Dáil Éireann - Volume 644 - 12 December, 2007

Priority Questions. - Defence Forces Training.

Deputy Jimmy Deenihan asked the Minister for Defence his views on a role for the Defence Forces in establishing standards or benchmarks for fitness levels for people of various ages including primary and secondary schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34560/07]

  Deputy Willie O’Dea: The role of the Defence Forces is laid out in the White Paper on Defence. It commits the Defence Forces to being actively involved in providing a broad range of services at home and challenging deployments overseas.

I have previously outlined the position on the forthcoming mission to Chad and the House will be familiar with the other overseas missions with which the Defence Forces are deployed. In addition, the Defence Forces have ongoing operational commitments at home in accordance with the roles set out in the White Paper. Some examples include fishery protection, cash escorts, prisoner escorts, guarding public installations, etc. In order to sustain the level of operational deployments the Defence Forces are undertaking, the Defence Forces must continuously undertake appropriate training.

Fitness is an integral part of overall Defence Forces training, with the objective of ensuring that personnel have appropriate fitness levels to perform the challenging tasks they are expected to perform. The personnel of the Defence Forces are excellent role models in that regard and I appreciate Deputy Deenihan’s recognition of that fact.

Enhancing the health and fitness standards of military personnel formed one of the cornerstones of the modernisation process in the Defence Forces. There has been a major effort in implementing appropriate regimes of physical training. However, the Defence Forces do not have the mandate or resources to tackle this issue for the population as a whole. Accordingly, there are no plans for the Defence Forces to take on a role with regard to the fitness levels of school children.

[67] The health of the general population is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, and provisions with respect to school curricula are a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science.

  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: Since the Defence Forces set their own levels of fitness in the 1980s and refined them in the 1990s, the fitness levels of our Defence Forces members have increased considerably. One can see that in those escorting cash transits, for example, and when members of the Defence Forces are in public. Perhaps I am being misunderstood to some extent but I suggest the Defence Forces could set the levels. I am not asking that they should be involved in visiting schools or the general population but they could set the levels of fitness attainment as they have done with their own personnel. That is done in West Point, in the United States. Universities throughout America look to West Point for the desired levels of fitness for particular age groups. There is nothing like that in primary and post-primary schools here where we now have a major obesity problem, with one in five children under 12 obese or overweight. There is a similar problem in the adult population.

There is a need for someone to set the standards because the Minister for Education and Science has failed. There is no great interest apart from a number of small initiatives from the Department of Health and Children. No one is taking responsibility for the general fitness of the population or even issuing guidelines that are credible and the Army could have a role to play in this regard. The Army could allow the public access to their facilities throughout the country. For example, the new gymnasium in the Curragh cost €6 million but it lies idle when the military are not using it. That facility could be used. Before the last election, the Minister promised to provide a new state-of-the-art gymnasium-sports hall in Limerick. I suggest that the schools in South Hill, Moyross and elsewhere should be allowed use that facility when it is built.

  Deputy Willie O’Dea: Perhaps I did misunderstand Deputy Deenihan’s statement issued over the weekend.

  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: I did not issue any statement.

  Deputy Willie O’Dea: I read a statement in the paper.

  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: I was coming to that. That is the next question.

  Deputy Willie O’Dea: I assumed you issued it as it was in your name.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Will the Minister address his remarks through the Chair?

[68]   Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: I did not issue any statement. Somebody was reading my mind.

  Deputy Willie O’Dea: I am sorry somebody is issuing Deputy Deenihan’s statements and putting his name to them.

  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: No. There was no statement issued about anything.

  Deputy Willie O’Dea: If it does not involve the Army going out to schools, I am relieved to hear that because we have approximately 25 fitness instructors in the Army and there are 4,000 schools in the country.

  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: There are 300 personnel——

  Deputy Willie O’Dea: I am giving the Deputy the official figures. There are 25 full-time and 90 part-time instructors.

  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: There are 300 qualified——

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Allow the Minister reply.

  Deputy Willie O’Dea: There are not 300 qualified. The figures are 25 and 90; those are the levels.

As regards setting the standards, if the Minister for Education and Science, who has responsibility in this area, wants to use the physical standards set by the Army as the standards by which physical education is to be taught in schools, I have no problem with that. They can have access to what we have got; there is no difficulty in that regard.

3 o’clock

Regarding access to public facilities, such as gyms etc., Deputy Deenihan can be assured that when we build the new gymnasium in Limerick, I will ensure people from those areas have access to it. It is a matter for the military commander in each individual area. I will have a word with my people in the Curragh about use by the general public.

  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: The other element of defence force training is posture development. I have an interest in this from my days of teaching physical education. The Defence Forces have the best expertise to encourage posture correction and development. We have a major problem with posture in schools because young pupils are crouching over their desks or slouching in chairs. The principles used by the Defence Forces in posture development could play an important role in tackling this.

  Deputy Willie O’Dea: If the Department of Education and Science wishes to take any initiative in that regard, we will co-operate in every way.