Barrack Closures a Mistake on All Fronts

This article appeared in the Irish Examiner on Thursday November 17th 2011

Resigning as a Minister is not something to be done lightly. You must weigh up the influence and input you are surrendering from having a seat at the table against the public acclamation you will receive. The applause and cheers will soon die down and you will be left standing on the outside while decisions get made without you.

Though he is not a household name, Willie Penrose is a smart man. While he may have the bearing and manner of a classic rural parish pump TD, he is a smart guy. An experienced and successful Barrister, Penrose knows what he is doing.

Gilmore knew that that the future of Columb Barracks in Mullingar was a red line issue for Penrose when he nominated him as a Super Junior – so why did he proceed with the appointment?

This government was only a few days in office when speculation started that they may close some more barracks. Further barrack closures have been a fixation with some senior civil servants and military figures in Defence.

Shortly after I entered the Department of Defence in October 2004 a senior official popped into my office to discuss the issue of “barrack consolidation”. This I came to learn was the euphemism for barrack closures.

There is a school of thought, among some in the Defence organisation, that we should have a much smaller number of super barracks – say three or four – located in the major cities, rather than the existing network of smaller posts across the State.

While this would potentially be a little more economic and efficient, this has to be weighed with the popular support and positive PR generated from having more locally organised and based units. It is a demonstrable fact that recruitment is strongest in those areas where there is a military post.

Even at the height of the Celtic Tiger for every general service recruit post advertised there were at least 5 applicants, while the Cadet competitions often saw 25 or 30 well qualified applicants for each vacancy.

Local barracks and locally based army units form strong bonds with local communities. Use of barracks facilities, especially sports grounds, is usually offered to local community groups, particularly youth groups. The local army unit is always on hand to help out in the classic “aid to the civil power” type exercises – flooding, ice clearance, bad weather etc.

While they are hard to measure on a civil servants excel spreadsheet, these strong local bonds are vitally important and should not be thrown away lightly.

The previous Minister, Michael Smith has closed six barracks back in 1998, though some of these properties had still not been disposed of almost six years later. Indeed it would take a further five or so years to deal with these.

The estimated year on year savings from these 1998 closures was estimated to be in the region of €3.5 – 4.5m. These were “economies of scale” saving from reduced security, heating, lighting and other savings.

If the current row over closing three or four barracks was just about that, I might be tempted to agree with it. But this is a mistake on all fronts.

Alan Shatter says that given the choice between saving buildings and retaining personnel, he opts for the latter. A noble intention: if only that was the choice before him.

It is not.

If the planned closures go ahead the Defence Forces can kiss good bye to seeing their numbers ever rise back above 10,500 again.

There are a number of reasons not to close these barracks.

Their closure will hurt the local economies in Mullingar, Clonmel and Cavan just as much as any factory closure. There is no point the Taoiseach giving out to Talk-Talk management for the inconsiderate handling of that closure while his own Minister is planning to do the same thing.

Where does the Minister propose to transfer the troops stationed in Mullingar, Clonmel and Cavan? Where is the spare capacity in the remaining barracks?

We are already aware from the last round of barrack closures that the remaining barracks were full and operating close to capacity.

To close these other barracks and to permanently move around 500 – 600 troops would require a considerable capital investment in additional facilities in Athlone, Finner andLimerick. This is not something that will appear overnight. Where does the Minister propose to get the cash to provide this additional capacity?

Colm McCarthy’s famous Bord Snip Nua report found that the Defence Forces were the only sector of the Public Service to reduce numbers during the height of the Celtic Tiger. His report suggested a number of further small reforms, including a reduction in the size of the force by a further 500 to 10,000. He recommended this be implemented over a two year period. It was achieved within a year, well ahead of the target date.

So what kind of signal do these further cuts – cuts that go beyond An Bord Snip Nua – send to others in the Public Service? This was a point that Brian Lenihan and Brian Cowen instinctively understood.

Here is a part of the public service that has downsized, modernised and reformed itself beyond expectations and yet it gets singled out again for cuts that neither make sense nor add up. These barrack closures appear, on the face of it, to be gratuitous.

The Defence Forces now do more with less. When it comes to real public sector reform the Defence Forces are a model of how it can be done right. These closures put that model at risk.

The investment in the Defence Forces made between 1997 and 2007 was a text book example of how to invest wisely and productively. Surplus property was sold and the proceeds invested in better training and equipment.

While the numbers working in the Public Service increased by 17% over the decade of the Celtic Tiger, the numbers working in the defence organisation actually fell by 8%.

This applied across all levels. The number of troops fell and so did the number of civil servants. Indeed Defence has a remarkably small civil service

The fact that the Minister does not get this point is compounded by the fact that he did not address the annual PDFORRA conference. That was a bad decision. It was his first opportunity to address the soldier’s representative organisation and he opted to send his Junior Minister while he and his Secretary General heading off to an international conference instead.

Willie Penrose’s resignation is about a lot more than just Mullingar Barracks; it is about a part time Defence Minister who fails to appreciate what he is doing, or is simply not bothered.

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