Minister assures Dail that Athlone bomb unit secure – Naughten

In Infrastructure, South Roscommon by Denis Naughten

Local TD, Denis Naughten has been assured by the Minister for Defence that there is no threat to the bomb disposal unit based at Custume Barracks, Athlone.
Raising the issue in the Dail, Denis Naughten pointed out that there was a question hanging over the sustainability of the unit, due to the dramatic fall off in the number of trained personnel in the Explosive Ordnance Demolition Unit, which makes up the 4 bomb disposal units throughout the Country.

“There is presently about half the full compliment of staff required to properly man the four units. Without immediate steps to start to train staff, it will be impossible to keep the 4 units in Dublin, Cork, the Curragh and Athlone fully operational,” concluded Denis Naughten.



^^ Defence Forces Recruitment ^^

125. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Defence his plans to address the staffing deficit within the Army bomb disposal units; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11622/15]

Deputy Denis Naughten: The explosive ordnance demolition unit or the bomb disposal squad is an integral part of the Defence Forces and of the security of the State. In the past three years, it has been called out 595 times, 75 of which times have been in cases of unstable chemicals in schools. There has been a reduction in the staffing complement of that unit and I wish to ascertain what steps will be taken in the immediate future to ensure there are adequate staff numbers to maintain the four units across the country.

Deputy Simon Coveney: The Deputy has raised this issue with me previously and I will give him an update. On the actual numbers, I am glad to state there was a significant reduction in the number of call-outs last year. There were 215 call-outs in 2013 and this number fell to 141 this year. The number of call-outs for viable improvised explosive devices also fell last year. There was a reduction from 96 in 2012 to 81 in 2013 and the number fell to 52 last year. While this is a positive trend, it remains necessary to have the capacity to deal with a significant increase, should that happen for whatever reason.
Explosive ordnance disposal is the military term used to refer to what is commonly called bomb disposal. Explosive ordnance disposal is a task assigned to the Defence Forces by the Government and is provided in aid to the civil power. Within the Defence Forces, the explosive ordnance disposal function is assigned to the Ordnance Corps. As I stated in response to Question No. 9 of Wednesday, 14 January 2015, the issue of the terms and conditions for entry into the Ordnance Corps has been raised by the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, at conciliation council. In accordance with normal procedures, the association’s claim is being dealt with under the conciliation and arbitration scheme for members of the Permanent Defence Force.
As discussions under the scheme are confidential to the parties involved, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on the details today. However, it is my intention that recruitment will commence as soon as the terms and conditions have been agreed.
In other words there is a dispute, I suspect, over the level of incentive to get people into this specialist training area. It is dangerous work, quite frankly, and requires about two years of training. We are going through the usual procedures to agree a way forward and a compromise that everyone will accept and agree upon. After that, we will be pressing ahead with an active recruitment campaign because we do need to increase the numbers in that unit.

Deputy Denis Naughten: I accept what the Minister has said. However, the difficulty is that the last recruits came out of the training process in September 2010, which is four and a half years ago. It takes 18 months of training before unsupervised personnel can be involved in bomb disposal work. Is the Minister aware that by the end of April we will have less than 50% of the full complement of those four units? In light of that, what immediate action can be taken to address this situation? Is there now a real risk that one of these units will have to be disbanded, at least temporarily, in order to maintain the effective operation of the other units?

Deputy Simon Coveney: No, I do not think that is likely. We are anxious to finalise the conciliation process so that we can get on with the new recruitment drive. The Deputy is right in that the numbers have fallen, but there is still a strong capability to do the required job. Nobody is suggesting that the level of service and response is compromised, but we do need a new recruitment drive. We need to get some new people in training for these units. That will be the focus once we can get the conciliation finalised.
Deputy Denis Naughten: I have some brief questions. On foot of the Minister’s last comments, can he reassure the House that the unit based in Athlone is secure into the future? What does he envisage is the timeline for agreement to be reached between the Government, the Defence Forces and RACO? When are we likely to see a recruitment campaign commencing?

Deputy Simon Coveney: I have given numerous assurances concerning the number of personnel and units in Athlone. I have had no briefing or suggestion from anybody that there will be a disbanding of the unit in Athlone. From that point of view, therefore, I can give the Deputy an assurance – unless I get some briefing to the contrary in the next couple of days. However, I certainly have nothing to suggest that that would be the case.
The focus has been on trying to get through a conciliation process which is a fairly normal process within Defence Forces’ structures. We had to go through that process with the 21-year soldier issue, which resulted in a reasonably good outcome for everybody, including a fair compromise. We need to get through this process also. I think RACO would be aware that there is a need to move on with this issue now. We are anxious to move on in order to get recruitment under way again. The sooner we can resolve the issues the better.