Seanad debates

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Army Barracks Closures

10:50 am

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, who is a good friend and colleague and no stranger to this Chamber. I understand he is taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, who is attending a number of funerals in Magheraroarty, County Donegal. I extend my sympathies to the families of the four young men who lost their lives. I know the area very well and I understand why the Minister is not present.

In 2011, the Government, in the face of major opposition both locally and nationally, decided to close Dún Uí Neill Army Barracks in Cavan town. There had been an Army barracks in Cavan since the 1700s. In 1990, soldiers moved from the oldest occupied barracks in the world to the most modern in Europe and the only purpose-built barracks in the history of the State. In 2012, the complex was purchased by the then County Cavan Vocational Education Committee, now known as the Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board. Plans are in place to demolish part of the complex and construct a new building on the site to meet the needs of both Cavan Institute and the training service of Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board. I take this opportunity to compliment everybody involved in the former vocational education committee and the current Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, CMETB. Since the foundation of the Cavan College of Further Education, as Cavan Institute was known then, spearheaded by the then chief executive officer, the late John J. McKay, and ably assisted by the then chairmen, the late Andy O'Brien, and Councillor Clifford Kelly, the institute has been a huge success. It has grown to have 1,200 full-time students and more than 500 students attending adult education classes. It is a major success.

With Brexit and the significant uncertainty we are facing, it is clearly necessary to make preparations for the United Kingdom crashing out of Europe without a deal. It is also important that we secure our State and to do so, it is my firm belief that we need to reopen the barracks. Today, we hear from various Ministers in the British Government that they may need an extension to Brexit. This uncertainty will continue for many years to come. Unfortunately, it will have negative consequences for our economy and the security of the State. I am aware that officials from the Department of Defence have been in County Cavan and is looking at accommodation in the event of a hard Brexit. I believed it visited warehouses in Cavan town and Ballyconnell. It is ludicrous, when we have a modern purpose-built Army barracks in Cavan town earmarked for demolition, that officials should be trying to secure accommodation for the Defence Forces in warehouses. This is not good enough.

I ask the Minister of State to request that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, give a commitment that the former barracks will not be interfered with until we have at least been given an indication as to what will be the outcome of Brexit. This would not hold up the plans of Cavan and Monaghan ETB. There are plenty of greenfield sites around the town that could be investigated and considered. It makes absolutely no sense to knock down a purpose-built Army barracks and then try to secure alternative accommodation that will cost hundred of thousands of euro.

Photo of Michael D'ArcyMichael D'Arcy (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Wilson for providing an opportunity to clarify the current position in respect of the former Dún Uí Neill Army barracks in Cavan town.

In March 2012, Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, CMETB, acquired the former Dún Uí Neill Army barracks with a view to refurbishment and adaptations of the site and buildings which would provide an opportunity for the CMETB to centralise their further education and training service provision and create opportunities for expansion. The barracks site was also earmarked as a permanent home for Cavan College of Further Education, a dedicated co-educational post-leaving certificate, PLC, college operating under the aegis of CMETB. The development of the Dún Uí Neill site will give CMETB an opportunity to centralise PLC and further education provision and eliminate the need for various rented temporary accommodation around Cavan town.

As the Senator is aware, a building project for Cavan College of Further Education is included in the Department's six-year construction programme and CMETB has recently submitted a schedule of accommodation in this regard. In the context of progressing this building project, officials from the Department’s planning and building unit will liaise with the ETB with a view to progressing the project as quickly as possible.

I appreciate that the Senator is clearly looking at the impact on the Border in the context of a "no deal" exit from the European Union by the United Kingdom. I take this opportunity to reiterate that the Government remains firmly of the view that the only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal is to ratify the withdrawal agreement endorsed by the European Council and agreed with the British Government.

The European Council has made it clear that it stands by the withdrawal agreement and that it is not up for renegotiation. The agreement, with its backstop provisions, is the only one on the table that provides the essential legal guarantee to avoid a hard border in any circumstance, as well as protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts.

Naturally, we must monitor developments and recent events in the UK Parliament. The Government is not preparing for a hard border. There is no secret plan. Ireland and the European Union are at one on the issue. The Commission has clarified its statement, making it dear that the European Union is determined to do all it can, deal or no deal, to avoid the need for a border and protect the peace process. The Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, repeated these reassurances in a telephone call to the Taoiseach last Thursday.

We will all have our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement and to ensure peace and stability in Northern Ireland. As a representative from the Border region, the Minister for Education and Skills is acutely aware of the many benefits which have been delivered by the Good Friday Agreement. He will ensure his Department will continue to build on the valuable and extraordinary level of co-operation between education institutions, North and South.

We will still have to work together to ensure we deliver on the shared goal of avoiding the return of a hard border, deal or no deal. We are committed to doing all in our power to ensure that goal is met. It is preferable for us all to resolve the issue now as set out in the withdrawal agreement.

I will have a discussion with the Minister about the building on the site and ask him to meet the Senator directly. I do not have the in-depth local knowledge he has. That would probably be the best option, rather than passing on information through me.

11:00 am

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply. The reality is that the Government is preparing for a hard border. It is looking to rent warehouses in Cavan in which to accommodate soldiers in the event that there is a hard border, while there is a purpose-built Army barracks being used by Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board which is headed by Mr. John Kearney, chief executive officer, whom we are lucky to have and want to hold on to. The Government should be looking at maintaining the existing Army barracks in Cavan. There are only two other barracks along the Border, namely, those in counties Donegal and Louth. As Senator McFadden knows, the barracks in Mullingar was closed, while the nearest barracks to Cavan is in Athlone. Anyone with knowledge of the geography of the area in question will know that in an emergency it would take at least three hours to get to Cavan. Will the Minister of State seek an assurance from the Minister for Education and Skills that the barracks in Cavan will not be demolished until such time as we know the outcome of Brexit?

Photo of Michael D'ArcyMichael D'Arcy (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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There is a great difference between planning for a hard border and a no-deal Brexit. Contingency planning has moved from contingency stage to implementation stage for a no-deal Brexit, but that is not the same as planning for a hard border.