Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 11 Dec 2013

Vol. 824 No. 2

Other Questions

Defence Forces Equipment

Bernard Durkan


6. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence the degree to which all military personnel in the Army, the Naval Service and Air Corps continue to avail of training and upgrading of equipment in line with other defence forces throughout Europe, with particular reference to the need to be able to interact with other forces in the event of overseas deployment or co-ordinated security or emergency measures; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52880/13]

This question relates to the need for the Defence Forces to have ready access to the most modern methods of training and upgraded equipment, so as to be in a position to interact effectively with other international forces in the event of deployment.

I am satisfied the level of resources available to the Defence Forces, including training resources and equipment, enables them to carry out their roles, both at home and overseas. The acquisition of new equipment for the Defence Forces remains a focus for me. It is a matter that is kept under constant review at a senior level in my Department and in the Defence Forces through their joint participation in the high level planning and procurement group. This group is charged with identifying equipment requirements and agreeing on a procurement programme to provide the Defence Forces with type and quantities of equipment necessary to carry out their assigned duties.

In the current economic climate, the budgetary situation will continue to dictate the level of funding available for new equipment, training and equipment upgrades. Decisions will be made, accordingly, on a strictly prioritised basis in accordance with operational priorities with a view to maintaining the capability of all roles assigned by the Government to the Defence Forces.

In my recent visit to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, I had the opportunity to see at first hand the range of modern equipment available to Irish troops in Lebanon. This included MOWAG armoured personnel carriers and a range of force protection and personal equipment which allows the Defence Forces carry out their various taskings in a safe and secure manner.

On the issue of training, the Defence Forces maintain a robust and comprehensive training system which incorporates a wide variety of modern training methods. Training standards in the Defence Forces are constantly benchmarked against best international practice. Similarly, the Naval Service’s training techniques and technologies are up to date in all respects. The provision of two new offshore patrol vessels is well advanced with the first ship due for delivery in early 2014. These modern new vessels, combined with a continuous process of refurbishment and repair on the other vessels in the fleet, will ensure the Naval Service continues to meet the required operational capability.

The Air Corps also keeps abreast of all developments in modern aviation. It will continue to conduct its training in accordance with industry best practices and to the highest standards, referencing European Aviation Safety Agency and Federal Aviation Administration requirements.

I chair the Government's task force on emergency planning, which includes senior officials of several Departments, senior officers of An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces and officials of other key public authorities which have a lead or support role in Government emergency planning. The task force, which meets on a regular basis, examines current risks and supports co-ordination arrangements for emergency planning across Government. The Defence Forces will continue to play an integral part in the emergency planning process.

I am satisfied the Defence Forces are adequately equipped and trained to meet the many demands and tasks the Government has assigned to them.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. Is he satisfied that budgetary restrictions, imposed as a result of the economic situation, will not unnecessarily impact negatively on equipment upgrading and access to training required in all branches of the Defence Forces? Will he indicate the degree to which our Defence Forces are equipped, trained and capable of dealing with all kinds of emergencies, whether they be natural disasters or terrorist attacks, either at home or abroad?

Despite the economic difficulties, our Defence Forces are better equipped than they have been at any time in the history of the State. In the context of the tasks we have to perform abroad in UN missions, they have the equipment required for the tasks they are undertaking. Most recently, with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, mission, I made demands of the UN with regard to the type of equipment we believed was necessary for our forces to have so as to perform their duties. We had that equipment and the UN agreed our forces could take it with them in their deployment to the Golan Heights. It ensured there were no serious injuries in a recent incident there. If there had been lesser equipment, such as that to which the mission originally was confined, there could have been a difficulty.

Thank you, Minister. I will let you back in.

We keep Defence Forces equipment under review. Circumstances, needs and demands change. In that context, it is of significant importance that we keep under continuing review the adequacy and appropriateness of equipment, as well as its usage to ensure we have the capability to fulfil tasks.

How rapidly can our Defence Forces be deployed in the event of an emergency? To what extent are our Defence Forces regularly upgraded in that context?

There is regular training in these areas. Theoretical situations are created to look at response times. I am satisfied the Defence Forces are dealing with these issues in an appropriate manner. No one can ever predict with certainty that some unexpected and unplanned event will not take place. We should be proud of the professionalism of the Defence Forces, the extent of their training and planning, as well as their consideration given to a broad range of eventualities that can occur. That fits in neatly with some of the issues considered by the task force on emergency planning in respect of which theoretical exercises are frequently conducted on a comprehensive, whole-of-Department basis, involving several Departments along with the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána. Such an exercise took place within the past four weeks.

Air Corps Equipment

Patrick O'Donovan


7. Deputy Patrick O'Donovan asked the Minister for Defence in view of the recent helicopter crash in Scotland, if he will confirm if all helicopters owned and operated by the Defence Forces are fitted with flight recorders; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52686/13]

This question relates to a recent tragic police helicopter crash in Glasgow. I extend my sympathies to the people involved. Are the State’s helicopters in the Defence Forces and elsewhere fitted with flight recorders to assist in the event of a flight accident?

In the context of the incident to which the Deputy referred, I express my condolences and the condolences of all Members of the House to the relatives of those whose lives were lost during that tragic accident.

The Air Corps operate a fleet of eight helicopters, two light utility EC 135 helicopters used in the main for pilot training and six utility AW 139 helicopters used for general purpose military operational and training. In addition, the Air Corps provides pilots to fly the two EC 135 helicopters operated for an Garda Síochána-related activities. All helicopters in our fleet, including those used by the Garda air support unit, are fitted with flight recorders and this has been the case since they were originally acquired. The provision of such recording equipment in our helicopters is a standard requirement of our Defence Forces.

A report will be issued on the investigation into the recent accident in Glasgow to the Glasgow police force and the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Will the Minister liaise with his colleagues in Britain to see if anything can be learned from this incident for Irish operations? Unfortunately, in the recent past there was a tragic incident involving an Irish helicopter with a loss of life. If changes need to be made from a Defence Forces, Garda or civil aviation point of view, then they could come from this investigation.

I want to be associated with the expressions of sympathy. An Irish Helicopters chopper crashed several years ago in my parish, a mile from my house. Unfortunately, there was a loss of life but thankfully it did not crash into buildings and cause further loss of life.

The Eurocopter has a good safety record and is used by many police forces across the world. Are there plans to have more air inspections? Do we have an adequate number of Garda helicopters?

If there are lessons to be learned from the tragedy in Scotland, we will seek to learn them. I have no doubt the Scottish authorities will be publishing a report on the outcome of the crash investigation which we will be able to access.

My officials can communicate with the Scottish authorities on any issues that arise and might be relevant to us. There are no plans to acquire any additional helicopter supports for the Garda Síochána.

Defence Forces Recruitment

Pádraig MacLochlainn


8. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Minister for Defence if he will confirm if declaring asthma during childhood now rules out a person from acceptance to the Defence Forces; and if this is the case, to ask that this would be made explicit to applicants from the start. [52777/13]

This question arises from a recent situation where a man approached one of my colleagues about the long application process one undertakes to be accepted into the Defence Forces, and rightly so, but at the very end of that process there is a medical form to be signed. He signed to confirm that as a child he had asthma and at the point he was ruled out. How does that come about and why does it emerge at the very end of the process?

The day-to-day administration of recruitment to the Defence Forces is the responsibility of the Chief of Staff. I am advised by the military authorities that a declaration of asthma during childhood does not automatically rule out a person from acceptance to the Permanent Defence Force, PDF. An individual assessment of each case is made by the examining medical officer, taking into account the full history and examination. Working in the Defence Forces is a demanding career which places unique physical and psychological demands on individuals, exposing them to a unique range of challenging environments. In these circumstances it is vital that the health profile of personnel be such as to ensure that operational capability and effectiveness are not compromised.

There are a number of physical and medical standards laid down in the Defence Forces regulations and associated administrative instructions. These requirements are based on the professional advice of the medical corps and having regard to the nature of the job, the duties of military service and the training exercises undertaken by members of the Defence Forces. The director of the medical corps has advised that applicants who have chronic medical conditions are at a higher risk of suffering from symptoms related to those conditions due to the exigencies of military service. Entry criteria for enlistment to the PDF are, therefore, based on the selection of personnel who are not likely to require medical support and whose pre-existing medical status could not reasonably be foreseen to be subject to aggravation by service with the PDF. Each individual’s medical condition is examined taking into account a detailed, documented history of the condition and its extent, including remissions, exacerbations and any other associated conditions. In the specific context of a chronic medical condition such as asthma the sufferer is placed at a higher health risk.

I welcome the confirmation that childhood asthma does not automatically rule an applicant out. Perhaps it might be in order for me to ask that this case be reviewed. I accept the criteria the Minister has laid out. Clearly, having criteria around an underlying medical condition in a profession that involves rigorous physical activity is logical. The second point is the process. This man passed everything else with flying colours but feels he was ruled out when he confirmed that he had had childhood asthma. That will be covered in any review of the case but maybe the process could be reviewed. If one has an underlying condition that rules one out there is no point going through everything else.

Merely stating on the form that one had childhood asthma should not exclude an individual from joining the Defence Forces. The provisions do not say that. There must be an individual medical assessment of how the applicant is at the time of the application, not what occurred simply during childhood. There may be more to the background of this matter than the Deputy or I are aware. Where an applicant to the PDF is found to be medically unfit the medical officer will normally advise as to the reason and I would be very surprised if the applicant was declared unfit because he had had childhood asthma. There must be more to that.

Regarding a review, an applicant who is found to be medically unfit and wishes to appeal is advised as to the appeal mechanism and any representations he or she wishes to make may be considered. If this applicant has not appealed, he should do so. The appeal mechanism consists of an independent medical examination by a medical board of the applicant and his or her clinical history. The medical board is specially convened for that purpose and comprises two medical officers unconnected with the original medical examination. The Deputy may wish to inquire whether this individual filed an appeal, followed that process, if not, why not, and whether he was informed. If an issue arises, the Deputy is very welcome to communicate with me privately about the matter and I will have it looked into.

Question No. 9 is in the name of Deputy Mac Lochlainn. He is lucky today; he should buy a lottery ticket.

Yesterday I was feeling hard done by in terms of questions.

Wednesday is a better day.

Garda Resources

Pádraig MacLochlainn


9. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Minister for Defence the level of support provided to the Garda helicopter air support by the Defence Forces Air Corps for the years 2008-2013, inclusive. [52779/13]

Recently the justice and defence committee had the opportunity to visit Baldonnel and, as when we visited the Naval Service, it was inspirational to see the professionalism of our Air Corps and the patriotism and the pride they have in everything they do. We also visited the Garda air support team. My question is to establish the levels of support we can give them. With their professionalism and dedication the Minister will agree that we need to give them everything they need.

I share the Deputy's perspective of the professionalism of the members of the Air Corps who do a fantastic job and the gardaí who are engaged in the Garda helicopter service. In April 1996 the then Government approved the establishment of a dedicated Garda air support unit, GASU, as recommended in the report of an interdepartmental group on air support for the Garda Síochána. The service commenced from Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel in September 1997 and is operated by the Garda Síochána and the Air Corps. The GASU provides a 24-hour, all-year immediate response capability for air support to the Garda Síochána. This arrangement is formalised by way of a service level agreement, SLA, between the parties. The latest agreement was signed in April 2011. The GASU fleet comprises three aircraft: a Defender 4000 fixed-wing aircraft and two twin-engine EC 135 helicopters.

The support provided by the Air Corps to the GASU includes provision of hangar facilities and pilots for all three aircraft and the servicing and maintenance of the fixed-wing Defender 4000 aircraft. Since the inception of the service, the GASU aircraft have flown in excess of 30,000 missions within the State. A breakdown of the number of missions and the hours flown for the years 2008 to the end of November 2013 are set out in the table. I am happy to go through it for the Deputy if needs be. He will see that there is continuing usage and engagement with the service in providing air support to the Garda Síochána.

2008 – 5 December 2013 GASU Statistics



Flight Hours

















(to 5 December)



What I found really interesting, and which may not be commonly understood by the public, is that one presumes air support is to back up a Garda pursuit but it is used for all sorts of support to the Garda. It is the eyes in the air providing crucial intelligence. I will not get into it but the criminals need to be very worried about the technology it provides to assist gardaí on the ground to capture people who are a threat to the public. They have great enthusiasm for what they do. The only concern is that I got a sense that hours have been cut back over recent years. The cutting edge they can give gardaí on the ground is remarkable and my concern is that the Garda helicopter is in the air for fewer hours than in recent years. Rather than turn it into a political football, since everybody in this House would agree that we need to give them everything we can, I urge the Minister to examine that area to ensure we give them every support we can into the future.

The circumstances in which the Garda helicopter should be deployed to assist gardaí in the myriad duties in which they are engaged is a matter for Garda management. As the Deputy will see from the figures, the flight hours seem to go up and down.

In 2009, there were 2,153.23 hours. In 2010, there were 1,617 hours, so it was substantially reduced in 2010 compared with 2009. It goes up again in 2011 to 2,266 hours and goes down again in 2012 to 1,188 hours. I presume the usage is dependent on the issues that arise, the need to deploy them and the work that needs to be undertaken. It is a matter for Garda management to determine when they should be utilised and when it is appropriate for them to provide assistance in the work that is being undertaken.

Defence Forces Properties

Clare Daly


10. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Defence if he will undertake a study in relation to redeveloping the garrison community in the Curragh Camp through the re-use and restoration of the numerous buildings, housing, hospital, businesses and many other premises that could be put to beneficial civilian, military and community uses. [52901/13]

Mick Wallace


18. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Defence if he has carried out a cost benefit analysis in relation to renovating and re-using all or any of the many different empty properties in the Curragh Camp for military or civilian purposes. [52911/13]

It is the policy of the Minister and previous governments to drive the remaining civilians out of the Curragh Camp and to have it as a purely military facility. Will the Minister stop that policy before it is too late? This was once a thriving community and there are many important buildings in the Curragh Camp, including a hospital, a prison, businesses, accommodation and dwellings of unique architecture and history. Will the Minister engage with the local historical society and people there to see what could be done to return the Curragh Camp to what it once was?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 18 together.

My Department is engaged on an ongoing building programme designed to modernise and enhance the training, operational and accommodation facilities available to members of the Defence Forces. Under the building programme, there has been considerable capital investment at the Curragh Camp in recent years. For example, between 2008 and 2012, my Department spent in excess of €10.7 million on major building projects at the camp.

The defence capital works provision has reduced over the past five years, from €25.6 million in 2008 to €6.24 million in 2013. The reduction in funding of 75.6% has significantly impacted on the number and scale of construction projects which it is now possible to undertake in any given year. Notwithstanding the constraints on the capital budget as outlined, plans are presently being progressed for substantial works at the camp. These are the refurbishment of the ammunition depot and the conversion to natural gas consumption of the major energy consuming facilities in the camp. This is expected to generate significant savings when completed.

The Department and the Defence Forces, similar to all other Departments, must take into account the current financial difficulties and the economic environment in which we are now operating. The budgetary situation and the operational requirements of the Defence Forces are the primary factors in determining the individual projects which can be completed within the Curragh Camp, as can be seen from the work undertaken to date. Where appropriate, existing buildings within the Curragh Camp are restored. As part of the process for the allocation of funding for individual capital projects an assessment of requirements, which includes a cost benefit analysis, is undertaken.

I am afraid the Minister has avoided the central thrust of the question. Clearly, expenditure on improvements and capital projects in the Curragh for military purposes is one thing, with which I do not have a difficulty, but it does not, in any way, take from the very valid points I raised in the question. The heart of this issue is that a very narrow and I suppose neoliberal view has been taken of the Curragh Camp that it is to be stripped down and redeveloped for military purposes only. That is quite short-sighted.

There are numerous buildings in the facility which the Minister is planning to demolish in an act of social vandalism and of annihilating a key part of our State's history. Thousands of people have lived in the Curragh Camp for more than 100 years. There is a hospital and there are businesses and three schools there and life is becoming very difficult for the remaining people who are there. Is this whole phase of our history to be wiped out? I believe it could be developed.

There are many uses to which it could be put. For example, there are 8,000 Kildare County Council's housing waiting list. Many of these properties could be redeveloped at very little cost. We could engage in a public works programmes which would have valid community uses. I am well aware that is a project beyond the Department of Defence but somebody with vision and who cherishes Ireland's history and heritage would engage with that because these buildings are not beyond salvation. The time is running out on them and if they are destroyed on the Minister's watch, it will be a legacy of vandalism.

The Deputy seems to have lost sight of the fact the Curragh Camp is a military one. She seems to want to create another version of a new city or a new town in the Curragh. As I said to Deputy Wallace yesterday in another context, I would be interested in him sharing with me what it is that is good that the Garda does. I would be interested in Deputy Daly sharing with us one day what it is that is good that the Defence Forces do because it seems her only approach to defence matters is to raise a number of issues that are not directly connected to defence and the functions our military perform at home and abroad but are issues in which the Deputy has a personal interest, which she is entitled to have, and are designed always to suggest that the Defence Forces or my Department lack insight into what we are doing.

Our primary role in the Department of Defence is to ensure the Defence Forces receive the training and have available to them the resources to which they are entitled, that our barracks are fit for purpose in the 21st century and that improvements are made which benefit the functions and capabilities of our Defence Forces.

As I said previously, there is an ongoing building programme to modernise and enhance the training and operational facilities available to the members of the Defence Forces. I do not have an open pot of money I can spend on other matters. The funding does not exist. The Deputy may have noticed the State has had certain fiscal difficulties. I know that she and her colleagues believe there is an open pot of money to throw like confetti at a wedding at every project of which they think without ever having to raise any taxes in order to meet that expenditure.

The Curragh Camp, effectively, is an operational military installation and, as such, the priorities on development of facilities to enhance the operational capability of the Defence Forces where facilities are needed, existing buildings are assessed and if cost effective they are restored to meet the need. I make no apology for developing facilities to enhance the operational capabilities of the Defence Forces because that is what is required and that must be the primary objective.

We fully understand that funding is scarce but that should not prevent the Minister from looking at the best option for the State. We were in the Curragh Camp two weeks ago looking at the properties and many of the old red brick houses - the married quarters - were very well built. Good brick, slate, cast iron fittings and hardwood timber was used in them. However, much of the repair work was poor and cheap materials were used, including cheap PVC and white deal, which is not suited to Irish weather, and they give the properties a bad look. The houses could be renovated in a sensible way and it would be worth it given what they would cost to renovate.

There is a shortage of alternative housing, which is a serious problem. As Deputy Daly said, there are 8,000 on Kildare County Council's housing list. I know the Minister said it should be a military facility only but the community is involved in the place also. There are three schools there which run successfully and people from outside the camp are involved in them. It would be a good investment on the part of the State. I do not know if the Minister has looked at a cost benefit analysis of the alternatives if the State does not look after these houses.

First - I mean this seriously - I bow to the Deputy's expertise in the construction industry and in looking at the houses and at their possibilities but, put simply, I do not have the funding to restore housing accommodation and I have a responsibility, as Minister for Defence, to ensure we do everything necessary to facilitate the operational capacities of the Defence Forces and the best training possible. In the context of the limited capital available to us, it is important we focus this expenditure on facilities related to that.

The Department of Defence does not have a role in providing housing or facilities other than those necessary for operational requirements. I will reflect on what the Deputy has said. I am familiar with the houses that have been referenced. For a range of security reasons, we cannot open the Curragh Camp to general housing for individuals who are not connected with the Defence Forces. As the Deputy will presumably understand, that would create its own range of difficulties and problems. I will be happy to reflect on the manner in which the Deputy has raised this issue. Unfortunately, my hands are substantially tied from a financial perspective. The dramatic reduction in the capital available on the defence side was detailed by me earlier. I have to ensure there is a focus on ensuring the training, safety, well-being and operational capacities of members of the Defence Forces.

We understand the Minister's priority in that regard. We appreciate that this task is probably bigger than the Department of Defence. This is not about creating a new city - it is about recognising that this was always a garrison community. Civilians with connections to the Army lived in that community and assisted it. The value of this key and unique part of our history should be maintained. The unique architectural properties that are still there could be put to ongoing use rather than being destroyed. It is poor form that the Department is demolishing properties and not keeping a record of the housing stock that is being demolished. While these structures can be saved for many purposes, I recognise the Minister's point that it is not up to the Department of Defence to do so. Would he consider asking his Cabinet colleagues from other Departments that are responsible for housing and related matters to participate in a joint task force on heritage value to save those aspects of the Curragh Camp that are currently under threat? Does he think there would be value in undertaking such a project on a cross-departmental basis?

I understand the principle that underpins the Minister's statement that he would prefer to confine this facility to military personnel. If accommodation is not provided for military personnel at the camp, they will have to be housed from the pot of housing that is available outside the camp. Regardless of whether social housing, subsidised private rental or some other form of provision is made, the State will have to meet the cost. I have seen houses that could be made habitable for a much smaller amount of money than that which would have to be spent in such circumstances. At a time when there is a shortage of social housing in this country, it would cost more to build social housing than to put right the more substantial housing stock at this camp.

It is important for me to reiterate that the Department of Defence is not a housing authority. I am quite happy to reflect on the issues raised by the Deputies. I was asked to engage with my Cabinet colleagues. I remind the House that they are facing similar capital expenditure constraints. A cost-benefit analysis of the Deputies' proposal would be very interesting, especially if it revealed whether public housing could be provided more effectively in a better location. I refer to the provision of new accommodation as opposed to the restoration of the accommodation at Curragh Camp. Certainly, the housing at Curragh Camp could not be opened to the general community.

I was also asked whether some discrete form of housing, which would be impossible to provide elsewhere because of the limited amount of it that is there, should be provided for a small number of members of the Defence Forces. I am reminded of the issue on which Deputy Daly attacked me earlier. We can assume for a minute that these properties could be made available for rental to current members of the Defence Forces, just as the properties we were discussing earlier have been. If people who have been in the Defence Forces for some years engage in overholding and fail to vacate those houses, will my successor as Minister for Defence be attacked for showing a lack of humanity? In such circumstances, will the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces get entangled in public housing issues that are more appropriate to local authorities? There is a difficulty in this area.

I absolutely understand that the Deputies have a genuine concern in this regard. I respect that. The question of whether this issue could be dealt with differently is an interesting one. They cannot have it both ways, however. They cannot say the Department of Defence should provide housing, but then attack the Minister for Defence of the day - regardless of who he or she happens to be - on the basis that he or she lacks humanity when people do not vacate that housing as they are legally required to do. It is not reasonable for one to argue that the Department of Defence should create additional housing to be let out if one is going to suggest that the next Minister is evil incarnate for seeking to get those who do not comply with the leasing arrangements to vacate those properties.

This is about more than housing.

I suggest that the Deputies might consider a coherent and comprehensive approach to addressing these issues, rather than dealing with them on a fragmented basis and in a manner generated to create newspaper headlines.

Maybe the Department could consider such an approach.

We are encouraging joined-up thinking.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.