Wednesday, 27 February 2019
Defence Matters: Statements
Tá fáilte is fiche roimh an Aire Stáit as a bheith linn don phlé. The Minister of State is very welcome to the House for these statements. I note and appreciate his indication that he has come to the House with a listening ear. Like Senator McFadden and other Members who have spoken, however, I feel a sense of deja vúaround the contributions thus far. Like other speakers, therefore, I hope we get to hear some concrete and credible proposals that will begin the process of making an impact and tangible difference to the lives of members of the Defence Forces and their families. I have two matters to raise. The first is the erosion of our neutrality. I disagree with what my colleague, Senator Craughwell, said in this regard. The second is the issue of working conditions and pay of members of the Defence Forces.
Many people are deeply concerned that there has been a consistent drip-feed of measures which are incompatible with neutrality. A few months ago, Fine Gael MEPs produced a document which argued that our neutral position should be compromised to facilitate greater European integration. Several EU leaders, including Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel, have made it clear that they would like to see the establishment of an EU army. I am also concerned that there is evidence that the European Defence Agency is commandeering funding streams such as those for small and medium businesses and social funding streams at EU level for defence projects. A number of these have been successful. The State has recently signed up to participation in PESCO projects which many believe are the foundation for greater EU defence integration and, ultimately, an EU army. Fine Gael MEPs recently voted in the European Parliament in favour of a report calling for each member state to spend 2% of current GDP on defence. Currently, the State spends 0.3% of GDP on defence. The Minister of State must clarify whether he supports this position and intends to raise defence spending in line with other member states. While Sinn Féin supports increased investment in our Defence Forces, in particular to address issues such as pay, we have huge concerns at proposed increases to align us with the European militarisation agenda. This is particularly so in the face of the need for more houses and an improvement in our health services. Sinn Féin has produced a Bill that seeks to enshrine neutrality in the Constitution through a referendum. We believe that most people wish to preserve our neutral status and that any change to that status is a matter for the people, not the Government.
With respect to working conditions for Defence Forces personnel, there have been substantial cuts in pay and allowances. There is a serious issue with retention and recruitment. This has been recognised by the Public Service Pay Commission which is currently examining the issue. Its report was due last year but has been delayed. Numbers have fallen in the Defence Forces from 9,173 at the end of 2017 to 8,975 at the end of 2018. The optimum number is 9,500. Experienced and trained staff are leaving in their droves for the private sector where they can obtain better pay and conditions. The Defence Forces have little or no collective bargaining rights, are prohibited from joining or affiliating with trade unions and cannot strike. Sinn Féin has proposed legislation to provide collective bargaining rights for the Defence Forces and gardaí. The European Committee of Social Rights upheld a case taken by PDFORRA, which represents the ordinary rank and file membership of the Defence Forces, to establish greater collective bargaining rights of Defence Forces' members, although it also stated that the prohibition against strike action was appropriate. Currently, members of the Defence Forces are exempt from the provisions of the working time directive and are required to work extensive hours at very short notice. While many members accept this is a feature of the job to some extent, the issue has been exacerbated by the fact that highly expert personnel have left and those remaining have seen their workloads increase. There are a number of cases being taken in relation to this matter. While the Government has said an internal working group is examining the matter, it refuses to give further details as there are cases ongoing. To me, that sounds like a cop-out. The Government committed to bringing forward legislation on this in 2016 but we have seen no progress. Instead, members of the Defence Forces have been forced to take cases to the High Court, which is a disgraceful necessity.
I note the remarks of the Minister of State on Brexit - all two and a half sentences of them. His last sentence unnerves me in that it says the Government's stated goal remains to ensure current all-island border arrangements are maintained to the greatest extent possible. That is not what the Government is saying. The Government is saying there will be no hard border on the island and that, come hell or high water, there will be no infrastructure, mechanics or manifestation in any way of a hard border. I heard that reaffirmed as recently as this morning at the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality by the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, who was before the committee to discuss Garda numbers and the Garda presence along the Border. The Minister of State might, therefore, reassure the people listening and watching carefully in that regard. I listened to Senator Craughwell refer to war games along the Border and preparations for this stuff. The Border is made up of people's back yards and farming fields. It consists of stone bridges and country lanes. I sure as hell hope we are not preparing in that fashion. I am not saying this to be combative or to undermine any steps the Minister of State must take, but we have one stated and clear position from the Government on the return of any border and something that is a little bit more opaque and different in the statement he made this afternoon. He might take the opportunity to reassure me in that regard.
I have mentioned to the Minister of State before the approach from his Department to recruitment north of that invisible border. I attend a number of major events, including festivals and maritime events, at which significant organisations seek to recruit members. These include university freshers' fairs at which I have not seen a presence on the part of the Defence Forces despite the considerable interest in the service in the community in the North. Many young men and women approach me on foot of my role in the Seanad to see if there are avenues along which they might proceed and to secure letters of support. I appreciate that this comes at the Minister of State from leftfield a little bit. As such, I will follow up with him in writing on that.