Dáil debates

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Priority Questions

Physical Fitness Promotion.

1:00 pm

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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Question 70: To ask the Minister for Defence his views on whether there is a case for a Defence Forces role in promoting physical activity fitness and supporting the delivery of physical education in schools here as proposed in a recent paper (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2293/10]

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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Promoting physical fitness and supporting the delivery of physical education in schools is a matter for my colleague the Minister for Education and Science.

All physical education instructors within the Defence Forces are fully engaged in the training process. Furthermore, the robust physical fitness training programme applied to Defence Forces training is not comparable or suitable for application in a school environment. I understand from my colleague the Minister for Education and Science that the pre-service training of all primary teachers is designed to equip them to teach all aspects of the curriculum, including physical education. At second level, PE is provided by specialist physical education teachers who have been trained to promote the physical, mental, emotional and social development of young people in an age-appropriate way through the medium of physical activity. My colleague also advises me that continuing support is also available on an ongoing basis for practising teachers through the curriculum support services at primary and second level and that it is not considered necessary therefore to seek the input of the Defence Forces to supplement the work of schools in this area.

The role of physical education instructors within the Defence Forces is to ensure that Defence Forces personnel attain the level of fitness required of them in the context of filling the roles are assigned to them, here and on overseas missions. As the Defence Forces are required to maintain a state of readiness to attend to any task that may be assigned, there is an onus to maintain an appropriate level of physical fitness at all times.

Physical fitness contributes significantly to the effectiveness and general health of individuals in the Defence Forces. Personnel who are unfit reduce operational effectiveness, put themselves at greater risk of injury and detract from the overall performance of the Defence Forces.

Physical education and physical fitness has a key role to play in the context of the Defence Forces as it contributes to fitness, teamwork, leadership, self-discipline, determination, co-ordination, courage, competitive spirit and military ethos. It plays a role in recruitment and retention and in many instances provides excellent positive public visibility of the Defence Forces.

In this context it is worth noting that 19 different sporting disciplines are played at unit and brigade level within the Defence Forces.

In addition confidence and adventure, training in the Defence Forces makes an important contribution to the spirit, morale, personal development and ultimately, operational effectiveness of the individual.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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I find the Minister's response disappointing against the background of a strong military tradition of involvement in the delivery and shaping of physical education since the foundation of the State. I do not think this involvement can be disputed. There are also excellent models of best practice from other countries of supporting physical education and promoting physical activity and fitness in schools and the wider community. If everything is as good as the Minister outlined, having conferred with his colleague the Minister for Education and Science, why do we have rising obesity levels in children, inadequate physical activity levels among children and gaps in the provision of physical education in schools?

As was suggested to us by Mr. Michael McDonough, a retired Army captain, at a committee meeting, will the Minister consider having a small number of pilot projects to examine whether something can be moved forward? Another issue which arose at the meeting was that the Reserve Defence Force does not attract the number of recruits that we would like. This may be an area in which the Reserve Defence Force could get involved and attract more people. I was very impressed with the presentation made at the committee meeting last week. The submissions made deserve more examination and scrutiny and a positive approach rather than being dismissed out of hand in the way the Minister has done.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I do not want to be disrespectful to the Deputy in my reply and he should not draw the conclusion that I am being disrespectful to him. He mentioned a strong tradition of military involvement in physical fitness but quite honestly I do not know of what he is speaking. He mentioned other countries-----

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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I referred the paper to the Minister and it is all laid out within it.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I have a precis of it.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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He does not know everything.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy referred to other countries.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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The passage clearly lays out what that involvement in physical education delivery and shaping by the military has been.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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In Canada it involves the military going to a school for a few days in the year. In no country in the world does the military step in to assist in the work of PE teachers or to replace them. That is a fact.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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That is not being suggested. It is supporting.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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The paper refers to the Defence Forces having a plethora of qualified personnel and a vast resource of equipment. We do not have a plethora of qualified personnel. I assure the Deputy that my advice and experience is that all of those providing physical fitness training in the army are fully taken up with the work they are supposed to do. It is misleading to state that there is "X" amount of qualified people because some of them have moved on to other things. For example, as far as I know the Chief of Staff is a qualified physical fitness instructor but he cannot engage in that type of work.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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He is a qualified physical education teacher. I know that much as we went to the same college.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Deenihan should not be so sensitive.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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It is the Minister that is being sensitive.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I am told that all of those involved in this activity in the Army are working flat out and that all their time is taken up. With regard to making facilities such as gyms and PE halls available, this is done on a local basis. It is up to the local barracks that has the facilities. People make their own arrangements at local level and sometimes they tell us about them and sometimes they do not. That is fine with us. I reiterate that this is a matter primarily for the Minister for Education and Science. However, if the Minister approaches me and wants to establish a multi-agency approach to this we will certainly have an input into it.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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The two people who made presentations to the committee are former Army officers so I suspect they have some knowledge of the Army structure. Would the Minister be prepared to meet them or have senior departmental officials meet them so they can make their case with a view to bringing this issue forward?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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They are two former Army officers and therefore they know the structure of the Army.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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One of them is the trainer of the Kilkenny hurling team.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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As Minister for Defence I hope I also know the structure. At a minimum I will ask my officials to meet them and hear what they have to say. If Deputy O'Shea requests me to do this I am prepared to do it.