We can't allow defence budget to vanish into thin air
Published 08/09/2015 | 02:30
As soon as he sold the national airline, Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe launched a hefty national aviation policy. The first of its kind. Essentially, it pledged that Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports shall remain in national ownership. Nothing new there then. Over the weekend, a 25-year plan was mooted by Dublin Airport Authority to develop a 70-acre site into a new 'Airport City', though no planning permission or funding is yet in place.
Hot on the heels of the national aviation policy, Defence Minister Simon Coveney launched a White Paper recommending an increase in public service jobs in the armed forces.
At a time when garda stations are being closed around the country and local communities are increasingly vulnerable to crime, it seems rather bizarre to bolster a relatively irrelevant defence force. Up to now, Mr Coveney could do no wrong - what with Ireland's agri-business in a global spotlight and our 'Navy' deployed to save refugees from warzones.
You would think a general election was nigh.
Yet austerity has far from vanished. We need to do all we can to boost our national economy, create new income streams and private sector employment instead of creating unnecessary public service jobs.
There is supposed to be an increase in business through Dublin Airport from the sale of Aer Lingus to IAG. This has revived the argument for a second runway. But channelling more people through Dublin Airport is not the answer.
We need a second airport to serve the east coast. Almost 11.5 million passengers used Dublin Airport in the first six months of this year, up by 15pc on last year. This figure will grow, despite pre-clearance facilities being made available to US-bound travellers from other European cities.
We don't even need to build a second airport, we already have one.
We need to move the Air Corps from Baldonnel and trim the fat, making way for private jet landings, commuter and charter services to Europe, to offset the delays and queues at the main airport.
Ryanair founder Tony Ryan wanted to do just this. It was one of the few things he didn't achieve. NetJets also sought to buy the facility and was turned down.
So, what is the point of Baldonnel? The Air Corps website states that it serves at the behest of 'government policy'. It is home to the Government Learjet 45. Ireland is one of the few members of the EU to have a Government jet. The UK and Denmark charter one if there is a justifiable need.
The Air Corps currently operates 17 fixed-wing aircraft and 10 rotary-wing aircraft along with two simulators; the 7 Swiss PC-9M military training aircraft cost in the region of €8.3m each, plus operating costs. The function of these tandem cockpit, turbo-prop, ejector-seat planes is to train pilots to progress on to F16-type 'proper' fighter jets, which the Air Corps does not own and is never likely to own. The Air Corps is no longer involved in search and rescue, that is handled by the Irish Coastguard.
If the Air Corps simply wants to train pilots to do aerobatics and formation flying, it could buy planes for €300,000 each, at a running cost of a few hundred euro an hour, instead of €2,000 per hour. In the wake of the Shoreham air show tragedy, it is arguable whether such displays should even continue.
What of the stock that the Air Corps replaces? It should be capable of being sold on at little capital loss.
But as the Air Corps does not register its aircraft with the civil register, it cannot easily transfer used aircraft to civilian or commercial ownership, rendering the stock virtually worthless after use. Air Corps pilots are trained at a huge cost to the State, after which they can move to commercial airlines, with the benefit of public service pensions.
Baldonnel runway is 1,829 metres long - the same length as Belfast City airport. It has an up-to-date fire station, air traffic control, accommodation and is accessible from a motorway. On May 27, 1936, Aer Lingus set off on its inaugural flight from Baldonnel to Bristol. In January 2015, Ireland's aviation safety oversight regime was placed second in Europe and fourth in the world by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
That is worth building on. The 80th anniversary of that inaugural flight could see a vibrant second airport for the east coast and a much-needed, new income stream for Ireland. It won't be long before the funds from the sale of Aer Lingus are spent.
The Irish taxpayer has endured seven years of austerity and needs to see pragmatic, financial sense in the public sector for a change.
If there is an increased budget for defence, it should be spent on local domestic defence in the form of a greater garda presence to protect the vulnerable.
The recent tragic incident of the pensioner in Doon, Co Limerick, who had a heart attack when he found intruders in his home, is a case in point. The village of Doon had a garda station in the 1970s with seven officers. Now, the nearest 24-hour station is 25km away.
There is no deterrent in rural areas where garda cutbacks result in communities being terrorised.
Both Mr Coveney and Mr Donohoe need a realistic rethink on their pre-election pledges, re-freeze military recruitment and re-consider Baldonnel.
And Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald needs to re-commence garda recruitment and put resources on the real battlefront.
Deirdre Conroy is an urban conservation specialist