Thursday, 7 November 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Army Bomb Disposals Data
Will the Minister of State provide a report on the work of the Army bomb disposal unit and make a statement on the matter? Information has been given to me in recent days regarding serious concerns on staffing levels in the bomb disposal unit. Is the Minister of State aware of concerns about the capability of the Army bomb disposal unit? Is this an example of the collapsing structures we are seeing take place under his watch?
The Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána have primary responsibility for the internal security of the State. Among the roles assigned to the Defence Forces in the White Paper on Defence is the provision of aid to the civil power, ATCP, which, in practice, means to assist An Garda Síochána when requested to do so. The Defence Forces Ordnance Corps provides the explosive ordnance disposal, EOD, service within the State in support of An Garda Síochána in an ATCP role. The Defence Forces EOD teams respond when a request for assistance is made by An Garda Síochána in dealing with a suspect device.
Pursuant to their role in rendering aid to the civil power, the Defence Forces have a number of EOD teams on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to respond to requests received from An Garda Síochána for assistance in dealing with a suspect device or for the removal of old ordnance. The military authorities have assured me that they have responded to all requests for EOD support made by An Garda Síochána. The operational role of the Ordnance Corps is responsible for the removal and the destruction, at the request of the Garda authorities, of smoke floats, flares, explosives, landmines and other such explosive devices, which may have been washed ashore or otherwise discovered on State territories. The Defence Forces explosive ordnance disposal teams also deal with other types of call-outs, including the destruction of old grenades found by members of the public, unstable chemicals and suspected devices that are found to be hoaxes.
For reasons of operational security, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the disposition and specifics of the explosive ordnance disposal capabilities of the Defence Forces but I assure the Deputy that ongoing training takes place on a constant basis and there are also ongoing upgrades to equipment. For example, work to upgrade the explosive ordnance disposal robot is due to be completed before the end of 2019. The Ordnance Corps also provides the Defence Forces with EOD capability across its full spectrum of operations. This has included briefings and training of personnel deploying overseas and, recently, all personnel on career courses.
I am satisfied that the Defence Forces are equipped and resourced to respond, as appropriate, to any EOD call-outs.
I asked the Minister of State a very specific question on whether he was aware of any concerns about staffing levels in the Army bomb disposal unit and he failed to answer it. As he stated, the unit has operational and logistical responsibility for bomb disposal. The Minister of State lauded investment in explosive robotic technology. It seems he will have to look for more robots to replace personnel leaving the organisation as part of the exodus taking place under his watch. I have been informed that a number of members of the Army bomb disposal unit are on pre-discharge leave at present. This will create a vacuum as regards their specialties in the Army bomb disposal unit and they are not being replaced in sufficient numbers because there are no personnel with their specialist skillset coming through the ranks to replace them. Is the Minister of State aware of this? If so, what is he doing to address it? Have there been internal discussions about plugging the gap? While the Minister of State indicated he had met all his responsibilities regarding aid to the civil power, what about the specific difficulties the exodus from the Army bomb disposal unit will create in future?
For reasons of operational security, it would be totally inappropriate for me to comment on the disposition and specifics of the Defence Forces explosive ordnance disposal capabilities. I assure the Deputy, however, that any retention and recruitment challenges are prioritised and addressed so that the Defence Forces EOD teams can respond when requests for assistance are made by An Garda Síochána to deal with suspect devices.
As I stated, the explosive ordnance disposal service continues to train personnel. I would be the first person to say we have challenges in the area. These are highly-skilled and sought after personnel but we have regular training and we are introducing new members to the explosive ordnance team. It is only right and proper that we continue to do that.
The EOD service is available 24-7 to respond to requests from An Garda Síochána for assistance in dealing with suspect devices and the removal of old ordnance, which I addressed in my original question.
I am glad the Minister of State admitted there is a challenge and that he is aware of the serious skills shortage in the Army bomb disposal unit. While he is maintaining the headline that the unit is available 24-7, he has admitted it is below strength. The personnel are underpaid. The pay commission report does nothing to prevent from leaving those who should be staying. That is the real outcome of the report. There is now a vacuum in training and the skill set. While personnel are being trained, the experienced personnel in place will never be replaced.
There is a clear example from the coalface of the real outcome of the pay commission report. There are large numbers leaving the Army bomb disposal unit because they are being paid less than they would receive in the private sector. The Minister of State has not addressed the retention difficulties. The personnel are on pre-discharge leave. The Army bomb disposal unit will face a serious challenge if the exodus continues. The Minister of State needs to do more than simply read out the same waffle we have heard for years. It is the same White Paper waffle we have heard for years when it comes to the pay commission report. The reality on the ground is that the exodus is continuing. Specialist supports are diminishing and the capability of the Army bomb disposal unit to respond will be undermined if the Minister of State continues to keep his head in the sand.
The Deputy is totally incorrect. I never said anything to that effect. I said we have challenges. I realise the Deputy is in opposition and wants to expand on the meaning of challenges. While we have challenges, we are able to respond to all call-outs we are requested to make by An Garda Síochána in respect of giving aid to the civil power. If the Deputy is aware of an incident to which we were not able to respond, maybe he will tell me about it. He sits in silence.