Seanad debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

3:30 pm

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State to the House for what has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate. I will focus on a human aspect of this issue, namely, the standard of living and working conditions endured by members of the Defence Forces. Ireland has never been a militaristic nation; we are too small for that and it has not been part of our culture. In fact, our predecessors spent much of their lives struggling against the imperial armies of our nearest neighbour. Nonetheless, we are entitled to have a solid defence corps available to the nation in a time of crisis. Fortunately, we have been spared some of the terrible atrocities that have arisen in recent decades out of the religious conflicts that are going on all over the world, particularly in the Middle East. However, we might not always be so lucky and, in such circumstances, we will be shouting for the Army and the Garda to defend our interests, as they have done before. Indeed, many members of both organisations have given their lives in the service of this country.

Defence Forces personnel may not be strong in numbers and they do not have the voting power of some of the larger organised groups such as teachers, nurses or even gardaí. Their power tends to be concentrated in areas where the garrisons are located, such as the Curragh Camp and Athlone. However, they are held in high regard throughout the country. We have all heard the sad tales related to Joe Duffy on the notorious edition of "Liveline" and on other programmes about how married men with families are trying to scrape a basic living while at the same time rendering proud service in the uniform.All of us will have taken great pride in observing the ceremonial value of the Army in 2016 and again this year. We see how Army personnel enhance all the functions they perform for An Uachtaráin in Áras an Uachtaráin. They add quality and prestige to those occasions. We have seen the way in which they have gone into our schools and talked to young people about our history, flag and so on. There is a deep-seated respect for the Army throughout the country. People are fed up with its members being pushed around.

The Minister of State has been in the wars lately and I will not add to his trials and tribulations. He has had enough of them but he is well able to deal with them. That is his role. However, the commission's report must be seen as a start, although not a great start, and it will be up to the Minister of State and future Governments to deliver on what it promises. I do not want to repeat what has been said but the publication of the report will not in itself stop the haemorrhaging of members from the Defence Forces that we have witnessed in recent years. Record numbers are continuing to leave. Senator Craughwell worked out that the pay increase will amount to 96 cent per day for some members. Will that stop people leaving the Army? The commission found that 60% of enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers had indicated they intended to leave the Defence Forces in the next two years.

The measures have cost €10 million, which is barely one third of the €29 million underspend in the Department's pay budget in 2018. There is no doubt from the report that the commission knows that its recommendations are just the beginning of what is needed. I repeat that this is only a start and people will expect the serious business to take place from now on.

From the outset, the commission was hamstrung by its very terms. The numbers serving in the Defence Forces have fallen below 9,000 and morale is on the floor. Pay and conditions are one issue but members feel abandoned in respect of a range of other issues also. We witnessed the embarrassment of the messed up arrangements for repatriating troops from abroad, which caused great upset for the troops and their distraught families. The decline has left the force with just 8,847 personnel at the end of March, which is 653 below the current agreed strength. The Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mellett, stated: "You are always going to have a churn and a churn is healthy, but I would rather it be down about 5 per cent rather than the 8.1 per cent it is at present." The UK Government declared it a crisis when the equivalent level in Britain reached 5%. That should be a wake-up call for us.

It is clear to my party that a pay body must be established for the Permanent Defence Force which would reflect the unique nature of military service in the broader context of pay and allowances. The Taoiseach has been in denial, citing recruitment campaigns when challenged during Leaders' Questions, but the commission makes it clear that current recruitment processes must be reviewed as the continued acceleration in recruitment activity in the absence of equivalent retention is kicking the can down the road.

I am proud to be one of the Senators who receives his nomination to contest the Seanad election by the Irish Conference of Professional and Service Associations, ICPSA, which body represents, among others, RACO and PDFORRA. In my involvement with those individuals, I have yet to meet a finer, more upstanding body of men and women. RACO and PDFORRA should have had an input into the report because they have certainly been underwhelmed by its outcome. As the Minister of State is aware, legal proceedings are ongoing but I hope that, as he promised, the increases will come into effect immediately.

The outlays associated with developing a full range of military skills can amount to €1.4 million for an ordnance bomb disposal officer at captain rank or €1.72 million for a captain in the Air Corps. The cost of training one officer cadet is estimated at more than €100,000 per student. Recruitment is costly and even more costly when it comes without a retention policy to back it up at the other end. Retention is not only about remuneration. There are fundamental organisational and structural issues within the Defence Forces. The most fundamental retention issue is the working time directive, which many members referred to, whose protection has been denied to members of the Defence Forces. While I will not say the Taoiseach and Minister of State were not singing from the same hymn sheet in some of their recent statements, they were certainly not singing in the same key. This caused some confusion, as Senator Craughwell noted. I am not privy to the additional documentation the Minister of State presented to the House but I look forward with interest to seeing it.

The Defence Forces have been an easy target for cost-cutting. Advantage has been taken of the unreserved loyalty and professionalism of Defence Forces members. Defence policy must become more than merely fitting the Defence Forces into a budget envelope.


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