Thursday, 11 July 2019
Public Service Pay Commission Report on the Permanent Defence Force: Statements
Aengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
I welcome the long-awaited report of the Public Service Pay Commission which examined the recruitment and retention issues in the Defence Forces. I also welcome the implementation plan which will deliver some benefits to some members of the Permanent Defence Force. I sought this debate because I felt that in the context of the report it was vital to have a discussion in the House on future of the Defence Forces.
Dár ndóigh, tá mé sásta go bhfuil fir agus mná Óglaigh na hÉireann íoctha i gceart, nó go bhfuil muid ag dul sa dtreo ceart ar a laghad, agus go bhfuil siad ag fáil aitheantas ceart ar an obair a dhéanann siad. Tá ualach breise tar éis a bheith orthu le blianta toisc an cruachás atá cothaithe ag an Aire Stáit agus an Roinn. Níor éist siad le fadhbanna na saighdiúirí agus a gclanna agus anois tá na saighdiúirí sin ag éalú chomh tapa agus is féidir leo as Óglaigh na hÉireann mar nach bhfuil siad sásta cuir suas leis an mbochtanas nó an easpa measa ón Aire Stáit agus an Roinn a thuilleadh. Tá aiféala orm nach ndéanfaidh na hathruithe beaga i bpá, nó na liúntais, go leor chun an taoide dóibh siúd atá ag fágáil Óglaigh na hÉireann a chasadh, ach tá súil orm go ndéanfaidh. Tá cruachás ann agus tá sé thar am don Aire Stáit aitheantas a thabhairt don chruachás sin agus obair a dhéanamh dá bharr.
The men and women of the Defence Forces are proud of the role they undertake in the service of the State and only ever expected that they would be appreciated in kind, to such a degree as to allow them to continue in that role. However, in recent years they have felt devalued and unappreciated, especially given their vital and often times dangerous role. Cuts to their wages and allowances, as well as extra duties and responsibilities, with no extra pay, made it more and more difficult for many to stay in their chosen career. Poverty drove many out of the Defence Forces. Their role in the public sector is totally different from that in other sectors. Their distinct role was recognised in the past but not of late when they have been expected to accept their lot without complaint, but the Government has abused their loyalty to the State. However, they reach breaking point when they cannot feed their family; when they are doing three jobs or working three shifts because others have left the Defence Forces; when they find the person near them can get overtime for doing guard duty in the Phoenix Park because he or she wears a different uniform and can go home at night but they cannot; when they are left stranded in the Middle East because of a bureaucratic fuck-up, not once but twice; when their voting papers are not delivered because of a bureaucratic cock-up; when they have to sleep in their car near the barracks to save money on petrol; when their partner has to apply for family income supplement to sustain the family and so much more.
Serving the country with pride and distinction, as the Taoiseach stated, is what the Defence Forces personnel wanted to do, and still want to do, but they cannot because they have eyes and are distracted by the chaos around them. The empty places in every rank means more duties, longer shifts, being tired and no additional income for them. A total of 34.7% left the Defence Forces between 2014 and 2018; 82% of those were premature voluntary retirements. There is a turnover rate in the Defence Forces of 9%. In England there is a crisis because it is at 5%. For the navy it is 14% and counting. There was an unprecedented rate of departures and discharges in the first four months of this year, when 256 personnel left. That continued into May and June and I am told the number is 90 this month.
When RACO surveyed its officers, 80% of those inducted from 2013, only six years ago, said they intend to leave well in advance of their too low retirement age. The Defence Forces strength is 672 below the establishment number of 9,500. The Army is short 334 personnel; the navy, 136, of which 25 are officers; the Air Corps, 138, of whom 45 are officers; and there is a 30% shortfall in pilot positions. The lack of air technicians threatens the ability to deliver for the State and for those in training in the Air Corps because they cannot train those coming up behind. The number of technicians and other personnel in the navy is so low that ships cannot put to sea. Three of the nine ships are out of service theLÉ Róisín, LÉ Orla, LÉ Eithne- and I am told the LÉ Ciaraand LÉ Niamhare scheduled to be out of service in September. That leaves four. The Minister of State's excuse of necessary maintenance has not stood up. Some of these are the best maintained ships in the world but having four out of a total of nine ships available is a crisis and it is not just a matter of getting recruits in or a matter of pay. Technicians who can do the work are needed and that takes years of training. Pilots, air traffic controllers and technicians are needed in the Air Corps, just to survive at the existing levels in the navy and the Air Corps.
Maintenance and refits being brought forward because the numbers are not available and the boats do not have full crews setting off. The Minister of State has said we would not have been able to take part in rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea again. They cannot even do the security work in our seas, dealing with incidents such as that at Rockall a few weeks ago, fisheries protection, drug smuggling and so on. The Air Corps cannot provide top cover transports for organ donations. There is a list of duties that the Defence Forces were able to carry out on behalf of the State and will not in the future. Unless the Minister of State halts and reverses the exodus, the sustainability of the Defence Forces is in question.
The Minister of State is losing people left, right and centre. I welcome the Public Service Pay Commission's report but it does not go far enough. PDFORRA has had to take the Minister of State and the Department to court to force delivery of awards for members. So much for respecting the men and women who are serving the State. Will the Minister of State engage with PDFORRA in a constructive manner rather than the adversarial way he has been doing so in the courts? Several legal actions could be short-circuited if he would engage with them through their representative organisations, and perhaps the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU. I do not know what stage that issue is at.
When will he conclude on the issue of the Defence Forces representative organisations' access to ICTU? When will he constructively deal with the other issues that have added to the low morale in the Defence Forces, caused by low pay and extra work? I accept there is no quick fix for the current difficulties and that is not only pay but conditions, promotion, overtime and compliance with the working time directive, housing, shifts, the increased rate of suicide within the Defence Forces, poverty, the use of Lariam and the denial of the poisoning of Air Corps personnel in the past and much more. The Defence Forces are not sustainable if this exodus continues.
If the Minister of State declared an emergency and performed public relations stunts every morning as the Taoiseach did when there was a storm coming, even he as the Minister for Defence might put on the hard hat and the high visibility jacket and say we have a crisis. We have a crisis if one in 12 members of the Defence Forces has left and continues to leave and where the Defence Forces are not sustainable. The Minister of State and the Department need to take this seriously and to act, otherwise there will be no Defence Forces, Army, navy or Air Corps. That is the scale of the crisis at the moment and we will see that in the next few months because I do not believe the actions he has taken through the Public Service Pay Commission are enough to stem the tide and he needs to act much more quickly to do that. Otherwise, he will be known as the Minister for no defence because there will be nothing left behind.