The restoration of the 4th Western Brigade and the re-establishment of its headquarters to Custume Barracks in Athlone was a pertinent issue for discussion at the virtually hosted Athlone Moate Municipal District meeting in recent times.
Raising the motion, Fianna Fáil Councillor, Frankie Keena, implored the support of his fellow elected representatives to make a strong submission to both the newly formed Commission on the Defence Forces and the Minister for Defence looking for the issue to be addressed as a matter of importance.
Asserting his cause, Cllr Keena noted the positive impact of Defence Force members within Athlone and the Midlands region since the foundation of the State.
"The Defence Forces have had a significant presence in Athlone since the foundation of the State. Personnel stationed in Custume Barracks contribute significantly to their community, not alone in Athlone but in towns, villages and rural communities throughout the Midlands region.
"I am very proud of the Defence Forces contribution to the security of the State and to international peace and security. Also, it is important to reiterate that both they, and their families, contribute greatly to the economic, social, societal, sporting and leadership of our communities," Cllr Keena asserted.
Cllr Keena stated that the decision taken by the Government in 2012 to restructure the Defence Forces culminating in the downgrading of the 4th Western Brigade at Custume Barracks had a detrimental impact on army personnel at a local level.
"This decision adversely affected not only Custume Barracks in Athlone but the Midland Region and the Defence Forces nationally. This action, combined with poor pay and conditions for army personnel, is one of the contributing factors for the low retention levels of personnel within our army today.
"It has been proven beyond doubt that the loss in 2012 of the regional headquarters in Custume Barracks, and the disbandment of five military units was disastrous. There are now 607 less positions in Custume Barracks as a result of the restructure.
"The following units were disbanded in Custume Barracks in 2012 - 4th Brigade HQ Unit, 4th Cavalry Squadron, 4th Field Signals Company, 4th Brigade Logistics Battalion and 4th Garrison Military Police Company.
"In addition, there were four reserve units disbanded in Custume Barracks that had permanent Defence Forces personnel working full time within. The total establishment loss of those five regular and four reserve units was 607 personnel," Cllr Keena commented.
Such personnel loss to Custume Barracks has had a negative economic impact in Athlone and the Midlands region during the intervening years, Cllr Keena emphasised.
"In monetary terms when you take into account the impact on the numerous service contracts to Custume Barracks, this equates to a loss of approximately €25-€30m per year in circulation around Athlone and the Midlands region. I ask the rhetorical question if this was the closure of a major company in Athlone with 607 job losses would I be correct in saying that there would be a major outcry by numerous sectors?
"The Government formation talks of last year agreed that a Commission on the Defence Forces would be established in an attempt to stabilise and regenerate the Defence Forces.
"In particular, this Commission is tasked with seeking ways forward to tackle the problematic issues of recruitment and retention of personnel to the Defence Forces, and addressing the identified problems of unsatisfactory pay and conditions for members of the Defence Forces.
"It is expected that the Commission will engage in extensive consultation to enable a substantial report be formulated and in this instance, I am requesting this Municipal District to make a strong submission in support of the reinstatement of the 4th Western Brigade HQ to Custume Barracks.
"As local public representatives we need to be to the fore on this issue and we must speak with Athlone Chamber of Commerce, Destination Athlone, local businesses and the people of Athlone to make submissions to this Commission on the Defence Forces on this important matter.
"I do recall the excellent collaboration by the Council and relevant groups in making submissions on the National Planning Framework. We need a similar energy, drive and commitment from all these groups in relation to sending submissions to the Minister for Defence and Defence Forces Commission. I would further strongly contend and recommend that if necessary, we seek professional help in putting together this submission," Cllr Keena concluded.
Affording due support to the motion, Town Mayor, Cllr Aengus O'Rourke, noted that an immediate reinstatement of the 4th Western Brigade at Custume Barracks was not possible due to a lack of army personnel within but expressed his desire that such a reality may occur in the future.
"There is much work to be done in this regard, but the main reason for such a mass exodus from our Defence Forces is the paltry pay and conditions presently on offer to serving army personnel. For the manner in which they serve their country both at home and internationally, our Defence Forces are simply not paid appropriately.
"I note that Deputy Jack Chambers has recently been appointed to oversee this particular issue so that gives cause for hope going forward," Cllr O'Rourke stated.