1. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if the 2012 restructuring of the Defence Forces will be reviewed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 20687/18 asked on 10 May 2018)

Deputy Jack Chambers: I echo the Leas-Cheann Comhairle’s welcome to the delegation.

My question is to ask the Minister of State at the Department of Defence if he will review the 2012 restructuring of the Defence Forces and if he will make a statement on the matter. As the Minister of State knows, we had the first southern brigade headquarters in Cork, the second eastern headquarters in Dublin and the fourth western headquarters in Athlone. That consolidation was done on the basis of claimed efficiencies about which one would have to be sceptical, to say the least, given the marginal difference it has made. Can the Minister of State outline the rationale and make a statement on it?

Minister of State at the Department of Defence (Deputy Paul Kehoe): I thank Deputy Jack Chambers for his question. As part of the reorganisation of the Defence Forces in 2012, a decision was taken to consolidate the three under-strength Army brigades into two full strength brigades. The decision was taken because it was clear that the previous three-brigade structure was no longer viable, particularly when compared to international norms. Key aspects of the reorganisation included the consolidation of under-strength units into a smaller number of full units, a reduction in the number of headquarters and the associated redeployment of personnel from administrative and support functions into operational units.

As I have outlined in the past, there are no plans to review the reorganisation of the Defence Forces. The White Paper on Defence, published since then in September 2015, resulted from a comprehensive examination of defence requirements over a ten year planning horizon and it specifically provides for the retention of the structures introduced in 2012.

I am satisfied that following the reorganisation there has been an improvement in the deployability and sustainability of the Defence Forces, both at home and overseas, and it is also clear that any return to previously outdated structures would cause a range of unnecessary inefficiencies, including a return of under-strength units.

Deputy Jack Chambers: As the Minister of State knows, the 2012 restructuring continues to generate controversy. In all the meetings I have had with many people working in the Defence Forces and with the representative bodies, it has been a constant theme and there is a unanimous belief that it has been a mistake. Take for example, the people who might be in Finner Camp, who have to pick up their arms in Athlone, go to Dublin, carry out a 24 hour duty, return to a particular barracks and go home. They are working over 40 hours. We are breaching the working time directive. We are also breaching their rights and we are undermining the strength and spread of our force across the country, particularly with Brexit and other matters.

The Minister of State said the decision was taken because the structure was outdated. I respectfully disagree in that it does not mirror changes in other countries. In fact, it replicates a Cromwellian approach to many parts of this country in that it was decided to have a headquarters in Dublin and Cork and have staff from all across the north west focused on Dublin and Cork thus undermining the strength of our forces there. The Minister of State should reflect on the strength of feeling within the Defence Forces on this decision and try to bring forward a change in this regard.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: I do not agree with what Deputy Jack Chambers said. The reorganisation in 2012 was not just done by the political leaders but it was done in full consultation with and on the basis of the recommendations of the then Chief of Staff and senior military management. As I stated in my reply, what we were dealing with at the time was a large number of under-strength units in barracks and we felt we were not getting the full benefits out of the soldiers at the time. When I say “we”, I mean the military management at the time. It was felt it was important to consolidate and bring all these units up to full strength to the point at which they could carry out their full capacity in training and so forth. There were good reasons for the reorganisation at the time.

Deputy Jack Chambers: The consolidation was an attempt to get the full capacity out of those in the Defence Forces. However, it has cut many people to the bone. They have hardship and significant travel times, which undermine their ability to be at home with their families. The 2015 University of Limerick report highlighted these outcomes and feelings within the Defence Forces. Instead of cutting them to the bone and making them work with reduced allowances, the Minister of State should have looked at organisational capacity across the country. It is a constant theme. I accept there was a lack of strength in different barracks. That was due to the lack of a retention policy within the Defence Forces. Instead of consolidation and the reduction of numbers, the Minister of State should seek to increase the White Paper target beyond the 9,500 complement, which is a target he cannot meet anyway.

It should not have been about cutting people to the bone or undermining their lives. It also should not have led to neglecting the security of the State across a large spread of the country. We have lost, for example, corporate knowledge at the Border and elsewhere. It is important that the Minister of State reviews that in the context of increasing numbers in the future to ensure increased strength across the country.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: There are more Defence Forces personnel on the west coast than there were previously. Like every other defence organisation, the Defence Forces had to go through change. Any of our European neighbours’ defence forces went through reorganisation over the years. The reason is because the roles of our Defence Forces and armies in the European Union have evolved and changed over the years. The threats we face today are totally different from those we faced five, ten, 15 or 20 years ago. One has to change with the threats one faces. The threats we now face are cyber and hybrid warfare.

One cannot get stuck in a rut and leave the organisation as it was. There are different roles expected of the Defence Forces today than there were ten, 15 or 20 years ago. We had to change and that was one of the reasons for the reorganisation. The 2015 White Paper on Defence, published by the previous Minister, the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, set out clearly what we expect from the Defence Forces. If we were to reintroduce the 4th Western Brigade, it would introduce another layer of middle management. That is not needed. We are well able to manage with the two brigade structure we currently have in place.