‘Unlikely’ border could be sealed in crisis, warns expert

Government cutbacks make it unlikely the Defence Forces and the gardaí could prevent an outbreak of foot- and-mouth, swine flu, or avian flu spreading from the North into the Republic, according to a former senior army officer.

Retired Brigadier General Ger Aherne said the closure of army barracks and garda stations along the border in recent years make it improbable that the State could effectively seal the border if there was a repeat of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak in the North.

The former senior officer said: “We have reached a situation today where I, personally and professionally, doubt if the border with Northern Ireland could be sealed in such a crisis.”

The former commander of the Fourth Western Brigade said the closures had left gaping holes in the capabilities of state agencies to combat the spread of agricultural-related diseases, which could potentially decimate the nation’s economy. He pointed out that, since 2009, army barracks have been closed at Lifford, Letterkenny, Monaghan, Cavan, Castleblaney, Longford, and Cootehill.

“There are only two remaining barracks along the border at Finner in south Donegal and Dundalk, and therefore there’s a massive gap in the middle,” he said.

“The 4th Cavalry Squadron, which was based in Longford, was disbanded in 2012. It would have been the most effective unit to deploy in such a crisis. Now the nearest reconnaissance unit is based at Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin.”

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He also maintained important intelligence was being lost because of the lack of military and garda on the ground in border areas.

During the foot-and-mouth scare 14 years ago, the combined weight of the Defence Forces, gardaí and officials from Customs and the Department of Agriculture was mobilised to seal off border crossings.

“The possibility of something similar happening again is real, particularly as two large agricultural industries, poultry and pigs, are concentrated significantly in the border region,” said Gen Ahern. “I have no memory of foot-and-mouth disease, avian, or swine flu, respecting a border.”

Garda Representative Association general secretary PJ Stone agreed with the retired army officer and said “it would be folly for the Government to ignore them”.

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