Cosgrave in ensuring that the equitation school gets its fair share of the spoils. We are conscious of the numbers in the school and, in order to compete and represent our country properly, Senators Cosgrave and Henry are correct in saying that the quality of the horse as well as the rider is important. We spend a great deal of money advertising Ireland but the medium of an Irish horse with a member of the Defence Forces riding it is an exceptional way of doing so. I am very conscious of that and will do all I can to ensure it continues.

I thank the Minister of State for his reassuring reply and I am sure Senator Cosgrave and I will have a much more comfortable Christmas as a result. The next time the Minister of State visits McKee Barracks there will be a big cheer to welcome him.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

I wish all Members of the House and the staff a very happy Christmas and prosperous New Year.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.30 p.m. sine die.