Seanad Éireann - Volume 166 - 01 May, 2001
Adjournment Matter. - Gormanston Aerodrome.
Mr. Glennon Mr. Glennon
Mr. Glennon: I welcome the Minister for Defence, Deputy Smith, to the House. I wish to draw attention to a possible alternative use for lands in State ownership in County Meath. I hope to ensure that these lands, which are at present under consideration for sale and disposal, are used to maximum efficiency and economy for the State and the people of the area.
The ground concerned has been in continuous use as an aerodrome since 1917 and is the oldest continuously used aviation site in the country. I am sure the British authorities could not have foreseen the present circumstances when they purchased it in 1917. I have no intention of going into the statistics for the projected development of the greater Dublin area, but it is interesting to  note that in the document, A Platform for Change, published by the Dublin Transportation Office in September 2000, there is no reference to air transport. One can only presume that air transport was outside their terms of reference. With the admitted benefit of hindsight, it is somewhat surprising to note that such a significant study on transportation was commissioned without reference to air transport.
I have no doubt that a second airport is required for the greater Dublin area and I think most people would agree with that. The biggest difficulty is deciding upon a location but I hope to demonstrate that Gormanston is an ideal one for a proposed second airport. In proposing a second airport for Dublin I am not advocating a facility to compete with what we in north County Dublin call Collinstown, and what is known nationally as Dublin Airport, but rather to complement the existing facilities there. In anticipating the future needs of that facility as it develops, a properly designed and constructed second – and, almost of necessity, smaller – facility in the greater Dublin area will serve to complement the facilities at Collinstown. Such a second facility could turn out to be an essential element in the balanced development of the Collinstown facility.
I would like to provide some statistics concerning Dublin Airport, which for the remainder of my contribution I will refer to as Collinstown. The projected annual passenger traffic for 2001 is 15 million and that volume is growing at the rate of one million per annum. The airport's current facilities are estimated to have an annual maximum capacity of 20 million. In other words, major infrastructural change and consequent capital expenditure will be required within the next few years to avoid future difficulties that can be foreseen. It is believed that the overall site area at Collinstown has a capacity, subject to infrastructural development, to cater for 40 million passengers per annum. While that may sound a staggering statistic today, at the rate at which airline passenger numbers are increasing it is safe to say that the 40 million level will not be considered outlandish in a relatively short period of time.
Collinstown also represents the largest industrial complex in Ireland. It accounts for a remarkable 2% of our gross domestic product and currently employs 8,000 people on site. In excess of 12,000 more are employed indirectly in the immediate vicinity in jobs which are dependent upon the airport. Those statistics are absolutely staggering and show how huge the Collinstown facility has become.
Although the airport authorities are trying to maximise efficiency, the airport has serious infrastructural difficulties. We are well aware of the difficulties that occurred last summer at peak time which, unfortunately, coincided with a major development of the departures and arrivals halls. That was the most obvious difficulty in the recent past but there were others. A lesser difficulty, but  one which is about to become greater, concerns access to and from Dublin Airport, both on the surface by road or rail and equally in the air. There is a major difficulty in the Portmarnock area of north County Dublin arising from what, in effect, is a traffic jam in the air. Such logjams in the flight path over Portmarnock are causing serious environmental difficulties. There is a proposal from Aer Rianta to develop a parallel flight path in precisely the same vicinity. Naturally enough, and with some justification, the residents of that area have major objections to the plan.
Dublin Airport or Collinstown is creaking at the seams and any future development of the infrastructure there will of necessity be extremely expensive. Apart from facilitating the throughput of passengers, to protect the 20,000 people currently employed there, directly and indirectly, it is vital that the facility should operate to maximum efficiency. If it develops a long-term reputation for inefficiency the business will go elsewhere and the economy that has developed around the airport will begin to wither away.
At Gormanston, just across the Meath border, we have the oldest aviation facility in Ireland, which has been in continuous use since 1917 when it was purchased by the British authorities. In 1919 it had a workforce of 651, 65 of whom were pilots. It has a less pleasant place in local and national history as the base for the Black and Tans at the time of the infamous sack of Balbriggan in 1920. It was subsequently taken over by the Free State Army in October 1922 and in 1945 was taken over by the Air Corps which ran it until 1986. In 1969, Gormanston was used as a refugee camp for those fleeing the troubles in Northern Ireland.
The venue is only 30 miles from Dundalk and 22 miles from Dublin or Navan. That represents a journey of 45 minutes by road from anywhere within an arc from Dundalk to Kells and central Dublin. I understand that there is a site there, currently owned by the Department of Defence, of 270 acres with serviceable runways. There are significant undeveloped agricultural landholdings immediately adjoining the site. Most importantly, the Dublin-Belfast railway line runs along the site's eastern boundary, while the main Dublin-Belfast road, soon to become the M1 motorway, is on the western boundary. I emphasise the location of the existing road and rail infrastructure which would cost billions to construct from scratch today. Gormanston is the only facility in the country adjoining such major transport infrastructure. While it may seem somewhat incongruous in the context of an airport development, Gormanston is also near the Irish Sea, on the other side of the railway line. Such a natural resource can be exploited for future runway development, as we have seen in the case of several international airports around the world.
We should not allow another Harcourt Street line or Navan line situation to develop whereby railways were closed down because the demand  did not justify the oversupply of infrastructure at one particular time. We all lived to regret such closures subsequently. It is also important to avoid a posts and telegraphs situation where a huge demand for phone facilities in the 1970s and 1980s totally outstripped supply. The telephone system was in absolute chaos because the necessary infrastructure was not in place. It took a radical measure by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Albert Reynolds, when Minister for Post and Telegraphs, to bring our telecommunications infrastructure into the 20th century. We are all fully aware of the major benefits that accrued. It is important that we are proactive and manage and drive development rather than allow change to be forced upon us and have to react to it.
The cliché, “It is a golden opportunity”, is very appropriate in this context. This is an opportunity not to be missed and which I fear will never be repeated. There is a magnificent and totally unique coincidence of natural and man made resources available. There is acre upon acre of flat ground that is perfectly suitable for airport development with very few dwellings located on it. A mainline rail track immediately adjoins the land with two stations adjacent to the site, which by rail is three quarters of an hour from Dublin and an hour and a quarter from Belfast. While we think of it as an addition to Dublin, we are aware of the fortune Ryanair has made during the years by utilising airports such as Stansted, Charleroi and Beauvais, all of which are an hour and a quarter from the cities they serve.
The new M1 motorway also runs adjacent to the site and there is unlimited runway expansion potential. There are prevailing westerly winds which would render the runways largely pollution free in that the vast bulk of traffic would fly into the airport over water and there would be no noise pollution in inhabited areas. I hope the key is that the availability of capital for the necessary funding of the project should not present the difficulties it would have in the past. It appears to be a fantastic opportunity to develop the magnificent confluence of natural and man made resources.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for taking the time to come to the House. I look forward very much to his comments.
Mr. M. Smith Mr. M. Smith
Minister for Defence (Mr. M. Smith): Is cúis mhór áthais dom aon uair, teacht go dti an Teach álainn seo. Mo bhuíochas duit, a Chathaoirligh, as ucht an fháilte a thugann tú dom i gcónaí. I thank Senator Glennon for his presentation and will outline a little of the history of the use of Gormanston Camp and examine the options before us.
Gormanston Camp is situated south of Drogheda some 30 miles from Dublin and in close proximity to the M1 motorway. The camp consists of approximately 260 acres, of which 230 acres were acquired on 1 November 1917 by the British War Office. 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 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 II 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 crash landed or made emergency landings 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 1959 more than 600 refugees escaping the violence in Belfast were accommodated at this location. 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 the House will be aware, the Government, on 15 July 1998, approved a programme of evacuation and sale of six barracks 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 on 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 programmes.
There are, in addition, a number of other lands, including Gormanston, within the defence portfolio located outside of the permanently occupied military barracks and posts. The Government has decided in line with the White Paper that there should be a rigorous examination of the necessity for each such property and only those required for essential defence purposes will be retained. Those identified will be disposed of by sale or otherwise and the Government has approved that  the proceeds, 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 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 2000-10 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 regard to search and rescue over land and sea, limited transport and security surveillance in aid of 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; and limited clear weather ground attack-support capability.
The Government has 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; and 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 recognises that there are urgent equipment modernisation requirements in the Air Corps and it has approved the allocation of an additional £5 million 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.
As the Senator is aware, proposals to establish a flying training organisation at Gormanston were considered by a steering group representing the Department of Public Enterprise, the 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.
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 airfield at Gormanston should be sold to provide the vital moneys 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.
Senator Glennon made a number of suggestions which can be examined in the context of that overall deliberation. On the one hand we have the urgency of ensuring, without leaning to heavily on the taxpayer, that the various requirements of the Defence Forces generally can be met by the property portfolio which is surplus to requirements. On the other hand, in the overall circle of management and government, there is clearly an obligation to take account of the various needs that arise from time to time. I do not have a precise objection to the use of this land resource for a different purpose provided it is in the national interest and I am open to suggestions and propositions. I am quite sure that the Government will take into account these overall considerations when the final decision is taken on this matter.
We are now looking at our surplus property portfolio in an overall context. In a number of instances, State agencies have come to me suggesting, as they have done in Fermoy, Castleblayney and to some extent Cork and other places, alternative State uses or developments which we may not have envisaged when we first made this decision. I am open to suggestions as to the best use of a national asset in order that the change of use can be converted into the best interests of the people.
The Seanad adjourned at 7.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 2 May 2001.
Seanad Éireann 166 Adjournment Matter. Gormanston Aerodrome.