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Army shouldn't be punished for setting an example

MAYBE it's down to me reading too much John Le Carre. Shortly after my appointment as the Special Adviser at Defence, a senior official called in to my office to discuss what he called matters of some importance.

I braced myself in anticipation. This is it, I thought. My first big security briefing. I could not have been more wrong. It is not that there weren't major security issues to be discussed, it was just that this meeting was to be about one of the department's great projects: barrack consolidation, department-speak for barrack closures.


This was late 2004. The previous minister Michael Smith had announced the closure of six barracks in 1998. Incredibly, some of them had still not been fully disposed of by the time of my appointment. Indeed, it would take another five or six years to finalise their transfer.

The estimated annual savings from closing these six sites was in the region of €3.5m to ¤4.5m. These were the standard "economies of scale" type savings. This was on top of the monies raised from selling the sites at almost the peak of the property boom.

By the time of the next round of barrack closures in 2008, site value was not as important as "economies of scale," especially as the four closed in 2008 were border barracks rendered surplus as part of the "peace dividend".

The most important factor at the time was the low cost of tranferring troops to the new locations. There was sufficient spare capacity in the other locations to handle the transfer of personnel. In most cases, apart from Donegal, the distances involved were not too significant.


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

Minister 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 goodbye to seeing their numbers rise above 10,000 again, never mind 10,500.

There are a number of reasons not to close these barracks now. Firstly, though the number in the army is being slowly ground down, there is probably not sufficient spare capacity in the other barracks to accommodate personnel from the ones earmarked for closure. This means the defence organisation will have to find resources to build additional accommodation in the places due to receive the extra troops.

Second, the closure will damage the local economies as much as any factory shut down. There is no point in the Taoiseach rightly lambasting Talk-Talk management for its inconsiderate handling of that closure while the effect of the closure of barracks on local communities will also be the loss of jobs.

There is a third even more critical reason.

Colm McCarthy's infamous Bord Snip Nua report found that the defence organisation -- both military and department -- was a model of how public sector reform can be done right.

At a time when the numbers working across the public service was increasing by 17pc, defence succeeded in reducing its numbers by 8pc.


But it did a lot more than just cut numbers. While the defence forces got smaller, it became more productive, the numbers serving overseas on UN missions increased.

Defence showed the rest of the public service that it was possible to do more with less.

The Government should be getting others to follow its example, not punishing those who have done everything that was asked of them.

Given his dual role, Minister Shatter should try applying some justice to defence.