Thursday, 7 November 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Defence Forces Representative Organisations
10. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the progress being made in considering Defence Forces representative organisations' affiliation with a union (details supplied) as a means to address the interests of Defence Forces members in the future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45766/19]
We were caught in traffic this morning due to the rain. Will the Minister of State provide an update on the progress made in considering the Defence Forces representative organisations' affiliation with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, which has been discussed and is under review as a means to address the interests of members in the future? What are the Department's considerations in that regard?
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 10 together.
Section 2(3) of the Defence (Amendment) Act 1990 prohibits the Defence Forces representative associations from being associated with or affiliated to any trade union or any other body without the consent of the Minister. Members of the Permanent Defence Force also cannot become members of a trade union. To compensate for these limitations, a range of statutory redress mechanisms is available to serving members, including the redress of wrongs, an Ombudsman for the Defence Forces and a conciliation and arbitration scheme for members of the Defence Forces.
In 2017, the European Committee of Social Rights, in a non-binding ruling, upheld the prohibition of the right of military personnel to strike but concluded that Ireland was in violation of Article 5 of the European Social Charter on the grounds of the prohibition against military representative associations from joining national employee organisations and in respect of Article 6.2 of the charter regarding the right to bargain collectively.
It should be noted that the basis for this complaint predates a number of significant Government initiatives. With regard to collective bargaining, the Permanent Defence Force representative associations were afforded equal standing to other public sector trade unions and representative associations during the negotiations which led to the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020. The findings of the European Committee of Social Rights were considered as part of an independent review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme for members of the Permanent Defence Force, which was completed last year. One of the recommendations from that review was that the official side should, with the consent of the Minister, engage in discussions with ICTU to explore the practicalities of a PDF representative association forming association or affiliation with ICTU, while giving due consideration to any likely conflict that might arise between such an arrangement and the obligations of military service.
Association with ICTU poses complex questions for the Defence Forces from a legal, operational and management perspective. I asked my officials to examine this matter further and defence management, both civil and military, has engaged in discussions with ICTU. Defence management has met the Permanent Defence Force representative associations, the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers and the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association to discuss this matter. I have also discussed the matter of ICTU affiliation or association with RACO and PDFORRA. I am aware of PDFORRA's long-standing desire to affiliate with ICTU. I am also aware that RACO has a conflicting position on this matter. The implications of possible association or affiliation are being carefully considered.
I thank the Minister of State. The Public Sector Pay Commission report, which has now been accepted by the representative bodies, provides for a €10 million additional package for the Defence Forces. This is welcome but it is not a solution in itself. It will not fix the recruitment and retention issues, although it is an important step in the right direction. I recently visited the Curragh Camp with other members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence. Not only did we see the buildings in the Curragh Camp, we had meaningful engagement with key personnel, from privates through to colonels, including when senior management left the room and left the politicians with the troops. A number of issues arose. The review of pay is a key consideration. Even members who do not want to leave the Defence Forces referred to the extra stress and strain being placed on them as a result of the loss of personnel in their units. Affiliation with ICTU was also raised. While this is not something a soldier necessarily wants or desires, there was a recognition that something has to change.
In 2017, the European Committee of Social Rights considered a complaint submitted by the European Organisation of Military Associations and Trade Unions, EUROMIL, on behalf of PDFORRA, concerning the lack of certain rights for military representative associations in Ireland. I am acutely aware of everyone's concerns in this regard, including those of military management and RACO, and I am considering the matter. I am aware of the concerns of the Chief of Staff and I am engaging with him on this matter. I informed him I would speak to him before making any decision regarding the association of PDFORRA with ICTU. This is a sea change and I am being careful regarding any decision the Government will make. I am also aware of the comments made by ICTU officials at the PDFORRA annual delegate conference in this regard. We have to take into consideration the ruling in the EUROMIL case. All Members of the House voted in favour of a Private Members' motion tabled by Fianna Fáil which proposed to facilitate affiliation with ICTU. I supported the motion, as did Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and Independents.
I am aware of the concerns among general staff, including the concern raised by RACO that this approach would not be its first choice. ICTU has an opposing view and sees this as the right way to go. Ultimately, the public sector pay talks have failed personnel in the Defence Forces in the past. That is at the heart of whatever we decide to do. I do not think there is any fear of soldiers ever engaging in a green flu protest or striking. It is not in their nature or in the oath they take. When I say that there has been a failure in public sector pay talks, that is not a slight on the representative bodies. The structure is wrong. Some have suggested that we could have an independent pay review. That would again leave the Defence Forces outside the room when everybody else was talking, which would be a mistake. The idea of soldiers being treated the same as everybody else and being at the heart of the pay talks is key. Do other EU countries allow military personnel to have trade union status or affiliate to national trade union bodies? What is the experience of those countries? We should make such an international comparison before making a substantial decision on this issue.
There are other countries with associate and full membership. The Belgian Armed Forces have full trade union status. Belgium allows affiliation to national trade union bodies. Danish Defence has full trade union status but not the right to strike. Denmark allows affiliation to national trade union bodies. The Swedish Armed Forces have full trade union status. They have the right to strike but that right is curtailed in times of crisis. They are allowed to affiliate to national trade union bodies.
If the Defence Forces were to affiliate to trade unions, I would be totally opposed to them having a right to strike. Affiliation would be related to pay and having ICTU representation at the public service pay talks. We have to improve PDFORRA's and RACO's representation at the public service pay talks. They should be at the table with every other representative association. There are terms and conditions related to ICTU allowing them to come to the table because they do not have full affiliation. I am not talking about full affiliation, since the representative organisations are seeking associate status. I assure Deputy Heydon, the Chief of Staff and this House that, whatever decision I make, I will consult widely about trade union status, affiliation or association with ICTU.
The ICTU has also come back on this and meaningful negotiations are going on between my Department and ICTU on the specific case. I have spoken to PDFORRA and also to RACO about its concerns.