The Chief Of Staff’s review of the 118th Infantry Battalion, UNIFIL, at Custume Barracks, Athlone, in April of 2021 (Photo: Óglaigh na hÉireann Flickr).

Minister refuses to state number of personnel at Custume Barracks

“It is disgraceful and whoever wrote that answer should be ashamed of themselves,” declared Roscommon Galway TD Michael Fitzmaurice in the Dáil last week when he was unable to obtain figures for the number of Defence Force personnel stationed in Athlone’s Custume Barracks.

In response to a direct question on the issue during Priority Questions on the Defence Forces, Deputy Fitzmaurice was told by Defence Minister Simon Coveney that “for operational security reasons” the details of Defence Forces personnel currently stationed at Custume Barracks, as well as those stationed there over the past five years “cannot, and should not be disclosed.”

The Minister’s response to Deputy Fitzmaurice is in direct contradiction to the policy of the Department of Defence in 2019, when now-Minister for State and Longford/Westmeath TD, Robert Troy asked a similar question.

In a written response to a Parliamentary Question from Deputy Troy on May 21, 2019, seeking details on the number of personnel serving at Custume Barracks, the Minister for State at the Department of Defence, Paul Kehoe said there were “approximately 950 personnel” based in Athlone from a total Permanent Defence Force figure of 9,500.

Minister Kehoe pointed out in his written answer that there is “a constant through-flow of personnel in an out of barracks, including Custume Barracks” due to personnel undertaking duties both at home and abroad, and availing of educational and career development courses.

In light of the refusal of Minister Coveney to divulge in the Dáil last week the number of army personnel based in Athlone, Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice branded the response to his question as “disgraceful” and said TDs “seem to be stifled” by the Defence Forces.

“I do not buy into it that ‘for operational reasons’ they cannot tell us the number of Defence Forces personnel in any part of the country, it is disgraceful and whoever wrote that answer should be ashamed of themselves,” said Michael Fitzmaurice, who clarified that he was not “blaming the Minister” for the response he received.

“Whoever is sidelining that is doing so for the simple reason that the numbers are down, and they are not prepared to say it….be it the civil servant or the person in the Army,” he declared “It is disgusting to think that they will not even write down or tell us the number of people, I asked a simple question.”

In his question to the Minister for Defence last week, Depuuty Fitzmaurice also asked if there were any plans to “upgrade the status” of Custume Barracks in the coming years, and Minister Coveney assured the Deputy that there is “no downgrading of Custume Barracks at all; in fact, the opposite is the case” he added.

“We continue to invest there, and we will continue to invest there, but the advice I have is that for security and operational reasons, from a Defence Forces perspective, we do not talk about numbers in individual barracks,” said the Minister.

Michael Fitzmaurice said it would be “interesting to see over the past number of years whether those figures (of Defence Force personnel) have gone up or have gone down” and he pointed out that these figures “would have been given previously.”

Minister Coveney assured the Roscommon Galway TD that if he was in a position to come back to him “with actual numbers” he would do so. “If not, I will explain why.”