Tuesday, 9 July 2019
Defence Matters: Statements
I welcome the Minister of State to the House to take these statements. I acknowledge that he would like to have seen a lot more done on the issue of remuneration of Defence Forces personnel. What we do have is Cabinet approval for €10 million in funding for this area, based on the recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission. I was disappointed by that allocation, which does not adequately reflect the recognition due to members of the Defence Forces for the security, care and assistance they provide to the State at vital intervals. They are fantastic ambassadors for the country. Their deployment abroad operates under the triple lock system, which requires a UN mandate, followed by approval by the Government and, finally, approval by Dáil Éireann. I remember clearly when I was a Member of the European Parliament attending a committee meeting where there was a clear effort by certain people to undermine the EU operation to Chad, which included the participation of Irish troops. The operation was under the command of an Irish officer and was concerned with providing security around internally displaced person, IDP, sites and refugee camps where more than 570,000 people were based. Six months after the operation was fully in place, it was interesting to hear a senior member of the British army report back to the committee that the Irish troops had achieved more in six months in establishing good relations with the general population of the area than the French army had achieved in the previous 30 years. That was a serious compliment from a member of the British defence forces and clear evidence of the commitment of the Irish Army to its overseas operations. It is important to recognise that commitment. It is not just about providing security and protection for people in conflict zones but also sending a clear message across Europe and the world that the Irish Defence Forces are there in a peacekeeping role.
One of the issues that greatly concerns me is the lack of affordability of suitable housing for members of the Defence Forces. I acted in a legal capacity in the past on behalf of a large number of ordinary soldiers who wished to purchase three-bedroom, semi-detached houses. They were able to do that on the salaries they had then. We all know how much things have changed in terms of incomes and the cost of housing, but it is important to note that even if a member of the Defence Forces has €100,000 in the bank today, he or she will not be able to buy the same three-bedroom, semi-detached house. We must examine how we can make it possible for personnel to access accommodation of the standard they enjoyed in the past and should continue to enjoy in the future.
We are facing several major challenges in this country at this time. Opposition Members have criticised the Government for the difficulties in which Defence Forces personnel find themselves, but part of the problem is that because we have full employment, we are competing with many other employers. That is the greatest challenge we face on this issue. No matter what remuneration we offer within the Defence Forces, there are competitors who are able to offer a much better level of pay and better supports. We must work out how to offer appropriate allowances while staying within the public sector guidelines on pay and conditions.
My final point is to note that we have recruited more than 41,000 additional people in the public sector in recent years. It is a bone of contention for me that 16,000 of those were recruited by the Health Service Executive. I am not questioning the need to prioritise healthcare provision, but I am seriously concerned that there is no strategy in place to ensure we get value for money in employing people. There is no doubt that we get value for money for the personnel we employ in the Defence Forces. We must see how we can further improve the offer that is on the table and ensure working conditions are attractive enough to retain people in the forces.