Wednesday, 27 February 2019
Defence Matters: Statements
-----Senator Higgins's sentiments particularly about the Operation Sophia arrangement. For years we have been signing up to various international arrangements, many quite positive for the Irish Defence Forces in respect of experience and our general commitment to securing peace around the world. Notwithstanding that, however, and despite the reassurances given by successive Ministers for Defence, there is no doubt that our neutrality is being compromised, piece by piece. Some might say a new reality faces us globally and our Defence Forces and policy may need to adapt. I think most of us in this House can agree that our neutrality is something that should be defended and respected. We are famed for our neutrality.
In my own work, even as a Minister of State in an entirely different context, when I was abroad, other governments often mentioned that it was respected, valued and cherished and Ireland's bona fides was always accepted because of our neutrality and the way we manage our defence situation and our history of neutrality. We should continue to value it and never undermine it.We all talk about how we value the Defence Forces personnel, their families and the commitment they make to our country. However, I agree with Senator McFadden that all too often we just pay lipservice. The value we say we place in the Defence Forces is not always reflected in the way we remunerate their work, their commitment to our country and the sacrifices they make. This is no ordinary job. We know that. It is galling and plain wrong to see about 80% of Defence Forces personnel earning less than the average public sector wage. It is extraordinary and a really sad commentary on the situation. Too many rely on the working family payment to supplement meagre incomes. Defence Forces personnel make enough sacrifices without having to rely on the working family payment. No full-time working individual should have to rely on it to make ends meet. There is no dignity in that. We really need to focus on the work of the Public Sector Pay Commission and the work that is being done by RACO and PDFORRA. I compliment the campaigning work of the families and partners of Defence Forces personnel to draw attention to the pay injustices that are inherent in the system.
This problem did not just emerge today or yesterday. It has been ongoing, as we all know. Successive Governments have to take responsibility for it. Nobody here is entirely blameless. Everybody has responsibility in this regard. I have been reading media reports from last week on the EU training mission, EUTM, camp in Mali, an operation in which 20 Irish personnel are involved. The camp came under attack from suspected al-Qaeda operatives. There could have been a lot of fatalities, including of Irish personnel but, thankfully, there were not. It illustrates the sacrifices that are made by Defence Forces personnel abroad to protect our values, to protect democracy and spread peace and security.
Far too many active and retired Defence Forces personnel struggle day in, day out. Often, retired members are coming from an institutionalised background, where they are used to strict military discipline, and find it difficult to adapt to life on civvy street, as it might be described. There are very high levels of relationship breakdown, addiction issues and psychiatric problems among members of the Defence Forces and former serving members. I pay tribute to the work of the Organisation of National Ex-service Personnel, ONE, in supporting our veterans. I am sure the Minister of State will join me in that. We often forget about our veterans, who have made very serious sacrifices to represent and defend the interests of our democracy. ONE spearheaded a very important and effective campaign to raise public awareness of the issue of homelessness for our former Defence Forces members. Despite its good work in providing very significant levels of accommodation in Dublin and elsewhere, far too many former members of the Defence Forces find themselves homeless and in difficulty. During ONE's campaign, former Defence Forces personnel raised awareness of homelessness by wrapping themselves in a tricolour sleeping bag. That was a very effective way of illustrating the problem and it goes to show why we need to resource ONE to work with the difficult cases it encounters every day and the difficult situations in which veterans find themselves. They deserve our respect and genuine support, financial and otherwise, not just our lipservice or tokenistic support.
I was surprised to learn that there is no full-time psychiatrist employed by the Defence Forces. Perhaps the Minister of State would elaborate on this. I understand that moves may be afoot to try to retain the services of a locum psychiatrist. We have a Defence Forces complement of almost 10,000. Given some of the experiences they face on the front line, the job they do and the difficult scenarios they face in defending our country and representing Ireland on UN missions, our veterans often experience post-traumatic stress disorder. It is really important we focus on the need to engage the services of experienced psychiatric personnel to work with serving members of the Defence Forces to work through any issues they may have. If those issues are not dealt with in the workplace and people are not supported in those scenarios, we store up problems for the future.