Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 5 October 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
Defence Forces Strategy Statement 2017 to 2020: Department of Defence
In this part of the meeting we will have a discussion on the Defence Forces strategy statement for the period 2017 to 2020 with Mr. Maurice Quinn, Secretary General of the Department of Defence, who is accompanied by Mr. Des Dowling and Mr. Cathal Duffy. They are all very welcome. Committee members welcome the opportunity to discuss the development of the Department's strategy and other relevant matters. We will hear the opening statement which will be followed by a question and answer session with members.
I remind members, delegates and those in the Visitors Gallery of the need to ensure mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference, even when left in silent mode, with the recording equipment.
I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or a body outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I call on Mr. Quinn to make his opening statement.
Mr. Maurice Quinn:
I very much welcome the opportunity to engage with the joint committee on the development of a new strategy statement for the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces for the period 2017 to 2020. With my colleagues, I look forward to gaining the insights of the committee in the preparation of the new strategy statement.
As committee members are aware, in accordance with section 4(1)(b) of the Public Service Management Act 1997, as Secretary General, I am required to submit a new strategy statement to the Minister within six months after the appointment of the new Minister to have charge of the Department. That work is under way. In keeping with the collaborative approach outlined in A Programme for a Partnership Government and consistent with the approach taken to preparing the existing strategy statement for the period 2016 to 2019, I again wrote to seek the views of the committee.
The current strategy statement was approved by the then Taoiseach and Minister for Defence in November last year. It followed a lengthy and comprehensive process of consultation with stakeholders.
For this reason, the Minister approved our proposal to follow broadly the structure of the current version for the new strategy statement. The committee has been provided with a copy of the current statement, a briefing note and a copy of the White Paper on Defence. The current strategy statement establishes the high level goal of the defence organisation as to provide for the military defence of the State, contribute to national and international peace and security and fulfil all other roles assigned by Government. This high level goal comprises three broad strategic dimensions: defence policy, ensuring the capacity to deliver and defence forces operational outputs. Under each, a number of strategic goals are identified which in turn lead to priority objectives and actions.
The Department has a civil-military structure and under the direction of the Minister, responsibility for implementation falls to both military and civil branches. Implementation is overseen by the high level, joint civil-military strategic management committee on a continuous basis. This civil-military approach ensures that both civil and military business planning follows a shared view of the strategic goals, objectives and actions. Our combined aim is to ensure that the requirements of Government across all roles assigned are met.
As members of the joint committee will be aware, in August 2015 the White Paper on Defence was published. This provides the policy framework for the period up to 2025. The White Paper is developmental in nature. The White Paper, the programme for Government and the available resource envelope will once again drive the identification of priorities over the three-year period covered by the new strategy statement. The policy framework set out in the White Paper is flexible and responsive given the dynamic nature of the security environment. It sets out the roles assigned to the Defence Forces as approved by Government. As well as providing for the defence of the State from armed aggression, the roles assigned include: continued provision of supports to An Garda Síochána; the defence contribution to international peace and security; and the defence contribution to major emergencies and civil contingencies. These non-security supports maximise the utility to the State of defence assets and improve the value for money achieved from defence expenditure.
A key feature of the White Paper is the geopolitical and domestic security environment assessment. This provided the basis for the defence policy response and other policy requirements that are set out and which, in turn, led to the consolidation of those requirements into revised roles for both the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve Defence Force.
Human resources are the key component of capability. The White Paper sets out an ambitious programme aimed at ensuring that the defence organisation can continue to meet the challenges of a changing world. We face HR challenges, similar to other areas of the public service, in recruitment and retention of personnel. Military personnel have a skillset that is very attractive to prospective employers. We have challenges in recruitment to the Reserve Defence Force. Significant and prioritised military and civil work is under way across the full spectrum of HR matters.
On the equipment front, the immediate requirement is to fully support the Defence Forces in undertaking the tasks required of them. Major equipment platforms will be replaced over the life-time of the White Paper. Programmes well under way include the upgrade of the Army’s fleet of armoured personnel carriers, the Naval Service vessel replacement programme and the replacement of the Air Corps’ Cessna fleet.
There were 88 separate White Paper projects identified to be completed over a ten-year period. A joint civil military White Paper implementation facilitation team was established to support and monitor progress. To date, 36 projects have been initiated and are at various stages of development. Projects were prioritised taking account of the Programme for a Partnership Government, existing workloads, available resources, linkages identified during the project planning phase and initiatives that were already under way.
The White Paper introduced a new process of fixed cycle defence reviews to occur at three-year and six-year intervals. I can confirm that the first such review will be commenced by the Department in July 2018 with a White Paper update and this will include a review of the geopolitical and domestic security environment. The intention is to remain adaptable and to focus on Ireland's participation in the collective response to emerging challenges to our security.
Our commitment to the relationship with veterans’ policies, the Defence Forces representative associations and partnership will be restated in the statement. The development of the important contribution of Civil Defence and of the Office of Emergency Planning will be included.
The strategy statement will recognise that there are important cross-departmental dimensions to the work of defence. Meeting our goals and objectives is often critically dependent on the inputs and co-operation of other Departments and State agencies and vice versa. Department officials and Defence Forces personnel are represented on a number of interdepartmental groups and committees which consider a range of cross-cutting issues that impact on Government. The importance of whole-of-Government approaches to the security of the State will again be pursued. We will continue to collaborate with a range of Departments and agencies that have security responsibilities as well as the newly-established Cabinet committee F and the Government task force on emergency planning. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will continue as a key strategic partner, with which we have a close and effective working relationship in areas such as UN peacekeeping, Common Security and Defence Policy, international security policy, disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control and sustainable development.
As always, the new draft will be produced through civil-military collaboration. While I am statutorily required to submit a strategy statement to the Minister, I will as always proceed on the basis of having an agreed approach with the Chief of Staff on the content of my proposals. Furthermore, the Defence Forces representative associations have also been invited to contribute to the process and we look forward to receiving their views.
I thank Mr. Quinn. Mr. Quinn mentioned significant, prioritised military and civil work is under way across the full spectrum of human resources matters. I know from engaging with a lot of people, many of whom are former Permanent Defence Force members in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, that it is an issue of considerable concern. In 2016 and 2017, the Defence Forces representative organisations sought changes to the industrial relations structures of their representation and to the Defence Forces conciliation and arbitration scheme. There are changes needed there. The different representative organisations have been seeking changes. Are changes similar to what is proposed for the representative organisations for members of An Garda Síochána proposed? There are some changes proposed for those particular organisations.
Before I bring in other members, I want to refer to an issue that has been raised with me at local level. A University of Limerick focus group report on the Defence Forces was carried out earlier this year. Has anything been done to address the issues and negative findings that emerged from that report? The Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, committed some time ago to meeting the representative associations in September this year. Has that meeting happened? If not, how soon is it planned?
I will bring in Senator Daly and then Senator Lawless.
I thank the Secretary General for coming into the committee and for his presentation. I have a number of specific questions, the most important of which is that the issue of neutrality is not mentioned in the presentation or in what I can see in the information we have here. In a previous strategy document, we had to fight for it to be mentioned. If the Government is going to drop the idea of Ireland being a neutral country and declaring it in policy paper after policy paper, we should have that discussion. What seems to be happening is that military neutrality is being dropped as a policy by stealth and by just not mentioning it. Will Mr. Quinn outline that? Will he give a commitment that the strategy statement will include neutrality somewhere in its pages?
I was the one who asked for this session because we received correspondence and were asked to make a submission within a matter of days of the closing date. I know these things happen. The Secretary General outlined the process and that he has to do this within six months of a new Minister being appointed. As soon as there is a new Minister in place, Mr. Quinn might write to the committee to say he is obliged to do this and then come before us to talk to us about our concerns.
We have concerns, which are shared by Mr. Quinn, about the ongoing issue of personnel and recruiting personnel in an economy that will, it is hoped, reach full employment and what we can do to hold on to key personnel. When extra payments to pilots are cut, it means that there are more attractive opportunities for them in private enterprise.
There were reports of the British Army giving us second-hand equipment. Will Mr. Quinn clarify that? In respect of training at The Curragh for peacekeeping, I am concerned that we would get second-hand equipment for our troops from anybody. Getting second-hand equipment is not ideal. I know we invest a huge amount in equipment in terms of armoured personnel and the equipment our troops wear for their personal protection on peacekeeping duties and rightly so. Will Mr. Quinn outline the reports around that?
Are there any plans regarding getting aircraft, such as multipurpose helicopters, that would be able to provide security in our airspace? What is the real story behind the ongoing controversy about who knew what and when regarding the right of or invitation to air forces from the UK to come into Irish airspace in a case of a 9-11 situation where an aircraft has been hijacked that the UK air force believed might be a security threat to it?
I thank the Secretary General for appearing before us today. The Chairman asked a couple of the questions I wanted to ask about the University of Limerick focus group report and whether any action is being taken regarding that report. Has the Minister met, as committed, the representative associations? Has the Department responded to requests from Defence Forces associations to review the national industrial relations structure and the internal Defence Forces conciliation and arbitration scheme?
Mr. Maurice Quinn:
I will address Senator Daly's point on the timing. Our intent was to have the engagement, as we tried the last time. We are here now. We will watch the timing in future. The intent is to have the conversation rather than truncate it, and we are open to that.
Following the structure in the strategy statement, the question on neutrality is a policy one. That is our first strategic context. The other one regarding human resources and the climate survey is in our second one, the capacity to deliver. If it is okay with the Chairman, I will take them in that order. The policy position on neutrality is set out in chapter 3 of the White Paper on defence, which picks up on the global strategy put out by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as well. In the round, the purpose of the strategy statement is to drive action and implementation. We want to get into key performance indicators in order that they drive the business planning and so on. It is the outcome and output stuff we are really after, which is why we do not pick one or other policy and restate policies, particularly in the strategy statement. However, I understand the point the Senator is making about neutrality.
The conciliation and arbitration scheme, along with all public service conciliation and arbitration schemes, has come through the period of austerity and faced challenges during that time. We have had an observer at the review that was carried out and the report that was published into the conciliation and arbitration scheme in An Garda Síochána regarding access to the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court. I can confirm that the Minister has announced that, by the end of the year, we will be undertaking a review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme in the defence family. It has been there since the early 1990s. It was a sea change in the way industrial relations were conducted within defence and, in my opinion, it brought many benefits to the members of the Defence Forces and the Defences Forces as an organisation in terms of how it has improved over time. However, we have been through a difficult time. It is timely and we will have the terms of reference for the review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme ready shortly. The review will be launched by the end of the year. Work is under way on that one. It will be one of our actions arising from the strategy statement.
I will set out the context for the climate survey. It arose out of the independent monitoring group, which went back over 12 years and was a concerted effort by the Department and our military colleagues to address interpersonal relations, bullying and harassment within the Defence Forces, so it has a wider remit than industrial relations and conciliation and arbitration. It is important to note that this is what that grew out of and that we do not lose sight of the underlying motivation for it. The climate survey surveyed 10% or so of members of the Defence Forces and has raised challenges across a range of areas. Obviously, pay is one challenge but there are a range of others in the areas of communications, leadership and so forth. Based on our contacts with the Chief of Staff, I know that a significant amount of work has been undertaken within and by the military authorities in consultation with PDFORRA and the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, in terms of the response to the climate survey and the actions taken on foot of that. In respect of the Minister's point of view, I do not know the exact date but I know that there is a date in the diary for meeting the representative associations on the follow-up to the climate survey - the commitment given by the Minister. I can confirm that separately.
There is no single response to the climate survey. It covers a range of the actions that are happening in human resources such as recruitment, retention, our contact with the representative associations and the changes we are making in recruitment and so on. One thing that is driving things on our side is the fact that many individual issues came up such as the contracts for soldiers, what are known as the post-1994 contract soldiers. There were a range of issues. What it comes down to is having effective workforce planning for the Defence Forces into the future. A lot of work is ongoing, both civil and military, to ensure that those White Paper projects that deal with human resources capture and put our arms around workforce planning. That is about analysing the gaps that are there and how best to fill them in order that we have a more coherent plan going forward. That is quite a long-winded way of saying all that feeds into the response to the climate survey. It is all about achieving excellence and ensuring the Defence Forces continue to be an employer of choice for young people.
The last second-hand equipment we bought consisted of the LÉ Ciaraand the LÉ Orlaand that was many years ago. I am not aware of us procuring anything second-hand from the UK. We put a lot of work into ensuring that the Defence Forces have the best kit that supports what they need to do. Members know that we have a major ongoing programme of procurement for the Defence Forces, including aircraft, the ships programme and updating the armoured personnel carriers for use overseas. That is the high-level stuff. There is a range of more detailed stuff beneath that. If there is anything, I can come back to the Senator regarding the recent procurement of second-hand equipment.
I am limited in what I can say about airspace.
What I can say is that the provision of intercepting jets or jets for Ireland was one of the issues that was considered when we were doing the White Paper. The cost versus the benefits that could be achieved were such that it is something that we are committed to coming back to in due course.
With regard to overflights, the lead on that is with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is not appropriate for me to comment on that here.
I seek a commitment. The document speaks of an EU global strategy on foreign security policy and peacekeeping, but it is important that any strategy, even in the introduction, would mention neutrality. Could Mr. Quinn give us a commitment that neutrality will be included in the Department's paper?
That is okay. That is all Mr. Quinn can do.
I thank Mr. Quinn for clarifying the issue of the second-hand equipment because there was a newspaper report on that, and the protocols around the incursion. I understand the latter. Every other European country has some form of interceptor jets. I would agree the Irish people would abhor spending €50 million or €100 million on jets that would have no real value in the long run. However, some form of multi-purpose helicopter, more often used for civilian assistance and rescue and patient transfer, would probably be something that we and the public and could support. No other European country relies on its neighbour to provide protection in the event of an attack of the nature we have seen in other jurisdictions. It is something that needs to be addressed in the long run.
I thank Mr. Quinn for coming before the committee. There are a number of issues.
It is important that we engage as early as possible in any of the plans around the Defence Forces. I have greater engagement with the Defence Forces since being made defence spokesperson in this Dáil and that has led to me raising major concerns about issues such as health and safety, and pay and conditions, in particular, capacity. On some of those, I will not exercise as fully as I have in the Chamber.
I will concentrate on a number of points. One I was going to raise has already been raised by Senator Daly is that neutrality should be reflected in the document.
The second point on that issue of neutrality is that there seems to be a clamour to get the Defence Forces involved in operations overseas which are dubious in terms of Ireland's neutrality. I have had the argument around Operation Sophia and other operations. The point I want to raise on this aspect is that in the past, the EU was prevented from going as far as it intended because the British, for their own selfish reasons, did not want the EU to develop its EU army capacity. With the British now involved in Brexit, if the State wants an ally - even though for their own and totally different reasons to ours because they wanted to enhance NATO - that bulwark is gone. Does Mr. Quinn expect that the Defence Forces or the State will come under more pressure to accede to that agenda than we have seen in recent times?
Another point Mr. Quinn was asked about was procurement. Over the years I have raised the issue of the purchasing of military goods from countries which are not ethical. In this instance, I refer to Israel and the purchase of drones from Israel. Over the past ten years, we have purchased up to €16 million worth of equipment from Israel. There needs to be some mechanism to prevent the importation of material which is being sold as war tested. The war that they refer to in terms of those drones is where they attacked civilians in Gaza and elsewhere, and here we have the Defence Forces purchasing such equipment. Surely there has to be somewhere in the world where we can purchase the drones which we are only starting to develop as an arm in the Defence Forces other than those who are clearly breaching every EU trade agreement rule. Just because the EU will not enforce that, it does not mean that we should accede to the EU cowardice on this issue.
A key element of a strategy for the Defence Forces that I am impressed with are the tables on the operations as an aid to the civil power. The support from the Irish public lends a lot to those operations which are carried out. For the Defence Forces to grow in the future, there needs to be even greater co-operation in using the military for such operations, such as inter-hospital transfers for operations and assistance in severe weather. I would expect a greater more urgent response. For instance, I note there were issues recently with deployment to Donegal. There was a delay while different people decided who was insuring whom. If that can be dealt with in advance so that there is not any delay, upon a severe weather occurrence and the chaos that entails, the Army can be in situas quick as any other of the services.
Something that has caused major concern is the capacity of the Air Corps to respond to air search and rescue missions. We saw the tragic events with the helicopter Rescue 116. In particular, with the inter-hospital transfers, a children's hospital was told late last year that there would no longer be a guarantee of transfers for organ transplants to England. What steps have been taken to address that and when will the issues, in terms of lack of personnel, be realised? The Defence Forces need personnel to be trained and there are personnel leaving the Defence Forces in greater numbers than before. When will that gap be plugged?
I might come back on one or two other issues. Finally, I refer to the loss of personnel. Among many of those who have left, the pay and conditions is a reason that is being given.
I know that another round of recruitment was announced either this week or last. It seems that there is a desire out there to join the Defence Forces but that the numbers shrink by the time candidates get through the various checks and balances, training and medical tests, and then further shrink once recruits start living the life of a soldier or sailor. We are losing many so there needs to be a greater concentration on retaining both those currently in and those in the process of joining the Defence Forces. Otherwise we will have severe capacity problems and will not even be able to fulfil our laudable UN and other overseas missions.
We have just been listening to Irish Aid and hearing about the various programmes it has around the world. We know that we in Ireland have a very considerable reputation when it comes to humanitarian engagement and peacekeeping. I share the concerns of my colleagues over Irish neutrality, however. Reading the strategy statement and looking in particular at the section under "Partnership for Peace" concerning military capabilities, I find that the concepts of "peace" and "military" do not sit easily together. I know that we want to live in a conflict-free environment and everybody should be able to do so. Despite what both the witnesses here today and the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, have said, there are concerns that there is a constant undermining and picking away at our neutrality and that before we know it we could end up in a situation that is completely at odds with it.
Perhaps the witnesses could give an update on what is happening in the Mediterranean. We had a lengthy debate on this in the Dáil at one stage and many of us expressed our concerns on the changes there. Perhaps they could also tell me when the Western Sahara engagement took place. Is there an Irish presence in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the various UN groups there? Finally, some of us were in Georgia recently and saw the value of the mission there along the border with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the support that mission was giving to the people living in those border areas. These people had direct contact with the mission - we met an Irish person with a military background who involved there - and we really saw the benefit in that particular situation. Ireland's reputation is so important and respected and I do not want to see it undermined by our being absorbed into other operations where we will not be able to maintain it.
I would like to note very positively the fact that the human rights and equality duty has been highlighted in the draft strategy. That is something that all Departments and public bodies should place at the centre of their work. I will touch on some of the same concerns raised by my colleagues here, but I would like some more specific detail in the responses to some of them. Neutrality is not simply another policy. It is, first of all, the context in which Ireland operates and has operated for a very long time. It is also the current policy. There is a very serious concern here, however. I note in the strategy the line stating that "the intention is to remain adaptable and to focus on Ireland's participation in the collective response to emerging challenges to our security." It would not be appropriate for a strategy to simply anticipate that there may or may not be neutrality. We have had recent statements from the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade reiterating Irish neutrality. Neutrality is the policy within which the Department is producing this strategy and should be at its centre, and not simply mentioned in the introduction. I would go a bit further than Senator Daly in this regard.
It has never been more crucial that we tease out how Irish neutrality, as our current, stated form fits with a number of specific areas. I will outline three or four areas where this needs to be addressed. The first is how Ireland's neutrality and Ireland's Defence Forces link with peace-building. This is very important. Europe and Ireland must both remember that peace-building is not the same as securitisation. It would be very useful if reference could be included in the strategy, not only to the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but also to detail on how the Defence Forces want to support Ireland's peace-building role: nuclear non-proliferation, for example; our background in cluster munitions; that body of peace-building work that Ireland has done in the world. How does the Department support this in practical terms? What safeguards are in place to ensure that no actions of the Irish Defence Forces will in any way compromise Ireland's international work in active peace-building, with regard to UN Security Council Resolution 1325, for example?
There are specific areas where I believe due rigour needs to be taken and I would like to know what practical measures are in place and how might they be reflected. Ireland has moved from an observer status to now taking up the chair of the European Union military committee. This is obviously a great honour for Ireland but it is also a very serious responsibility in terms of our neutrality. We previously had observer status because our neutrality was recognised as a concern. How do we now mind that role? In this new role Ireland will be advising Federica Mogherini, the EU Foreign Policy Chief, who, it has been widely been reported, has been looking at proposals for an EU military structure that might act autonomously from NATO. There is a tension there that needs to be addressed. I would like to know how it will be addressed and how Ireland will maintain that role. There is also the question of the EU weapon fund, specifically in the context of a push for European militarisation, and the question of EU battlegroups. These are all issues that will need more rather than less attention and slippage if we take on a senior role like this. Operation Sophia has been mentioned. The Minister stated in his speech recently that Ireland would not take part in aspects of Operation Sophia that lay outside of the UN mandate. Should we be involved in Operation Sophia at all if it takes part in such actions? Is it appropriate? There is a question over what Ireland should do if actions take place in breach of that mandate.
Points have also been raised on the question of equipment. Ireland's purchases of military hardware and weaponry from Israel are a matter of concern. I have a further concern over our support for the military hardware industry and was very concerned to read in the Cork newspapers this weekend, for example, of the involvement of the Irish Naval Service in the testing and thus effectively the promotion of military equipment. Perhaps the witnesses might clarify whether or not we have control over where that equipment in sold and whether it is used in situations outside of the triple-lock mandate; I imagine that we do not. Is it appropriate that we be addressing our resources towards a private company's manufacture of equipment in that way? These are some of my central concerns. I also think that concerns over the mandate of the British army need to be addressed. If we have a strategy then we need to know, not just that it will be responsive, but that it recognises the key concerns and dangers currently facing us in 2017 and indicates how Ireland hopes to address them.
Mr. Maurice Quinn:
The best way to start my response is to state that Ireland's policy is that of effective multilateralism. That means participating in the international community to the greatest extent possible, both as part of our obligations to that international community and also for our own national purposes. With regard to developments in the European Union, work in that field is all carried out under the direction of the Heads of State and Government in the European Council and within the context of the Lisbon treaty. There are many conversations taking place at present about the changed security dynamic in the European neighbourhood and within the European Union, and the effect that this is having on security and defence perspectives within the EU. We are working with both our defence and military staff and with our foreign affairs colleagues in Europe to present the Irish position on this.
Everything we do is within the scope of the treaties but there is no doubt that there is a greater focus on security and defence in the European Union and that we are participating in the conversations in that regard. To the extent that we can, we frame those in a way which recognises national positions, including our policy of military neutrality, and the positions of others. It is a fact that there is a major overlap in membership between the EU and NATO and that there is a major focus from other countries on ensuring there is no duplication between the two. Most countries have only one set of military personnel for use on all fronts. We are comfortable with the nature of the relationship between the EU and NATO because it respects the principles and separate decision-making autonomy of both bodies. That is what is moving on there.
On our participation, I will go back to one point of detail. The European Union Military Committee was established, I think, in 2002 and Ireland has been a member from day 1.
Mr. Maurice Quinn:
No. Just to confirm, if I get the right treaty amendment - it has just slipped my mind. We have participated very actively in the Common Security and Defence Policy of the European Union from day 1. It all takes place within the context of the UN charter. It improves our capacity to participate in peacekeeping missions and adds to the security of the European neighbourhood, thereby impacting positively back into the security of the European Union. There is a range of structures around the Common Security and Defence Policy, including the External Action Service, the Military Committee and the military staff, but it is important to point out that when one looks at what the European Union is doing, it has what is called "the comprehensive approach". This is the whole range of capabilities the European Union can deploy from aid to diplomacy, finances and military and civil emergency capability. All of those are part of the capabilities available to the European Union to deploy. The military is one of those and we are aware of the missions the European Union has deployed on. We have participated proudly on all of those bar one and we work within the policy parameters set down by the Government to fulfil our obligations to the European Union in that regard.
That leads on to Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan's point around interaction with other militaries. We talk internally about being a partner of choice when we are participating in overseas missions. We will never deploy alone because we are not big enough. We will always deploy with others. It is very important that our colleagues in the Defence Forces can interact closely with those with whom they are deployed. Their safety depends on it as well as the efficacy of the mission. It comes down to very small things such as whether the wheel nuts on a truck can be used or a nozzle fitting and it goes right up to the use of ammunition, doctrine and communications.
When we are deployed with Estonians and Finns in southern Lebanon, we must be as close as we can possibly be to work with them. Partnership for Peace is a very important part of achieving that. Some of the work that is going on in the European Defence Agency is an important part of that also. It is very hard to separate our participation in peacekeeping missions from having the capacity to participate effectively in those by being interoperable with others and engaging with them. That is a key point of the business and the way we go forward in what we do.
There are no Irish Defence Forces personnel deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. I might have to come back to the committee on the detail of the Western Sahara MINURSO mission. It is a long-standing UN mission and there are three Defence Forces members in Western Sahara at the moment. All of our missions are kept under review on an ongoing basis and I can get the committee more detail should members wish to have it. A ship is due to depart tomorrow to participate in Operation Sophia and it will hopefully be on station by the following Friday. It is a proud day for the Naval Service as this is its first time participating in a UN-mandated mission. We wish them well with that. The point about Operation Sophia is that there are stages to the mandate. As with all military participation in peacekeeping missions, nations put in caveats as to what they will and will not do, some of which is down to national policy. Because of the triple lock, we will not participate in any part of the mission which is not covered by the UN mandate. That is not unusual for us. In any event, the third part of Operation Sophia has not been activated. It is part of feet-on-the-ground in Libya. I can come back to the committee on the detail of that. We are participating on the high seas and it is all within the UN mandate set out for the mission.
I am bouncing around a bit but I turn to the purchase of equipment from Israel. Members will be aware that our task is to ensure we get the best kit for our colleagues within the Defence Forces. There is a principle which governs the way we do that, which applies to all of government, namely, the tendering process. We have to deal impartially with all of the companies which are entitled to enter into procurement competitions. We have to work on that basis. Barring Israeli companies from entering tendering competitions for the provision of military goods would be akin to Ireland unilaterally placing an embargo on such goods from Israel. This would be a foreign policy matter and outside the remit of the Department of Defence. We work according to Government procurement rules and the EU procurement rules. Israel is not precluded from tendering within Europe, not just in relation to defence equipment, but more widely.
Members will be well aware of the challenges we have in the Air Corps. We had a problem with pilots for some considerable period of time. They get fantastic training and they are really good people who are very attractive to outside employers. With the pension arrangements in place, we have had a bleed of pilots over a long period of time. On top of that, we had the air traffic controller situation as a result of other employers coming on the scene. Comprehensive work is in place to get the Air Corps back up to full capacity. Members will be aware that we made a very strong submission to the public service pay commission on pay for pilots and air traffic controllers. The commission's report recognises that there are specific issues in defence and refers to pilots. That is where we hope to address them quite soon. We will get behind the issue of how to retain our pilots.
We have four air traffic controllers in training currently with up to eight more in line for training. The aim is to get back up to full speed gradually, albeit I cannot provide an exact timeline for the committee. It is a function of the amount of work going on in the Air Corps, but we aim to be back on schedule with air traffic controllers in the Air Corps during 2018. I note that this afternoon five new pilots will be commissioned into the Air Corps. The challenge is that they are young pilots and they have to develop their experience while we are losing more experienced personnel. The challenge is to keep the experienced people. The Minister has told us to look at the potential for re-entry, whereby pilots, in particular, who have left may wish to return. We have been asked to find a way to take them back because of their skills and experience. The other avenue is direct entry whereby we might be able to take in people who became pilots by other means. We are looking at everything we can to keep and recruit pilots.
We are working very closely with the Department of Health on the restrictions on the Air Corps and their impact on inter-hospital transfer to ensure that patients can be got to the UK. There were two out-of-hours emergency transfers in the last couple of weeks, which the Air Corps managed to carry out. However, the challenge is that the Air Corps needs its experienced people to train up air traffic controllers and pilots. If we expect those people to be on-call from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., they will not be available during the day for training. As such, we need a bit of space.
That is why it is a moveable target in terms of getting everybody up and running next year. We need a bit of space to get that done. We are working very closely with the Department of Health and HIQA on the means by which that service can be provided. It was always the intention that the Coast Guard would be a backup and that the private sector would be a backup. We were never a dedicated service for transfers; it was always on an as-available basis. That would mean we would have available an aircraft, a crew and air traffic controllers. That out-of-hours availability is certainly quite significantly reduced at the moment.
I wish to follow up on some issues, which were also mentioned by Deputy Ó Snodaigh. The Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, has repeatedly stated that the loss of highly skilled personnel is as a result of their skills being much sought after in the private sector. I believe the Taoiseach also referred to that recently. I know from my interaction with members of the Permanent Defence Force at local level that morale is low. Unfortunately that is a key ingredient in losing people. Based on the timetables of some personnel that I have seen, the work-life balance is not sustainable. Some personnel have excessive duties. Whenever the issue of the 9,500 that are needed and that are not there at the moment is raised in the Dáil or elsewhere with the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, he continually refers to the huge numbers seeking to join the Permanent Defence Force. I understand that very large numbers are applying online to join. There are sequential tests in process in the recruitment campaign. By the final stage of recruitment the numbers vary very significantly from the numbers that initially applied.
The submission by the Department of Defence to the Public Service Pay Commission mentioned retention issues; I believe the Department badly needs a retention policy. The Permanent Defence Force has key highly trained specialists whose skill sets were hard earned at considerable cost. The State is losing those people. We need a policy to retain those people. It is not just the attraction of the private sector. In many instances the private sector may not have all the great benefits we hear about times. The public service is also a good employer overall. Morale is very low in the Permanent Defence Force.
As other members will have heard me say often, we are all very influenced by where we come from. I have the privilege of representing a constituency comprising two south Ulster counties where we had a long Army tradition until, unfortunately, Dún Uí Néill Barracks was closed a number of years ago. We will not go back on that, but it was a terrible decision. We no longer have an Army barracks between Finner in south Donegal and Frank Aiken Barracks in Dundalk. Unfortunately the Border narrative is coming back again in our country. I had thought that had been removed from our psychology after 1998. As a person who lives in a Border community and has the privilege of representing two Border counties, we need to factor in that border controls may again be imposed on our island - although we sincerely hope that will not happen.
We badly need a retention policy to retain those highly skilled, competent and dedicated people. Deputy Ó Snodaigh and others referred to the concerns everybody has over the Air Corps personnel. Unfortunately, we had the terrible tragedy of the loss of Rescue 116 off the Erris coast. We discussed that matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, during oral questions in the Dáil.
The Department of Defence's capital review refers to €28 million transferred from pay to capital. The Minister of State will claim that the number of personnel is at approximately 9,500; I understand it is at 9,000. Are we being given the true figures for the number of people who may be doing further training, people who may be seconded or people who may be out on sick leave? At any time how many are available to carry out their duties?
I put the following point to the Secretary General and it should be put to the Minister of State and the Government. Why should €28 million be transferred from pay to capital? We have an inadequate number in the Permanent Defence Force and obviously the pay and conditions are not satisfactory. That €28 million was used on new ships for the Naval Service. None of us disagrees with upgrading the fleet. We all appreciate the good work being done by Naval Service personnel in the Mediterranean. On numerous occasions members of the committee have paid tribute to the personnel. We take pride in the fact that Irish people were able to rescue people in the most terrible circumstances.
We cannot justify the transfer of €28 million from pay to capital. If the Government decides on a capital programme for fleet replacement, it is up to the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform, and Defence to fund it and not to rob the payroll budget. Based on my interaction at local level with serving of the Permanent Defence Force and also with retired members, who still take great pride in our Defence Forces, I would say that morale is very low and it needs to be improved. I hope that the robbing of the payroll budget will not recur.
There are a number of issues. The example of the Air Corps is the one of which most people are aware. There are problems in ordnance, engineering and other sections of the Defence Forces which are losing personnel. The Defence Forces as a whole are under-strength. The Reserve is another example and is well below its intended strength. Even with the current recruitment and the one announced last week it is just running to stand still. Part of the Secretary General's job, and our job as well, is to make the Defence Forces attractive to encourage people to join it. Concerns about pay and conditions, stories about soldiers sleeping in cars and sailors sleeping on board because they cannot afford onshore accommodation make it unattractive. The new fleet and new equipment help to make it attractive. Laudable overseas operations such as the Naval Service's involvement in Operation Pontus encourage people as does all the other aid to the civil power mentioned in the Department's strategy document.
The disputes with PDFORRA or RACO are also a contributing factor. Representative organisations feel they cannot fully engage and are not properly recognised. There has not been proper heed of the European Court of Justice judgment on recognition of police force and army representative associations akin to trade union status. We still await any significant movement on that. That makes it attractive because people joining know they will have some protections for their pay and conditions when not on active service.
In the past year we saw some major movement in the restoration or at least some recognition of allowances for members of An Garda Síochána and for nurses. The same type of movement has not happened for those in the Defence Forces; that needs to be accelerated.
Looking from the outside in, part of the problem with the Air Corps is that pilots are trained on the wrong planes. If they are trained to be Cessna pilots, of course they are going to be attracted to the private sector. If they were trained on purely military equipment, their skills would not be as flexible. Considering we have very little use for a Cessna, why is our Air Corps training on one and using other equipment which does not have a military function in the way the likes of helicopters would?
Do the witnesses expect us to be further ahead at the end of the next recruitment drive? This week, PDFORRA said that up to 3,000 members have retired early in the last five years. That is a huge figure. In the recruitment process, if those who have expressed an interest are whittled down to several hundred as is envisaged, there is going to be a bigger problem for us in the years to come.
It is very important to be clear that the policies of effective multilateralism and military neutrality are both in force. There is not a hierarchy placing one above the other. They are complementary policies that work very closely together. Ireland's policy on military neutrality allowed it to play a key and effective role in pressing for multilateral initiatives on disarmament and in driving forward other peace-building initiatives globally, work of which we are very proud. Even at this late stage, it would be very useful if the strategy was able to illustrate the complementary relationship between those two imperatives.
Operation Sophia was mentioned. It may not be possible to answer some of my questions today but I would appreciate if we could get a written answer subsequently. Everyone is extraordinarily proud of the work Irish ships have done in the Mediterranean, which led to the saving of 17,500 lives with one Irish vessel in action at any given time. Under the previous EU mission, an average of five ships in action at any given time saved a total of 34,200 or so lives. There is a concern that, on its own, Ireland has been two or three times more effective than the EU ships in terms of the saving of lives. It is very important that we monitor and check that engaging in Operation Sophia does not make us less effective in terms of humanitarian search and rescue. How will that be measured and tracked?
The Irish Navy seems to have been engaged in the testing and promotion of private companies' military equipment, the ultimate destination and usage of which is not known. That is a very serious concern. This is not suggest that Ireland is necessarily breaching anything. However, we have a special duty at this time.
The witness spoke at length about the EU treaties and the space within them. It might be important to clarify that the space for Ireland's military operation - what it can and cannot do - is not solely defined by the EU treaties but by the treaties and UN mandate - the places where they overlap. I am concerned that in some of their responses, the witnesses have said that the EU treaties permit this or do not permit that, or that they are confident something will not be outside the EU treaties. We also have serious obligations in terms of the UN. That is our check. When we talk about multilateralism, I am concerned that the specific relationship of Ireland with the UN and the dual mandate is not strongly visible within the strategy. It needs to be teased out. We have very different political and military mandates from our EU partners.
I strongly recommend that the strategy includes reference to how the work of the Defence Forces intersects with the work of peace-building and the guarding of appropriate good practice. Ireland is now calling on Europe and the world to pay attention to the peace-building process in Northern Ireland, as the Chairman very eloquently described. We have a very important situation there and know how important peace-building is. It is vital that we maintain our international credibility in that area. How is that being safeguarded?
Mr. Maurice Quinn:
I will start with the point about recruitment and retention. I agree that it is a priority to do whatever it takes to ensure that the Defence Forces can operate effectively. Part of that is morale, part of it is recruitment, and part is retention. It is a priority for me and for the Chief of Staff. Turnover in the military is universally higher than is the norm in the public service. That is part of the nature of the work and the career and, quite often, of the pension arrangements that are in place. That is one of the issues we have always addressed. The departures we have had for the last while are marginally higher. A trend can be seen over the years in the numbers leaving; they are impacted by the strength of the economy in which we are working.
The Deputy mentioned that a new recruitment campaign opened in the last week. There has been significant change. We are going to have two recruitment campaigns per year and will seek to dovetail them with the school-leaving period and things like that. There is a huge amount of work going on, which we will see coming through. I am also hopeful that a smoother flow of recruitment will free up resources to focus on getting more successful recruitment into the Reserve. We still have enough people applying to fill all the posts we have, but the overall numbers applying are falling. We certainly have enough people applying for the cadets and the enlisted personnel. We are working on making the recruitment process much smoother in terms of how we communicate with applicants to keep them with us so they are ready to go when we are ready to take them in. Our statistics on the numbers leaving include 20% who leave during initial training. That is one matter for discussion internally. People join and find early on, for whatever reason, that military life is not for them. That is a retention issue which we are looking at as well.
In terms of trying to get a positive message out about the Defence Forces and to address the morale issue, we know pay is only one of the factors. It is much bigger than that. The recent agreement we reached with the Department of Expenditure and Reform and PDFORRA has had a major impact on those recruited since 2013, with their starting pay at the end of training being around €27,000. With regard to the next public service pay round, that is for voting on by PDFORRA. We are certainly talking to them and were at their conference just this week. We will be meeting with them again next week on the issue of allowances and so forth. That is an ongoing conversation that we have with PDFORRA at the moment and hopefully we will be able to progress there.
On the timing of departures, we watch closely the profile of those who are leaving to see how it can feed back into our HR strategies.
An enormous amount of work has been done to try to increase the number of women joining the Defence Forces. We are still running at a rate of about 6%, but we need to increase the number applying in order to increase the number attested. We had a meeting during the week with a UK Minister. As the United Kingdom seems to be slightly ahead of us, we are going to talk to it about whether there are strategies it has used that we could apply. In fairness to the Defence Forces, the communications unit has done a considerable amount of work to reach out to try to get more women to join the Defence Forces.
With regard to having a work-life balance and the connection to pay, there is always an element of moving members of the Defence Forces to cover brigade areas. That is part and parcel of knowing and having an operational picture across the whole brigades area. There is work being done on the issue of having a work-life balance. A term used in the military is "harmony measures". An example is where a young recruit is located near home. It is a question of internal mobility and that kind of thing.
With regard to other measures to hold on to personnel, we are considering commissioning from the ranks in order that listed personnel can move into the commissioned ranks. The chief has been doing a huge amount of work on the issues of diversity and inclusion to address the level of female participation, etc. There is work under way in workforce planning, the modern term for manpower planning.
On the matter of specialists, including engineers, artificers in the Naval Service and pilots, our next step in part 2 is engagement with the Public Service Pay Commission. We are working with military colleagues to provide evidence of our experiences to determine how we can interact with them. It will very much be an evidence-based approach.
On the working time directive, the Minister made a commitment to PDFORRA at the conference this week. The background work has been completed and we are working closely with the Department of Justice and Equality and the other relevant Departments to have the regulation enacted.
The sum of €28 million is being taken from the pay budget. It is needed for pay. The personnel are needed and they obviously need to be remunerated adequately and to have adequate conditions. We need the numbers. Is the current strength of the Permanent Defence Force 9,000? The Department and successive Ministers always stated they did not want the number to decrease below 9,500. Am I accurate in saying that?
Mr. Maurice Quinn:
The Government has stabilised the establishment figure for the Defence Forces at 9,500. We are currently running in and around a figure of 9,000. There was a big intake of cadets in the past two weeks. I suspect that we are now at a figure of just over 9,000. We issue the numbers regularly, usually in response to parliamentary questions. An unusual feature is that, throughout the period of austerity, there was continuous recruitment to the Defence Forces. My understanding is it was the only part of the public service in which there was no interruption of recruitment. That is the level of commitment to increasing numbers. It is a fact that, to an extent, we have been standing still for the past couple of years in that the number leaving is matching the number coming in, which is a source of frustration. The key point for me, however, in terms of what is voted for us is that we have a pay budget for 9,500 personnel and all of the attendant allowances and marginal costs. It is really important that we keep that budget all the way along in order that when we do get to a figure of 9,500 personnel, we will be fully funded.
When it came to the ship replacement programme, we found ourselves with an excess on the pay side because we did not reach the target of 9,500 personnel. It seemed to us that, rather than surrender it, the most sensible thing to do was to use it to gain the best traction we could in our negotiations with the builder of the ship, such that we would get the best deal. We used the money on the capital side because we did not make it to the figure of 9,500 personnel. I really need to stress that we have always had and have the funds for 9,500 personnel, as the Minister has said consistently. Our ambition is to reach a figure of 9,500 personnel. I do not believe anybody could question the effort that has gone into recruitment and the numbers we have taken on. Considering the development we have had, whereby we are to opt for two recruitment campaigns per year, shorten the contact we have and get the fitness element running, I hope we will improve on the position during 2018.
Mr. Maurice Quinn:
There was a pilot retention payment. I believe it was used twice when the aviation industry was on the up and drawing personnel away from the Air Corps. That is one of the factors we will be bringing into our presentation in the next round with the Public Service Pay Commission. We are not the only ones in the public services who face these challenges.
I refer to skill sets. In some areas of the public service staff with knowledge of financial services are lost, for example. There are more people available for recruitment than pilots or specialist engineers. The force has a small pool to pick from or to retain. We cannot let services be disrupted. We all have an interest in ensuring the public service is able to deliver the services we expect and that we want to see delivered.
Mr. Maurice Quinn:
Every air force in the world is struggling with the same issue. I accept what the Deputy is saying, but the avenue by which I can make progress on it is the next round with the Public Service Pay Commission. It is a matter of explaining how long it takes to train a pilot, what we expect of pilots, etc.
On recruitment, I have not followed the most recent recruitment phases as closely as I probably should have. A number of people who fell outside the age bracket - one in particular - have contacted me during the years. They are graduates and fully skilled. It was a female in one case. Has there been any thought given to changing the cap considering that people are living longer and more active into their later years? Some 30 or 40 years ago a 50 year old might have been considered to be unable to carry out certain tasks within the Army whereas now, because of the change in lifestyles and the wealth of our society, 60 year olds could carry them out.
We must capture another situation. Many people, young people in particular, are staying longer in college. They seem to be but I might be wrong. When an opportunity arises to join the Defence Forces, they might be engaged already in something else but are willing to finish their course or whatever. The cap is either 28 or 29 years of age. I suggest the cap be moved to 21 or 22 years.
In terms of the cap at the other end, I suggest the retirement age be increased to retain people who have the corporate knowledge and skill set to train others. Not only would we not lose them by virtue of an arbitrary figure that we have put in place, it might also address some of the concerns some of the officers or even the enlisted men have in terms of their pensions. Such an initiative would also address the matter of maintaining a strength of 9,500 personnel. The change might be something that can be done quite quickly. It would address an immediate problem but not forever more. Once competition increases in terms of job opportunities, the key thing is to make the Defence Forces attractive, and not just in terms of pay because it is not always about pay. There is collegiality and everything else that goes with that.
Has the Secretary General seen a spike in interest since last year's commemorative events and the decade of commemorations? Has the number of applications increased? At the time there was huge support in communities for the Defence Forces and people were very impressed? Maybe people are too young now but they will apply to join in the future.
Two years ago there was a television programme called "Recruits". Can the programme be repeated? If so, it might help address the gap and improve recruitment. Many people from the Six Counties applied to join at one time. I do not know whether numbers have dropped. Many young men, in particular, from Belfast used to join. Some of them have joined of late, but I do not know the difference in terms of numbers.
Mr. Maurice Quinn:
In terms of the fantastic work that was done here during 2016, we watched closely. The amount of exposure that the Defence Forces had and the way they presented themselves and worked during that year, especially the visits to the schools, mean that one is a slow burner for the future. At the same time there was a downward movement in the number of applications because of the way the economy was picking up. It is hard to say which was which, to be honest, but we watched the matter. I am not aware of the proportion of applications that come from the Six Counties.
We watch and debate the age issue on an ongoing basis. It should always be remembered, and Deputy Ó Snodaigh probably saw it himself when he visited installations, that what we ask of an enlisted soldier is heavy work. Soldiers must lift heavy things and work in difficult environments. People can prolong their career if they progress through the ranks, and that is where that experience is kept. We have not yet got into looking at the overall retirement ages or structure. We do not propose to move the ages at present. It is part of our workforce planning out into the future. It is certainly something that we track and we track what is happening internationally as well with our military colleagues.
Mr. Maurice Quinn:
I have not forgotten the Senator. The following may sound like stating the obvious. When we deploy the Defence Forces on peacekeeping missions, particularly chapter 7 missions, there is potential for combat and we have suffered many casualties over the years. Obviously there is an indirect benefit to Ireland's foreign policy in terms the excellence with which our Defence Forces operate overseas. We are putting them into hostile environments and asking them to do a really difficult job. That is why they have weapons and that is why they do what they do. I know that sounds like a statement of the obvious.
Mr. Maurice Quinn:
The Senator made a point about peace building. One of the areas in which we think the Defence Forces can and do make a big contribution is security sector reform, especially in post-conflict resolution situations. Their main job is to be soldiers. We cannot get around the fact that that is their role.
With regard to the Naval Service, the policy, as espoused in the White Paper and the policy to which we are working, is that the Defence Forces interact with the third level sector and with industry. The benefit to us is early access to technology and the benefit to the company is a test bed of sorts. There are a couple of really good examples in the Naval Service which have worked very well. Again, there is nothing untoward. That is the policy we are working with at the moment.
As has been said, we attended the Defence and Security Equipment International, DSEI, fair that took place in the UK. Four or five Irish companies exhibited there. Many of the companies, as many as 25 or 26 different international companies, from whom we procure equipment were there as well. We really need to get out and see what is in the market to ensure we get the best procurement and best value for money for the Exchequer and taxpayers.
The presence of the Naval Service ship is an indicator of our long relationship and dates right back to the LÉ Niamh and LÉ Róisín. It was great to see the pride, particularly of the members of the Defence Forces who were on the ship and the way they could demonstrate their capabilities on the ship over there. That is the background.
I take the point that was made about multilateralism and neutrality. We just have to see how to capture the point. There are a whole range of policies that we in the Department of Defence work within when we engage in international missions and engage with the common security and defence policy, CSDP, in the EU.
In terms of Operation Sophia, we have always presented outcomes as we went along, and some of them were in press releases. We will continue to do so. That is my suggestion of the means by which we will track the impact of what they are doing when they are part of Operation Sophia in terms of the nature of the exercises or missions that they carry out while they are in theatre.
I thank Mr. Quinn. We have gone way over time but appreciate the engagement. I ask him and his colleagues to review their notes and the issues raised. If there are issues they did not respond to, we would appreciate if they would respond to the clerk and we will circulate replies to all members. We appreciate the attendance of the witnesses today and we will appreciate any follow-up responses that they think they need to send us. I thank the Secretary General, Mr. Quinn, and his two colleagues for their attendance and engagement with the committee here today.