Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

10:30 am

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent) | Oireachtas source

The Minister of State is welcome. I congratulate him, the Defence Forces and his Department on the launch of the symposium on the brigade activity reports on the military service pensions collection on Saturday at Cathal Brugha Barracks. It was a tremendous success. The members of the public who were present were extremely impressed by the work done by the military archives. It is a great feather in the Minister of State's cap. Once again, the military showed that it was capable of stepping up to the plate in performing anything asked of it.

The Minister of State mentioned the White Paper, with the issue of retention and recruitment. Unless I have misread it, there is nothing in the White Paper about retention. There is something in it about recruitment, there is but absolutely nothing in it about retention. As my colleague Senator Ned O'Sullivan has pointed out, the finest of men and women whom it has cost the state tens of thousands of euros to train are walking out the door hand over fist. In fact, some are so anxious to get out that they are spending up to €40,000 to do so. That is the first problem with the White Paper. I hope the Minister of State is going to tell us that the review of it in July will include a major section on retention policy.

Another issue about which I have some concerns is the distribution of the Defence Forces. There is a battalion in County Donegal and another in Dundalk, but we really do not have a whole lot more until we move south of a line running from Dublin to Galway. There are troops in Dublin but in insufficient numbers to deal with the requirements of its various military centres. This means that troops from County Donegal, Dundalk and Athlone are travelling to Dublin to carry out standard barrack duties. Troops from Galway are travelling to Portlaoise to guard Portlaoise Prison. Clearly, there is a mismatch between the requirements of the State and the locations of soldiers.

Has the Minister of State or his Department war-gamed the possibility of having to secure the Border, as was done in 2010 during the foot and mouth disease crisis? If we have to have a border, we will need to have troops available. At this stage, nobody can say there will not be a border. People laughed at me in 2016 when I said it might happen. It is now looking very likely that it will, unless some miracle takes place.

Language is everything and I really object to the use of the term "neutrality". Ireland is not neutral and never has been. It is a militarily non-aligned state. If we were to be neutral, we would have to spend the money Finland and various other countries spend to guarantee neutrality.

I turn to the Air Corps and the recommissioning of officers. I would like to ask the Minister of State about this flawed project. It has failed and no new pilots will be commissioned this year. Two former officers will be recommissioned in the coming weeks, but it will not stem the exodus. It is shocking to think that as many as ten pilots will leave the Air Corps this year and with a recommended pilot crew strength of 107, the Air Corps is now in serious deficit. We also know that there is a serious shortage of aircraft mechanics and that the strength of air traffic controllers is only at 50%. I know that the Minister of State's office has been contacted by at least one qualified air traffic controller seeking direct entry and to my knowledge he has not received a reply. He is currently working as an air traffic controller in the Middle East. I will leave it at that with him.

I have been on my feet in this Chamber warning that what was going on for the past two years would lead to the depletion we have. We cannot replace experienced people with recruits. I know the Minister of State has tried on the recruitment side, but unless we change the terms and conditions, it simply will not happen.

The shortage of pilots in the commercial sector is encouraging Air Corps pilots to leave. Most of them can double the salary they get in the Defence Forces when they work for private airlines and they get greatly improved terms and conditions of employment. The key to retention therefore is to offer comparable and competitive salary, and terms and conditions. Some will argue that people do not join the Defence Forces for the money, but that argument cannot be used if they are living in very poor circumstances

Recommissioning is causing consternation among those in the Air Corps. Some pilots who have been loyal to the State are somewhere close to the ranks of those who are re-entering. I understand one is a lieutenant colonel and one is a captain. The pilots in the Air Corps need to know that their promotional opportunities will not be impeded by these people coming back. I understand they are to come back on a short-term contract for three years. I would want an assurance that that contract will roll over every three years and that they will not be allowed to compete against colleagues who have remained in the Defence Forces. They will come in and stay in as short-term commissions. I wonder what happens to the lump sum they were paid when they left if they qualified for a pension. Do they have to refund that in order to return? A Deputy who loses his or her seat and subsequently becomes a Senator must return any moneys he or she got.

RACO, the commissioned officers' association, has had consultation with the Minister of State. I hope it was meaningful consultation and that he took its concerns on board, particularly with regard to competition for promotion.

In August 2018 the Department of Defence committed to establish a sub-committee of the conciliation council to progress the issue of the working time directive. Officials promised terms of reference by the end of September 2018. Now five months on, those terms of reference have not been forthcoming, despite monthly requests by the representative associations. What is causing this delay? When will the terms of reference be issued? I am aware that the military management working group’s report was submitted to the general staff and Department two weeks ago. Does the Minister of State have any update on this? Has this report being shared with the representative associations? What steps is the Minister of State taking to ensure there are no further cases against the State on the implementation of the working time directive? The Minister of State will be aware that on 12 March, three cases will come before the courts. Once a case goes to the courts, it goes to the State Claims Agency. However, can we do something to stop claims coming forward now to get the working time directive operating? There are plenty of examples throughout Europe where the working time directive has been implemented and works well.

The Minister of State spoke about Vote 36 covering the pay and conditions of 9,500 Defence Forces personnel. I believe the actual number in the Defence Forces now is approximately 9,200 and operationally it is around 8,500. What happens to the surplus money that is not paid out? Can we not use that money to improve the lot of soldiers who are in place?

The Minister of State mentioned Brexit and this brings me back to the issue of the Border. If the Brits crash out of the European Union on 29 March and we are forced to have a border in place, I ask the Minister of State to reassure me that we have places to accommodate those members of the Defence Forces who will be sent to the Border regions. We have lost the barracks in Monaghan and Cavan. Have we war-gamed? Have we earmarked the accommodation that may be necessary should our soldiers have to travel there?

The Minister of State today spoke about three Defence Forces: the Permanent Defence Force; the Reserve Defence Force and the Civil Defence. I have worn all the uniforms and served in all of them. When I was a lad every Tuesday night on every corner there were four or five Reserve Defence Force lads waiting to go for training. Every Sunday morning there were trucks all over Galway city to bring them to the range, bring them on exercise or whatever. That has gone. I understand there are less than 2,000 active available Reserve Defence Force personnel. Clearly a major job of work needs to be done to re-establish the Reserve Defence Force in the way it was. What in the White Paper caused this collapse?

The Minister of State spoke about the approximately 4,500 members of the Civil Defence. I think he will find a number of them are across-----


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