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Speech by the Minister for Defence, Willie O’Dea T.D. at the Launch of the Annual Report of the Department of Defence and Defence Forces for 2006

LÉ Eithne, Wednesday 18th July 2007

Secretary General, Chief of Staff, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen. I am very pleased to be here today on board the L.É. Eithne to launch the 2006 Annual Defence Report.

This year we changed the format of the report to follow the approach adopted in the Annual Output Statement. We now have a joint report by the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces giving a comprehensive overview of their performance in 2006.

I believe it is our duty to outline to the general public in clear and unambiguous terms what we are achieving. The Report does that in one single document.

Since my appointment as Minister, I have made the further modernisation of the Defence Forces my priority. My objective is to ensure that we have a modern Defence Force capable of meeting the needs of Government and the public and delivering value for money. I am pleased to report the substantially improved value for money, affordability and sustainability of the Defence Forces. A strong focus has been maintained on best practice in Human Resources management in the Defence Forces and the HR Strategy for the Defence Forces was completed during the year.

The environment within which Defence operates is complex and volatile. In particular, the demands arising from overseas operations are continually evolving. This, in turn, challenges us to adapt our capabilities, training and equipment to meet the requirements of overseas operations. I am proud of the way we have continued to respond to these challenges.

I do not propose to go into detail on the Report here. However, I would like to draw your attention to a number of significant developments that took place in 2006:

I introduced two major legislative initiatives:

· Firstly, the legislative changes necessary to enable participation by the Defence Forces in EU Battlegroups. We are now preparing for participation in the Nordic Battlegroup in the first half of 2008.

· The second was the comprehensive amendment of the Defence Act (Part V) which brings military law into line with the European Convention on Human Rights.

· We made several major equipment purchases in 2006 including the first two medium-lift AW139 helicopters for the Air Corps - a further two were delivered this year. In December last, I decided to exercise our option to purchase an additional two AW139’s (bringing the total to 6). 2006 also saw the delivery of range of other equipment such as the 6 new field deployable command post containers; the 8,000 new body armour units and the 400 general purpose machine guns.

· The Government Task Force on Emergency Planning continued its work in co-ordinating emergency planning across the various State agencies. A major inter-agency emergency response exercise was conducted in the Curragh in November.

· 826 Defence Force personnel were serving overseas at 31 December 2006. This number had been increased by the urgent deployment, on the 31st October, of a contingent to UNIFIL under its expanded mandate. 158 personnel were deployed to South Lebanon as part of an integrated Finnish-Irish Engineer Battalion.

· 2006 saw the recommencement of the traditional Easter Military Parade as part of the commemoration of the 90th Anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Both the parade and other associated commemorative events generated great public approval and support. 2006 also saw military participation in the commemoration ceremony to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

· The Office of the Defence Forces Ombudsman was established during the year.

· The reorganisation of the Reserve Defence Force continued during the year in accordance with the Implementation Plan approved by me in late 2005. Training has been greatly enhanced and the groundwork laid for piloting the Integrated Reserve across all three Brigades. This is currently underway.

I am pleased to have been able to secure continuing investment in equipment and infrastructure for the Defence Forces during 2006 as outlined in this Report. Indeed, in 2007 the total Defence budget exceeded €1 billion for the first time.

The recent seizure of drugs off the Co. Cork coast has received a great deal of media and public attention. The Government is fully committed to the fight against drug smuggling.

The Naval Service will continue to support the work of the Garda Siochána and the Customs & Excise who have the primary responsibility in this area. In fact, an issue of major importance to Defence in the next few years is the replacement of a number of Naval Service vessels. Planning for this has been underway for some time. Between now and 2010 three of the older vessels will reach 30 years service and will be due for replacement.

The cost of new vessels will be of the order of €150 to €190 million - in current prices. It is intended to invite tenders for the first of these new ships later in the year with the expectation of placing a contract early in 2008. This level of investment cannot be met from within the existing Defence resources, so I will be seeking the support of my government colleagues on this matter and will be bringing proposals to Government very shortly.

One of my priorities as Minister has been the increased recruitment of females to the Defence Forces. During 2006, I took two significant initiatives towards achieving that objective. I reduced the minimum height requirement for entry into both the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve Defence Force and I commissioned research into the issues surrounding recruitment and retention of females in the Defence Forces. The results of this research will assist the formulation of policy and practice in this area for the future.

I believe that we now need to go further in terms of recruitment to the Defence Forces. There has been a significant broadening of cultural and ethnic diversity in Ireland in recent years. The Defence Forces should be reflective of this diversity. As I have pointed on many times; the Defence Forces have clear strategies on equality that will ensure that cultural and ethnic diversity is respected and supported.

I know that people from diverse backgrounds have already been employed in the Defence Forces, but this has mainly been in certain specialised areas. This has worked well - albeit on a limited scale. I have now asked the Chief of Staff to review recruitment into the Defence Forces at all levels and to implement changes that would facilitate recruitment from among cultural and ethnic minorities. I believe that this can only enhance our Defence Forces.

I wish to take this opportunity to record my appreciation for the work done throughout 2006 by the Secretary General Michael Howard, the recently retired Chief of Staff Lt. General Jim Sreenan, and all of their staff, civil and military. I want to congratulate the new Chief of Staff, Lt. General Dermot Earley on his appointment and I look forward to working with him in the years ahead.

Finally, I want to thank the Captain of the L.É. Eithne Commander Tom Touhy and his crew for their hospitality today.

Thank you very much.

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