Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Defence Forces

10:50 am

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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4. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his response to the concern expressed in the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces that less than one third of the Reserve Defence Force’s strength is considered to be operationally effective; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23509/22]

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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Reserve Defence Force, RDF, personnel are an important part of the fabric of the Defence Forces. Concern was expressed in the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces that less than one third of the RDF is considered to be operationally effective. Will the Minister make a statement on that matter?

While I am on my feet, I will make a brief point. I heard Deputy Barry state that the Minister and the Government are committed to level of ambition 2, as set out in the commission's report. I absolutely salute that. I was delighted to hear that. The Government should go there and go even further, if it can. I just wanted to express that view as a side note. The more we can do for our Defence Forces and the greater their capabilities, the better.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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That commitment to level of ambition 2 has not yet been confirmed by the Government. It is certainly my view, as Minister for Defence, that we have to be at least where the Commission on Defence Forces recommends that we need to be, rather than where we would like to be, to have at least a basic defence capacity. Let us not forget that the commission carried out its work and finalised its report before the war in Ukraine so the context has already changed. That is an important issue. Some of my colleagues in government are working with us on this. The party leaders will also have to consider these issues in the coming weeks.

The Reserve Defence Force has an establishment of 4,069. As of 31 March 2022, the effective strength of the Army Reserve is 1,380 and that of the Naval Service Reserve is 114, with 271 personnel in the First Line Reserve. These combined strengths account for 43% of the establishment figure, which is clearly not good enough. In order to qualify for retention on the effective strength of the Army Reserve and Naval Service Reserve, members must, in the course of each training year, satisfy certain obligations set out in section 39 of Defence Forces regulations. These include specified minimum attendance at RDF training activities. Members of the RDF who do not meet the specified training or attendance targets are classed as non-effective. The military authorities have advised that the substantive strength, inclusive of both effective and non-effective members, of the Army Reserve and Naval Service Reserve at the end of March was 1,616, with the effective strength accounting for over 92% of this total.  

The Deputy will be aware that the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces contains many detailed recommendations, including recommendations on the future structure and role of the RDF.  A process is under way to consider these recommendations in consultation with my ministerial colleagues and stakeholders. The intent is to revert to the Government with a proposed response and a high-level action plan in advance of the summer recess. It would be inappropriate for me to pre-empt the outcome of that process but I will say for the record that I am absolutely committed to revitalising the Reserve and getting it back up to its full establishment. I am committed to putting the resources in place to make sure that happens. Legislation has already been passed to change the Defence Acts 1954 to 2015 to allow the Reserve to serve overseas, which was not previously possible. I hope people have taken note of that signal of intent.

11:00 am

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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On the first point on the level of ambition, I welcome the Government's ongoing consideration of that matter. I note it has not been officially confirmed or decided yet and I encourage the Government to go to at least level 2. As the Minister said, the plan arose in the pre-Ukraine context and while many of us could see what was on the horizon globally, it is now beyond doubt. Some of those who opposed those plans used throwaway headline remarks, such as "Why does Ireland need fighter jets?" Another question I would put to some of those advocates is whether it is suggested that we should abandon our Atlantic coastline or that, by not escalating to level 2 or above, we should abandon our responsibilities across hybrid warfare and leave the shipping lines into Europe and Ireland exposed, including the transatlantic cables. There is all of that infrastructure and the significant maritime resource and footprint that we have across our coastline. We need aerial defences, naval defences and conventional defences. This is very important and I want to express my full support for the Government in doing that.

On the Reserve Defence Force, I know morale has been low and there have been some question marks around its activities. We have seen many non-traditional situations where the Defence Forces have been employed in recent years - everything from the big snow to the pandemic, and there was even a suggestion to use personnel at Dublin Airport recently to clear backlogs.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Tá an t-am caite. The Deputy will get another chance.

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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There is a very important place for the Reserve and it is important that we clarify that and give support and encouragement to those who serve.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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On the level of ambition, the commission deliberately put this back to the Government, saying “Here is what we think you should do but, of course, it is your choice from a policy and budgetary point of view.” With regard to the language the commission has used, level of ambition 1 is essentially maintaining the status quobut getting the establishment up to where it needs to be – by the way, the commission thinks that would mean an increased expenditure of about €57 million a year - and the commission is very blunt in saying this is not good enough. The commission is made up of 15 defence experts, including those from academia, former military personnel and senior civil servants. It is a very experienced group of people. The commission's work is probably the most important defence document we have had in 50 years and I think it is a very credible evidence base for us to now act on. However, these are difficult choices for the Government because it involves a lot of money and, of course, there are a lot of competing interests for limited and finite financial resources. What is envisaged is a multi-annual commitment for the next five to ten years to get the Defence Forces to where they need to be in the context of this report and the evidence base that it provides and, of course, there is the international context that we are living in.

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I agree with the Minister and I note those comments. It is a difficult choice for the Government but it is a very important strategic one, given our position in the emerging global structures and the threats and challenges that prevail. It is time that Ireland stood up and took its place among the nations of the world. I wish the Minister well in those deliberations and he has my support.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for that. I believe and hope I have the support of most parties in this House, even though sometimes we have a very abrasive political system here in terms of disagreement on policy and so on. I hope the vast majority in this House will support this because it will be for future Governments too and is not just about this Government. I hope we can listen to and take in what the commission has said to us because it is very direct and blunt. There is a need for fundamental modernisation, restructuring and cultural change in the Defence Forces. There is also a need for the Government to look in the mirror and ask whether we are giving the Defence Forces the resources they need to match what we are asking of them in terms of delivery of outputs, services, capacity and so on. The clear answer to that question from the commission is that, no, what we are asking of the Defence Forces versus how we are resourcing them is not matched and that needs to change.

It is a very fundamental core issue in terms of the functioning of the State, namely, basic defence capacity around protecting sovereignty. The context is what we are seeing at the moment in Ukraine and all that flows from that in terms of uncertainty, instability, tension, security considerations and so on. We are likely to see Finland announce today, if it has not already announced it, that it is going to apply for NATO membership. We are likely to see Sweden do the same in the next few days. We are not likely to do that any time soon, but we certainly need to make decisions in regard to our own security and defence arrangements and capacity and resourcing. It is as fundamental as that. Hopefully, we will be able to find a way of getting agreement across Government by the time we bring a memorandum to Government next month.