Wednesday, 27 February 2019
Defence Matters: Statements
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am substituting for our party's defence spokesperson, Senator Wilson, who is otherwise engaged in his capacity as party Whip. He has been kind enough to provide me with a brief and he asked me to raise some issues on his behalf, which I am happy to do. Before that, however, I wish to say that I have immense respect for our Defence Forces - land, sea and air - as does the entire population. We are proud of them and they do us proud in everything they do. They are loyal to the State and to their commander-in-chief, if that is the proper term, Uachtarán na hÉireann. The current President, Michael D. Higgins, has always acknowledged and appreciated their service and has always given them a proper profile at his functions.
I must state a conflict of interest insofar as in a number of my elections to the Seanad I was nominated by the Irish Conference of Professional and Service Associations, of which the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, and the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, are constituent bodies. I was very proud to receive that nomination and through engaging with those bodies I believe I have an enhanced insight into the operations of our Defence Forces, which has made me admire them even more. In my youth I was a member of Forsa Cosanta Áitiúil, FCA, which sadly is no longer with us and has been replaced by the Reserve Defence Force. It was a very formative and useful experience when I was growing up. Many young people were taught life skills, discipline and patriotism through being members of the FCA. At a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence, we heard from a delegation from the Reserve Defence Force. I ask the Minister of State to attend closely to what it has presented to him as its representatives make some very valid points.
To return to Senator Wilson's concerns, he has stated that since 1992 the Defence Forces have undergone eight re-organisations or reviews.That is an average of one every three years. It has resulted in turmoil, relocation, uncertainty and confusion for the members of the Defence Forces. Such tensions and family displacements are not conducive to ensuring optimum operational viability, certainty or good morale. The Defence Forces have been an easy target for cost-cutting. Their unreserved loyalty and professionalism have perhaps been taken advantage of. Policy has become a matter of fitting them into a particular budget envelope.
Senator Wilson raised very strongly the point that the lowest paid public servants in the country were the members of the Defence Forces. They alone, of all public service organisations, do not have the option to strike. This should be valued. To a certain extent, one must ask whether they are being punished for their responsible non-action. If somebody has a weapon he or she is not using, it is incumbent on us to appreciate this and try to find other ways to bring the Defence Forces forward. We all know that a large number of members of the Defence Forces are dependent on supplementary social welfare income to feed themselves and their families. That is seriously wrong and shows very serious disrespect for the armed forces. In October two Naval Service vessels were unable to set sail owing to crew shortages, while reservists were brought in to plug gaps on another ship. The Chief of Staff said he would make a direct plea to the Public Service Pay Commission. It is clear that he is losing trust in the Department and the Minister of State in the management of this crisis. At the PDFORRA conference in October it was highlighted how large numbers of soldiers, sailors and Air Corps staff were buying themselves out of the Defence Forces because they were unhappy with their pay and conditions. PDFORRA has stated that since the start of 2018 more than 170 personnel have paid money to leave the service. More than 1,200 have done so in the past six years, with some paying up to €40,000. The association has also stated personnel are not being properly paid for working additional hours, which may mean that some are being paid less than the national minimum wage. According to a retired regimental sergeant major, Noel O’Callaghan, a leading member of a close knit group which is steering the campaign, almost 1,800 Defence Force members are in receipt of family income supplement, a matter to which I have referred.
New information provided for Fianna Fáil shows that at the end of November 2018 there were more than 9,000 personnel serving in the Defence Forces. This compared with a figure of 9,219 in late 2017. The fall comes despite more than 600 recruits having been taken on during the period. The current agreed level for the Defence Forces is 9,500. At this stage it would be progress to reach that level. It has been estimated that 25% of senior Air Corps pilot posts remain unfilled owing to the absence of suitably qualified and experienced candidates. On a cost-benefit analysis alone, given that the cost of training a pilot is around €1.5 million, such a policy would have the combined effect of ultimately saving money and enhancing operational capacity. It takes six years to train a bomb disposal officer, with two years of specialist training being added to his or her four-year science or engineering university degree course. Specialist Naval Service deck officers require years of intensive training to be able to man the bridge of a naval ship. To achieve this wide spectrum of specialist and unique competencies, the State invests vast resources of time and money. The failure to focus on retaining these specialist skills across the Army, the Air Corps and the Naval Service not only undermines capability, it is also a very serious waste of scarce resources
Another matter very close to Senator Wilson's heart is that of Dún Uí Neill barracks in his county of Cavan. When it was closed, nobody thought there was any real risk of violence returning to the Border region, but, unfortunately, we have seen indications that we are not at all secure in that respect. As the Brexit fracas continues to weave and meander its strange way through Westminster, there is a vacuum in the North because of the failure of the two main parties to engage successfully to restore government in the North. Where there is a vacuum in politics, there is always an avenue for people of violence, of which we have seen a little recently in Derry and other places. Whereas I am not one to predict doom and gloom or anything like it, we have to be conscious of this issue. The public are conscious that we are not terribly far away from something that could precipitate another 30 years of the useless, wasteful tragedy of sectarian violence with which we grew up. The Army needs to be ready, supported and funded. If that is not done, we will be taking some very serious risks.
My final comments are on Jadotville, an issue which has been raised several times by my colleague Senator Craughwell. I will not delay the Minister of State, but the people concerned have been campaigning for a long time and the public know that they are right. Insofar as he is able to do so, I ask the Minister of State to comply with their reasonable requests.