Thursday, 8 October 2020

Ceisteanna (3)

Sorca Clarke

Ceist:

3. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Defence if the site of Columb Barracks, Mullingar, will be examined as the potential national headquarters of the Army Reserve forces as part of a strategic State and Defence Forces role. [28524/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Defence)

In 2012, Columb Barracks in Mullingar ceased to be permanently occupied by the Defence Forces. Since then, there have been periods of local use by sporting bodies, An Garda Síochána and other valued and valuable community groups. Despite neglect by Government since its closure, the barracks, with its historical buildings on a large site, continues to have enormous potential. Unfortunately, it continues to fall into disrepair. It is now time to re-envisage the future of Columb Barracks in Mullingar as a national headquarters for the Reserve Defence Force. I ask the Minister to examine this proposal as a matter of urgency.

The Government recognises the importance of the role of the Reserve Defence Force, RDF, in contributing to Ireland's defence capability. The White Paper on Defence is clear that there is a continued requirement to retain and develop the RDF and it is currently on a developmental path arising from the recommendations of the White Paper.

The primary roles allocated to the Reserve remain to augment the Permanent Defence Force, PDF, in crisis situations and to contribute to State ceremonial events. The commitments in the White Paper serve to underpin these important roles.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to establish an independent commission on the Defence Forces. I referred to this earlier. This commission will examine the role and contribution of the RDF, including its legislation, the regulations governing the RDF, the development of the first-line Reserve, and whether specialists from the RDF should be able to serve overseas. I have made comments in response to Deputy Cathal Berry's questions on this issue and on whether we should accommodate it in the legislation on defence that is coming through the Dáil.

The assignment in 2018 of responsibility of director of Reserve Defence Forces to the director of combat support and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance, ISTAR, based in Defence Forces headquarters, has allowed for the provision of guidance, across all units and formations with RDF assets, in developing their capabilities. This is in line with the single force concept and the role of the Reserve as described in the White Paper. The focus is to harness RDF skills and talent, maximising its potential development on the basis of mutual engagement with the PDF. Specific project areas focus on training, regulation, recruitment, retention and promotions and are supported through RDF and PDF reciprocal training, mentoring and education.

In relation to Columb Barracks, it is the assessment of the Department that it is no longer required for military purposes. The current financial and administrative burden resulting from its retention cannot be sustained forever. For this reason, my officials have been proceeding with the disposal of the barracks in line with Government policy. They have been working with the new Land Development Agency on that process. I will come back to it because I am sure the Deputy will have questions on it. The site certainly has considerable potential. The barracks was closed in 2012, which is some time ago. The whole point of the Land Development Agency is to try to maximise for the State the potential of strategic sites such as this one. That is probably where the focus needs to be now.

The Reserve has always played a pivotal, if somewhat undervalued, role in the history of the State and the Defence Forces. We are now at a critical junction where a decision needs to be made on both the Reserve Defence Force and Columb Barracks. The investment in development and education, particularly for the youth, in experience in military lifestyles and military skills is best evidenced in the Reserve. It encompasses positive life choices that we want for our younger people, for example, healthy living, dedication to others, skills and leadership building.

When the Defence Forces reorganised in 2012, most elements of the Reserve were twinned with a parent regular unit. In theory, this leads to greater integration, but we live in the real world, not theory. This concept only works where there is a genuine commitment on the part of the State to develop the Defence Forces. I think we can all agree that the commitment level needed by the Defence Forces has not been met in previous years. We are now at a pivotal stage of considering the geographical location of Columb Barracks and how the barracks could meet the need of the Reserve Defence Force while also meeting other needs.

As the Deputy will be aware, since the closure of Columb Barracks in 2012, my Department has explored a number of avenues to try to secure its long-term future for the benefit of the local community which is, ultimately, what every asset should be about. Departments and other public bodies, including Westmeath County Council, have been invited to declare an interest in acquiring the property. However, no interest was expressed from any of these bodies.

In May 2016, officials from my Department attended a public meeting in Mullingar on the future use of the barracks. A local group was subsequently established to prepare a feasibility study on the community use of the premises. For all sorts of reasons, a report from that group has not been furnished to the Department. This is not about blaming anybody. We have tried and we had a lengthy process of exploring options for use of the barracks that could add positively to the local community and the area.

More recently, the Land Development Agency, on its establishment, was tasked with developing an initial tranche of eight sites, which were seen as strategic sites nationally, including the barracks in Mullingar. Since the establishment of the Land Development Agency, the Department has actively engaged with it on the modalities associated with legal transfers, etc. We will continue to work as best we can but it is important that I do not raise expectations around the military use of the barracks in the future because that may not be the direction of travel.

I am interested in developing the potential and capacity of the Reserve Defence Force. The Reserve is under strength and I hope we will be able to change that in the months ahead. As I say, I am certainly open to new thinking with regard to how the Reserve functions and its role complementing the Defence Forces both at home and, potentially, abroad. We have started that conversation within the Department.

When the Minister was looking at potential options for Columb Barracks, was a national headquarters for the Reserve one of those options? Mullingar occupies a strategically important geographical location. It is less than one hour from Dublin and less than 100 km from the Border. It is within easy reach of Carna, the Curragh and the Glen of Imaal. It has a multitude of land suitable for small and large-scale military exercises. It is close to lakes and rivers. It is ideal for water-based training. Most critically, it already has in place infrastructure to house military units and water units on a temporary occupation. Given the size of the site - I presume the Minister is familiar with the layout of Columb Barracks and how its existing structure is essentially landlocked by existing housing developments - it could be adapted to serve the needs of the Reserve, the groups that currently use the facility as well as other needs in the town.

While I take the Deputy's point, I am loath to start raising expectations about Columb Barracks. The community groups currently using the barracks are Westmeath GAA, the Irish United Nations Veterans Association, Lakeshore Wheelers, the Order of Malta, Mullingar Boxing Club, a crafts school, Mullingar Sub Aqua Club, the north-Westmeath adult literacy service and a youth organisation. As I said, the Land Development Agency was established for a reason. It is looking at how we can maximise the use of strategic assets nationally. We must also protect the infrastructure that has already been put in place, which is very significant in the case of the barracks in Mullingar.

That is likely to be the way the future gets designed and implemented, through the LDA. We are there to support that process and offer any input that we can regarding some of the ideas the Deputy suggested.

Question No. 4 replied to with Written Answers.