I thank both Ministers, Deputies Donohoe and Michael McGrath, for their positive engagement in the run-up to the budget. I valued their input and appreciated it.
I am conscious of the limited time I have available. I will focus exclusively on the security and defence aspects of Budget 2021. I have only five points to make. Three are quite positive and only two points at the end are areas in need of significant improvement.
The first point relates to An Garda Síochána. I welcome the increase in Garda numbers which are planned for next year. An extra 620 trainee gardaí plus a big investment in the vehicle fleet for An Garda Síochána should make a big difference throughout the country.
Law and order is a massive issue in all parts of Ireland. We must invest so that people feel safe in their homes and communities. Garda infrastructure remains a big problem. Many of the barracks and Garda stations were built by the British more than 100 years ago. There must be investment for refurbishment and new builds throughout the country. Were I to identify one infrastructural project above all others, it is the need for a Garda Síochána museum. The centenary of the formation of An Garda Síochána is in 2022, in a little more than 18 months. It is incredible there is no national museum for An Garda Síochána, because its story is the story of Ireland itself. From the long list of recipients of the Scott Medal for bravery or the roll of honour for members who have been killed on active duty, we can appreciate and recognise that we need a permanent premises to honour their achievements and sacrifices. I look forward to progressing this project over the next 12 months.
Second, I am encouraged and reassured to see that the National Cyber Security Centre got a significant mention in the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications budget Estimates. It is a critical agency. I thank the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for his ongoing engagement on how we can bolster our defences in this area. It is an essential service and needs to be resourced in tools and talents. We cannot take any shortcuts. We have seen over the past six months what a biological virus can do to this country. Let us not wait and see what an electronic virus can do. This agency is essential. It is needed to protect and safeguard our critical national infrastructure such as our national grid, and our transport and health systems. I look forward to further budgetary progress in the next 12 months.
Third, I raise the issue of the defence budget. I welcome the improvement by €32 million in defence funding for 2021, which is about 3%. Will it solve all the problems in the Defence Forces? Of course not, but it continues a process of renewal that began over the summer. Nevertheless, the defence spend is still only 0.3% of GDP, which puts us at the very bottom of our EU partners. Incredibly, instead of investing in our own defence deterrent, we continue to freeload on the umbrella of security and defence provided by our EU partners. That will have to change. It is not all doom and gloom. The Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, has many projects in play. I look forward to him announcing the membership of the commission on the future of defence in the next two weeks, and I look forward to engaging with that body in the next 12 months to address the infrastructural and well-known problems in our armed forces.
We must be creative and imaginative in how we address defence spending. We should not look at it in a linear fashion exclusively. Why should all the funding come exclusively through the Department of Defence? We can be much more creative. For instance, why is it that the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government cannot directly provide accommodation and housing services for our service families and personnel? Why can it not provide this facility in the Curragh Camp, for instance? There is no reason it cannot. The Office of Public Works builds infrastructure for An Garda Síochána. Why can it not use its budget to build defence infrastructure? The Defence Forces provide much physical support to the HSE, such as manning the Covid hub at Lansdowne Road. Why, therefore, can the health service not provide financial support to the Defence Forces? The village and town renewal scheme run by the Department for Rural and Community Development was a brilliant scheme to address dereliction. There is dereliction in military barracks throughout the country, and dereliction is dereliction whether inside or outside the barrack walls. That fund could by utilised and mobilised to address dereliction in Defence Force establishments. A new secondary school is needed in the Curragh Camp, which has two primary schools and a secondary school. Can the Department of Education and Skills use its allocation to provide the service? There is a new Department with responsibility for higher and further education, research, innovation and science. Why not funnel money from it either through Maynooth University or Carlow Institute of Technology into the military college at the Curragh camp? I cannot see why not. The military college is an institution in its own right with international students, and its affiliations with Maynooth University and Carlow Institute of Technology already make it a satellite campus in effect. We can we not be more creative about addressing the funding deficit in the Defence Forces?
Fourth, I raise the air-sea rescue contract. Some €60 million is allocated in next year’s transport Estimates to provide the excellent service provided by the Irish Coast Guard, which is €5 million a month, which is really expensive. I understand that in the coming months, the Department of Transport will launch a tender for another ten-year contract for a private company to come in and fly helicopters for the Coast Guard. It seems incredible that approximately €700 million will be spent over ten years, given to a private international contractor to provide this service. I believe our Coast Guard service should be a sovereign service. I see no reason there could not be investment in the Air Corps to provide this service. Imagine what spending €500 million or much less in the Air Corps would do to its capability and sense of purpose? We should definitely look at that.
I am very mindful of the backdrop to the budget. There are three major threats here or on the horizon: the pandemic, the associated synchronised global recession and then the spectre of a hard Brexit just around the corner. I agree with my colleague, Deputy Canney, that this is a wartime Government and, by extension, this is a wartime budget. Despite all its imperfections and shortcomings, I will support it on that basis.