Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

10:30 am

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to address the House. I very much welcome the opportunity to engage with the Members of Seanad Éireann on matters related to the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces and look forward to listening to their contributions.

The security of the State and its citizens is a whole-of-government concern. A broad range of Departments and agencies are assigned security responsibilities. Providing for the military defence of the State’s territory is fundamental a security requirement, for which responsibility is vested specifically in the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces. The defence contribution to security also encompasses defence inputs to domestic security, particularly in support of An Garda Síochána which has primary responsibility for protecting the internal security of the State; defence inputs to the State’s response to large-scale emergencies; and defence inputs to international peace and security. In addition, defence resources are used for other non-security tasks which maximise the utility of defence assets for the benefit of the State. All of these requirements highlight the key role the Department of Defence, the Defence Forces and Civil Defence play within the State’s security and support framework.

Security is the bedrock on which a society’s cultural, social and economic achievements are built. Defence underpins Ireland’s security, as well as the promotion of the State’s strategic interests in the international environment. I know that I will have the support of all Members of this House when I say Irish people, rightly, take great pride in the Defence Forces and the contribution they make to domestic security, international peace and security and also to the broad range of supports provided for other Departments and State agencies on an ongoing basis. I have witnessed at first hand the important work the Army, the Air Corps and the Naval Service undertake, both at home and overseas.

It is also important to recognise the excellent work of Civil Defence, as part of the local government response, in supporting communities in times of adversity. The commitment of members of Civil Defence and the Reserve Defence Force is testament to the continued spirit of voluntary service that enriches Irish society in so many ways.

As Members will be aware, the White Paper of Defence provides the strategic and comprehensive defence policy framework for the period up to 2025. Since its approval by the Government in 2015, the White Paper has driven the identification of key priorities and, with A Programme for a Partnership Government agreed to in 2016, informed many of the strategic goals, objectives and actions contained in the shared strategy statement of my Department and the Defence Forces. I am pleased with the progress made to date by my Department and the Defence Forces in the implementation of the White Paper. Their work in that regard has laid solid foundations for many of the developmental aspects of the White Paper which charts a course for the continued development of capabilities across the defence organisation, while recognising that people are the key element of success. The Government is committed to ensuring the defence organisation is one in which people, both civil and military, are proud to serve.

While the White Paper provides the strategic and comprehensive defence policy framework for the ten year period up to 2025, the framework is nevertheless designed to be flexible and responsive, which I believe is important, given the dynamic nature of the current security environment. The framework is also designed to enable the defence organisation which comprises the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces to be adaptive to changing circumstances and use its resources as efficiently as possible. It is within that context that the White Paper has set out the Government’s intention to establish a process of fixed cycle defence reviews which are common internationally and give assurance that policy remains up to date and relevant to changing future circumstances. The White Paper specifically provides that the reviews are to have a three yearly cycle, with every second review being more comprehensive in nature. As such, they are to be styled as a strategic defence review. The White Paper specified that the first in the new cycle of reviews would be a White Paper update, which my Department commenced in July last year. I am pleased to advise Members that work is now well advanced on the White Paper update, with two key strands close to completion. One relates to the work of an interdepartmental and inter-agency group established to carry out a fully updated assessment of the security environment, while the second is a review of progress in the implementation of the White Paper.

Another important element of this process will be my meeting next Tuesday with the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence, at which we will discuss the White Paper implementation project which is being undertaken by a joint civil-military project team and focused on developing a formalised structure for fixed cycle defence reviews. In accordance with the White Paper, the periodic reviews are to become a permanent feature of the approach to defence policy.It highlights the connectivity between defence provision and the proper functioning of civil society which is not always well understood or immediately obvious. Defence provision, as a foundation element of national security, remains critical and fundamental to the success and operation of most other public policies.

The defence sector is made up of two Votes, namely, Vote 35, Army Pensions, and Vote 36, Defence. The combined Estimates for both Votes for 2019 provides for gross expenditure of some €1.007 billion, an increase of €60 million or 6.4% over 2018. The 2019 provision comprises €758 million for Vote 36, an increase of over €50 million, and €249 million for Vote 35, an increase of €10 million. The 2019 pay allocation of €529 million for Vote 36 provides for the pay and allowances of more than 10,400 public service employees, including 9,500 Permanent Defence Forces, PDF, personnel, 550 civilian employees and 355 civil servants and makes provision for increases due under the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020. The non-pay allocation comprises both current and capital elements. The current expenditure allocation of €123 million for 2019 provides mainly for expenditure on ongoing Defence Forces standing and operational costs such as utilities, fuel, catering, maintenance, information technology and training. In accordance with the National Development PIan 2018-2027, the capital allocation for Vote 36 has been increased to €106 million for 2019, an increase of €29 million. This represents an increase of 38% on the 2018 allocation. The NDP provides for a total of €541 million over the period from 2018 to 2022. This substantial increase in funding will allow the defence sector to undertake a programme of sustained equipment replacement and infrastructural development across the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service, as identified and prioritised in the White Paper on Defence. The Vote 35 allocation for 2019 of €249 million, which is non-discretionary and demand-led, includes an additional €10 million on the 2018 allocation. This allocation will provide funding for some 12,400 Army pensioners and their dependants. The allocation of more than €1 billion for the defence sector for 2019 emphasises the importance attached by the Government to ensuring that the Defence Forces have the resources necessary to deliver on all roles assigned by Government, both at home and overseas, and demonstrates the Government’s commitment to ensuring that the Defence Forces have the capabilities necessary to deliver on all their assigned roles.

As members will be well aware, Ireland has a long and proud tradition of participation in United Nations mandated peace support operations. The deployment of the Defence Forces on such missions continues to provide an active and very tangible demonstration of Ireland’s commitment to supporting the maintenance of international peace and security. Ireland currently has 673 Defence Forces personnel deployed in nine different missions throughout the world and also to a range of international organisations and national representations. Ireland’s main commitments overseas are to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, and the UN Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, on the Golan Heights. The UNIFIL mission is Ireland’s largest overseas mission, with 458 personnel deployed. Irish troops served as part of a joint Irish-Finnish battalion in UNIFIL until November 2018 when, due to other national commitments, Finland withdrew from the battalion. As an interim measure, an additional contingent of approximately 106 Defence Forces personnel has been deployed to the UNIFIL mission to cover the back-filling of the Finnish contingent for a 12 month period. This additional commitment will continue throughout 2019 as Ireland has assumed full duties and responsibilities of IRISHBATT up to November 2019. Poland has advised that it would be willing to partner Ireland in UNIFIL from November 2019. It is proposed that Hungarian personnel would also deploy as part of the Polish contingent. Discussions on the details of this arrangement are currently being advanced. UNDOF in Syria is the second largest mission, with 136 personnel. The main Irish contingent, comprising a force reserve company of 130 personnel, successfully completed its relocation to Camp Faouar on the Syrian side of the area of separation in September 2018.

As members may be aware, the Dáil recently approved Ireland’s ratifying of the EU status of forces agreement, SOFA, and Ireland’s signing and ratifying of the NATO Partnership for Peace, PfP, SOFA. This was a significant and positive decision and was one that I very much welcomed. SOFAs provide for immunities and privileges extended to members of the Defence Forces when serving on overseas missions. It is important that the brave men and women of our Defence Forces serving overseas are as protected as all other military personnel operating on the same mission or on the same exercise. SOFAs also relate to the immunities and privileges extended to members of the Defence Forces when engaged in exercises in EU or NATO and PfP member states, or on standby for the EU battle groups. With this in mind, I want our personnel to benefit fully from the training available through exercising with peacekeeping partners and troop contributing states where such opportunities are available. Ratification of the status of forces agreements assists in the delivery of such benefits for our Defence Forces.

In terms of personnel numbers, the White Paper on Defence confirmed the strength of the PDF at 9,500, comprising 7,520 Army, 886 Air Corps and 1,094 Naval Service personnel. The strength of the PDF across all services and ranks at the end of 2018 was 8,957 personnel. The Government remains committed to ongoing recruitment to increase this strength to the establishment level of 9,500. In 2018, this resulted in 611 new entrants being inducted, in addition to 15 PDF members being awarded a cadetship. The 2019 recruitment campaign commenced with the recent Naval Service general service recruitment competition which closed on 21 January last. A further 800 new entrants will be targeted in 2019, comprising of general service recruits, apprentices, cadets and direct entry officers. Retention of specialised personnel such as pilots and air traffic controllers in the Air Corps is a significant challenge in the light of the demands arising for such skills in a growing economy. Air Corps personnel are an attractive employment source for airlines and other air service providers given their experience and training. Every effort is being made to address the current shortages in personnel faced by the Air Corps. Actions to return to a full level of air traffic control, ATC, services by the Air Corps are under way which will facilitate a gradual extension of operational hours for ATC services in Baldonnel over the year as newly qualified personnel develop their experience.

Public service pay and pensions are a very significant component of Government expenditure. Similar to other areas within the public service, the pay of PDF personnel was reduced during the financial crisis. The reduction in pay was on a graduated basis with increased rates of deductions for those on higher earnings. This action was one of many measures taken to stabilise the financial situation which faced the country following the economic collapse. Improvements in the economy have provided the opportunity to unwind, in a fair and sustainable manner, the reductions in pay imposed on public servants, including Defence Forces personnel, under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act, FEMPI.Pay is being restored to members of the Defence Forces and other public servants in accordance with public sector pay agreements. The focus of these increases is weighted in favour of those on lower pay. The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 provides for increases in pay ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement. Increases due to date under the agreement have been paid to Permanent Defence Force personnel. Further increases in pay are scheduled for later in 2019 and 2020. By the end of the current public service pay agreement the pay scales of all public servants earning under €70,000 per annum, including members of the Defence Forces, will be restored to pre-FEMPI levels. The restoration of the 5% reduction to allowances cut under FEMPI is also scheduled in the agreement.

The Public Service Pay Commission is currently examining recruitment and retention issues in the defence sector. This is on foot of an initial submission from the Department of Defence. The commission's work is ongoing. The Government will give due consideration to the findings and recommendations that arise from the work of the commission. The commission has recently written to the management parties seeking a meeting which I understand is scheduled to take place next Tuesday, 5 March. This follows the joint submission by military management and my Department.

Aside from the important issue of pay, the civil and military authorities continue to address a broad range of human resources, HR, related issues such as the working time directive, the Reserve Defence Force, RDF, complaints procedures, including bullying and harassment, the independent monitoring group and other issues such as colour blindness, eyesight standards for the Naval Service Reserve and height requirements. In terms of the working time directive, as I previously informed the Dáil, a Government decision dated 18 November 2016 approved the drafting of the heads of a Bill to amend the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997. This will remove the exclusion contained in section 3 of the Act. There is ongoing contact between my Department and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection with regard to legislative change.

The Reserve Defence Force consists of the First Line Reserve, the Army Reserve and the Naval Service Reserve. Personnel in the Army Reserve and the Naval Service Reserve are represented by the Reserve Defence Force Representative Association, RDFRA, with which the Department of Defence is due to meet in the coming weeks. The Government recognises the important role that the three elements of the RDF play in contributing to Ireland's defence capability. The White Paper on defence is clear that there is a continued requirement to retain and develop the RDF, and it is currently on a developmental path arising from the recommendations of the White Paper. Under the current phase of implementation of White Paper actions, two White Paper projects have been identified which are important precursors to the establishment of a specialist reserve. A gap analysis of skill sets in the Permanent Defence Force will identify potential roles for Reserve members who possess specialist skills. Options to develop the First Line Reserve are also currently being examined.

With regard to Brexit, as part of a whole-of-Government approach my Department continues to engage in forward planning with the other Departments involved in addressing all issues relevant to the UK decision to exit from the European Union. I am satisfied that the necessary arrangements are in place in the defence organisation to address the potential challenges arising from Brexit. Both the Department and the Defence Forces are currently engaged in prudent planning in response to the UK vote of June 2016. Structures have been put in place in my Department to address the potential challenges arising from Brexit. The Government's stated goal remains - to ensure that the current island border arrangements are maintained to the greatest extent possible.

Before I conclude, I should mention that my Department also has responsibilities in respect of emergency planning and Civil Defence. The office of emergency planning, OEP, of which I am chairman, is a joint civil-military office within the Department and supports the incumbent Minister in the role of chairman of the Government task force on emergency planning. The task force oversees the emergency planning preparations in Departments and the public authorities under their aegis. The OEP supports sustained public awareness and reassurance regarding a whole-of-Government approach to emergency planning and responses to national level emergencies and crises. The OEP liaises both nationally and at international level on risk and best practices in emergency planning.

Civil Defence is a statutory volunteer based organisation with units located in each local authority area. The organisation is managed and developed at national level through the Civil Defence branch of my Department. It provides second line support to the principal response agencies, which are An Garda Síochána, the HSE, and the local authorities, and other State bodies for a broad range of operations and events. There are some 4,500 trained and active volunteers in the Civil Defence who provide essential supports in time of need. The Department of Defence has recently commenced a wide ranging review of the roles of the Civil Defence, which is important given that the Civil Defence was established as far back in 1951. A wide range of stakeholders are being consulted on the future direction of the Civil Defence, including the principal response agencies and the Civil Defence officers in the local authorities. As part of the consultation process the Department organised eight regional volunteer consultation meetings which took place in October and November 2018. I am pleased to report that over 400 volunteers attended these meetings, which allowed volunteers to air their views on the future development of the Civil Defence and to contribute to a roadmap for the development of the Civil Defence over the next ten to 15 years. I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend some of these meetings and to meet some of the volunteers.

Finally, with regard to the decade of centenaries and the desire to ensure a successful commemorative programme, both the staff of my Department and members of the Defence Forces continue to work closely with the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the Department of the Taoiseach on planning for appropriate Defence Forces input to the various centenary events that will occur between now and 2023.

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the Seanad this evening and I look forward to hearing Members' thoughts and views on defence matters. I have tried to touch on a number of current issues that have been raised in the House and I will be delighted to address these and any further issues of interest later. I tried to cover as much as possible in my statement.


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