Thursday, 21 June 2012

Questions (1, 2)

Dara Calleary


1Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Defence further to his recent announcement to disband the Western Brigade reducing the number of brigades from three to two, the time frame for the implementation of this decision; the number of senior army positions that will be eliminated by this reduction; if troops will be transferred from their current base; the number of troops who will lose their position as a result of this decision; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30131/12]

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Aengus Ó Snodaigh


2Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Defence if he will reconsider his decision to downgrade Custume Barracks, Athlone, County Westmeath [30265/12]

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Oral answers (27 contributions) (Question to Minister for Defence)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

As the Deputies are aware, arising from the comprehensive review of expenditure, the Government decided to reduce the strength ceiling of the Permanent Defence Force, PDF to 9,500 personnel. The savings arising from this decision and those arising from broader reductions in the number of public servants were required to meet fiscal consolidation targets which are a key component of the EU-IMF programme. In response to this reduced strength ceiling, I initiated a major reorganisation of the Defence Forces, both permanent and reserve. This is to ensure the operational effectiveness of the Defence Forces is prioritised within the available resources.

A three brigade structure has been retained since the strength of the PDF was reduced to 11,500 and is no longer viable within a reduced strength ceiling of 9,500 personnel. Accordingly, the re-organisation encompasses a reduction in the number of Army brigades from the current three to two.

I tasked the Chief of Staff and Secretary General of my Department with bringing forward detailed proposals for my consideration. It is important that time be permitted for the completion of the preparatory work and for consideration of the range of outstanding issues. I have received regular updates on progress and I expect to receive a final report from the Secretary General and the Chief of Staff in the near future.

It has been my stated intention to refrain from commenting on the re-organisation until this work is complete. However, I found it necessary in recent days to clarify the position with regard to Custume Barracks in Athlone. This was required to dispel an ongoing campaign of misinformation and misleading speculation that suggested falsely that removal of the brigade headquarters would result in 600 personnel being withdrawn from the barracks. I clarified this matter by announcing that the brigade headquarters for the two new brigades would be located in Cork and Dublin and that this decision would have minimal impact on strength levels in Custume Barracks. The fact is there are approximately 1,050 Defence Forces personnel currently based in the barracks. Following the re-organisation, there will be approximately 1,000 Defence Forces personnel remaining in the barracks. This decision and the announcement regarding the brigade headquarters were informed by an interim report received by me from the Chief of Staff and Secretary General. I have no intention of revisiting this decision.

As with any reform or re-organisation, individuals may be concerned about the potential impact upon them. Any change arising will be encompassed within the scope of the broader public service reform programme and the Croke Park agreement. The Deputies will appreciate that consideration of detailed questions must await the completion of the preparatory work and final decisions. This includes questions regarding final organisational structures, rank distributions and implementation issues, such as movements of personnel.

I thank the Minister for his reply. His decision has been seven months in preparation. He issued his letter to the Chief of Staff on 5 December and today is supposed to be the longest day of the year, believe it or not.

That makes it the shortest night as well.

It was actually brighter on 5 December when the Minister made his announcement. Why was the western brigade chosen to be left behind in the new arrangement? The personnel serving in Custume Barracks want to know how many of them will be moved out of the barracks. If he decided to reduce the number of brigades in what he termed a cost-cutting measure, surely he cannot expect the House to believe that only 50 members of the Defence Forces will move out of the barracks. Few costs would be saved.

Will the Minister confirm that 1,400 positions, regardless of whether they are filled, are attached to Custume Barracks? I gather that, when speaking on local radio in the midlands during the week, the Minister stated that Custume Barracks would not be large enough for so many people. It was not Deputies on this side of the House who stated they had no confidence in the Minister, rather it was one of his colleagues. From local Deputies, including some members of the Minister's party, I gather Custume Barracks is well able to house that number of people. During the debate in the House in the run-up to the closure of the barracks in Mullingar, the Minister assured us Custume Barracks was more than capable of taking in personnel from Mullingar.

That these are the last Department of Defence priority questions in this session presents a difficulty. We will not have a chance to question the Minister again until September. When will the information be shared with the House and with those affected in Custume Barracks? Will we have a chance to question the Minister on the matter?

I regret the Deputy has been misled by his colleague, Deputy Troy, who has been running a campaign around Athlone, calling public meetings with his Fianna Fáil colleagues and-----

-----suggesting, first, that the barracks was to close, which was untrue, and second, that 600 personnel were to be removed from the barracks. When that also turned out to be untrue and I made it clear the barracks would have in or about 1,000 personnel at the end of the re-organisation, he went around telling everyone there were either 1,400 or 1,450 personnel in the barracks. I noticed with some interest that Deputy Calleary phrased it as the barracks having the capacity to have 1,400, even if they are not there at the moment. Let me enlighten him. Throughout the period when Fianna Fáil was in government over the past ten years, Custume Barracks never had 1,400 personnel. It does not have 1,400 personnel today, it did not have that many when the Deputy's party left government and it did not have that many when his party was in government.

How many will it have when the Minister is out of government?

This is a complete fabrication. When the current Government took up office on 9 March 2011, there were just over 900 personnel in Custume Barracks.

The Government closed the barracks in Mullingar.

The Minister stated he would not.

Today, there are 1,050 personnel in Custume Barracks, 34 of whom are currently abroad on duties but who remain attached to Custume Barracks. There are no mythical 350 extra personnel - they feature in Deputy Troy's imagination - and there never have been.

Perhaps the Minister should speak with his backbencher, who considers that the Minister is using the barracks as a kicking post.

The practical reality is that, when this re-organisation is implemented, Custume Barracks will end up with approximately 100 more personnel than were there on 9 March 2011.

Was a cost-benefit analysis of the decision to move the brigade headquarters out of Custume Barracks undertaken? When will the changes indicated by the Minister be fully implemented? Will the savings that might be made be re-invested in the Defence Forces, as was the case previously when major savings, barrack closures and so on occurred? The Minister claims the change in strength will only be 50 personnel. Next year, we will determine whether the Minister held to a reduction of only 50 personnel. I do not believe he will. When will the changes be fully implemented, was a cost-benefit analysis conducted and will the savings be re-invested?

I very much welcome the new era of politics in which we are currently engaged. That Sinn Féin is now showing such considerable support for the Defence Forces is a very important and welcome development.

The Minister is in good form today.

The monetary savings have been delivered through the reduction in personnel strength and are reflected in the 2012 budget. The provision for the Permanent Defence Force's pay in the Vote 36 Estimates in 2011 was just over €442 million. The corresponding provision for 2012 is €425 million. The re-organisation will absorb the reduction in numbers and improve operational effectiveness. The reduction in the number of brigades from three to two will free up military personnel from administrative and support functions.

The reality is, at a time when we had 11,500 personnel in the Defence Forces, a three brigade structure made sense. At a time when we have 9,500 personnel in the Defence Forces, a two brigade structure makes sense. What this is about is ensuring the operational effectiveness of the Defence Forces and that they are deployed in a manner that is in the public interest and maximises their effectiveness, both in assisting the civil power in their duties in this State and in facilitating their undertaking of international duties.

What is also of particular importance at a time when we have reduced numbers in the Defence Forces is that we have a reasonable proportion between enlisted personnel and officers and that we do not have disproportionate numbers among the higher ranks compared with enlisted personnel. This re-organisation and the decisions made by this Government have had the effect of facilitating a recruitment campaign to the Defence Forces for an additional 600 personnel this year and they have provided for more effective Defence Forces.

The Deputy might be interested to know the Government announced two decisions in December. First, personnel numbers during the course of this year would be brought up and maintained at 9,500. Second, we would move from a three brigade to a two brigade structure. Those particular decisions guaranteed we would have proper numbers within the Defence Forces in order that they could effectively undertake their functions. I am quite pleased to inform the House that we were, unfortunately, heading down a route where, as a result of the manner in which the Defence Forces were being funded and dealt with when Fianna Fáil was in government, there was a risk that numbers within the Defence Forces could have fallen below 8,000.

Thank you, Minister.

We made very important decisions to protect the numbers in the Defence Forces and we used its establishment to the maximum efficiency and capability. What we are now implementing is the agreed portion of the re-organisation as agreed by the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General of my Department. As to when we will have the final detail of this, I cannot give an exact date but it will be within the next few weeks. Some final work is still being done on that.

Thank you, Minister.

When that work is completed, I will be quite happy to make an announcement on it.

Why was such a fundamental decision about the re-organisation of the Army taken outside of the Green Paper process? That process is there to design a roadmap for our Defence Forces for the next ten years. Again, the Minister has not answered the question as to why the Western Brigade was chosen for abolition.

My understanding is that there was a commitment to prepare a new White Paper in the previous programme for Government. It is also my understanding that the previous Government had no difficulty with initiating a re-organisation of the Permanent Defence Force at that stage to accommodate a strength reduction to 10,000 in advance of that process. The reality was when we came into government, the strength was going to fall substantially below that.

Will the Minister answer the question?

The priority is the maintenance of the operational capability of the Defence Forces within a reduced resource envelope to underpin the re-organisation. In these circumstances, I cannot understand how it is now suggested that it is necessary to await the publication of the Green Paper and the outcome of any White Paper. The organisational structures that were outmoded at 10,000 are even more outmoded at 9,500 personnel. I am determined to ensure the Defence Forces are re-organised to reflect the current strength ceiling as soon as possible.

The process of preparing a Green Paper on defence has commenced. A broad consultative process will be initiated upon its publication. This is planned for the end of the year. It is neither feasible nor prudent to wait until the White Paper is finalised in 2013 and only in 2014 to initiate a re-organisation of the Defence Forces to ensure they are able to operate to their maximum efficiency and capability.

Why is the Western Brigade to be abolished?