SPEECH BY THE MINISTER FOR DEFENCE, MR. MICHAEL SMITH, T.D., ON THE SEANAD ADJOURNMENT DEBATE REGARDING THE NEED FOR THE MINISTER FOR DEFENCE TO COMMISSION A COMPREHENSIVE FEASIBILITY STUDY AS TO THE POTENTIAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE EXISTING MILITARY AVIATION FACILITY AT GORMANSTON AERODROME FOR CONVERSION TO A CIVIL AVIATION FACILITY, PRIOR TO A FINAL DECISION BEING TAKEN ON THE AERODROME'S FUTURE.
Gormanston Camp is situated south of Drogheda some 30 miles from Dublin and in close proximity to the M 1 Motorway. The camp consists of approximately 260 acres of which 230 acres were acquired on 1 November 1917 by the British War office and the remainder of the land was acquired in 1944 by my Department. The aerodrome was constructed in 1918 and used by the RAF until January 1920. During the War of Independence Gormanston was used to billet a number of units of the British Army and as a depot for the RIC. Following the ratification of the Treaty the camp was taken over by the National Army and used as a transport depot and became the Transport Base Workshops. In 1928, following the disposal of a large proportion of the transport fleet the Base Workshops were moved to Clancy Barracks, Dublin. Gormanston was subsequently evacuated and placed under a caretaker and only used for summer camps and as an Air Firing Range. During the World War 2 Emergency the camp was used as accommodation for up to 2,000 men and for a time as an internment camp for the detention of aircrews who crashed landed or made emergency landing in the State. In 1944, with the pending evacuation of Rineanna (Shannon) it was decided to develop the camp for use by the Air Corps. In 1950, the Control Tower was completed and the camp was first connected to mains electricity. The camp has been used for many years for FCA and PDF training. In 1969 over 600 refugees escaping from the violence in Belfast were accommodated at this location and this continued on a regular basis until the end of 1971 by which stage some 12,000 persons had been assisted at the camp. The camp has continued to the present day to serve both the PDF and Air Corps units.
As you are aware the Government, on the 15th July, 1998, approved a programme of evacuation and sale of six barracks which were considered surplus to military requirements. This decision is part of the relocation, refurbishment and re-equipment of the Defence Forces, as recommended in the context of the Price Waterhouse Report regarding the rationalisation of military institutions generally. The Government remains fully committed to this important programme. It is expected that in excess of £50 million will be raised from the sale of the barracks. Most of the proceeds will be invested in the redevelopment of other military installations and new equipment. The recent closure of barracks has freed up important sites in the towns concerned. Plans for important new community, health, industrial and housing initiatives are in progress. With the increasing demand for social housing and related programmes and the Government's new decentralisation initiative, it is quite likely that freeing up military locations for alternative uses would assist these Government programmes. There are in addition a number of other lands including Gormanston within the defence portfolio which are located outside of the permanently occupied military barracks and posts. The Government have decided in line with the White Paper that a rigorous examination of the necessity for each such property be examined and only those required for essential defence purposes will be retained. Those identified will be disposed of by sale or otherwise and the Government have approved that the proceeds, along with the revenue from the existing programme of barrack disposals, will be invested in Defence Forces infrastructure and equipment.
It is Government policy to ensure that the Defence Forces are adequately equipped to undertake the roles assigned to them. Establishing realistic equipment requirements and priorities for procurement forms a major element of strategic planning activities within the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces. The objective is to acquire, maintain and manage equipment, weapons and ammunition for the Defence Forces at the appropriate level of operational readiness in a cost effective manner. The strategic focus of the investment programme for the period 2000-2010 is the acquisition of a broad range of equipment in order to achieve a balanced increase in operational capacity throughout the Defence Forces. It will be necessary to prioritise and reconcile the equipment requirements for the Army, the Air Corps, the Naval Service and the Reserve Defence Force within the total resources available. Basic to the plan is a multi-annual budgetary strategy which is vital to achieving value for money.
The Air Corps is the air component of the Defence Forces. Through a fleet of fixed and rotary winged aircraft based primarily at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, the Air Corps provides a variety of military and non-military air services. Air Corps military roles and functions are those of an Army Air Corps rather than a conventional military air service. The Air Corps has traditionally discharged a mix of functions based on the need to supply a range of different services such as search and rescue (SAR), fishery protection and Ministerial Air Transport. The generally favourable security climate resulted in the need for a very limited military air capability. To exceed this capability would require a level of investment in personnel, equipment and infrastructure which could not be justified.
A pragmatic approach has provided capabilities in the following areas:
- General utility helicopter capacity with capabilities in relation to search and rescue over land and sea, limited transport and security surveillance in aid to the civil power.
- Ministerial and other such transport requirements.
- Fishery protection and limited general maritime patrol.
- Air ambulance transport tasks.
- Air space control limited to low level and favourable visibility conditions.
- Limited clear weather ground attack/support capability.
The Government have decided that the present broad profile of Air Corps roles will be maintained. The future development of the Air Corps will therefore be determined within the following policy parameters which set out the general air-based military and non-military capabilities which the State will seek to provide:
- Maintenance/generation of a 24 hour general helicopter capability for a variety of military and non-military tasks, including Garda support.
- The provision of SAR capabilities on the basis of agreed arrangements with the Department of Marine and Natural Resources.
- The provision of a Ministerial Air Transport service.
- The provision of fishery protection patrol services to standards agreed with the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources.
- The provision of an air ambulance service on the basis of agreed arrangements with the Department of Health and Children, and other transport services of a military or non-military kind.
- Provision of an appropriate capability to meet training requirements.
The challenge for the future is to ensure that, within the likely level of available resources, the State has available to it an Air Corps which is capable of meeting on-going requirements and providing the basis for expansion should this be required. There is also the need to ensure that the Air Corps is kept on a sufficiently high professional footing by adequate investment in personnel, training and equipment. The Government recognise that there are urgent equipment modernisation requirements in the Air Corps and they have approved the allocation of an additional £5m per annum in each of the next five years for this purpose. This investment is on top of the savings arising from Defence Forces restructuring. The precise overall funding for Air Corps equipment will be decided within the context of the work of the High Level Civil-Military Planning and Procurement Group and having regard to the policy approach on individual equipment issues.
Flying Training Organisation
As you are aware proposals to establish a Flying Training Organisation at Gormanston were considered by a Steering Group representing the Department of Public Enterprise, Department of Defence and the Irish Aviation Authority. A draft report was submitted in late July 2000 and was examined by the Minister for Public Enterprise, myself and the Irish Aviation Authority. The question of establishing facilities for civil aviation purposes is primarily a matter for the Minister for Public Enterprise.
Sale of Gormanston
Casement Aerodrome is the principal base of the Air Corps. With the withdrawal of aircraft from Gormanston and the relocation of Air Corps headquarters to Baldonnel as outlined in the White Paper, the Air Corps has the basis for better management of its resources. In order to finance the urgent modernisation of the Air Corps as set out in the White Paper and having regard to its centralisation in Baldonnel it was prudent that in order to finance their requirements the air field at Gormanston be sold to provide the vital monies to restructure and sustain the Air Corps into the future. I am in the process of arranging discussions with the relevant State agencies with a view to putting the property in question on the market at an early date.