Angry army families and public representatives confronted the General Officer Commanding of the Southern Brigade outside Kickham Barracks yesterday (Tuesday) morning as he arrived to speak to soldiers about the controversial decision to close the barracks.
Members of the Army Wives & Partners Committee holding a banner bearing the slogan “Save Kickham Army Barracks” blocked the front gate of the barracks as Brigadier-General Paul Pakenham arrived to speak to soldiers about the plans for the closure.
Brigadier-General Pakenham got out of the car to speak to the group that also included Mayor of Clonmel Darren Ryan, Independent TD Seamus Healy, Cllr Gabrielle Egan, who resigned from the Labour Party last week in protest at the closure, and several Workers & Unemployment Action Group councillors.
Leaders of the Army Wives & Partners Committee told Brigadier-General Pakenham of their anger that he wasn’t present in person to break the news of the closure of the barracks to the soldiers of Kickham Barracks last Tuesday evening and was pictured some hours later at the Ireland versus Estonia match in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
Eleanor Prout, who had a photocopy of the press photo of the army chief seated behind Giovanni Trapatonni at the Aviva Stadium that appeared in the Irish Examiner the following day, told the Brigadier General: “I was so annoyed to see your picture. What took priorty for you that you didn’t come down here to address the troops that day. I would like to know that?”
The group also questioned him on why the soldiers and their families had to hear the news first from local public representatives and the media before being formally informed by the Defence Forces.
The Committee’s secretary Christine McGrath handed Brig. Gen Packenham a letter inviting him to meet with them to explain why Kickham Barracks had been chosen for closure.
“We have questions that need your answer. We need to understand why everything has happened that way it has. I would appreciate a response this time. We did send a letter two months ago,” she told him.
Ms McGrath asked the Brigadier-General whether it was the case that the barracks was being closed by the Government on the recommendation of the Defence Forces chiefs.
When Brig. Gen. Packenham responded that it was a decision made by the Government due to the current economic situation, not by the Defence Forces, she told them they were bounced back and forth between the Department of Defence and Defence Forces when they asked this question with each claiming it was the other’s decision.
Mayor of Clonmel Darren Ryan asked him if he would meet with local TDs and public representatives to explain the decision while Deputy Seamus Healy questioned him on why the Defence Forces chief of staff had so far not taken up the written invitation of the constituency’s Oireachtas members to meet with them.
Brig. Gen Pakenham didn’t give any firm commitment to meet local politicians, explaining that such a request to him would have to be referred to a higher authority and he said he couldn’t answer Deputy Healy’s question as he was not the Chief of Staff but ventured that he was probably still addressing the request. Deputy Healy responded that the invitation was sent three weeks ago.
Deputy Healy told the Brigadier General that they didn’t accept the decision to close the barracks and advised them that they would “fight to the bitter end” to stop it. The barracks had been in Clonmel since 1650 and it played a key role in the social, economic and community life of Clonmel, he said.
In relation to the criticism levelled at him over the way the news of the closure was announced to the soldiers, Brig. Gen. Pakenham said he was at a training course in The Curragh that day and the protocol was that when he was outside the Southern Brigade area, his second in command deputised for him. If he had been available that day he would have relayed the news personally.
He said it had been the intention to advise soldiers of the closure as soon as a government decision was made but unfortunately in this case the resignation of Junior Minister Willie Penrose meant the information was in the public domain before it was conveyed by the Government to the Defence Forces.
He acknowledged the closure of Kickham Barracks will have an “acute “ adverse impact on the soldiers based at Kickham Barracks and their families and said the adverse effects of such a closure on the soldiers and their morale had been conveyed by him and his predecessor to the Minister.
“The Government in making their decision were well aware of the adverse effects on soldiers and their partners and took into consideration the adverse effect on the town of Clonmel.”
“I am very conscious of the adverse effects that this will have on all the families of my soldiers and will do my utmost to alleviate that,” he pledged.