Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Questions (58)

Brendan Smith


58. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his plans to change the two-brigade structure of the Army; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52757/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Defence)

According to experienced Army personnel, the decision made by the Government in 2012 to reduce the number of Army brigades in the Defence Forces from three to two has had destructive strategic consequences for the Defence Forces' operational output, critical intelligence capability and, very importantly, recruitment and retention of personnel. The secretary general of RACO, Commandant Conor King, stated very clearly at a recent meeting of Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence that a disproportionate number of the 3,600 personnel who have voluntarily left the Defence Forces in the past three years have been from former units of the 4th Western Brigade, which was disestablished in 2012 on foot of a Government decision.

The White Paper on Defence, which was approved by the Government in July 2015, comprehensively dealt with all aspects of defence policy and was informed by a wide-ranging consultation process. The retention of the Army's two-brigade structure was among the commitments outlined in the White Paper. This involved the removal of a layer of middle and senior management associated with having a brigade headquarters, which has helped to bring the size of the current two brigades closer to international norms. The two-brigade structure led to the consolidation of previously understrength units into smaller numbers of full-strength units and a reduction in the number of headquarters with the associated redeployment of personnel from administrative and support functions into operational units. The move to the present structure eliminated the situation whereby operational units were understrength while too many personnel were involved in carrying out non-operational administrative and support functions.

The White Paper on Defence resulted from a comprehensive examination of defence requirements. It reaffirmed the Government's commitment to the Army's two-brigade structure and stated that it will remain in place.

This structure has enhanced the deployability and sustainability of the Defence Forces, both at home and overseas. It is important that these benefits are maintained as they are in keeping with measures across the public service where the focus continues to be on increasing operational outputs and reducing unnecessary bureaucracy.

Furthermore, notwithstanding the recognised recruitment and retention challenges faced, it is notable that overseas operations have continued at a higher tempo in recent years. I am satisfied that the increase in numbers serving Ireland overseas has been facilitated, since we moved to a two-brigade structure, by the focus on ensuring increased operational capacity.

I am satisfied that the current structures optimise the capacity of the Army to continue to fulfil the roles assigned by Government, and as such, there are no plans to change the current two-brigade structure of the Army.

On consultation, having spoken to very distinguished and experienced Army personnel, who have distinguished themselves both at home and abroad working for our State, non-military elements dominated the discussions that led to the decision to disband the 3rd Brigade. Before the 2012 reorganisation, there were five operational units in Dublin. After the reorganisation, there remain only two. That has led directly to the requirement for troops from barracks in Athlone, Dundalk and Donegal travelling to Dublin in rotation to carry out routine barrack duties, which before the reorganisation had been carried out by members of the five operational units stationed in Dublin. Surely it makes no common, strategic or financial sense to bring people from Finner Camp in south Donegal, Athlone and Aiken Barracks in Dundalk to carry out routine duties in Dublin? Reorganisation that has resulted in that type of transient personnel, where people work one day in Finner and then another few days in Rathmines in Dublin, makes no sense. Were anyone to suggest that was a good strategic move, I would suggest they go back to the drawing board and re-examine the organisation that people with great Army experience say had huge flaws.

The decision in 2012 was based on recommendations brought forward by the then Secretary General of the Department of Defence and the then Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces. They were aimed at ensuring the most effective operational structures in a stabilised strength ceiling of 9,500 Permanent Defence Force personnel. The reorganisation proposals at that time were developed collaboratively by senior and military management. I know well that a senior management team worked on the reorganisation and what was best for the organisation. The 2012 reorganisation has created many opportunities for people, of which one is the increased number of people who were able to go overseas on peacekeeping duties. In recent years a high number of personnel have had the opportunity to serve overseas in peacekeeping duties, which is one reason people join the Defence Forces. I am not saying there have not been challenges since the reorganisation. We have a huge number of challenges. One is retention, which is why I would like to get back up to 9,500 personnel, which the Defence Forces are fully funded for.

The reorganisation in 2012 was a political decision influenced by the officials in the Department of Defence, not military decision-making.

On the retention of personnel, I have attended many parades and different functions in Cavan over the years when we had Dún Uí Néill Barracks. I knew many of the people who served, where there were generations of families who served with distinction abroad. I quoted a figure earlier that showed very clearly that the biggest loss in personnel has been from the areas that were previously part of the Western Brigade. It is clear that towns have lost that history and the contact with their barracks, where generations of families joined the army and served the country with great distinction. The community that the Army generated is being lost. That has contributed to our losing people and to fewer people in those areas applying to join the Army.

The Army element of the Defence Forces is wrongly oriented. It is very oriented to the south, the east and the south east. We should realise that, unfortunately, there is a border in our country. It will be there for another few years, I am sure. From a Defence Forces perspective, the 499 km Border with Northern Ireland is now overseen from the headquarters of the 2nd Infantry Brigade located in Rathmines, Dublin. Dealing with the Border area needs local decision-making, with knowledge gathered and decisions made in the local area. I have spoken to the Minister of State before, asked him parliamentary questions and put it to him at the joint committee, asking him to consider once again restoring Dún Uí Néill Barracks in Cavan. The central Border area is without a military installation between Finner in south Donegal and Aiken in Dundalk.

The security of the State rests with An Garda Síochána, with which the Defence Forces have a very close relationship in this regard. I mean this in the best way that we should look forward rather than back. I take the Deputy's views on board about the lack of recruitment from areas where there were barracks in the past. It is one of the hardest decisions. The Deputy was in government, as have I been, when military barracks were closed, and it is not a nice thing for an area. One sympathises with people in areas where it happens. One sees great appetite to join the Defence Forces in those areas, and after the barracks have been gone for a few years, there is a decrease in the number of people wanting to join.

That is why we have to change recruitment and it is one reason that I have a review of recruitment ongoing so we can see how we can get it back to the communities where previously we had barracks. It has frustrated me but we must look at recruitment quite differently from how we do it now. The process is ongoing, with an independent chair looking at the review of recruitment as part of the independent pay commission. The White Paper that was published last week suggests that we need more people in the areas of cyber safety management and that the people in the areas where we had critical mass previously may not be suitable for that now. There are different security threats to the State and our decisions on recruitment and retention must reflect that.