Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Army Barracks Closures

10:30 am

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. As he may be aware, in March 2012 the only purpose built army barracks in the history of the State, and the most modern in Europe, was closed. This barracks was Dún Uí Neill in Cavan town.There has 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. Now, from Donegal to Louth, there are no Army personnel based on the Border. It is an area with more than 350 crossings and it will become a frontier as the UK exits the European Union. The Six Counties of Northern Ireland will no longer be part of that Union.

The closure of Dún Uí Néill barracks was a mistake. I have continually raised this matter in this House, as has my colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, in the Lower House. In the years since the closure we have had an increase in dissident republican and lawless activities in the Border area. I fear these activities will only escalate in the context of a no-deal Brexit.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy McEntee. The British and Irish Governments have not yet managed to reach a stable agreement after almost three years of negotiations. I take this opportunity to commend the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and the Tánaiste on the effort that they are putting in to securing a Brexit deal with the British Government. I know it is a very difficult task, and I wish her and her colleagues well in the weeks ahead.

In 2012, when the barracks was closed, people said that it was surplus to requirements. How can the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Kehoe, assure us that a purpose-built barracks in the middle of the Border region is surplus to requirements? I am aware that in recent months, personnel from the Department of Defence have been in County Cavan and looked at accommodation, including warehouses, while at the same time a purpose-built modern Army barracks lies mostly idle. The barracks is partially utilised by the Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, which does excellent work there. Before the barracks was closed, it could accommodate up to 200 soldiers and their equipment that included a helicopter. It still can do so. As the Department of Defence officials and Army personnel have visited County Cavan to find temporary accommodation, why has the Government not decided to reopen a state-of-the-art facility that was purpose built to accommodate Army personnel?

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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My apologies for being late. First, I convey the apologies from the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Kehoe, who cannot be here this morning as he has a prior engagement with Defence Forces personnel who are about to represent Ireland at the World Military Games. I wish them well.

In 2011, a Government decision was taken to proceed with the closure of four military installations, including Dún Uí Néill barracks in Cavan town. Consolidation of the Defence Forces barracks infrastructure was a key objective of the modernisation programme under way at that time. In February 2013, the sale of the barracks to the County Cavan Vocational Education Committee, as it was then, was successfully completed.

In terms of Brexit and possible implications, the Senator had rightly outlined them and I thank him for his comments. As part of a whole-of-Government approach, the Department of Defence continues to engage in forward planning with the other Departments involved in addressing all of the issues relevant to the UK's decision to leave the European Union. On 9 July, the Government published the Brexit contingency action plan update. This reflects the extensive contingency work that is under way. The work has taken place at an EU level and on a whole-of-Government basis, including the Brexit omnibus Act of 2019, to prepare us for a no-deal Brexit. Given that we are 22 days out from Brexit, that is a very real and possible threat. The plan sets out the next steps to be taken between now and the end of this month. In this regard, I can confirm that there are no plans to reopen an Army barracks in Cavan or in any other Border location.

It remains the Government's view that the best way to protect the Good Friday Agreement and avoid a hard border is for the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, to be ratified. The backstop is so important when we talk about the Border or the reintroduction of infrastructure. In the context of the latest proposals by the UK side, the Government remains absolutely committed to the avoidance of a hard border, and Ireland and the EU are at one on this.

In terms of the deployment of military personnel, it is very important to point out that primary responsibility for the internal security of the State rests with the Minister for Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána. Accordingly, responsibility for the security aspect of Border control rests with An Garda Síochána while the Revenue Commissioners also have responsibilities relating to their particular mandate.

Among the roles assigned to the Defence Forces in the White Paper on Defence is the provision of aid to the civil power, which in practice means to provide assistance and support to An Garda Síochána when requested to do so. The Defence Forces also provide support to the Revenue Commissioners, but again when requested to do so. There is ongoing close liaison between An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces regarding security matters, and regular co-ordination and liaison meetings take place. The Department of Defence continues to monitor the ongoing situation to ensure that both it and the Defence Forces are fully prepared to address any possibilities that might arise in the defence area, particularly now as a consequence of Brexit.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee and I understand that the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, could not be here himself. I wish the Defence Forces team the very best of good luck at the World Military Games.

In 2010, when rumours started that the barracks in Cavan town was being considered for closure, I raised the issue in the House and we had a Private Members' debate. In 2011, we had a similar debate and we were assured by the then Minister for Defence, Mr. Shatter, that there were no plans to close the Army barracks in Cavan, but exactly four weeks later it was announced that the barracks would close. I take comfort from what the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, has said on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe. She said, "I can confirm that there are no plans to reopen an Army barracks in Cavan or in any other Border location", but I am aware that the situation could change before she leaves the Chamber. I wish to impress upon her the importance of reopening the barracks. In an ideal situation we would hope that the Army personnel never again would need to be used on the Border. However, when dealing with an international frontier in changed times, it is important to have Army personnel strategically located along the Border. Unfortunately, due to the deficit in infrastructure that the Border has suffered over the past 40 or 50 years, it would take hours for Army personnel to travel from their present locations to Cavan town to aid the civil power. Therefore, it makes logical sense to reopen the Army barracks in Cavan and deploy personnel, particularly as the barracks can accommodate up to 200 personnel. I look forward to the barracks being reopened.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The Senator has brought together two separate issues. In terms of Brexit, our sole focus and priority is to prevent the introduction of Border infrastructure and prevent the need for personnel to be deployed along or anywhere near the Border because we know what happened in the past and that the threat is very real if that were to be the case. I cannot say why an announcement that was made a number of years ago was changed. I can explain, from the point of view of the present Department, why the decision was made and why the situation is not going to change.

Specifically in terms of the reopening of an Army barracks in Cavan, or indeed across the greater region, the position is that the barracks consolidation programme, which included the closure of the Cavan barracks, has resulted, as the Department very much believes, in an enhancement of operational readiness and the deployability of Defence Forces personnel. Along with other measures, the consolidation that occurred in the earlier part of the past decade involved the redeployment of personnel away from non-operational barracks, headquarter and administrative posts into front-line operational units.It is a matter of ensuring that people have the ability to be where they are needed when they are needed. Reopening the barracks now would result in a range of unnecessary inefficiencies arising from an unavoidable increase in the administrative burden and the need to introduce a layer of non-operational barracks management and security. This would clearly have an adverse impact on the operational effectiveness, efficiency and overall deployability of Defence Forces personnel.

With regard to deployment of military personnel to the Border, I reiterate that the primary responsibility for the internal security of the State rests with the Minister for Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána. Accordingly, responsibility for the security of Border controls rests with An Garda Síochána. The Defence Forces, in their role of providing aid to the civil power, will provide assistance and support when they are requested to do so by An Garda Síochána. Directly linked with what we have been talking about with regard to Brexit, our sole goal is that that will never be the case. We will continue to work towards that until the deadline of Brexit, whether it is 31 October or later. I thank the Senator for raising the issue and I will bring his concerns and responses back to the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe.

Sitting suspended at 11.25 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.