Tuesday, 8 September 2020
Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to present this Bill to the House. As Deputies may be aware, the Bill was published earlier this year but it was not possible to progress it before the dissolution of the previous Dáil. Although it is relatively short, the Bill addresses some important matters.
Before dealing with the detailed provisions, I will outline briefly the background to the Bill. From time to time, there is a requirement to amend the Defence Act 1954, the primary Act relating to defence matters, to address ongoing issues which arise in respect of the Defence Forces. The purpose of this Bill is to make a number of miscellaneous amendments to the Defence Act to update certain provisions.
The principal issue dealt with by this legislation relates to overseas operations as well as the provisions in the Defence Act for the enlistment of minors. In addition, the opportunity has been taken to make a number of other minor amendments to the Defence Act.
In advance of outlining the provisions of the various sections, I refer to section 4 of the Bill. This section amends the Defence Act to provide, in certain circumstances, for the re-enlistment of former members to the Permanent Defence Force to fill specialist appointments. However, as Deputies will be aware, this particular amendment to the Defence Act was accelerated and enacted pursuant to the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020. Accordingly, I will move an amendment on Committee Stage to delete section 4 from the Bill. Although re-enlistment is no longer being dealt with by this legislation, I hope to have an opportunity during my closing statement to update Deputies regarding the scheme for the re-enlistment of formerly enlisted persons, which is an important part of our current recruitment efforts.
On the main provisions of the Bill, section 1 provides definitions for key terms used in the Bill. Section 2, insertion of section 17A in the Principal Act, inserts a new section into the Defence Act 1954 to provide for the delegation by the Minister for Defence of a limited degree of control and authority, referred to as operational control in the Bill, over a Defence Forces contingent deployed as part of an international force to the force commander of that force.
The purpose of the amendment is to underpin and provide legal certainty in respect of existing practice. Where a contingent of the Defence Forces is deployed overseas, a limited degree of control and authority over that Irish contingent is delegated to the force commander of that force. This is done by means of a written direction to the Irish contingent commander from the Minister for Defence. This has been the case since the first deployment of the Defence Forces on peacekeeping operations decades ago. This limited delegation of authority is necessary to allow for the efficient operation of a mission with which the Irish contingent is serving.
The amendment provides legal certainty in respect of the long-standing practice of delegating such authority to the force commander. It will not alter, in any shape or form, the current command structure within the Defence Forces and full command of the Irish contingent will remain with the Irish Defence Forces command.
Specifically, the amendment provides that a delegation of operational control by the Minister for Defence to the force commander will be in writing and may be subject to such exemptions and limitations as the Minister may determine, having had regard to such requirements as are necessary for the efficient operation of the mission concerned.
I will explain briefly the exemptions and limitations that would typically be included in a delegation of operational control. First, a delegation of operational control relates to a particular mission. The principal exception and limitation included in a delegation is that the Irish units and sub-units of the Irish contingent assigned to the mission are at all times under the command of an Irish officer. In this regard, the amendment specifically provides that a delegation of operational control does not include the authority to assign separate employment of any component of the Irish contingent that has been assigned to the international force. This means that an officer of the Irish Defence Forces always remains in overall control of the deployed units and personnel of our Defence Forces. In addition, matters relating to discipline are not included in a delegation.
This amendment will allow the military police component of an international force, under the authority of a force commander, to arrest and detain a member of the Irish Defence Forces serving with the international force in question, in appropriate and relevant circumstances.
This, however, is subject to the member in question being handed over to Irish military authorities as soon as is practicable. Any subsequent disciplinary issues that may arise may only be dealt with by the Irish military authorities.
The other principal exceptions and limitations in a delegation of operational control relate to the safety and welfare of the members of the Irish contingent. As previously advised, the amendment reflects the existing long-standing practice on overseas operations. Its sole purpose is to ensure that there is an explicit legal basis for the long-standing practice on delegation of operational control, OPCON, which, I am advised, represents a lacuna in the legislation.
It is not unusual that, on foot of case law, issues arise whereby the enabling authority of legislation, as had been understood, is found to be deficient and requires amendment. That is the case in this instance and this section rectifies that. It has been developed following extensive consultation with the Office of the Attorney General and the Defence Forces so as to arrive at a reasonable balance of providing the limited essential control to be provided to commanders of international United Nations forces, consistent with the Constitution and the Defence Acts. I assure the House that the delegation in no way undermines overall command of the contingent by the Irish authorities, as provided for in the Constitution and the Defence Acts.
The purpose of sections 3 and 7, which relate to the non-enlistment of minors, is to make a number of amendments to the Defence Acts to remove the references to the enlistment of minors. Historically, minors were allowed to enlist in the Defence Forces but this has not been the practice for a number of years. In this regard, under regulations made pursuant to the Defence Act 1954, persons under the age of 18 are not allowed to enlist in the Permanent Defence Force or the Reserve Defence Force. However, notwithstanding these provisions, the Defence Act 1954 still contains references to the enlistment of minors. These amendments remove any such references. The amendments give full effect, in the Defence Act, to the optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.
Sections 5 and 6 make some minor amendments to the Defence Act and provide for the repeal of section 318, which is redundant. Section 5 provides for a minor amendment of section 178E of the Act, which deals with appeals to summary courts-martial. The amendment clarifies the timeframe in which a summary court martial may consider an application for an extension of time to submit an appeal to the court martial. An appeal or an application for extension of time to submit an appeal must be submitted within a defined period. The current arrangements are rigid and can cause difficulties if a military judge has insufficient time to consider an application for an extension of the period to bring forward an appeal. This amendment will allow a more flexible timeframe during which a summary court martial may consider any such application.
Section 6 makes some minor amendments to the Defence Act to provide for the restatement in modern form of section 74, relating to the discharge of reservists elected to public office and the repeal of the now-redundant section 318. Section 318 provided that service with the Defence Forces during the emergency period of the 1940s might, subject to certain conditions as might be determined by the Incorporated Law Society of Ireland, be reckonable for apprenticeship purposes in the case of a person who served with the Defence Forces during this period and who had entered or subsequently entered into an apprenticeship with a practising solicitor. Obviously, the provision is now obsolete and needs to be repealed.
Section 8 is a standard provision dealing with the Short Title to the Bill in addition to arrangements for the commencement of the legislation.
The general scheme of this Bill was previously referred to the then Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence for consideration as to whether there was a requirement for pre-legislative scrutiny. Having considered the heads of the Bill, the joint committee decided not to proceed with pre-legislative scrutiny. That is understandable because what we are doing legislatively is so straightforward. While this is mainly a Bill that is designed to tidy up existing legislation, the main provisions concern important matters that do need to be addressed. I am pleased, therefore, to submit this legislation for the consideration of the House. I commend it to the House and look forward to colleagues' comments.
This Bill is in some ways an exercise in legislative housekeeping, involving the dotting of i's and crossing of t's, or tidying up, as the Minister said. While the Government might regard this as necessary, members of the Defence Forces have a vastly different view of what is necessary. One serving member said to me today: "What have they got against us? They have nothing to offer us for the future if they only see us through their rear-view mirror." It is words like these that I hear consistently when I speak to members and their representatives but I also hear about their passion for their service, their commitment and the respect they have for the duties they hold. I refer to commitment and respect that they do not see reciprocated by the Government.
The level of pay in the Defence Forces is beyond needing to be addressed and rectified. It is ludicrous that one arm of the State pays members' wages while another arm of that same State recognises the pay is so poor that it supplements it through welfare supports. One member of our Defence Forces on a working family payment is too many. The number who are the price of a loaf of bread above the qualifying threshold is a damning indictment. I have spoken this week to serving members who have gone without to meet their children's back-to-school costs. I have no doubt that circumstances like these are replicated across the country based on the current employment level in the Defence Forces as a whole. Our Air Corps and Navy are short nearly one fifth of the personnel they require. The unfilled positions in the Army represent more than 9% of its strength. It is obvious that pay is a significant factor regarding these vacancies.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, our Defence Forces have respectfully, professionally and diligently gone about their duties. They rallied behind their front-line colleagues in the HSE and elsewhere. They have provided tracing, testing, transportation and construction services. Some overseas members saw their return home delayed because of the pandemic. Civil Defence volunteers throughout the country provided tens of thousands of hours of practical assistance to the community, voluntary and statutory sectors, yet the new vehicles in the Civil Defence did not come from departmental moneys but from an application to the Dormant Accounts Fund. Yet again, another arm of the State is plugging gaps in the Department of Defence.
PDFORRA has stated there can be little doubt that investment in the greatest resource the Defence Forces have, its members, is an absolute necessity. There is no point in having ships, armoured personnel carriers and new aircraft worth millions of euro sitting in docks, garages and hangars without the crew to man and maintain these valuable assets of the State.
JPMorgan recently advertised a transition programme for those who have left the Defence Forces because it recognises what successive Governments have failed to recognise, namely, key skills and service. JPMorgan wants its next group of leaders to be result-focused, adaptable and motivated and to work well under pressure. It recognises qualities of this kind in our Defence Forces. The skills in question are learned and honed in the Defence Forces and it is the State that should be valuing them through proper pay and conditions, and benefiting from them while members continue to serve.
It is vital that those who have served be respected and supported upon discharge. Just weeks ago, we learned that the surviving soldiers of Jadotville will not be awarded the medals for bravery recommended by their commanding officer almost 60 years ago. There was no hero's welcome for those who fought in Jadotville. They were portrayed by some as a national embarrassment. Instead of receiving full recognition for the courage and competence they showed, they were isolated, ignored and forgotten. These men helped to shape Ireland's stellar international reputation today for providing well-trained and resilient UN peacekeepers.
This situation must be rectified and those medals awarded. The requests of veterans are minute in comparison to their service. The reference to a veterans' policy in the White Paper on Defence in 2015 was a step in the right direction. However, it must now continue to conclusion. Given their service to the State, veterans deserve tangible commitments to assist in their transition to civilian life. A charter must include addressing the needs and securing resources to support employment, housing, health, educational opportunities and a single point of contact that can provide independent and confidential information and advocate on their behalf.
Worryingly, no specific data have been correlated relating to the challenges veterans are affected by due to their service. We have circumstantial evidence and conjecture regarding the level of marital and family breakdown, suicide, post-traumatic stress, homelessness, substance misuse and dependency. Without clear data on which to base an estimate of current need, future needs of veterans will continue to fail to be met.
What is needed now for our Defence Forces is an urgency in the work to address the retention and recruitment crisis and the concerns raised by veterans. We need to ensure those serving in the Defence Forces are listened to, respected and guaranteed a level of pay in order that they can not only meet the fundamental basic needs of their family but also ensure that a career in the Defence Forces is a viable and attractive option for new recruits.
The Government has been warned that unless the situation of recruitment and retention is reversed, the Defence Forces will continue to haemorrhage skilled personnel and find it increasingly difficult to carry out its various roles in protecting State security, our fisheries, overseas peacekeeping missions and the mounting anti-drug trafficking operations. There is a level of dysfunction in the Defence Forces system. When will real and meaningful policies and actions be put in place to address this?
The Irish Defence Forces has a proud tradition of service, be that with the forces of the United Nations, often in some of the most dangerous places across the world, patrolling our coasts or, indeed, our skies. It would be remiss of me to neglect to mention the incredible record of our Naval Service in the Mediterranean where it was responsible for saving thousands of lives.
What we have before us today represents a series of minor but necessary amendments to the Defence Act 1954 to which Sinn Féin intends to give its support.
While we address these Government amendments today, however, it is incumbent upon the Minister to take heed and give voice to an understanding and undertaking to address the wider number of important and, not merely necessary, but critical, issues that currently beset the Defence Forces.
To give our forces commander on the ground operational control over the military contingent when it is engaged in an overseas operation appears to be common sense. However, to put in place circumstantial constraints on the ability of the forces commander or the troops on the ground by threatening their capacity to function in a professional manner is completely unforgivable, as is standing over the situation where the Defence Forces are starved of the personnel necessary to staff military contingents. Moreover, the continuing loss of skilled personnel to drive to the private sector is a huge drain on the operational capacity of the Defence Forces. It also is unforgivable to equip the younger staff contingents of the Defence Forces with resources with a questionable fit-for-purpose tag and it is unforgivable to house those who serve in our military in habitation that is not fit to keep animals. Some barracks in this country have raw sewage running down the walls. Exposing members of our forces to dangerous chemicals which, in a number of instances has resulted in life-altering consequences, and then stonewalling on the issue, is unforgivable. As for sending our forces on operational assignments without the moral imprimatur of the Dáil, without UN mandate and in clear breach of our principle of neutrality, it is unforgivable. These are all unforgivable and all the more so because they are avoidable.
If a second wave of Covid-19 emerges, our country will once again depend on the commitment, courage and professionalism of our front-line services. The Government will no doubt turn to the Defence Forces to provide the personnel and logistical support it has provided in the past but yet the pay and conditions under which our Defence Forces labours represents the lowest of all the country's front-line services. The Government needs to give a commitment to address these issues and act on it.
On another important point, I must pointedly ask the Minister whether the previous Government, of which he was a member, instruct Defence Forces personnel stationed in Mali - without Dáil consent, it must be said - to train members of the Malian army that was subsequently responsible for the recent coup within that country. While I support the amendment, a force commander should possess operational control while on an overseas mission. However, any and all missions conducted by the Defence Forces most fall unconditionally within the constraints of the triple-lock system whereby it is a decision by the Irish Government to undertake the mission, not a directive from an EU army, and that the mission has secured the approval of the Dáil and the authorisation of the United Nations. We cannot continue to allow a situation to emerge where this country is creeping towards active participation in a continental army under such EU structures as permanent structured co-operation, PESCO. We need to ensure that the principle of neutrality becomes enshrined in the Constitution through the holding of a referendum.
We are also being asked today to pass an amendment which relates to the rights of children in armed conflict to which, again, I intend to voice the support of Sinn Féin. Has the Minister ever taken the time to consider the impact of the failure of the Government to recognise the state of Palestine on the children of Gaza, the West Bank and the countless villages displaced to accommodate colonists? I argue that this failure contributes to the depredations of an Israeli armed military that takes licence to indiscriminately inflict violence upon the Palestinian people, including children, from the failure of the international community to hold them to account.
I wish to conclude on the amendment which the Minister is going to bring forward to remove the provision for the re-enlistment of former enlisted persons because that has become part of other legislation.
I wish to raise a serious concern. A response to a parliamentary question I received at the end of July states that only 17 former members of the Defence Forces have re-enlisted. That clearly shows there are serious issues here and the Minister must ask himself why people are failing to re-enlist in the Defence Forces. The whole issue of pay and recruitment is a serious one. That we have a situation where two of our naval ships in this State are tied up at any point is a gross indictment on the Minister and, indeed, on the Government.
The fact we hear stories about members of the Defence Forces having to sleep in cars, or that someone who is employed by the State and engaged in such critical work is unable to afford to live on their wages, is a scandal. Both this and previous Governments have ignored representations from my colleagues and members of the Defence Forces regarding the pay and conditions under which they work. Last Saturday we were told make some noise for front-line workers. This, in itself, was great idea to show our appreciation, as a people and as a country, for the unbelievable work done by the front-line workers.
Workers such as those in the Defence Forces need more than a clap or people standing up and thanking them for their work. They need proper pay and conditions. During the Covid-19 crisis they stood up and when the country was in its greatest need, front-line workers as well as those in the Defence Forces did everything they could to look after the most vulnerable in society and keep the country going.
I welcome today's announcement that there might be another public pay agreement. However, will the Government allow union representation in the Defence Forces to be part of those pay discussions? They should be included and I am asking the Minister to give that commitment. Will they be allowed to affiliate to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions? In the past, members of this Government and previous Governments have campaigned and lobbied for the pay and conditions of members of the Defence Forces. We now have a new Government. I was on the picket line with the Debenhams workers 152 days ago when the dispute started. Members of other political parties were standing protesting with those Debenhams workers. However, with this party now in government, those Members have gone missing in action. Will those Members who stood up for those in the Defence Forces in the past stand up now and support them?
The Naval Service is short 211 personnel, with 139 leaving last year. The Army is short 704 personnel, with 655 leaving last year. The Air Corps is short 162 personnel, with 88 leaving last year. Today I rang a member of my club who is in the Defence Forces and asked him if he wanted me to raise anything. He asked why people in the Defence Forces must have two jobs to raise a family and pay a mortgage. They are working as barmen and doormen, and are delivering pizzas because they cannot live on the wages they get in the Defence Forces. That needs to be addressed.
I welcome the legislation which is very much a housekeeping Bill and is long overdue. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in May 2000 and it entered into force in February 2002. It has taken 18 years to change the law to remove references to minors in the Defence Forces.
The Bill also includes a number of amendments to the Defence Act 1954 to facilitate the re-enlistment of suitably qualified former enlisted members of the Defence Forces to fill certain positions. This is also very much overdue as we saw by the delays in re-enlisting Defence Forces personnel at the start of the Covid crisis.
While discussing reforming old laws, I ask the Minister to review the Curragh of Kildare Act 1961, as the Department of Defence is not the best authority to manage the public areas of the Curragh. The Curragh is the jewel in Kildare's crown and it is being held back by agency squabbles and underinvestment. The filling in of the hollow next to Donnelly's Hollow by the Department of Defence has shown that the Department does not have the best interests of the Curragh at heart. The Department needs to come clean on its role in this disgraceful debacle. Kildare County Council needs a stronger role in the management of public areas in the Curragh. We need proper investment in cycleways, walking trails, lighting, parking, CCTV and footpaths linking the peripheral areas of our towns to the Curragh.
Also long overdue are proper pay and conditions for members of the Defence Forces. The Defence Forces are an extremely important part of the country and are particularly important to County Kildare. The Government needs to engage with RACO and PDFORRA to ensure the Defence Forces get what they deserve. They are suffering from years of neglect by successive Governments. There are a number of simple steps to end this neglect. PDFORRA should be allowed to affiliate to the ICTU and scaremongering talk about striking soldiers needs to stop. The commission on the future of the Defence Forces needs to be established without delay. It needs to have a representative of the Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces group. This group has spoken out where Defence Forces personnel could not and has been courageous in making representations on their behalf.
The promises made under the high-level implementation plan as part of the Public Service Pay Commission need to be delivered. How can PDFORRA ask its members to sign up to any new pay deal in the absence of these promises being delivered? We need a plan to bring the Defence Forces back to full operational strength immediately. The plan needs to start with proper pay. It is no wonder we have a recruitment crisis. A new recruit with one year's service takes home €350. We need to appreciate our Defence Forces more. Applause at 3 o'clock every odd Saturday will not pay the bills. Some 20% of the families of enlisted personnel are in receipt of family income supplement. This is an absolute scandal. Having spoken to members of the Defence Forces, it is very clear that they have a great sense of pride in being a member. Many of them have family traditions and these need to continue. This is a case of family pride and I ask the Minister to solve the problem.
I am very glad to have the opportunity to speak on the Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020. It is a while since I spoke on a defence matter. I apologise to the Minister for missing his speech. I am very anxious to hear the Minister's presentation of any legislation before I speak, but I am afraid because of the earlier votes in the House I was caught up in the Committee on Dáil Reform and missed the Minister's speech.
There is considerable merit in some of the commentary I heard about how we, collectively as a House and through successive Governments, have dealt with our Defence Forces. It is a matter of instruction to all of us that it is some time since we had a stand-alone Minister for Defence of Cabinet rank. That has an implication for how we have dealt with our Defence Forces in recent decades and the voice of the Defence Forces in determining policy. I have great faith in the Minister. I know from working with him in the past that he has a great appreciation of the role of our Defence Forces. We have all looked at the role of the Defence Forces, called upon in every emergency. We need to respect that in more than applause and declarations of support. We need to be very practical.
Whenever I was abroad in any capacity representing this country, I often came across former Defence Forces personnel in very senior positions internationally. We train particularly our officer corps here very well. They are very competent and able people. We need to ensure they are given the supports to maintain themselves in the Defence Forces and that we continue to attract the best and brightest to serve our country in the way that they have.
The Defence Forces need considerable support to lift morale. That is a simple inescapable fact. It boils down to three things, namely, pay, conditions and equipment. In any society giving proper pay is ultimately a significant determinant of the status in which a public servant is held. Some supports have been increased recently, but we need to go further. I echo - I think I can do this from a unique perspective - the view that we are now about to embark on a new successor pay round. All of us would have hoped that we would have done it in the most positive of economic circumstances, but unfortunately that is not the case. As the person who was involved in negotiating the last two pay rounds but one, I recognise it is important that we now find a really effective mechanism to include those who were not formally included in the ICTU negotiations.
They should not be left sitting in a room to be consulted after the fact but should be intrinsically involved in the negotiations. I genuinely hope that can be done. I see no difficulty in recognising PDFORRA or allowing it to formally be part of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. It is a very straightforward and acceptable issue. Trade union membership within defence forces is certainly not an unusual phenomenon across Europe. I do not know why we should not follow suit in that regard.
With regard to equipment, as the Minister knows, some progress was made in our own time. Good modern ships were provided for the Naval Service and the process of replacing some Air Corps equipment was started. The two CASA aircraft have to be replaced. Will that happen this year? I believe the replacements are to arrive this year or early next year. The first of the other replacement aircraft has already come into service. It was advanced because of Covid and there are more to come. With regard to equipment, we must ensure that the capital allocation needs of the Defence Forces are understood and provided for. The Defence Forces capital requirements have never been top of the list. That applies to accommodation above all else. We need to ensure, particularly in this time of Covid, that proper individual modern accommodation is provided. These are issues to which we can return.
The role of the Defence Forces in all emergencies and particularly in the current Covid emergency cannot be overstated. We are very proud of their role internationally as well as domestically. We need to support them practically.
I will now deal with the provisions of this particular legislation. I have read the Bill and it is unusual. For what seems like the first time, the Bill provides a legislative basis for the role of a force commander in exercising operational control over a Defence Forces contingent in a United Nations or other international force. I missed the Minister's speech but, as I understand it, this simply provides legislative underpinning to current practice.
That is what I understand. Under the Defence Act 1954, the military command of, and all executive and administrative powers in respect of, the Defence Forces, including the power to delegate command and authority, are exercisable by the Government through and by the Minister for Defence. In other words, officers exercise military command through the delegated command authority of the Minister. One might wonder why the Minister could not then make a delegation order to cover this point. As far as I understand it, the answer seems to be that this is about the exercise of command within an international contingent rather than command over domestic forces, even domestic forces serving abroad. One presumes such a contingent would be a hybrid force comprising Irish and non-Irish troops. The new section would permit the Minister to delegate a limited degree of control and authority, defined in the Bill as "operational control", over a Defence Forces contingent deployed as part of an international force. That authority would be delegated to the force commander of that force. I believe the point is that the force commander need not necessarily be an officer of the Irish Defence Forces. Is that the case?
The definition of "operational control" is:
the authority delegated to a Force Commander in respect of a contingent assigned to him or her so that the Force Commander may— (a) accomplish certain missions or tasks which are limited by function, time or location,
(b) deploy the contingent, and
(c) retain or assign tactical control of the contingent, but does not include the authority to assign separate employment of any component of the contingent.
I read these particular lines of the Bill a couple of times to try to understand them. I do not know what the "the authority to assign separate employment of any component of the contingent" means.
We will see that. It seems the right thing to do. I just wanted to understand what exactly that line meant.
As other speakers mentioned, the Bill also includes a provision which enables the State to give full effect to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict by deleting provisions relating to the enlistment of persons under the age of 18. As I understand it, this again simply reflects existing practice. I am certainly not in any way advocating that those under 18 be recruited into the Defence Forces but one thing did occur to me. In the past, the Defence Forces had a very good reputation for taking in and training apprentices, school-leavers, and giving them incredibly good skills. Is that precluded by the Bill? Does that happen now or does one have to reach the age of 18? In the past, if people were just not suited to academic life and wanted to become an Air Corps mechanic or something like that at 17, they could be trained in. I do not know whether such apprenticeships are excluded.
Across government, and under previous Governments, there is now a great emphasis on the provision of apprenticeships and on avoiding having only one track, that of academic training. It is sought to give people skills bases in a whole range of disciplines. We now encourage every big company to take on apprentices and the State itself should be part of that. When the Minister is replying, will he make some mention of how apprenticeships are structured within the Army and of how it is envisaged that the old apprentice corps will hopefully not only be maintained but expanded? This will give trainees further training and proper accreditation at the end so that their skills bases will be formidable, enabling them to find gainful employment in the general economy.
As has been referenced, when the Bill was first published in January, it included other sections relating to the re-enlistment of formerly enlisted persons. As the Minister knows, these measures have now been encompassed in the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020, which the Houses passed in March. They will therefore be taken out of this Bill, although they were included in the original Bill. It is, however, a salient fact that so few have re-enlisted. I thought the Minister might be about the contradict the numbers given to the House with regard to people who had re-enlisted, although they were given by way of parliamentary question. It seems-----
I know that. I am sorry; I know it is not in order and I apologise but I find it helpful to have a banter with the Minister. When we were passing the omnibus Bill in March, we assumed there would be a facility for people who wanted to re-enlist to be welcomed back. If there is a big disparity between the numbers who have applied and the numbers who have been accepted, it would be interesting to hear why that is the case and, perhaps, the categories of people involved. That is again something the Minister might return to in his reply.
In essence, this is largely a technical tidying Bill that proposes to formalise in statute law practices that are already the norm.
For that reason, I do not think anyone in the House will have any difficulties with them but they do feed into the bigger, more general debate about our Defence Forces, and about issues of pay, conditions and proper support where equipment for our armed forces is concerned. Most of us in the House agree that we still attract people of the highest calibre into our armed forces, that they perform to the highest level whenever they are asked, either in domestic crises or international situations and that they always inspire pride. In any commemorative event we always turn to our Defence Forces personnel to provide the solemn authority to many public events. On the other side of the Atlantic, there is a debate going on about respect for the military but it behoves us to not only manifest that respect, regard and genuine appreciation for the work of our Defence Forces by what we say but to do that by giving them the pay, conditions and the right to be represented that is contingent on holding the status we want to give them.
I ask the Minister to specifically respond to the request, as we embark on a new comprehensive public sector pay round, as to how and in what form are our Defence Forces to be represented in order that they are not, as I said, in a room outside the main negotiating room being told what is going on, but actually are having input in the discussions and are beneficiaries to the fullest extent of any improvements negotiated across the public services.
I will speak very briefly and then hand over to my colleague. I welcome the Bill. I believe this is the first Bill the Minister has brought to the House since returning to the defence portfolio. It is an extremely welcome appointment and I wish him well. Given the two briefs he now holds as a Cabinet Minister, he is a glutton for punishment but this is certainly something that is well-suited to his skill set and vast knowledge of the area.
I want to talk about the specifics of the Bill. The first point I wish to speak to is the powers and abilities of force commander. Deputy Howlin spoke very eloquently about the three areas which are key for maintaining that retention and indeed attraction in recruitment. I would like to add a crucial fourth area: purpose. What is the purpose of our Defence Forces going forward? What is their role domestically, and crucially, what is it internationally? I was very disappointed to hear Deputy Brady talk about the notion of an EU army. It seems to be a very quick thing that is casually thrown in. However if we are serious about the role of our Defence Forces and the role of our country in the world, we have to look at the international partnerships that our Defence Forces undertake, particularly our international peacekeeping role that was so vital in securing a seat on the UN Security Council in an effort led by the Minister himself. We must look also at the role within the EU, the role in the Mediterranean and the role within the permanent structured co-operation, PESCO. That ability and purpose, through all members of our Defence Forces in each and every branch, is so vitally important.
It is so important that the Convention on the Rights of the Child has been incorporated properly. As someone who, unfortunately, in a previous life worked with former child soldiers as part of a rehabilitative process in Africa, I know how scarring it is and how aware we have to be within our own Defence Forces, as well as in our work with other defence forces and in the most difficult situations to protect all children when it comes to conflict.
Finally, one area of the Bill that has gone through already and which has been mentioned, is retention and re-enlistment. This is a great missed opportunity, not in regard to the 17 people who have re-enlisted as was said by other Deputies. There is another way we can do this and I ask the Minister to perhaps look at a later stage at what the role of the Reserve, formerly An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil. We are missing a really clear opportunity to bring back people who have left the Defence Forces for very many reasons - not always pay and conditions - which I hope will be properly looked at. How do we maintain access to their talent and their skill set and how is that done in other jurisdictions? We all know of former Vice President Biden's late son Joseph Biden Jr., who enlisted and played a very important role in the US Army National Guard. Members of Parliament in the UK, with whom the Minister and I deal regularly, maintain a connection with the British armed forces and can use the skill set they acquired there while performing a very different role. I believe our commitment to Óglaigh na hÉireann - the only Óglaigh na hÉireann we have ever had in this State - comes through not just our capital investment but our human investment. This technical Bill achieves that in so many ways. I wish the Minister well and look forward to speaking at further stages.
I very much welcome this Bill. While it has been practice, it is important that it is also put in a legislative framework and that is what this Bill does. Even though the practices have been in place for a long number of years, it is important that it is now covered by legislation. It is about the delegation by the Minister of a limited degree of control and authority over a Defence Forces contingent deployed as part of an international force to the force commander of that force. It is important that that is set out clearly and that is what the Bill does.
It deals also with the issue of age of enlistment. There has not been a practice of taking in people under 18 but I understand that many years ago, people as young as 14 or 15 were taken into the Army band. That practice has changed and the legislation now deals with the issue so we are complying with the Convention on the Rights of the Child by putting it in legislation.
As someone who has had the privilege of visiting an Irish Army operation overseas, it is only when one goes to an operation that one sees the challenges that the Irish Defence Forces face. I had the privilege of travelling, on my own initiative, to the Sudanese border in Chad. Even though that operation was under a UN mandate, it was an EU operation. It was about providing protection for 570,000 people in refugee camps and internally-displaced persons, IDP, sites. I saw the challenges our Defence Forces had to face. Everyone in the area carried a gun and not just an ordinary gun but a machine gun. That was the kind of challenge the Irish Army had to deal with in an area where temperature were ranging between 40°C and 50°C. It was a really challenging climate and a really challenging time. It is only when one sees this that one sees the contribution of the Defence Forces. We were lucky in that operation, insofar as even though it was an international deployment of troops, it was under the control of an Irish commanding officer at that time, and they did it very successfully.
After visiting that site, it was interesting to be at a committee of the European Parliament and to hear a member of the British army giving a report of the operation and saying that the Irish Army had achieved more in six months than the army from another country which had been in Chad for over 30 years. In other words, the Irish Army had achieved more in six months in actually getting people to work together rather than getting into a conflict situation. When one hears that at an international level, one sees that the way the Irish Army work is about involving everyone but making decisions which are of benefit to people and people who are in the community. We really need to give recognition to the work right across the world to which they have contributed.
I concur with what a lot of Members have said about a review of pay and conditions. They have made a major contribution in Ireland over a long time at local, national and international level and we need to give recognition to that.