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Column: With decisions like this, how can we ever hope to escape crisis?

Closing a barracks will cost millions to save thousands, writes Brian Cleary. With decisions like that, what can we expect from the Budget?

Brian Cleary

IT SIMPLY BEGGARS belief that in order to save the state €150,000 or so that we, as a nation, will end up spending up to €5,500,000.

Put simply that is what is estimated that closing Kickham Barracks in Clonmel will cost the state.

I, like all of us, am in no doubt that efficiencies need to be sought and that cuts need to be made to take us out of the mire that we have found ourselves in over the last few years. Yet, seeing a move such as the one that we saw in recent weeks, closing a number of army barracks around the country, makes me question if we will ever extract ourselves from the bind that we are in.

You may be wondering how I can contend that the cost of saving €150,000 will be over 3,000% higher than the saving. Defence Forces documents, seen by The Irish Times and covered by Fiona Gartland in that newspaper last week, show that the short term cost of moving soldiers from Kickham Barracks in Clonmel will cost €250,000. In the longer term the Defence Forces report estimates that the cost of hosting the Clonmel soldiers in Limerick could be as high as €5,500,000. Neither the short term nor long term expenditures make any sense.

I, along with representatives from Clonmel Borough Council, South Tipperary County Council, Oireachtas Members and the partners of some of the soldiers met with Minister Shatter as part of a Ministerial delegation in October. In his opening preamble the Minister was quite clear that savings need to be made throughout the public sector and that in this difficult economic time that his department, like others, had to reign in their spending.

No one disputes that.

‘We agreed savings needed to be made’

Our delegation agreed that savings needed to be made and one by one we spelt how savings could be made and the impact that the closure would have. Senator Denis Landy spelt out to the Minister and his advisors that closing the barracks would end up costing the state far more. Two points in particular stood out. The cost of operating Kickham Barracks is €150,000 exclusive of payroll costs. However the cost of securing a sizeable facility, running to approximately 4 acres, will cost a multiple of that once it is closed. Furthermore the cost of the stipend available to soldiers having to travel to a new barracks for the first nine months of a transfer would cost €250,000 to the state.

Nevertheless the Minister made his decision and on March 31st 2012 after 350 years in the centre of Clonmel the barracks will close. It seems highly unlikely that a reprieve or a change of mind will happen.

The local economy will also be hit by this decision. Almost 30 local businesses supply products and services to the site every week. The lesser heard story has been that they too will see their turnover drop with the loss of such a substantial customer. The cost of this is hard to guage. The loss of income to businesses will see the loss of jobs with those companies and a reduction of spending power in the local economy.

What the Minister and his advisors haven’t counted is the cost of the knock on effect in unemployment.

So, what will happen to the site? We’ve seen Magee Barracks fall derelict and the worry in Clonmel is that Kickham Barracks, in the centre of the town will suffer the same fate. As mentioned above, the cost of securing the facility will be vast. 24/7 security of such a sizeable site will be expensive. Some people, myself included, believe that if adequate security is not in place, that the fate that befell Magee Barracks will be replicated.

‘The solution doesn’t have to cost the state anything’

In the short term there is a viable solution that doesn’t have to cost the state anything and it will ensure that a large tract of valuable well located land will be put to good use.

Clonmel, like every other town and city, has community groups seeking to make a difference – giving their time to educate, inform, entertain and develop their constituencies. Just like in every other town many are unable to afford training rooms, club houses, rehearsal or performance spaces. If a negative can be turned into a positive then I believe that the Minister Shatter’s department should seek a way to engage with a number of community groups in Clonmel who would have the site signed over to them for a nominal rent for 5 years. In that time they would be responsible for maintenance and security of the site – thus saving the state money whilst enabling the groups to develop themselves in a permanent location.

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The main office building at Kickham Barracks is distinguished building, perfect as a permanent home for an historical society and as a venue for lectures. Likewise the vast parade yards could be used by scout troops, sports teams or similar.

The Chamber has asked the Mayor to convene a group to see how we can best leverage the site to the benefit of the community.

Naturally the best use would be to continue to house and support 200 soldiers. That would, by far, be the best use of the extensive site. After all, they are contributing, by their presence to the fabric of local life through their civic duty and as contributors to the local economy

Taking 200 of them out of a town of Clonmel’s size is significant. Apparently the closure is based on the need to save costs. But as the figures above show, spending millions to save hundreds of thousands is not going to take us out of recession in just the same way that increasing VAT on goods and making them more expensive will not encourage people to get out and spend a bit more.

Brian Cleary is Chief Executive of Clonmel Chamber of Commerce.

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Brian Cleary

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