Thursday, 21 June 2012

Questions (6, 7)

Denis Naughten


6Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Defence the scale of redeployment of Defence Forces personnel which will be required to facilitate the restructuring of the Defence Forces organisation to a two brigade structure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29851/12]

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Denis Naughten


8Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Defence his plans for the restructuring of the Defence Forces organisation, including plans to reduce the number of brigades; the implications that this will have for Custume Barracks, Athlone, County Westmeath; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29850/12]

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Oral answers (15 contributions) (Question to Minister for Defence)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 8 together.

As the Deputy is aware, arising from the Government's comprehensive review of expenditure, the strength ceiling of the Permanent Defence Force was reduced to 9,500 personnel. In response to this reduced strength ceiling, I initiated a major re-organisation of the Defence Forces, both permanent and reserve. This re-organisation will encompass a reduction in the number of Army brigades from the current three to two. A three brigade structure was no longer viable within a reduced strength ceiling of 9,500 personnel.

The priority is on maintaining the operational effectiveness of the Permanent Defence Force to the greatest extent possible within this reduced strength ceiling. This will be achieved through rationalising administrative and support functions and rebalancing force elements. As I have previously outlined, I requested the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General to bring forward proposals for my consideration. It had been my stated preference to await the submission of final proposals before making any announcements.

Unfortunately, I found it necessary to clarify the position with regard to Custume Barracks to dispel the ongoing campaign of misinformation and misleading speculation which suggested falsely that the removal of the brigade headquarters would result in some 600 personnel being withdrawn from the barracks. I have recently clarified that the two new brigades will have their headquarters located in Cork and Dublin. I have again confirmed that Custume Barracks will not be closed and that within an overall strength of 9,500, the reorganisation will see numbers serving in Custume Barracks remaining in the order of 1,000 personnel. This firmly rebuffs the misinformation regarding the impact of the withdrawal of the brigade headquarters from Custume Barracks.

Despite my reassurances that the numbers based in the barracks will not be reduced by any significant margin, it has been incorrectly stated, in this House and elsewhere, that this decision represents a loss of 400 jobs from Custume Barracks. This is without foundation and misleading. The strength ceiling of the PDF is 9,500 and it is impossible to lose jobs that simply are not there. There are not 1,400 personnel based in Athlone; no such number were based there during the life of the previous Government and Custume Barracks, as presently constituted, could not accommodate such numbers.

Given the scale of the re-organisation, there will be movement of functions and personnel within and between barracks. As with any reform or reorganisation, individuals may be concerned about the potential impact upon them. Any changes arising will be encompassed within the scope of the broader public service reform programme and Croke Park agreement.

The Secretary General of the Department of Defence and the Chief of Staff are continuing their work to finalise proposals on the re-organisation. I look forward to receiving and considering these final proposals. The Deputy will appreciate that I will not be in a position to answer further questions regarding the re-organisation until this process is complete. Nevertheless, I felt it important to clarify the position on brigade headquarters last week because the misinformation in the constituency is causing upset generally in Athlone and was unfair to members of the Defence Forces and their families.

I thank the Minister for his response. Can the Minister confirm approximately 200 staff currently based in Athlone will have to be redeployed to other barracks around the country because of the bizarre decision to downgrade Custume Barracks? On 31 January in a parliamentary reply to me, the Minister stated there were 937 personnel in Custume Barracks, both civilian and military, and it was projected that figure would increase by 278 when Mullingar and Cavan Barracks closed. The commitment is now that there will be an additional 63 personnel in Custume Barracks. The Minister has received the report from the Secretary General and the Chief of Staff. Did that report recommend the downgrading of Custume Barracks in Athlone and did it recommend that 1,000 personnel would be maintained in Athlone?

The interim report from the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General of the Department recommended the brigade headquarters would be based in Cork and Dublin. I was interested in the Deputy's figures. He asked if 200 members currently based in Athlone will be transferred along with their families. In the context of the reorganisation, no one will lose his job. There are no figures to indicate 200 members of the Defence Forces based in Athlone will be moved from there. The effect of the reorganisation will be that there will be approximately 1,000 members remaining in the barracks in Athlone. It is as simple as that.

From time to time, however, members of the Defence Forces are transferred from one barracks to another or they assume new duties or are promoted and as a consequence there is always movement within the Defence Forces. It would be quite extraordinary if the 1,000 who are there today, including 34 currently on international duty, were never to move out of Athlone. The position is that there will not be 500 or 600 members of the Defence Forces moved out of the barracks in Athlone. The exact modalities for implementing the reorganisation are a continuing part of the discussion between the Chief of Staff and my Secretary General involving those working under them. I look forward to receiving their final report and the position remains that the future of Custume Barracks is absolutely secure and the barracks will continue to play an important role in the western region.

The figures the Deputy mentioned were up to the end of February, when there were various changes as members resigned. The position as I described it was that there were just over 900 on 9 March 2011 based in the barracks. The numbers then changed as a consequence of retirements and transfers from Mullingar to Cavan and from Mullingar to Athlone and from Cavan to Athlone. The correct figure now is 1,050. It could be 1,052 because the world changes on a daily basis in the Defence Forces and the bottom line in all of this is that when the reorganisation is implemented, there will be in or around 1,000 individuals based in the barracks. There might be one day when there are 1,002 individuals and 999 the next day because there is always some level of movement between barracks, which is why I am constantly saying "in or about", but that does not mean "in or about" will be dramatically different from 1,000.

I regret people have been misinformed and there has been a campaign of misinformation and lobbying by some individuals on this matter. I must have regard to the interests of the country and the operational effectiveness of the Defence Forces.

I thank the Minister for his response to my questions. The Minister has answered them all, bar one: did the interim report recommend in or about 1,000 personnel to maintained in Custume Barracks, Athlone? Does the Minister agree, based on a back of the envelope calculation, that approximately 650 staff will be based in each of the five barracks in the Northern Brigade? If 1,000 personnel will be based in Custume Barracks, Athlone, one of the other four barracks within the brigade will lose out. That does not take into account the number required for brigade headquarters staffing. The figures do not add up and I ask the Minister to clarify them. He stated during the previous Question Time that he did not want to pre-empt a decision by the chief of staff and his Secretary General. He has done that by making the announcement for whatever reason. The people of Athlone are disappointed that the barracks is losing brigade status and that the 4th Western Brigade is being lost from the barracks and they want answers to these questions.

The figures I used are the same as those used by the Minister's backbench colleagues. One of them said he was tired of the Government using the midlands "as a kicking post". This is the first time in Athlone's history the barracks will be without a brigadier general. Seán MacEoin was the first brigadier general there.

Was a cost benefit analysis conducted? If so, will he publish same? He failed, despite repeated questioning earlier and on Midlands 103 last Friday morning - he gave me numerous mentions for which I thank him - to outline which units will remain and which will be transferred. He is unable to say which units will remain and, therefore, I do not know how he can guarantee the 1,000 jobs. Will he apologise to the people of Athlone because they did not consider this to be a good news story for the town? Will the meet the members of Athlone Town Council? The mayor, Councillor Alan Shaw, is a colleague of the Minister's and he has requested a meeting but has so far failed to get a reply.

The Minister's figures are all over the shop, as Deputy Naughten said. In reply to a parliamentary question, the Minister said the number based in the barracks is 937 and he expected that to increase by more than 270 to give a total of 1,215, but earlier he said the total number would be 1,050. I do not know whether he knows the figure.

The reason there are more Army personnel in Custume Barracks after a year of Fine Gael in government is it closed Columb Barracks, Mullingar.

The Deputy is a little confused. He cannot make up his mind about how many personnel he wants stationed in Athlone. I would have thought in the context of the town that the important issue is that approximately 1,000 personnel will be based in the barracks, which is 100 more than were there when we took office on 9 March 2011. Those members and their families contribute to the town's economy. I do not imagine that those engaged in business in the town are losing sleep about whether a brigadier general will be based in the barracks.

Businesses all over the country have sleepless nights because of the lack of support from the Government.

Allow the Minister to continue without interruption.

I did not interrupt the Deputy and perhaps he will do me the courtesy of not interrupting me. It is a great pity the Deputy ran a grossly misleading campaign. He first told people that 600 members would be transferred out of the barracks and, second, he laboured under the illusion that 1,400 personnel were based there. I presume he did not go to the barracks to count them because if he did, he has a serious problem with his arithmetic.

By all accounts, the Minister did not either.

The Deputy would not have had as many people at his public meeting if he announced it was a public meeting to ensure that forever more a brigadier general would be based in Athlone. I say that with the greatest respect for the current brigadier general but there is an inordinate concern as to where he should be posted. The important thing for the town is that the future of the barracks is secure and approximately 1,000 members of the Defence Forces will be based there.

Can the Minister answer the questions?

The misinformation that went around the area was such that I felt the need to clarify the position with regard to the location of brigade headquarters and to give assurances that there would be no substantial reduction in personnel, as was being stated.

In the context of the question Deputy Naughten asked, I will not second guess the ongoing work and I will not go around each barracks to announce how many individuals will be based in them. I am concerned to ensure that the process the chief of staff and those under him, together with my Secretary General and those assisting him in my Department, are engaged in continues and is completed; that changes to be announced are properly communicated to members of the Defence Forces in individual barracks; and that we engage with the Defence Forces representatives organisations. It was unfortunate that, because of the type of campaign run by Deputy Troy, we had to make the announcement we made but we felt it was important because the rumours going around and the campaign run by him, which was playing politics with the Defence Forces, were causing a great deal of concern unfairly to those members based in Athlone.

Says the man who gave an instruction not to invite Opposition Members to the Air Corps launch.

Will the Minister clarify that the chief of staff made the recommendation to station 1,000 personnel in Athlone?