Wednesday, 24 May 2017
Defence Matters: Statements
I am delighted to be in the Seanad once again to speak on defence matters. I know this is a matter close to every Member of both Houses of the Oireachtas and to the people in general. I am very glad of the opportunity to speak on the important issue this afternoon. I want to use this opportunity to acknowledge the service of the men and women of the Irish Defence Forces and to outline the Government's commitment to investing in the Defence Forces. We all owe a deep debt of gratitude to those who serve in the Defence Forces, both the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve Defence Force, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the State. I take this opportunity to recognise their patriotic service and the enormous contribution that members of the Defence Forces have made and, to this day, continue to make to peacekeeping duties.
For close to 60 years, the Defence Forces have played a vital role as peacekeepers all over the world in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The Defence Forces' 66,000 individual tours of duty in UN and UN-mandated peace support missions to date is a tangible demonstration of this country’s commitment to the pursuit of international peace and security. Today, more than 600 members of the Permanent Defence Force are serving overseas in various parts of the world, which reflects the Government’s continued commitment to our responsibilities in the area of peacekeeping.
Defence policy and the resourcing and implementation of that policy are grounded on the realistic and ongoing assessment of the defence and security environment, including domestic and international factors. Conflict and tensions in eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and elsewhere will continue to challenge international peace and security. Following a period of apparent stability, new and serious conflicts have erupted adjacent to the EU, which have challenged perceptions about the stability of the broader European region. The suddenness of recent crises has once again highlighted the unpredictability of the security environment, reigniting concerns that have not been seen since the end of the Cold War. The threat to Ireland as a target of international terrorism remains under constant review, taking into account developing security threats, including identified common risks that arise for western democracies generally.
At this point, I want to acknowledge the loss of life in the terrorist attack in Manchester earlier this week, and convey my own personal sympathies and those of the Government to those affected. In common with its European partners, Ireland is particularly concerned by the risk posed by persons travelling to certain conflict zones and the potential threat when they return. There is also concern regarding the process of radicalisation and there are a range of influences, including the internet, which can enable this process. It is a fact that any potential conflicts affecting member states of the EU present serious concerns for Ireland and the future outlook is likely to remain unpredictable in the coming years.
The White Paper on Defence, approved by Government in July 2015, provides the strategic and comprehensive defence policy framework for the next decade. This policy framework is flexible and responsive, given the dynamic nature of the security environment and enables the defence organisation to be adaptive to changing circumstances and to use resources as effectively as possible.
I want to state clearly that this Government is committed to supporting the men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann. They serve our country, at home and abroad, with great distinction. In the budget for 2017, I secured an extra €16 million for defence. This provides enough resources to pay for the Defence Forces at a full strength of 9,500. It is an extra €7 million for capital spending, bringing the capital allocation up to €74 million, a 10% increase. It also includes an extra €6 million for pensions.
It is not just the men and women of the Defence Forces that we are investing in. We are also investing in the equipment and platforms that they have available so that they can carry out their duties in an effective and safe manner. The Naval Service ships replacement programme has delivered three new offshore patrol vessels. Last year, the Government signed a contract for a fourth new vessel which will be delivered in mid-2018. When complete, the total contract value for the four ships will be close to €270 million.
We are also investing in the Air Corps, with plans in place to buy new aircraft. A replacement Pilatus aircraft will be delivered this year at a cost of €5 million plus VAT. The White Paper provides that the Cessna fleet is to be replaced with three larger aircraft suitably equipped for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance tasks. On 4 May last, the Department initiated a tender competition when it advertised the specifications for the new aircraft. The White Paper also provides for the replacement of the Air Corps’ two CASA CN-235 maritime patrol aircraft with consideration to be given to their replacement with larger, more capable aircraft, which would enhance maritime surveillance and provide a greater degree of utility for transport and cargo-carrying tasks.
Earlier this year, I was delighted to award a €50 million contract for a maintenance and upgrade programme for the Army’s current fleet of 80 armoured personnel carriers, APCs, which will seek to ensure viability of the fleet to 2030. A number of armoured logistical and utility vehicles are also being procured for the purposes of enhancing force protection. This will cost in the region of €5 million.
Capital funding is leading to the construction of significant work across barracks, including works in Baldonnel, the Curragh, Haulbowline, Kilkenny, Limerick, and in Dublin, in Cathal Brugha and McKee Barracks, and also in the equitation school.
The approach to manpower development of the Defence Forces is guided by the operational requirements of each of the three services.Personnel are posted on the basis of operational needs across the organisation at home and abroad. As there is significant turnover of personnel in the Permanent Defence Force, targeted recruitment takes place so as to maintain personnel numbers at or near the agreed strength levels. All efforts are currently being directed at recruitment in order to return the Defence Forces to their approved establishment.
In order to ameliorate the challenges associated with the turnover of personnel, a continuous yearly recruitment drive is operated by the Defence Forces and 590 general service recruits were inducted in 2016, along with 100 cadets between all services. Regular competitions are held for the recruitment of enlisted personnel, cadets and other staff, and remained in place during 2011 which was the worst recession in the State.
General service and cadetship competitions were launched earlier this year and a total of 5,209 general service applications and 3,466 cadet applications have been received. Cadet and general service recruitment campaigns are currently active, with historically high levels of recruitment being pursued. The Defence Forces are planning for the induction of up to 900 new entrants in 2017. That will include 100 new cadets in September this year.
Promotions are ongoing within the officer ranks in order to fill rank vacancies. In addition, a new NCO promotion competition to fill vacancies to the rank of sergeant and above has been launched. Promotions from the order of merit lists from this competition will commence in the third quarter of 2017. It is my intention that promotions will continue to be carried out within the resource envelope allocated to defence.
Retention of specialised personnel, such as pilots and air traffic control, ATC, personnel in the Air Corps, is a significant challenge in light of the demands arising for such skills in a growing economy. Air Corps personnel are an attractive employment source for other airlines and air service providers given their experience and training. Every effort is being made to address the current shortages in personnel faced by the Air Corps.
Following the Air Corps apprenticeship competition which was held earlier this year, it is planned that 25 new Air Corps apprentices will be inducted in late September 2017 to commence their training. Actions are also under way to return to a full level of ATC services by the Air Corps which will facilitate a gradual extension of operational hours for ATC services in Baldonnel over the year as newly qualified personnel develop their experience.
In terms of remuneration, pay and conditions of employment in the Defence Force are set by reference to relative levels of pay across the various sectors of the Irish public sector. The Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Acts 2009 to 2015 and the Lansdowne Road agreement currently define the pay policy for public servants, to which PDFORRA and RACO have signed up. As Senators will be aware, the pay commission report was published on 9 May last and contains a very comprehensive and detailed analysis of pay and pensions issues in the public sector. Notably, it addresses issues surrounding recruitment and retention in the Irish Defence Forces.
Indeed, it should be noted that my Department made a detailed submission to the Commission setting out these very matters and this is specifically referenced by the commission in paragraph 6.13 of its report. This was done under my direction. In the context of the commencement earlier this week of pay negotiations, it would be inappropriate for me to make any further comment in this regard. I have spoken to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, about this matter.
I want to assure the House that significant work is under way in the defence organisation, both civil and military, aimed at improving the capacity of the Air Corps. The chief of staff has spoken directly to me about pay and conditions and the challenges he is facing, about which he hears from his members.
Recruitment of new personnel is also taking place. Currently there are 27 cadets, in three classes, undergoing the various stages of the Air Corps cadetship to become pilots. A return to previous levels of capability in the Air Corps will be a gradual process as pilots within the system progress to become aircraft commanders and newly qualified cadets become pilots. Actions are also under way to return a full level of air traffic control services to the Air Corps.
Air traffic control training is taking place and options to ensure the long-term sustainability of ATC services in Baldonnel are being identified. Some personnel are nearing completion of their training and a new class has recently been inducted. The Defence Forces take pride in being able to respond to requests for assistance, but it has to be borne in mind that capabilities are not specifically developed to support other agencies and for civil contingencies but, of course, their utilisation for such tasks maximises the utility of defence capabilities overall and value for money for the State.
As a result of the reorganisation, there are now more troops stationed in barracks along the west coast. There are now more personnel stationed in Donegal, Galway and Limerick. However, I recognise that there have been issues and challenges regarding personnel travelling between barracks. That is something that I and the military authorities are working to minimise. I spoke directly to the Chief of Staff about this issue on a number of occasions, including as recently as yesterday.
The second matter is that of the new position of assistant secretary general in the Department of Defence, something for which I have advocated for quite some time. In light of the major programme of policy implementation and to ensure best practice in corporate governance, sanction was received from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for an additional management board post at assistant secretary level. Working in close collaboration with military colleagues, this post will specifically increase the focus on personnel issues in defence, ensuring that we have in place a military and civilian workforce that best delivers defence outputs in accordance with assigned roles and responsibilities. The cost of the appointment is being met from within the Department’s existing resource envelope.
My Department and the Defence Forces also have responsibility for two valuable organisations that depend on volunteers, namely, the Reserve Defence Force and the Civil Defence, something I would like to go into but I am under time constraints. Both are excellent organisations that provide supports to their local communities. We have all seen the benefits of the work of both groups, and for that I highly commend them.
Regarding Brexit, I want to state that it does not give rise to fundamental strategic issues for Defence Forces' operations or for Ireland’s continuing engagement within the EU common security and defence policy, CSDP. The outcome from the negotiation process will be considered in the context of existing structures and relationships to ensure that the Defence Forces continue to fulfil the roles assigned to them by Government.
I assure Senators that the Government is committed to funding the Defence Forces and equipping them to do their duties safely and effectively. That is why we are investing money, engaging with other countries on an international basis and continuing to recruit to the Defence Forces, even in the most difficult of times. The White Paper provides the framework from which we will continue to develop and enhance our Defence Forces over the next decade. There are many other issues I could address but, unfortunately, I only have 15 minutes for my opening statement. If Members wish to raise other issues with me, I will do my best to address them. If I do not have the answers with me I will communicate directly with the Senators.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach seo inniu. Ba mhaith liom fosta fáilte mhór a chur roimh na daoine ó PDFORRA agus na clanna atá i láthair. I welcome the Minister of State. I also extend a warm welcome to the members of the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, and their families in the Visitors Gallery.
Irish people take great pride in the Defence Forces and in the contribution made by the Permanent Defence Force, the Reserve Defence Force and Civil Defence. We all agree that the single greatest asset the Defence Forces have is its personnel, yet the Defence Forces are facing huge difficulty in retaining and recruiting sufficient personnel. They are now seriously below strength and it is time to rebuild them significantly. The decline over recent years has left the Defence Forces with just 9,070 personnel, 430 below the current agreed strength. Even though a new recruitment campaign was launched in 2016, in the year to last February the number in the Defence Forces fell from 9,146 to the current number. The ongoing exit from the Defence Forces at all ranks is running at between 40 and 50 per month, a startling number. Given the horrendous actions across the pond in the UK and the real threat of terrorism, Ireland must recommit to the Defence Forces and its defence capability. Fianna Fáil believes we should seek to increase the Defence Forces strength to 10,500 in the coming year. We also believe it is important to retain the number we already have.
Since 1992 the Defence Forces have gone through eight re-organisational reviews, an average of one every three years. It is little wonder that the Defence Forces are recognised as being to the forefront in public service transformation. However, there is a significant downside to this. The Defence Forces have been the scapegoat for the Government, the easy option where it can make cuts. This has resulted in turmoil, relocation, uncertainty and confusion for all members of the Defence Forces and their families. Such tension and family displacement are not conducive to optimal operational viability and certainly not to good morale.
Figures provided to Fianna Fáil last month show there are now just 817 Army officers in the Defence Forces, a fall from 966 officers in 2002. It is a drop of more than 15%. There has been widespread concern in recent years about the depletion of the officer ranks and it is clear from the figures that the situation is becoming extremely serious. If the exodus continues and the issues continue to be ignored, there could be a serious impact on the operating capabilities of the Defence Forces. It has been reported that last year 75 officers left early, a rate that is simply unsustainable. Representative organisations say they have attempted to engage with the management to have their concerns addressed but, unfortunately, with little success. It is not just the Army that has experienced a drop in the number of officers. The Naval Service is down 7.5% and Air Corps personnel has fallen by 13.5%. It is essential that steps are taken to address the attrition rate in the Defence Forces and the loss of many highly-qualified, trained and skilled officers.
With the continuing fall in the numbers in the Permanent Defence Force, Fianna Fáil has consistently highlighted the grave concern that the departure of so many personnel could affect Defence Forces' operations and capabilities. I have had many conversations with the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, which has warned that the military is critically short of specialised officers, including pilots, aeronautical engineers and bomb disposal experts, and that a contributing factor to this brain drain has been the Department of Defence's refusal to honour conditions of service, such as previously agreed career promotional terms. The association said that this led many officers to quit as they saw no future for career development in the Defence Forces. The bomb disposal service is at half of its officer strength.
The Air Corps has been significantly short staffed in the aeronautical engineering department and has only 70% of the pilots it requires. It is estimated that 25% of senior Air Corps pilot posts remain unfilled due to the absence of suitably-qualified and experienced candidates. With known retirements this will soon increase to 38%. This starkly came to the fore following the awful tragedy off the coast of Mayo a short time ago. The Air Corps was not in a position to assist due to staffing difficulties. According to the general secretary of RACO, Commandant Earnan Naughton, the continual loss of organisational corporate memory and specialised knowledge requires immediate attention. He said that the investment required to deliver complex military capabilities requires human expertise to meet the broad spectrum of an increasingly technologically driven security environment.
The results of the Defence Forces climate survey undertaken in 2015 and published last year broadly found that personnel had become less happy with their work situation over the intervening years. While many of the respondents from all ranks said they still enjoy their work, there is a perception of a lack of justice and low morale in the organisation. Just under half of the respondents were unhappy with their career progression prospects and opportunities for promotion. There is an evident disconnect between what employees expect and how their expectations are met in many areas of pay and promotion. Almost 70% felt loyal to the Defence Forces and their values. Just 23% of members felt obliged not to look for work elsewhere. In transfers to other geographical areas some 30% felt obliged to move as requested.
Fianna Fáil believes the Defence Forces are of critical importance to both the State and society. Sadly, it has not always been clear that the Governments since 2001 have valued the defence organisations sufficiently. The decision in March 2011 to assign the defence portfolio as a subsidiary role to the Minister for Justice and Equality indicated a lack of respect for the portfolio. While it was not unreasonable to assign it with another Cabinet portfolio, to do so with the justice and equality portfolio, one of the busiest Departments, was a retrograde decision. What we require now is regular updates to be published by the Department of Defence on the progress made towards achieving the 88 separate actions. This should be done twice a year - once at the end of the year and once mid-year. The Minister could also attend meetings of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence to update members on it, perhaps a fortnight or three weeks after the publication of the report. Members of the Oireachtas could then have a detailed discussion each January, when the Houses resume, and each July, before the summer recess.
Finally, it is clear that serious steps must be taken to address the lack of respect for the Defence Forces in how they are treated. All they are seeking is to be treated with dignity and respect. We must ensure they are properly remunerated for the jobs they do, that we retain the officers we are fortunate to have at present and that we make the job more attractive so more people will join the Defence Forces.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. His speech included a great deal of information about investment in the Defence Forces, new aircraft, new ships and new everything. There was no information on serving members who do not have enough to live on. Can the Minister of State be proud of a Permanent Defence Force whose members are depending on welfare payments to make ends meet? Families are struggling to survive. I have received communications from privates, corporals and sergeants who simply cannot feed their families. When a bill comes through the letter box they must make a decision on whether they will pay the bill or buy food. That is simply not good enough especially when we are told, and perhaps the Minister of State will confirm this, that the Department returned €27 million of unused money last year.
On the issue of commuting, the Minister said the re-organisation was to meet the organisational needs of the Defence Forces.The climate survey has established that following the reorganisation, 27% of those serving in Defence Forces now want to leave because the cost of commuting is making it next to impossible for some families to live. We are hearing stories of soldiers sleeping in their cars. Will the Minister of State confirm that soldiers are travelling from Donegal, Dundalk and Athlone to carry out regular barrack duties in Dublin? If that is the case, the Minister of State will have to admit that the reorganisation of the Defence Forces has been a disaster.
Under the post-1994 contract, the introduction of which was an absolute insult, soldiers were expected to pull out after five years unless they could show they were fit enough to stay on for 12 years. Thanks to PDFORRA, that has been extended to 21 years. I ask the Minister of State to explain the exit strategy that is available to those who have to leave the Defence Forces. A young man who joins the Defence Forces at the age of 18 will be thrown on the scrapheap at the age of 39. Is an exit strategy in place to ensure these young men and women can have future careers when they leave the Defence Forces?
The Minister of State said he fought for the appointment of an assistant secretary in the Department of Defence at an annual salary of between €128,000 and €149,000. When I submitted a freedom of information request on the matter, I learned that 75 emails were exchanged between the Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I have been told that it is not in the public interest for the contents of those emails to be released. Clearly, this proposal did not receive an easy passage. Why is an assistant secretary for people needed, given that the Department of Defence has a personnel department and the Defence Forces have their own human resources section?
The use of Lariam has been referred to as a horror story in a pill. Why is this drug still on the shelves of the Defence Forces? Why are we still administering it? Has legal advice been received suggesting that it must continue to be used so that cases currently coming before the High Court can be defended? We need to start treating our soldiers with respect. The use of dangerous drugs is not the way to do that.
I would like to speak about local command and control. A lieutenant colonel who is in charge of a barracks has no control over the movements of his troops. If a guard of honour is requested at Eyre Square in Galway, the officer in charge of Dún Uí Mhaoilíosa cannot decide whether it should be provided - the matter has to go back to Dublin. What sort of nonsense is that?
When we talk about the shortages in the Air Corps, great play is made of the fact that pilots are coming on stream. Pilots on single-engine aircraft take up to five years to qualify. It can be between five and ten years before they have the experience to fly twin-engine aircraft. We will have no one to fly all the CASA airplanes we are buying. Similarly, I was contacted the other day by a qualified air traffic controller who wants to join the Defence Forces, but no one in the Department will indicate to him whether direct entry is to be allowed.
The use of the employee control framework, which was developed under the Croke Park and Lansdowne Road agreements, is nonsensical in the case of a dynamic organisation like the Defence Forces. It is not an ordinary organisation to which such a framework might be appropriate. There are very special medical, fitness and expertise capabilities that apply to the Defence Forces. My colleague who spoke about these issues on behalf of RACO is dead right. Eleven bomb disposal officers are available in this country even though the establishment figure is 35. I assure those who might think bomb disposal officers are not required that they are called out very regularly. The young men and women who are serving in these positions at present are taken from their homes to spend up to 21 days on duty.
This brings me to the issue of duty pay. A soldier gets a miserable €20 into his pocket for spending 24 hours on duty. Where else in the world would that be found? We give soldiers €20 for 16 hours of overtime. It does not matter whether it is Sunday, Saturday, Christmas Day or a bank holiday. Soldiers do such duties because they are ultimately loyal. They do their best all the time, even in the horrendous circumstances they have to face.
I want to focus on the number of officers that are available. The 28th Infantry Battalion in Donegal has no lieutenant colonel, two commandants, three captains and two lieutenants. The 27th Infantry Battalion in Dundalk has three of the 11 lieutenants it should have, one of the eight captains it should have and four of the five commandants it should have. The 7th Infantry Battalion in Cathal Brugha Barracks has one lieutenant colonel, four of the five commandants it should have, three of the eight captains it should have and one of the 11 lieutenants it should have. We are being told that the organisation is fit and ready for action. It is fit and ready for action because men and women get out of their beds to deliver when they are called on to do so, but it is not getting the resources it needs from the Department or the Government.
The Organisation of Working Time Act is coming down the line towards the Minister of State very quickly. I would love to know his plans to facilitate soldiers under that Act. A number of adjudications are outstanding, including in respect of Army ranger wing tech pay. What are the Minister of State's plans for bringing these payments forward?
The Minister of State spoke about ships. I wonder whether the public is aware that ships leave Haulbowline and anchor 20 or 25 miles off the coast because they do not have crews, that a ship had to sail into Galway to pick up an extra officer, or that ships which used to have three cooks now have just two cooks. Recently, a ship left port with just one cook to look after the entire crew. We should not pretend that the Defence Forces are fit for purpose. We should stop and rewind.
The recruits who are being brought into the Defence Forces today will take a year to be trained. That is in the other ranks. Cadets are also being brought in, but I recently heard their recruitment described as great training for Aldi. Do we really want our uniformed personnel to aspire to a job in Aldi?
The Defence Forces have been neglected by this Government and its predecessor. I ask the Minister of State to stop investing in hardware and start investing in people. He should meet some of the private soldiers - young men with families - who cannot afford to eat. I know he met members of the wives and partners group recently. I hope he took on board some of the information he was given by real people with real problems.
I thank the Chair. I will leave the points I have made with the Minister of State. We need to restore the Defence Forces as an organisation to the level of esteem it once held in our society. Right now, it is a second-level group in the public service.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I had the pleasure of welcoming him to Athlone earlier this month when he reviewed the 110th Infantry Battalion as it headed on its tour of duty. As a nation, we take great pride in the services rendered by the men and women of the Army, the Naval Service, the Air Corps, the Reserve Defence Force and the Civil Defence. We are glad to have them in times of need. When they engage in peacekeeping abroad, provide rescue services at home and save refugees in the Mediterranean, they give of themselves willingly and risk their own safety to ensure that of others. When flooding affected Athlone and many other areas in 2015, my instinctive first reaction was to call the then Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, to ask for the help of Army personnel. Yet again, they delivered by going above and beyond the call of duty to build flood defences and feed volunteers.
Our Defence Forces provide a diverse range of specialist capabilities across all services that support citizens and the State in security and crisis situations. This professionalism and dedication to demanding challenges, which is unique to military service, should be acknowledged by the Government. It is clear to me, having spoken to many members of the Defence Forces, that certain issues are having a negative effect on morale. As I said in this House last week, we must put our money where our mouth is. According to the White Paper on Defence, which was published in 2015, "defence is the ultimate guarantee of freedom". If we truly value this freedom. we must do our duty by putting in place measures and initiatives to demonstrate our commitment to these men and women.
Currently, most sectors of the Defence Forces are running below their establishment figure. This is a particular problem in specialist areas like bomb disposal, operational command, marine and electrical engineering, medicine and information technology. I am aware that the Minister of State has been working hard to address this, with 860 personnel being recruited this year in addition to the 690 personnel taken in last year.Recruitment alone, however, will not solve the problems unless retention of our most experienced staff is also tackled. We are losing them as fast as we are bringing them in. As the economy continues to recover, more and more opportunities are opening up for employment in other sectors and many serving personnel are leaving to take these opportunities up. More than 2,000 members have left the Defence Forces since 2013. We now find ourselves in a situation where many important and skilled positions are left unfilled.
We need to ensure that service in the Army is an attractive career option for young men and women. Currently, and unbelievably, enlisted recruits are among the lowest paid public employees, with a basic salary starting at just €18,000 per annum. As has been said, many rely on the family income supplement and other State supports, which speaks for itself. This is totally unacceptable. I know that many of these issues are a hangover from cuts made by the last Fianna Fáil Government, which saw Defence Forces numbers fall to 8,000. Certain allowances were withdrawn and cut. It does not matter whose fault it is, we now have to fix it. We must bring the numbers back up to 9,500 and increase the income to a level that fits the esteem in which we hold the Defence Forces. I ask the Minister to consider the case for an increase in the military service allowance, which is payable to all Defence Forces personnel. It is intended to compensate servicemen and servicewomen for the unique conditions and special disadvantages of military life, which are acknowledged by the Department of Defence in its initial submission to the Public Service Pay Commission. An increase in this allowance would benefit all personnel equally but it would not impact on the wider public service as it is a sector-specific allowance.
However, pay is not the only issue leading to demoralisation within the forces. There seem to be inordinate delays in routine matters such as progressing the 276 promotions from sergeant to sergeant major rank that are outstanding and the promotions of 107 privates to corporal. This suggests a degree of inertia within the Department and perhaps even a lack of co-operation between some officials and the military leadership. I call on the Minister of State to look at his Department in order to assess where pinch-points can be eliminated. There is a case for an increased role for military management in the area of HR policy to ensure that policy reflects the unique demands of military service.
Morale in the Army was damaged by the reorganisation of the brigade structure in 2012 and 2013. I was very vocal at the time in expressing my opposition to the removal of brigade status from Custume Barracks. The broader point, however, is that the reorganisation, as has been said earlier, has left many soldiers travelling long distances to carry out their duties. There are other issues, including pension entitlements, obligatory discharge ages, treatment for those suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder and implementation of the adjudicator’s findings for soldiers recruited after 1994 to name but a few.
While speaking of showing esteem to our Defence Forces, I appeal to the Minister of State to award individual citations and medals to each of the soldiers of A Company, 35th Infantry Battalion who were involved in the siege of Jadotville in 1961. While the unit citation was a recognition of their collective heroism and professionalism, I believe that each of them deserves individual acknowledgement.
Coming back to the current matters, I am not raising these issues to be critical. I welcome the increases in capital and current expenditure in defence and the Minister of State’s efforts to deal with the issues around recruitment and retention. What I am doing is outlining some of the challenges that we face. By addressing them in a positive and determined fashion we can show our commitment to the men and women of the Defence Forces. As we move towards the centenary of the establishment of the National Army in 1922, we must put in place the structures and the funding necessary to ensure that Óglaigh na hEireann are motivated and resourced and can start into their second century ready to meet the changing needs of our great country.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as bheith linn chun plé a dhéanamh ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. Mar atá cluinte againn go dtí seo, bíonn daoine thar a bheith paiseanta ar an ábhar seo agus is léir cén fáth. I thank the Minister of State for being with us today and for his contribution. I appreciate the fact that some Members of this House have very long-standing experience and stakes in the issues which we are discussing here today. It has been very informative and insightful to hear some of those contributions thus far and I am sure Senator Wilson will add to them after I speak.
I take the opportunity to welcome the representatives from PDFORRA and the families who are represented here today. When I get up to speak on issues like this, I sometimes wish I could instead give some of them the opportunity to stand here and say what needs to be said. I appreciate the Minister of State's input and the comprehensive report he has given. I do not think that anyone here is seeking to attack or undermine him. What we have heard so far - the collective voice from the Chamber on these issues - has been full of sincerity and has been dedicated to the men and women of the Defence Forces. There has been a very sincere and genuine aspiration to try to have some of the outstanding issues resolved. As my colleagues have outlined quite a number of those issues, I will not engage in repetition, but I wish to make a number of points while the Minister of State is here.
As has been said, the operational capacity of the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps has been stretched to breaking point and morale among rank and file personnel has never been lower. By any objective criteria, the attempts at reorganising the Army have been a disaster and when combined with the cutbacks in pay and entitlements it is hardly surprising that so many military families are struggling to cope.
The recent "Prime Time" report showed how the reorganisation of the Defence Forces has resulted in widespread poor morale, with low pay and long-term isolation from family and home being identified as the primary drivers of the exodus of personnel - many of them highly trained and experienced individuals. The impact of Government policy on the operational capacity of the Defence Forces cannot be overstated. The crux of this was outlined very comprehensively by Senator Craughwell during his contribution. I make this point very consciously because I believe this Government has shown an ideological stance that does not respect, cherish or appreciate the contribution of those held very high esteem within our society. For me it comes as no great surprise, although it is a tremendous shame, that a Government which leaves our senior citizens and pensioners on hospital trolleys, which leaves countless children up and down the State in hotel and temporary accommodation, and which puts people into direct provision in a most unsympathetic way would treat our Defence Forces personnel in this same way. It is indicative of a broader problematic culture, but one that certainly can be overturned, and which I hope will be.
It seems the Government is treating armed forces personnel unfairly, because they face a blanket ban on trade unions. This ban has been found to be an unacceptable violation of Article 11 by the European Court of Human Rights. The Government should lift the ban and allow representatives of the armed forces to negotiate the fixing of wages and conditions and ensure that they have access to the Work Place Relations Commission and Labour Court.
There is also serious concern about the well-being of personnel, especially in regard to the Government's refusal to withdraw the anti-malaria drug, Lariam, which is being routinely used when for most other countries it is a drug of last resort. This cavalier attitude to the health and well-being of personnel is also reflected in the way highly toxic and dangerous chemicals were handled at Casement Aerodrome. Trainee personnel were being exposed to dangerous, corrosive and cancerous chemicals. The health and safety protocols at Casement Aerodrome are wholly inadequate. There should be an urgent review of existing procedures and protocols at Casement Aerodrome and other military installations where Defence Forces personnel work with hazardous materials.
The State must also deal with claims by serving and retired Air Corps personnel more compassionately. In this regard, it should learn from the Australian military which has introduced compensation schemes to assist retired and serving air corp personnel whose health was compromised by working with dangerous chemicals. To reiterate Senator Craughwell's remarks, and not to diminish or downplay the issue, the Minister of State can spend all the money he wishes on material and capital investment, but unless he invests in people - people who put themselves at the front line and step up in the service of this State - then it is not worth a jot. Senator Gallagher referred to the issue of recruitment and this has been touched on by other speakers. I have a question and I hope the Minister of State will excuse my ignorance and perhaps even my naivete in this regard. How much can any recruitment drives for the Defence Forces extend to the North? We can signpost people in Derry to the Wild Atlantic Way and put billboards around Belfast directing people to Dublin Airport but I wonder if the Department is considering having personnel attending jobs and careers fairs or universities to provide the opportunity for Irish citizens from the North who may be able to step up and serve. It is perhaps a consideration for the future. I say this with the caveat that I would not direct anyone into a service that does not respect them, protect them or give them the necessary dignity to rear a family, build a home life and be able to serve their families and communities as much as they do when expected to serve the State, whether here or abroad. Sin mo mhéid.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to the House and wish him well in future with respect to appointments and promotions. I also welcome the representatives of PDFORRA and the families of service personnel. They are in the Gallery this afternoon.
This is a topic that both I and Senator Craughwell, along with others, have sought for quite some time so we very much appreciate that the Minister of State is here this afternoon. As Senator Ó Donnghaile has stated, many of the areas have been covered and I have no wish to go back over them. Suffice it to say, as my colleague, Senator Gallagher outlined, the people of this country have much respect for our Defence Forces, our Reserve Defence Forces and our Civil Defence. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure their conditions of service are appropriate and the level of equipment is fit for purpose for a modern defence force. The State's defence policy, its implementation and its resourcing must be appropriate. For our part, Fianna Fáil has committed to a defence policy that is measured, fit for purpose, appropriately resourced and which allows the Department of Defence and Defence Forces to go forward with confidence in an ever-changing world of new and emerging threats. As my colleague, Senator Gallagher, has pointed out, over the past 25 years there have been eight reorganisations or reviews within the Defence Forces. However, there is a significant downside to all of this, as it has resulted in turmoil and relocation, uncertainty and confusion for members of the Defence Forces. Such tensions and family displacements are not conducive to optimum operational viability or good morale.
The Defence Forces have been an easy target for cost-cutting and the unreserved loyalty and professionalism of its members have been taken advantage of. Policy has become a matter of fitting the Defence Forces into a particular budget, which is not acceptable. It is not the making of policy but rather the emasculation of the Defence Forces by stealth. The Defence Forces now need stability, policy and resource certainty, and my party is committed to this necessity
The Minister of State pointed out that in 2012, on the joint advice of the then chief of staff and the Secretary General of the Department of Defence it was decided to maximise operational capacity and provide for an organisation that is flexible and which can accommodate new, unexpected demands. As part of that strategy, in March 2012, the only purpose-built Army barracks in the history of the State - the most modern in Europe - was closed. This was done to maximise operational capacity and accommodate new or unexpected demands. It was pointed out by myself and other Members of this and the Lower House that this action was a mistake. We have since had an increase in dissident republican activity in the Border area and Brexit.
I am amazed to hear the Minister of State say this afternoon that Brexit will not have an effect on the operational functions of the Army. From Donegal to Louth there are no Army personnel based on the Border. It is an area with over 300 crossings and it will become a frontier. As the UK exits - I hate using that term with regard to the Six Counties of our country but as we speak they are members of the United Kingdom - the North of Ireland will no longer be part of the European Union. The British Government does not know what will be the consequences of that exit and the Irish Government certainly does not know the consequences. How can the Minister of State assure us that he is confident - as somebody responsible for the Defence Forces - there will be no impact on how the Defence Forces defend our State? It is not acceptable and I would like to hear the Minister of State's comments on that.
I appreciate that the Minister of State did not have time to deal with the Reserve Defence Force in his speech. What are the up-to-date figures for the Reserve Defence Forces? How many members does it have and what proposals are there to accommodate them in appropriate premises so they can carry out training? I pay tribute to the Civil Defence, whose members are located throughout the Twenty-six Counties, for the excellent work they do on a daily and weekly basis.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for his very comprehensive address to the Seanad on the Defence Forces. It goes without saying that as a country we are of course truly proud and grateful for the support of both the Permanent Defence Force, the Civil Defence and all other auxiliary supports around them. They do an amazing job, which is very important. It is also important for us to deal with their remuneration. I have heard stories of members of the Defence Forces having to apply for family income supplement, which is surely very disappointing for the men and women of our Defence Forces. Platitudes are not good enough and it is about supporting them through their conditions of work, ongoing training and welfare for families and children as they work on behalf of the State. The Minister of State and his Government are, correctly, very proud of their achievements, which is clear from the various ceremonies and celebrations where I have seen the Minister of State. I have no doubt he takes the role very seriously and is very committed to it.
It is time to shine a light on our Defence Forces, including the Permanent Defence Force and Civil Defence. We must deal with their wages, their terms and conditions and the health and welfare of the members and their families. I say this in the broadest sense of the word "health" as it is important that people serving this country are given the full support of the State in everything they do. That goes for remuneration and other opportunities, such as training and possibilities of promotion within every rank of the service. That is important and we should hear more about.
I wish to raise some specific issues.What is the Minister of State's vision and plan for Mullingar barracks? Is it too late to cry halt and retain the barracks, given the importance of its location? Are there opportunities to develop it for the Civil Defence or the Reserve Defence Force? We need answers to these questions because they are very important. I would be pleased if the Minister of State could share something with us today in this regard. I believe he can stop this and pull back from it. As we speak here, unless he knows something I do not, the barracks has not been sold. It is of strategic importance in the short, medium and long term. It makes absolute sense that he, in conjunction with his Cabinet partners, would reconsider selling and instead retain it and decide what its future is. I ask him to address these issues.
I will conclude by referring again to the importance of the welfare, health and well-being of our Defence Forces and their being fully remunerated for the wonderful, sterling, distinguished work they do on behalf of each and every one of our citizens in this State.
There do not seem to be any other Senators in the Chamber who have not already spoken, so I will ask the Minister of State to respond to the debate. In theory, he would only have five minutes but because we have plenty of time, he can take as long as he likes until 2.30 p.m.
I was not aware that members of PDFORRA were in the Gallery. I apologise for not having recognised their attendance earlier. Their presence is very much appreciated. They represent their members extremely well, and there is very good dialogue between my Department and PDFORRA.
Senators spoke about spending money on equipment and not on personnel. I point out that I do not set the payscales for members of the Irish Defence Forces. I wish to make that very clear in the House. Payscales are set by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Public Service Pay Commission. I will make no apologies whatsoever for spending the millions of euro we are spending on equipment in barracks because if we do not have a well-equipped defence force, we might as well have none.
I acknowledge Sinn Féin for recognising this. I think members of Sinn Féin were the only Senators who had anything positive to say about this and I thank them for their comments in that regard - and the Senator on my left. I was referring only to the Opposition. It is very important we marry equipment with members and personnel of the Defence Forces to give them the capability and capacity to carry out their jobs and whatever is asked of them by the Government. We have spent over €500 million on new ships and €55 million on armoured vehicles, made a huge investment in the Air Corps and invested in many other areas.
We will not open Mullingar barracks. I have asked that the Department proceed with its sale and that the local authority in Westmeath take it off our hands. The local authority has not responded positively. I do not want to see Mullingar barracks go to rack and ruin like other barracks over the years.
Senators spoke about the issue of personnel retention. I would be the first to recognise that we face huge retention challenges. However, I am not sure whether Senators afforded themselves the opportunity to read the report of Public Service Pay Commission published only two weeks ago. If they do so, they will see that the Defence Forces have been recognised, and rightly so, this year. This is because of the work of members of PDFORRA such as those in the Gallery, my Department, RACO and the Chief of Staff raising with me the issues of pay and conditions and the retention challenges I face as Minister of State. I have raised these issues with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. I was very interested to hear Senator Craughwell's comments in this regard. This is a man who has represented the teacher unions for many years.
I presume that if Deputy Paschal Donohoe gave a 50% pay increase to members of the Defence Forces and absolutely nothing to the teachers, Senator Craughwell would be jumping up and down as high as the ceiling here day in, day out.
I took notes of almost everything every Senator said and I want to address them accordingly, so I would appreciate being afforded the courtesy to do so. I raised this issue directly with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the Tuesday before last at Cabinet. I hope I am not breaching Cabinet confidentiality, but directly after me the Minister for Health and the Minister for Education and Skills raised similar issues. We cannot as a Government select one organisation and say we are going to give its members a pay increase and forget about everyone else. We have to move appropriately with pay increases.
I met the wives and partners of Defence Forces members last week and told them this and said I will fight vehemently on their behalf, on the members' behalf and on behalf of PDFORRA and RACO. These representative organisations, specifically the two recognised ones, namely, PDFORRA and RACO, have told me of the huge challenges their organisations face from their members. I absolutely acknowledge this and will bring the message back to the Minister. One thing I did make sure of is that PDFORRA and RACO, even though they do not have full union status, will have a similar input at the negotiating table into the future. They will be able to get their message across.
Senator Ó Donnghaile said members of the Defence Forces cannot join unions. There are reasons for this that date to the foundation of the State and the Irish Defence Forces. However, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, in negotiations on Garda pay a number of months ago, spoke about the GRA having access to the Workplace Relations Commission. I insisted at Cabinet that officials from my Department sit on that committee to make sure the representative views of PDFORRA and RACO are listened to and that we can bring back whatever is offered to members of An Garda Síochána. I want to do this for the members of the Irish Defence Forces because, as Minister of State with responsibility for defence, I am extremely proud of every man and woman in the organisation. I think I have dealt with pay and conditions and retention. I encourage anyone who has not read the report of the Public Service Pay Commission to read it.
Direct entry and re-entry were referred to. Action will be taken on these two issues. We either act on the deficiencies we see in the organisation or we do not, and one of the areas where we can act is direct entry. It has worked in many other areas in the public service where there are specific needs and requirements. If people leave the Irish Defence Forces and feel they have something to bring back to the organisation, I am happy to see them re-enter the organisation, although they may not come in on the same terms and conditions on which they left.I have asked the Secretary General of my Department and the Chief of Staff to come back to me with a realistic proposal on this which makes it attractive to bring somebody back into the organisation. There are many people who want to return to the organisation who felt the grass was greener on the other side. Having left, they realised they would rather be where they were whether as a commissioned officer or otherwise. I am insisting that they will be allowed to return.
People spoke about the climate survey. It was an act of great leadership for the Chief of Staff and the general staff to carry out a climate survey in the Defence Forces. It gave them an opportunity to identify the challenges within the organisation. They knew what many were and they are not all about pay and conditions. If I gave every Member here or every public servant a survey on what they wanted, pay would be at the top. There are other challenges within the organisation, however, that were fed back and recognised within the climate survey. If one does not have that information, one will not be able to fix the problems one faces. I am happy that the leadership - the general staff - is seeking to mitigate the challenges in the organisation and I will assist in every way I can. The Chief of Staff spoke yesterday morning to over 200 members of the Defence Forces. It is very important that they get to feel that the leadership of the organisation receives feedback from the members and that they are listened to. A huge number of issues are there which can easily be fixed. If one does not know what they are, however, they cannot be fixed. It is an opportunity for the general staff to see exactly what are the issues.
I was asked about barrack duty. It is absolutely true that there are people travelling from Athlone and Donegal to Dublin. When a member joins the Irish Defence Forces, he or she does not join an organisation that will accommodate him or her in the barracks that is closest to his or her home. Of course, people are going to have to travel. It is part and parcel of a person becoming a member of the Defence Forces.
Let me state the reason. Perhaps Senator Craughwell will listen for a second. Where are the biggest threats? Where is the biggest threat of a terrorist attack? It is in the greater Dublin area. It is important that if there is a terrorist attack in Dublin, members of the Defence Forces know the geography and exactly with what they are dealing. There are challenges there about people having to travel to do barrack duty. I recognise that and I have spoken to the general staff about it. We are trying to fix it, but it will not be done overnight. We could pull people back from overseas but I have no doubt that if we did, Senator Craughwell would jump up and down about that too. It is hard to win in some people's eyes.
The issue of Lariam was raised. I receive advice from the Defence Forces. I have asked them to identify the most effective medication which is suitable for members serving in sub-Saharan Africa and I have been told that it is Lariam. In 2015, some 438,000 people lost their lives to malarial disease. This is advice I have been given by the Defence Forces through its medical corps.
Senator Craughwell spoke about EOD call outs. I cannot account that we have never responded to an EOD call out. We have challenges in that area, which is one of the reasons direct entry or re-entry will be sought to mitigate the issues there. The Senator also asked about ships' crews. I hope he recognises that I cannot micromanage the organisation. This is the first time I have heard of one cook or two cooks going out where there should be three. If things like that are brought to my attention, I will be able to address them.
I must point out the following. We have had continual recruitment since 2011. I did not have overall responsibility for defence at the time, but I was Minister of State in the Department. As a Government, we were criticised by Fianna Fáil for carrying out continual recruitment in 2011. It was the only area in the public service where there was continual recruitment from 2011. During the lean years of the worst recession in the history of the State, we had continual recruitment in the Irish Defence Forces, but were nevertheless criticised. We have challenges to bring the strength up to 9,500, but the financial and economic resources are in place to achieve it. While people are exiting the Defence Forces, more people are coming in on an annual basis than are leaving. There are issues with Garda checks and I have challenged the Chief of Staff and the Garda Commissioner to mitigate the issues there.
There are over 55,000 recipients of family income supplement in Ireland. The Government recognises quite rightly that there is a need for family income supplement depending on the circumstances of a family. It is not just members of the Defence Forces who are in receipt of family income supplement. However, I hear what Senators have had to say and what the representative organisations have said to me about it.
Members spoke about the reorganisation. One of the reasons for the reorganisation was the existence of under-strength units. While it is great to have Army barracks all over the place, one must also have full-strength units that can carry out whatever is requested of them. A layer of middle management was cut out during that reorganisation. When one reflects on that reorganisation, as I often have and as I have said to the Chief of Staff, one acknowledges that not everything went 100% well. There are some areas we need to revisit to make corrections. Any organisation or company which has a reorganisation will inevitably have issues that did not go as expected.I would be the first to say it is about standing up and agreeing that there are issues that we have to correct and examine. While I am doing that, I have to consider the resource envelope available to me and my Department.
A Sinn Féin Senator referred to the recruitment drive. Members from Northern Ireland comprise a large number of the Irish Defence Forces, many of whom are based in Dundalk and others are based in Dublin.
Reference was made to Brexit. While the negotiations have yet to commence, it will be recognised that the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister, Theresa May, have said they do not want a hard border. The security of the State is, in the first instance, a matter for An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice and Equality. If requests are made or assistance sought, that will come to the Department. Prudent planning is continuing within the Defence Forces, through the Chief of Staff, regarding Brexit and how it might affect the Defence Forces.
A Senator referred to the new assistant secretary in the Department. The management board of the Department of Defence currently comprises a Secretary General, two assistant secretaries and a director. The Department is involved in the delivery of a major programme of policy implementation, as set out in the White Paper on Defence. The Department of Defence is engaged in all aspects of policy, from international security and defence and future planning to procurement, property management, human resources, industrial relations, litigation and legislation. The work of the Department also includes financial planning and oversight for the sector, as well as national emergency planning and the Civil Defence.
This is a position about which I spoke to the Secretary General following my appointment when I saw the workload of senior management in the Department. I will defend the recruitment of another assistant secretary within the Department because of the amount of domestic work involved.
More important is our work with Brussels and international peacekeeping operations. We are involved in a significant number of peacekeeping operations involving ten or 12 missions. They do not happen by a person picking up the phone and saying we are sending 300, 400, ten or 11 people. Between the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces, a significant amount of work is involved in that responsibility.
I have tried to address the many issues raised during the debate as much as possible. I am happy to have a debate in the House. I am very proud of the work done by the members of the Defence Forces on a daily basis. I am the first to admit that we face challenges, but I am working to mitigate them.
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response to various Members. I would like to acknowledge all of those in the Gallery who were referred to during the debate, as well as Councillor Joe Malone who is a former member of the Defence Forces.