Tuesday, 28 June 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
77. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence when it is intended to make decisions on the recent report of the Commission on the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33620/22]
85. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the timeframe for completion of inter-Government consultations and a draft for an action plan in respect of recommendations of the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34202/22]
89. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the steps that have been taken to address the issues raised in the recent report on the Defence Forces; the extent to which the report is likely to be embraced; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34152/22]
I will not delay the Minister in asking the question because he has been asked it already tonight. It is about the Commission on the Defence Forces and when decisions will be made on the recommendations of the commission. The Minister might let us in as to which option he will go for.
I would love to give Deputy Ó Cuív a load of detail on that but I probably owe it to my Cabinet colleagues to tell them first. All I can say to him is that I have given a commitment to bring to the Government recommendations from the commission report in the month of June. We are at the end of June now, so that will be done very shortly - next week, I hope. If, however, we cannot get agreement next week, it will be the following week, but I hope to be able to do this shortly. There has been an enormous amount of work by both the Chief of Staff and his team and by my Secretary General and her team on trying to get this right. The civil military co-operation in turning this commission report into an action plan is the single most impressive process of co-operation I have seen between civil and military in the Department of Defence, in my time anyway, and previously. There is a genuine commitment between the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General to work very closely together to make sure we turn what is a really credible and good report with a very strong evidence base for its recommendations into an action plan that is real for Defence Forces personnel across the country. I hope to be able to bring those recommendations to the Government as soon as next week but certainly within the next two weeks. This will cost a lot of money, and it is not easy to get a series of recommendations of this scale agreed. We are working with other Government colleagues to be able to do that as soon as we possibly can.
Does the Minister accept that the Defence Forces have lost skills in recent years because people have left the Defence Forces due to the unattractive wages or salaries and conditions? Will the Minister make sure that that issue is addressed when decisions are being made on the commission's report? Also, is any consideration being given to having a second naval port, a subsidiary one, along the west coast of Ireland? It seems strange that on an island of this size we have only one naval port, particularly as there are, I understand, recommendations to improve the Naval Service and to provide more ships etc.
My question, No. 89, is similar to Deputy Ó Cuív's. Have the Defence Forces been kept informed of progress in order to ensure that they recognise that the report is about them and for them and that it is intent on coming to conclusions on the issue before the end of this Dáil session?
As for the consultation on this, I have been to virtually every barracks in the country and have asked the Defence Forces to put a balanced selection of people into a room with me. I have taken questions for a couple of hours in most cases. That includes Donegal, Galway, Cork, Athlone, Dublin and the Curragh. We have met as many Defence Forces personnel as we possibly can to explain to them what we are trying to do, the rationale for upsizing significantly, not downsizing or rationalising, the Defence Forces in the years ahead, how we will do that restructuring, how we will bring about a new culture in the Defence Forces and how both the policy certainty and the funding certainty that are needed will be provided by the Government. It has been a really good process. We have encouraged Defence Forces personnel to be blunt and honest about their frustrations and concerns as well as their ambitions for the future of an organisation to which they are deeply committed. That has been a good process, and the personnel are very much involved and know exactly what is happening.
In response to Deputy Ó Cuív's questions, we are looking at a naval docking facility on both the east coast and the west coast. It makes sense for lots of reasons. We are looking at what is called double crewing for ships in the future, meaning many more people in the Naval Service but also less time at sea and more time for the ships at sea. In order to do that well, we have to have a base - a mini base, if you will - on the west coast, serving the west coast and north-west coast, and on the east coast, serving the Irish Sea. However, we have not decided on locations for that yet.
The Minister talked about money and the need to save it. One item of expenditure I understand it is recommended to do away with in the commission report is the need for a military presence at the E wing of Portlaoise Prison. That is costing €2.74 million. There are 12 prisoners there. The vast majority of them are due out within two years; in fact, some are due out before the end of this summer. They are already getting temporary releases. It seems an amazing cost, €200,000 a pop, to have that presence. These are by no means the prisoners who cause the greatest threat to the State at this time. Will this matter be looked at seriously? It seems to me to be unnecessary now, whatever justification there was for it in the past.
"Yes" is the straight answer to that question. I hope that that will happen well in advance of our breaking up in a few weeks' time.
I do not believe that it is either justifiable or necessary for the Defence Forces to have the presence they have in Portlaoise Prison indefinitely. My view is that the Defence Forces should be phased out of Portlaoise Prison but, of course, we have to work with the Department of Justice and the Prison Service to do that efficiently. If we are trying to narrow the scope of what we are asking the Defence Forces to do, that is one area where they have done a fantastic job, but I think the Prison Service should be able to replicate that work without having Defence Forces personnel in Portlaoise Prison. That takes up a lot of resourcing and is quite expensive, and I think the Defence Forces could be used elsewhere more effectively in their core role. That is a recommendation in the report. I strongly agree with it. I do not think it will happen overnight because these things need to be managed, but I certainly intend to pursue it in a reasonable timeline.