The Ministry of Defence has insisted that leaving Ballykinler without a resident battalion for the first time in a century does not represent a lessening of the armed forces footprint in Northern Ireland.
The 2nd Battalion The Rifles is to move from Ballykinler Barracks to Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn, late this summer. There has been no resident battalion in Lisburn for several years.
A spokesman for the MoD said yesterday that the move “makes best use of defence facilities and infrastructures in Northern Ireland as well as long-term financial best practice”.
He added: “It affords 2 Rifles and families closer links to transport and also allows examination of best use of Abercorn Barracks alongside the Ballykinler training area. The decision was taken following a wide ranging examination into effective use of defence estate across NI as well as prudent financial management of the public purse. The defence footprint across NI remains unchanged.”
At present the armed forces footprint includes 2 Battalion Mercian Regiment at Palace Barracks in Holywood, and the Royal Engineers, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and Royal Military Police based at various locations. The 2 Mercian is soon to be replaced by 1 Royal Scots.
He acknowledged the changes at Ballykinler will impact on south Down traders but hoped that with the pending major increase in reserve forces recruitment, demand on Ballykinler will increase as a training centre. The impact on civilian jobs, understood to be around 30 people, cannot be confirmed until redeployment is considered. Reserve Forces are still based at 13 sites here, he added.
DUP South Down Assemblyman Jim Wells has contacted the MoD in London requesting an urgent meeting. He received an MoD letter about the matter on December 18, which he described as “a good time to bury bad news”.
“I also note that this major decision, which will leave Ballykinler without a resident battalion for the first time for a century, has been carried out without any consultation with the local community.
“This decision will leave Ballykinler as a glorified rifle range which will only be used for training purposes.” Support staff will either be redeployed or made redundant.
South Down SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie has met Minister for International Security Strategy Andrew Murrison and has sought another meeting about Ballykinler. “I have asked about the implications for the civilian staff based at Ballykinler, and also about further uses for housing, recreation and tourism once the site is vacated,” she said.
DUP defence spokesman Jeffrey Donaldson, a member of the Westminster Defence Select Committee, was adamant that Northern Ireland will not be losing any defence footprint.
“It is not happening,” he said. “In fact we are getting more reserves.” There have been several suicides at Ballykinler and people have been confined to barracks due to dissident threats there, he added.