Priority Questions

I understand Deputy Calleary, who tabled two priority questions, is unavoidably absent. The Ceann Comhairle, as an exceptional measure, has agreed that Deputy Troy may deal with his questions in his place.

Overseas Missions

Dara Calleary

Ceist:

1Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Defence if any approach has been made from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in relation to defence force involvement in a potential UN peacekeeping mission in Syria and the procedures that would be involved in assessing the involvement of the defence forces in such a mission; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14578/12]

The Government is deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation in Syria. Almost 3 million people have been affected by the civil unrest in Syria since it began in March 2011. The population of the Homs district of Baba Amr has been displaced. While exact figures are difficult to ascertain, the number of fatalities thus far is at least 8,000, with 2,500 killed in the past month alone. A further 200,000 people have fled their homes and 30,000 are now living as refugees. The Government shares the widespread regret at the Security Council's failure in February to adopt a draft resolution, which otherwise commanded extensive support, due to the veto by Russia and China. The five permanent members of the Security Council are continuing their consultations on a new draft resolution on Syria without any sign of an imminent breakthrough.

Intensive international efforts have continued, however. The former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has been appointed joint special envoy of the UN and Arab League. Mr. Annan held two days of talks with President Assad, during which he presented concrete proposals for a ceasefire and humanitarian access. No agreement emerged at the meeting, however. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is the lead Department in this issue. To date that Department has not been approached by United Nations for assistance. At this time there is no provision in the draft Security Council resolution for a military operation. It is envisaged that any intervention by the UN will be humanitarian in nature and, therefore, the Defence Forces would not play a role.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to deputise for Deputy Calleary. The Arab League sent in an observer team to help reduce the violence that has swept across Syria in the past year, with anti-Government protestors being massacred by forces under the control of the Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad. The President agreed to the team in order to end ongoing violence and avoid the need for a UN-led mission to the country. As we now know, however, the month-long Arab League mission left in January. Its departure points to the failure of regional efforts to deal with the problem and the need for an international solution.

UN sources estimate that 7,500 protestors have been killed by the President's attempts to stamp out civil dissent. The influential US Senator, John McCain, has called on the international community to arm the Syrian opposition and the prospect of military intervention increases. Has the Government prepared contingency plans for involvement in Syria if the triple-lock procedure is satisfied? What other national organisations could be called on in the event of UN humanitarian intervention in Syria?

Unless the triple-lock requirements are satisfied we cannot deploy Defence Forces personnel overseas in a military capacity. This would require a unanimous UN resolution but in the absence of such a resolution we cannot get involved in a military mission. A decision of the Government and a vote in the Dáil is also required if the number of personnel to be deployed is greater than seven. However, even in the absence of such a resolution there is still hope. I understand discussions have taken place between Kofi Annan and the Syrian Government and a statement may issue later today regarding proposals that have been put to the latter.

In the meantime the Irish Government is actively involved in providing humanitarian assistance. It proposes to spend more than €500,000 in supporting humanitarian organisations in Syria and camps in adjacent countries. Our efforts will be concentrated in that area.

Defence Forces Property

Jonathan O'Brien

Ceist:

2Deputy Jonathan O’Brien asked the Minister for Defence his plans to consolidate Defence Forces formations in to fewer locations; the timeframe over which this will occur; the properties he intends to sell as part of this; the locations he intends to rent as part of this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14580/12]

The Department of Defence's property portfolio is kept under review to ensure the most effective use of military resources, having regard to the roles assigned by Government to the Defence Forces. As the Deputy is aware, on 15 November 2011 the Government approved a proposal from the Minister for Defence to proceed with a further phase of consolidation of Defence Forces personnel into fewer locations with the closure of the barracks in Clonmel, Mullingar, Cavan and Castlebar. The consolidation of the Defence Forces formations into a smaller number of locations is a key objective in the ongoing defence modernisation programme and has been recommended in many reports over the past several years. This was a key consideration of Government in addressing this issue because releasing personnel from security and support functions enables the operational capacity of the Defence Forces to be maintained notwithstanding the fall in strength.

Arising from the comprehensive review of expenditure, the Government decided that the strength of the Permanent Defence Force should be 9,500. In response to the revised strength ceiling, a major re-organisation of the Defence Forces, including the Reserve Defence Force, has been initiated. This will encompass a reduction in the number of Army brigades from the current three to two. The primary focus of the re-organisation is to maintain operational outputs and capabilities to best effect, within a reduced strength.

The Minister has asked the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General of the Department of Defence to bring forward detailed proposals for consideration. These will include proposals regarding territorial areas of responsibility. In advance of the receipt and consideration of the options available, it is not possible to answer detailed questions on possible outcomes. However, further barracks closures are not envisaged as part of this process.

The Reserve Defence Force in each of the four barracks being closed at the end of this month will be provided with alternative rented accommodation prior to the closure of the barracks. This is a normal arrangement for Reserve units in other locations around the country and is consistent with how the previous Government dealt with the matter.

Will the Minister of State indicate when the report will be finalised and presented to the Minister for Defence?

It is disheartening for the families of personnel in areas where barracks are closing to see advertisements in their local newspapers seeking to rent premises for the Reserve Defence Force. Representatives of a number of families have sought the publication of the feasibility studies we are told were carried out on the closure of the barracks. Will the Department release the studies and why are we closing barracks when we must then find alternative premises for the Reserve?

I understand the advertisements pertain to members of the Reserve Defence Force, or what used to be called the FCA. These are not full-time military personnel and as they train once or twice per week on average they do not have the same requirements for permanent accommodation. Where Reserve units are based in these towns they will be provided with space for training and other necessary activities. The advertisements placed in newspapers pertain to that issue.

The current strength of the Army is at the same level as in 1970. In the context of the requirements of a modern Army, this reallocation process makes best use of resources, notwithstanding the issues raised by Deputy O'Brien.

I will ask the Minister for Defence about the report to which the Deputy referred but I assume it ought to be available under the Freedom of Information Act.

While the personnel may be part-time, we will, nonetheless, be renting premises for them on a full-time basis. Was a cost-benefit analysis carried out on the potential savings to be made from closing the barracks compared to the cost of leasing long-term accommodation prior to the decision to close the barracks?

Some €84.98 million has been realised to date from the disposal of six barracks and part of another. The money is ring-fenced and returned to the Defence Vote as appropriations-in-aid. Under some of the major programmes, light tactical armoured vehicles, armoured APCs, two EC135 helicopters, six AW139 helicopters and two new offshore patrol vessels have been purchased. I believe €100,000 will be spent on the Reserve Defence Force. That frees up all the personnel who otherwise would look after barracks.

Will the Minister of State arrange to get that additional information to me?

Overseas Missions

Mick Wallace

Ceist:

3Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Defence when Irish defence forces personnel will be withdrawn from Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14581/12]

I have a good briefing on this one.

The Defence Forces are primarily deployed on overseas missions in support of international peace and security under UN mandates. On 20 December 2001, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1386 under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, authorising the establishment of an International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Ireland has participated in the NATO-led UN-mandated mission since 5 July 2002, following the Government decision of 2 July 2002, authorising the provision of seven members of the Permanent Defence Force for service.

With the increasing use of more robust Chapter VII missions, the UN has turned to regional organisations such as the European Union, the African Union and NATO, to launch and manage operations on its behalf and under its authority. Since 2002, the Government has reviewed and approved, on an annual basis, the continued participation by seven members of the Permanent Defence Force in ISAF. On 28 June 2011, the Government agreed to continue to provide seven members of the Permanent Defence Force for service with ISAF for a further period from July 2011, subject to ongoing review by the Minister for Defence. Currently there are no plans to withdraw the Defence Forces personnel from the mission. Participation in the mission is subject to ongoing review by the Minister for Defence.

Throughout the years, Ireland has and continues to contribute highly qualified Defence Forces personnel to UN-mandated missions in small numbers or for short durations. This is a tangible and visible expression of Ireland's continued support for organisations such as the United Nations.

The seven Defence Forces personnel currently participating in ISAF are all located in ISAF headquarters in Kabul and work in staff appointments in planning and administrative roles. The Minister for Defence is satisfied that the work carried out by these personnel, particularly by those in the counter-improvised explosive device cell, represents an important contribution to this UN-mandated mission.

Most people would agree that the war in Afghanistan is one of the madder ones in which anyone has got involved. After 11 September 2001, the Americans were looking for someone to bash and even though no one from Afghanistan was involved in the bombing of New York, they decided to pick on Afghanistan, leading to tens of thousands killed, millions displaced, society destroyed, billions of dollars worth of destruction and the entire region destabilised. It has been one of the most historic tragedies in the past 100 years and Ireland should not be associated with it. The latest atrocity involved a US soldier who was said not to be well when he went out and killed 16 civilians. Of course he was not well, but nor were the people who went to war in the first place. Does the Minister of State not believe the lives of the Irish people there are more at risk now given that the situation is becoming even more unstable? The level of civilian deaths is at its highest since the war began ten years ago.

The key point is what I said at the beginning. I appreciate the Deputy's comments and I support his point about any civilians being killed in a tragic and appalling manner as happened with that one soldier doing what he did. The photographs of the child victims of that extreme and appalling action are shocking as are the deaths of all civilians. The key point is that we are there supporting a unanimous UN Security Council decision. We are not there as combatants but as part of a United Nations force. The actions of our seven soldiers there are mainly in support but also getting and giving great experience in improvised explosive devices. When a UN decision is made to withdraw the force, we will withdraw our troops at that time.

Having a UN mandate does not change the fact that it is completely immoral and is an absolute disaster - it does not make any sense. At the moment the British and Americans are clamouring to get out of the place, which is more unstable than ever. World security has reduced because of the experience in Afghanistan and nothing has been gained. The Taliban is stronger now than it was ten years ago and even the dogs in the street know it will take over the country once the others move out. The Government keeps reminding us that we have no money. Since the Government came to power in March 2011, what has been the cost to the State of keeping those people in Afghanistan in the most ludicrous war we can remember?

We have seven personnel there as part of a UN-mandated force. The Deputy spoke about the Taliban and the situation in Afghanistan. The Taliban have been involved in abuses of human rights in denying women the right to be educated and people to enjoy a normal life. The Irish personnel there are rotated every six months. We are part of a group of other neutral and non-aligned countries, including Austria, Finland and Sweden. I believe the annual cost is approximately €300,000. I can confirm that to the Deputy later.

Defence Forces Strength

Dara Calleary

Ceist:

4Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Defence the total number of retirements from the armed forces at the end of February 2012; the number of senior positions that are now vacant in the armed forces; the number of positions that have been or will be filled; his plans to maintain military capacities in view of these retirements; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14579/12]

The number of personnel who left the Defence Forces in the period 1 January to 29 February 2012 was 551. The total number of vacancies at all ranks as at 29 February, 2011, and based on the current employment control framework, ECF, is set out in the tabular statement. The ECF is being revised in the context of the reduction in personnel to 9,500 and the reorganisation announced recently by the Minister for Defence. The reorganisation will ensure that, within the strength level of 9,500 personnel, the operational effectiveness of the Permanent Defence Force is prioritised. Pending the reorganisation, priority posts will be filled.

Following recent promotion competitions, the vacancy which existed at the rank of major general was filled by the Government on 6 March. Vacancies at the rank of brigadier general have been also filled. Competitions and promotion procedures are currently in train to fill essential prioritised vacancies at all other ranks and this process will be completed as quickly as possible.

As the Defence Forces are currently more than 500 below the agreed serving cadre of 9,500, phased recruitment of in excess of 500, I believe, will be undertaken in 2012. I am advised by the military authorities that a new recruitment competition will be advertised shortly.

LT

MAJ

BRIG

COL

LT

COMDT

CAPT

LT

SM

BQMS

CS

CQMS

SGTS

CPLS

PTES

TOTAL

GEN

GEN

GEN

COL

CADETS

ECF

1

2

9

44

151

370

494

280

48

48

260

280

1425

1825

4763

10,000

Strength at 29 Feb 2012

1

1

5

29

125

291

443

361

34

32

152

175

1094

1657

4518

8,918

Vacancies at 29 Feb 2012

0

1

4

15

26

79

51

+81

14

16

108

105

331

168

245

1,082

LT

MAJ

BRIG

COL

LT

COMDT

CAPT

LT

SM

BQMS

CS

CQMS

SGTS

CPLS

PTES

TOTAL

GEN

GEN

GEN

COL

CADETS

ECF

1

2

7

40

124

289

348

191

34

37

129

251

1068

1462

4037

8,020

Strength at 29 Feb 2012

1

0

3

25

100

230

325

279

24

25

78

158

814

1324

3821

7,207

Vacancies at 29 Feb 2012

0

2

4

15

24

59

23

+88

10

12

51

93

254

138

216

813

LT

MAJ

BRIG

COL

LT

COMDT

CAPT

LT

SM

BQMS

CS

CQMS

SGTS

CPLS

PTES

TOTAL

GEN

GEN

GEN

COL

CADETS

ECF

0

0

1

2

14

36

65

48

8

4

56

14

131

183

324

886

Strength at 29 Feb 2012

0

1

1

2

13

27

58

35

6

3

30

8

109

161

305

759

Vacancies at 29 Feb 2012

0

+1

0

0

1

9

7

13

2

1

26

6

22

22

19

127

Naval Service – 29 February 2012

LT

MAJ

BRIG

COL

LT

COMDT

CAPT

LT

SM

BQMS

CS

CQMS

SGTS

CPLS

PTES

TOTAL

GEN

GEN

GEN

COL

CADETS

ECF

0

0

1

2

13

45

81

41

6

7

75

15

226

180

402

1,094

Strength at 29 Feb 2012

0

0

1

2

12

34

60

47

4

4

44

9

171

172

392

952

Vacancies at 29 Feb 2012

0

0

0

0

1

11

21

+6

2

3

31

6

55

8

10

142

I am please there will be a phased recruitment to the Defence Forces. I ask the Minister of State to enlighten the House and tell us more precisely when this will be happen. In December the Minister for Defence announced he would maintain the Defence Forces personnel at 9,500 and the recruitment is in keeping with that commitment, which is welcome.

The Minister of State alluded to the reorganisation of the Defence Forces. PDFORRA and the RACO, which represent enlisted personnel and officers, expressed disappointment and surprise at the Minister's move to reorganise from three to two brigades. How many senior positions will be removed under the restructuring of the Defence Forces? What specific amount of cadetship will be opened up this year under the rearranged structure?

I cannot give the Deputy all the facts he has sought. However, I assure him they will be brought to him as soon as possible. The key point is the Government will maintain Army personnel numbers at 9,500 and it will recruit up to 600 as soon as possible. The Army must assess where this recruitment will take place and at what rank. The table supplied to the Deputy outlines the vacancies at present across all ranks.

The key point relates to strategic workforce planning. This has been under way for the past 18 months. The operational capacity of the Defence Forces within the reduced figures takes account of the large numbers of staff leaving. Initiatives have been taken, including the establishment of a barracks closure working group to manage issues relating to barracks closures and consolidation. The Croke Park agreement implementation group deals with recruitment and promotions and it prioritises appointments required to be filled in the organisation to maintain essential output. While the reduction in personnel will be challenging within the military system, procedures have been and are being put in place to ensure that all vacant posts are covered pending the filling of essential vacancies. The situation is being monitored closely. As the Deputy acknowledged, the Government remains committed to ensuring that the Defence Forces retain the capacity to operate effectively in all roles assigned to them.

Is the Minister of State suggesting that it has yet to be decided exactly which recruitment will take place in the various ranks? If so, when will this be decided and when will it be advertised? The Minister of State indicated there would be a recruitment of up to a maximum of 600 personnel. However, the Minister has yet to identify which ranks will be recruited and when this will take place.

It is important to get this exactly right in view of the reorganisation that is pending. There is no point in having the wrong rank of person doing a given job. Those recruited must fit the vacancies deemed to be essential. This is a fundamental reorganisation and a significant undertaking. A range of approaches must be considered. The experience from previous reorganisations has shown that time is required to formulate options and to evaluate each of them and, subsequently, to decide on the best option to ensure that the organisational structures are fit for purpose. The Minister will not pre-empt the ongoing work on the potential future of organisational matters in advance of receiving the final report or the making of recommendations. I assure the Deputy that the numbers will be filled up to 9,500 personnel. The key message is that there will be active recruitment as soon as possible up to a figure of 9,500 for the Defence Forces. I understand up to 600 new, younger people will be employed in the Defence Forces.

Defence Forces Operations

John Halligan

Ceist:

5Deputy John Halligan asked the Minister for Defence his views in relation to possibly making the services of some of the Defence Forces, that is intelligence, available to help combat the illegal drug trade, in order to free up the Gardaí to deal with other aspects of crime prevention [14653/12]

I thank Deputy Halligan for his question. The Customs and Excise service of the Revenue Commissioners has primary responsibility for the prevention of drug smuggling into the country. Responsibility for the prevention of crime rests primarily with An Garda Síochána. However, the White Paper on defence from 2000 provides for a security role for the Naval Service and the Air Corps to assist and support the civil authorities in this important work.

While Defence Forces personnel and resources are not dedicated solely to drug interdiction operations, assistance in the prevention of drug smuggling is nevertheless recognised as an important, core part of their many duties. The Defence Forces directorate of intelligence provides regular assessments, reports and briefings to the Chief of Staff, the Minister for Defence and the Secretary General of the Department, relating to internal or external threats to the security of the State and to national interests. The Secretary General and the Chief of Staff are members of the national security committee, which also comprises the Garda Commissioner, and the committee advises on security and defence matters. The directorate also maintains a close and effective working relationship with its counterparts in An Garda Síochána.

The task force on drug interdiction was established in 1993 as a Government measure to improve law enforcement in respect of drugs and consists of An Garda Síochána, Customs and Excise and the Naval Service. Drug interdiction is carried out by Naval Service vessels on receipt of intelligence. The Naval Service operates eight general purpose patrol ships tasked with coastal and offshore patrolling and surveillance for the State. The Naval Service is committed to having at least three vessels on patrol within the Irish exclusive economic zone at any one time. All vessels are multi-tasked in the sense that they also undertake general surveillance, security and other duties. However, as the need arises, Naval Service vessels are deployed to other duties including drug interdiction operations.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

As part of the joint task force, the Naval Service is also committed to an international initiative, the maritime analysis and operations centre – narcotics, MAOC-N. The centre, established in 2007, has led to a greater focus on intelligence exchange among countries to tackle large drug shipments by sea. MAOC-N was set up by seven European countries and is designed as an international co-ordination force with access to national tasking agencies and requires participation and resources from all active members. An Garda Síochána and Customs and Excise have full-time officers based at the centre in Lisbon. Irish Naval Service personnel travel to the centre when requested by the joint task force.

Air Corps personnel and resources are also involved in efforts to prevent drug trafficking. The Air Corps maritime squadron carries out aerial surveillance of our exclusive economic zone using the two CASA maritime patrol aircraft which are equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance and communication equipment. On occasion, the Air Corps has also carried members of the customs national drugs team in an observational capacity for the purposes of monitoring vessels suspected of smuggling drugs.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Garda cutbacks and the loss of resources are greatly hampering the State's response to what is taking place in the illegal drug trade. This is the view of the Garda Representative Association. It maintains that the reduction in the number of gardaí and the reduction of armed back-up is recklessly endangering its members. Further, it takes the view that this is an unacceptable gamble with society. I asked the Minister of State's view on this question because many communities believe they are no longer governed by the democratic institutions. This is obvious given what is taking place especially in Dublin where criminal gangs almost have control of some estates. It would be futile for me to call on the Government to increase Garda resources under the current economic restraints. However, as a Deputy, I am obliged to ask what other resources can be used.

Some time ago, a journalist stated that the greatest threat to the State at present, apart from what is taking place economically, is criminal activity and gangs. We are committed to reducing Garda numbers from 14,500 to 13,000 by the end of 2014 but this is unacceptable to the Garda. I spoke to members of the force before I tabled the question. Can we not use other resources? I accept that we deploy the Air Corps and the Naval Service to deal with the illegal drug trade. However, perhaps we could discuss the use of surveillance that would free up other Garda resources. I am not calling for the Army to go on to the streets of the country, nor would the Garda wish for it. However, it is a relevant question and I am keen to hear the Minister of State's view on it.

I thank the Deputy for his comments. He is perfectly correct in his comments on the Defence Forces providing intelligence. As I stated earlier, a national body deals with this issue. This involves the Garda, the Army and the intelligence people. There is a great pooling of resources. Notwithstanding what Deputy Halligan stated in respect of the Garda representative body, this is not a question for the Department of Justice and Equality but for the Department of Defence and I can only speak to that.

I understand that.

As Deputy Halligan stated, he is not calling for the Army to be on the streets and this is not what the Army wants either. The Army is in place to aid civilian power and this is what it has always done. I agree with the Deputy, as does everyone else, that the drug situation continues to be a major priority for the Defence Forces. They play a full part in this regard.