Wednesday, 22 November 2017
Defence Forces (Veterans Lapel Badge) Bill 2017: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today to debate my Defence Forces (Veterans Lapel Badge) Bill 2017. The Bill provides for the establishment of a veterans lapel badge to be conferred upon members of the Army, Air Corps, Naval Service and Reserve Defence Force by the Minister for Defence.
The purpose of the veterans lapel badge is to raise the profile of our Defence Forces veterans, who have served their country with bravery and loyalty at home or abroad, or both. The awarding of the veterans lapel badge by the Minister for Defence would be a very appropriate recognition of the selfless and dedicated contribution of Defence Forces members in the protection of the State, and of their participation in multi-national peacekeeping and humanitarian aid missions in support of the United Nations. I acknowledge the dedication and commitment of Defence Forces members in providing fisheries protection, search and rescue service, air ambulance and assistance in natural disasters. The awarding of the veterans badge would also visibly recognise the work of our Defence Forces in assisting the civil powers, such as An Garda Síochána, in protecting the internal security of the State.
During active service, many Defence Forces members are decorated with military medals. These are bestowed in recognition of a specific act or service, which can vary in significance from routine duty to bravery and valour. These naturally are highly valued and well-earned. What I am proposing is not a medal, but a simple badge or pin which can be worn by everybody who has completed active service, regardless of whether he or she ever received a medal. Ireland is unusual in that we do not have a veterans badge, or a veterans day. In other countries, this is commonplace, and I believe that both a badge and a special official national veterans day would be welcomed not just by the veterans and their families, but by the public in general. Today, I hope to get this under way, with the badge as the first step.
I know that the principle of military neutrality remains a core element of Irish foreign policy, and the numbers in our Defence Forces are small compared to other countries. However, the dedication and loyalty of the women and men who have served is no less valuable than those of service personnel from our larger non-neutral European neighbours. Their contribution equally deserves formal recognition not just during active service, but upon retirement. As a former soldier, I am very aware of the sense of unity, camaraderie and esprit de corpsshared by Defence Forces veterans, and I know how good it would feel to recognise immediately another veteran by their lapel badge. When I am travelling abroad, I often recognise veterans from other jurisdictions by their lapel badges. In fact, those displaying veterans lapel badges or carrying veterans recognition cards are often offered discounts on services and goods and, for example, free entry to public buildings as a token of thanks for the service they have given their states.
To have served one's country is a great honour. It is something which veterans take very seriously, and it behoves us all to do the same. In putting this Bill before the House, I would also like to commend the organisations which support veterans in very practical and often life-saving ways. In particular, I acknowledge the work of Óglaigh Náisiúnta Na hÉireann, ONE, which ensures the welfare of ex-service personnel by providing accommodation to homeless, elderly or disabled members in need. They also offer support at several locations throughout the country, and we are all familiar with the fundraising fuchsia badge and annual appeal. I also pay tribute to the Irish United Nations Veterans Association, which provides support for the soldiers, gardaí and civilian personnel who serve in often dangerous and difficult circumstances. I also acknowledge and praise the many unit associations who play a massive role in supporting veterans from their units around the country. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, for the support he gives to those organisations through the Department of Defence. It is valuable and vital.
Defence Forces members' values of selflessness, respect, integrity, moral and physical courage and loyalty do not disappear at the end of their service period. Such values have been deeply instilled and integrated into the characters of our soldiers and sailors, and remain with them as they continue their journey through civilian life. These men and women do not just make excellent service people, but they make exemplary citizens, and they should be recognised for their commitment to the State, however short or long.
I thank the Minister of State and our former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, for officially recognising the bravery and valour of the men of A Company, 35th Battalion, who fought so heroically at the Battle of Jadotville, and who will be finally recognised thanks to the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, at a medals ceremony in Athlone on 2 December. I thank the Minister of State again and I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also acknowledge the enormous work that Senator Gerard P. Craughwell, a colleague of mine, has done on a broad spectrum of issues relating to the Defence Forces. Across all parties and none, we can all vouch clearly for his huge commitment. This is a man who has served as a soldier himself, who has personally experienced many issues with comrades and colleagues in the Defence Forces, and who has shared many an agony and hurt.
It struck me as I was reading this Bill this afternoon that it is very simple. The lapel badge is a very simple gesture, but it is a critical one. It is symbolic and it is important because it is the State and the Minister for Defence acknowledging the men and women who put their lives on the line for our country, nationally and internationally, including on peacekeeping missions in Europe and across the world.
We have a proud tradition in our Defence Forces through their work and engagement and their humanitarian efforts. Let us not forget, however, that they put their lives on the line. They bring their physical and emotional scars home. Families and loved ones also suffer the pain and anguish, and it is so important that they collectively are recognised by the State for their work and commitment. They are honourable and noble people of whom we, as a country, and especially as politicians in both Houses here, can be particularly proud. I know that the Minister of State is close to this area.The Minister of State works in this area and is ultimately responsible for it. I know that he is very proud of the work of the Defence Forces. He has acknowledged this on many occasions and I want to do the same here.
What does this Bill do? It provides for the establishment of a veterans' lapel badge, to be conferred upon former members of the Army, Air Corps, Naval Service and the Reserve Defence Force. This may be simple but it is an important symbol of recognition. Let the gesture not just stop there, however, important as it is. Let us also remember the need for continuous support for the people who served in our Defence Forces, along with their families and loved ones, in terms of welfare, mental health and how they can come back and engage in their communities and get on with their lives, particularly if they have suffered trauma. Such trauma does not have to be physical. Many have inner hurt and scarring; many have emotional problems. Some might call this "baggage" but they are wounds nevertheless. Those who have served this country in the Defence Forces need to know that they have that support. This is very important.
I want to particularly acknowledge the work that Senator Craughwell has set out here in this simple proposal. I will finish by saying that this is a simple gesture but an important one. It is a noble, great and honourable thing for a State to bestow such recognition on the service of these individuals to their country and also to the wider world. I commend and again thank Senator Craughwell for initiating and pursuing this piece of legislation.
As I have said many times before, eight minutes is a ceiling rather than a target. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House again. I acknowledge the positive intent of this Bill and I personally have a huge grá for our veterans. I admire the wonderful way in which they have served their country and the enormous loyalty and bravery with which they have done so. I have a long and proud family association with the Army. I grew up next door to Custume Barracks in Athlone and I know first hand the work that the soldiers in the barracks do, not just for the country but right across our community. We in Athlone know this better than anyone, having received great service from the Army on numerous instances of flooding.
We in Fine Gael are not opposing this Bill. I am not entirely sure, however, what its purpose is. Nor am I entirely sure that we need another medal or lapel badge to pay tribute to the men and women who have served our great country. What I am sure of, however, is that there are other ways in which we can pay tribute to and support them. There are already many medals for the Defence Forces: service medals for ten or 15 years; the national medal; the bravery medal; and UN medals for every overseas mission. After far too long a wait, as has already been mentioned, a Jadotville medal will shortly issue to our brave heroes of 1961. All of these medals are recognition for our veterans and all are provided by regulation rather than by primary legislation.
I believe that a more fitting way to pay tribute to these great soldiers would be to continue to support them through veterans' organisations, to meet them regularly and to respectfully listen to their needs. Perhaps the Minister of State might be in the position to commit here to increasing the number of meetings he and his Department have with these veterans so that he is kept completely up to date with all of the issues they face. I would love to see an increase in the grant aid to these associations so that better services could be provided to our veterans. As has already been mentioned, Óglaigh na hÉireann provides housing to veterans but it struggles terribly for the funding to do so. Perhaps the Minister of State and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Murphy, could come together to discuss the issue of housing for veterans. This is very important.
I would also love to see the Minister of State facilitate access to Defence Forces property for use by veterans struggling to find meeting places. It can be very difficult for veterans when they leave the Army as they can suddenly find themselves with nowhere to go everyday. Access to meeting places would be very beneficial to them.
I move on to other matters. All of the veterans' associations premises were to receive a framed 1916 centenary commemoration plaque signed by both the Minister of State and by the Taoiseach. When will these be delivered? This will be a very proud day for the veterans. We can further support the veterans by implementing projects 51 and 59 of the White Paper. I was present at Farmleigh when that White Paper was being drawn up. These projects deal with the systems, procedures and scheduled training necessary to ensure that members of the Permanent Defence Force, PDF, are prepared for the transition to civilian life following military service, something that is very difficult for many soldiers. The projects also serve to further develop the supports available to exiting personnel and veterans. I wonder if the Minister of State might give us an update as to the status of these projects when he makes his contribution here today.
I will finish with a line from John F. Kennedy: "A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honours and the men it remembers." I am sure that he would include women in that were he around today. It is very important that we honour and remember our veterans. Most important of all, we need to look after them.
I thank the Acting Chairman and welcome the Minister of State to the House. Fianna Fáil will be fully supporting this Bill as initiated by Senator Craughwell and his colleagues. This Bill provides for the establishment of a veterans' lapel badge to be conferred by the Minister of State with special responsibility for defence upon former members of the Army, Air Corps, Naval Service and the Reserve Defence Force. Whether the provision of such a badge should actually require legislation is not clear but we fully support the concept of veterans receiving it.
The purpose of the veterans' lapel badge is to raise the profile of our Defence Forces veterans by assisting the wider public to easily recognise and acknowledge veterans who have served their country either at home or abroad. While the principle of military neutrality remains a core element of Irish foreign policy, and while the numbers in our Defence Forces are small compared to other countries, the dedication and loyalty of the women and men who have served is no less valuable than that of those from our larger, non-neutral European neighbours. Their contribution deserves equal formal recognition, not just during active service but also upon retirement.
Irish troops are today deployed in United Nations, European Union and NATO-led missions in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. They leave their families for six months at a time, missing milestones such as birthdays, christenings and family weddings. When they go abroad they are aware that they are going on a peacekeeping mission, often to very volatile and fragile countries. They are most certainly more at risk then, than if they were to stay at home. There were scenes of jubilation at Dublin Airport last Friday when troops returned home from a six-month deployment in south Lebanon. Watching the news on Friday, I saw troops walking through the airport doors, some from my own home town of Cavan, to be greeted by families delighted to have them safely home for Christmas. All of the troops walking through those doors were wearing their Irish Army uniforms. They were easily recognisable in their blue berets. With this Bill they can now be recognised by the badges on their lapels. The author of the Bill, Senator Craughwell, himself a former soldier in both the British and Irish armies, is very well aware of the sense of unity, camaraderie and esprit de corps among the Defence Forces veterans, and how good it would feel to be able to recognise other veterans by their lapel badges.
Former Liberal Democrat M.P., Stephen Gilbert, published legislation in the House of Commons on Armistice Day 2014, calling for a national defence medal to be introduced in the United Kingdom. The aim of his legislation was to honour the millions of armed forces veterans who did not in fact fight in battles. Mr. Gilbert argued at the time that those who give themselves to their country should be recognised. This argument still holds today. The decision to serve is no less impressive and worthy than that of those who have seen conflict. We understand that Senator Craughwell will be moving amendments to introduce a military covenant for the Defence Forces along the lines of that in place in the United Kingdom.Fianna Fáil will be proud to support those amendments.
I acknowledge, as Senator Craughwell did, the enormous contribution the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, has made, together with the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, in ensuring the heroes of Jadotville are to be recognised. On many occasions in this House I have raised issues concerning the Defence Forces, as has Senator Craughwell. I join Senator Boyhan in paying tribute to Senator Craughwell for his work in bringing forward these proposals. Senators Mac Lochlainn, McFadden and others have raised concerns about the low morale among personnel in the forces. Given that the matter has very little recognition outside of their own ranks, it is up to us to highlight the difficulties they are experiencing.
I take this opportunity, rather than having to raise it on the Order of Business, to refer to an e-mail I received from Mr. DJ Moore of the Kildare North comhairle Dáil ceantair of my party in which he points to a motion that was proposed at a recent meeting by Mr. Joe Kelly from Sallins and Councillor Michael Coleman, both of whom are Defence Forces veterans. I understand Councillor Coleman is known to Senator Craughwell. In his address to the meeting, Mr. Kelly said that the core structures of the Army are under increasing strain and that, as a result and due to manpower shortages, soldiers are completing often traumatic tours of duty without receiving the necessary psychological aftercare before then being sent off on further tours without appropriate rest. Mr. Kelly pointed to the urgency of the situation whereby two thirds of recruits are leaving after training and concluded by noting that while the Army had never let down the State, the men and women of the armed forces feel the State is letting them down. Those few lines sum up what we in this House have been attempting to bring to the attention of the Minister of State and the Government.
I acknowledge the Minister of State has a difficult situation to deal with, but I am asking him to grasp it with both hands and take on his own Department. We have seen in recent days and in recent years how Departments, and some high-ranking officials in those Departments, can mislead the person who has political responsibility and hang him or her out to dry. I implore the Minister of State to grasp this issue with both hands and discover what is really going on in his Department. I pay tribute to the work he is doing as Minister of State at the Department of Defence.
Sinn Féin supports this Bill and commends Senator Craughwell on bringing this important issue before the House. Its provisions offer a means of honouring those who have served in our Defence Forces and brought honour upon our country. We are immensely proud of our Defence Forces, particularly those members who have served overseas. The calibre of the men and women who represent Ireland on the international stage, especially in the area of peacekeeping, is best exemplified by the men who participated in the Jadotville siege in 1961. I am overjoyed that the surviving veterans of that event and the loved ones of those who have passed away will be presented with medals. It was important finally to have a standing up to elements within the Department of Defence who were resisting that development. I thank the Minister of State for listening to the voices in this House, as did the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny. It will be a proud day for our country when those medals are pinned on our heroes' chests.
I hope this Bill will give us the opportunity to honour the heroes among the crew of the LÉ Clionafor their actions during the fire on that vessel in 1962. My colleague, the Sinn Féin spokesperson on defence, Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh, has written to the Minister of State about this. We would like to see commemorative medals presented to the loved ones of those who proved themselves so brave on that occasion. Eighty lives were saved as a result of the heroism they demonstrated. Of particular note were the actions of Lieutenant Pat O'Mahony, the engineer Maurice Egan, and the stokers Gerry O'Callaghan and William Mynes. They were all badly burnt in that incident and deserve now to be honoured for their incredible bravery. I hope this Bill will facilitate that.
The capacity to present medals for service given is something that can help to raise the morale of our Defence Forces. However, there have been several issues in recent times that have damaged the morale of personnel, with concerns regarding pay and conditions probably being top of the list. The University of Limerick report published some years ago was devastating in its outlining of how so many Defence Forces members rely on family income supplement to top up their wages. Some of them have had to sleep on boats and in cars because they cannot afford accommodation costs. That is not acceptable. These people bring honour to the State by their service at home and on the international scene. We have all been immensely proud, in particular, of those personnel who served in the Mediterranean in recent years. We must pay these people a fair wage, not have a situation where they require their income to be subsidised in order to get by.
My party colleagues, Deputies David Cullinane and Aengus Ó Snodaigh, have published a Bill that would allow members of An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces to join trade unions. In the interest of the security of the State, the Bill does not propose to facilitate their ability to strike, but it would give them access to the Labour Court and the Workplace Relations Commission and allow them to participate in wage negotiations and agreements. It would define them in legislation as workers, while acknowledging citizens' concerns that they do not have the capacity to strike. I hope the Minister of State will give serious consideration to that Bill.
I am sure the Minister of State has received representations from a range of Oireachtas Members regarding the restructuring of brigades and how that is impacting on resources and the conditions of serving members in terms, for example, of the long distances they have to travel, from places like Donegal and elsewhere, to make duty in Dublin city. That is an issue about which Senator Craughwell has spoken at length.
I urge the Minister of State to support the Bill before us this evening. He and I do not always see eye to eye, but I take this opportunity to acknowledge the decisive action he has taken on Jadotville. That was a marvellous intervention which demonstrated his capacity to stand up on these matters. I ask that he take note of the issues I raised regarding the rights and morale of members of the Defence Forces. We in these Houses must work together to do better by the men and women serving this country. It is good to have a chance today to express our immense pride in them. I had the opportunity when I was defence spokesperson for my party to travel to Haulbowline naval base, Baldonnel Aerodrome, Michael Collins Barracks and other barracks across the State. We have the most wonderful Defence Forces personnel, people who have great pride in their work and show enormous professionalism in the way they apply themselves, particularly on international service. We must work harder to stand by them and show our appreciation of what they do. The Bill before us today represents a good start in that regard, as does the decision to present medals to our Jadotville heroes. We must keep that momentum going.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to pay tribute to the Defence Forces. We are all very proud of their service during State occasions, including last year's 1916 commemorations.We are proud of the work of our Naval Service in the Mediterranean. As Senator Wilson said, we are very proud of the troops who come back from overseas peacekeeping duties. As citizens, sometimes we can take the Defence Forces for granted. The Minister of State has taken on the issue of Jadotville, which was mentioned already. It was an important issue which the Minister of State helped get across the line with our former Taoiseach. Senator McFadden talked earlier about the importance of morale and support for our veterans and Defence Forces in general. It is hugely important. There is ongoing recruitment as a result of people leaving the Army. Having some family connections to the Defence Forces, it is important to realise the immense pride they take in representing the country at home and abroad. It is in all our interests to confront whatever issues are there. The Minister of State is doing that bit by bit. He cannot change the world in a short period of time. I am not sure about the detail of the Bill, how many veterans there are or what administrative difficulties it might produce, but it is a means of recognising both veterans and people who have served in the Army. It would be an acknowledgement of them on an ongoing basis.
I welcome the Bill and thank Senator Craughwell for introducing it and taking the initiative. I commend all Senators who have supported it. I am not certain its objective necessarily requires it to be anchored in primary legislation. I will await the Minister of State's advice on that but perhaps it could be achieved by way of regulation. I am interested in hearing the Minister of State's views on it. Notwithstanding all of that, the adoption of a formal badge awarded by the State to honour those who have served in our Defence Forces is an interesting suggestion and something that would be welcome by all of us and which would find favour with the public. It is appropriate, when necessary, that our ex-service men and women receive some kind of formal recognition of their service from the State. It would be a mark of our respect as citizens and our gratitude and pride for our Defence Forces, which is something we do not express enough. I have worked on a number of initiatives on a regular basis with ONE and its chief executive, Ollie O'Connor. Some of my party colleagues in County Louth are directors of ONE and I very much respect and admire the work they do, often in very difficult circumstances. I note this is an initiative they broadly support.
I have some observations on the Bill, which I am happy to share with the authors. Section 4 states the veterans lapel badge may be worn on formal occasions. I suggest to Senator Craughwell and his colleagues to drop that provision. It should be a pin that is worn more widely. It should be worn with pride every day so that we as citizens can see for ourselves those who have served in our communities. They are people who are active in our communities and we can recognise the service they have given to the State in defence of our country. We do not promote or recognise enough the value our Defence Forces bring to our democracy and national life. I firmly believe that ex-service men and women are the best possible ambassadors we have for our Defence Forces and are in a prime position to promote the Defence Forces in our community and to encourage young men and women to consider joining the Defence Forces. Let them wear the badge with pride on a daily basis so we can recognise and identify those in our community who have served with distinction over the years. They have earned that right.
Section 5 sets out the criteria Senator Craughwell and his colleagues propose for the conferring of a veteran's badge. It says that any individual, regardless of time served in the Army, Naval Service, Air Corps or RDF would meet the criteria laid down for the awarding of a badge.
Section 6 states that the Minister for Defence would have sole discretion to confer the award. I do not agree with that provision. There is nothing in the Bill preventing the awarding or not of a veteran's badge becoming overly exposed to political interference of some description or another. I am not saying that would be the case but we need to prevent the possibility of something like that happening in the future and the awarding of a badge of this nature becoming a political football. One way of addressing this would be to provide for a formal application process for those who have served. The criteria are loose and any legislation that gives far too much discretion to a Minister is something we should guard against. I am a big fan of ensuring that we have very clear rules in legislation. In the past, we have seen primary legislation that was not that clear and which provided too much discretion to a Minister and was undone in the courts. These sections need to be tightened up. I suggest the awarding of a badge of this nature to veterans be restricted to those who have at least one contract of service. If they did not manage to fulfil that one contract of service due to ill-health, for example, then we could consider that. I am a strong believer in the idea that somebody should at least serve one contract of service before they are awarded a badge of this nature by the State. We do not want to see somebody who has disgraced the uniform and been court-martialled and discharged receiving this badge and besmirching the good name of the Defence Forces and delegitimising it in some way. I hope they are issues that can be addressed on Committee and Report Stages.
On a separate but related matter, we are all familiar with the fuchsia campaign which Senator Craughwell referred to earlier. It is a very important initiative that raises much needed funds for ONE, an organisation that carries out extremely good work, as Senator McFadden said. The campaign is run in July of each year around the national day of remembrance. I am often struck by the fact that when I wear the pin in July, some people come up to me on the street to ask me what it is. They do not automatically understand what it signifies. That is a very poor reflection on us as a society. The poppy is extremely well anchored in British society, and rightly so. It is high time the Government gave some consideration to formally recognising the fuchsia as a national symbol of remembrance of those who have served or lost their lives in the service of our country. I ask the Minister of State to work with ONE and individuals in this and the other House to identify a mechanism whereby we can promote the fuchsia in an inclusive way so that people understand it is a symbol that has been adopted by ONE to remember those who have served. We should reflect on the role of our Defence Forces in the context of our democracy and society.
I am very taken by the comments made by Senator Mac Lochlainn and others. Over the years, everybody who has spoken on this legislation has put on the record of the Houses our concerns about the pay and terms and conditions of members of the Defence Forces. Far too many of our Defence Forces, both currently and in recent years, depend on subsidies from the State to make ends meet. It is a disgrace and it is something we need to reflect on seriously as a society. While we are talking about the legacy of the Defence Forces and how we remember and honour those who have served, the best way to honour our Defence Forces is to ensure that we recognise their right to make a decent week's pay for a decent week's work. They put their lives on the line in the defence of the State and in defence of peace across the world.
I welcome Senator Craughwell's Bill and I welcome the Minister of State.I join others in congratulating him on the measures he is introducing in regard to the Jadotville survivors in terms of honour their service to the United Nations and to this country, which is belatedly but properly being recognised.
Other speakers have drawn attention to particular aspects of this Bill. One particular aspect of it that strikes me is the fact that it covers the Reserve Defence Force. I did a small amount of service in the former FCA. There are many people who made much bigger contributions to this State through FCA service and did extended service at a difficult time in our recent history. Volunteerism is very important to Irish society. I honour and respect the women and men who serve in the Reserve Defence Force. I believe it is a service we should collectively honour and respect and that we should give due credit to those people who for no personal gain put themselves in the service of this country and make themselves available to back up the Permanent Defence Force in carrying out its tasks and in creating the necessary infrastructure to enable it be a credible force and carry out its functions in different ways.
When I was Minister for Justice and Equality, the Garda Reserve was established. It was pushed through against considerable opposition at the time, which I take some pride in. My view was that in a time when there are people to serve their communities as reservist gardaí and where in many respects the links between local society and the gardaí who serve in localities is becoming very distant, it was important there should be this particular function of being able to volunteer to serve one's country. It is a matter of deep regret for me that so many reservists, some of whom have written to me, feel neglected, sidelined, unused and unappreciated. We live in turbulent times as regards policing but I hope that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, will give whoever will be in charge in the future a very firm instruction to get on with the process of building up of the Garda Reserve. Mr. Conor Brady, former editor of the Garda reform group and The Irish Timesrecently stressed the necessity for this particular step to be taken.
On the Bill, there are people who are natural badge wearers and people who are not. There was a time when one could not come into this House unless one was wearing either a fáinne or a pioneer pin. One was not allowed into either House wearing anything else. Nowadays people come into this House bedecked in ribbons and all sorts of other things such that it causes one to wonder what is on the menu any given day or week. I believe that former members of the Defence Forces, be that full-time members or reservists, would appreciate the opportunity to wear a symbol, not only on formal occasions as proposed in the Bill but, as stated by Senator Nash, on other occasions too, just to show solidarity.
Before I was Minister for Justice and Equality I was Attorney General. My former military police company, the 6th Field Company of the Military Police, was amalgamated with the 2nd Field Company Military Police. They were in two different brigades which became the 26th Field Company. As Attorney General and law officer of the State I stretched things and made the decision that there was a connection between my office and the military police as exponents of military law for which the Attorney General had a limited function. We had a reception in Dublin Castle to honour the members of the aforementioned units before they were formally stood down. The point was made earlier, and I believe this is the case, that ex-members of the FCA, the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve Defence Force only get together at commemorative masses for their deceased colleagues. The Defence Forces could do more for former and retired members.
That said, it occurs to me that Senator Craughwell's proposal is a good one. A little bit of pride in respect of having served in the colours of this State should be reflected in the capacity to wear a badge and to be recognised in the ordinary course of daily life as somebody who has done so. I echo all that has been said in this House about the financial difficulties of many members of the Defence Forces, including that many of them are dependent on family income supplement and so on. I also echo what has been said about some veterans, namely, the need to provide housing and to support voluntary organisations in that regard.
I was proud to attend the recent launch of the fuchsia badge at Lissadell House in the west of Ireland. There is immense goodwill towards the Defence Forces. The Minister of State and the Department of Defence should not underestimate the support among ordinary Irish men and women and the pride they take in and for the Defence Forces. They also should not underestimated that as an asset.
As I said earlier, I support the Bill although I accept Senator Nash's point that it needs to be tweaked a little. However, what is proposed in this Bill should not be a matter of ministerial discretion for a favoured few. It should be for everyone and the discretion should only come into play to prevent the badge from being abused or shamed. That is my view as to what should happen. I believe that it would be a great step forward if we were to adopt Senator Craughwell's proposal. I share the view that it may be possible to do this without legislation and I am absolutely sure that if Senator Craughwell had not brought forward a Bill and instead had contented himself with a resolution, we would not be giving this issue the same attention that it is getting here today. Again, I congratulate him on that account.
I welcome this opportunity to respond to Senator Craughwell's Private Members' Bill which proposes the establishment of a veterans’ lapel badge to be conferred upon former members of the Irish Defence Forces. The Bill proposes that the badge is to be worn on formal occasions to enable other people to recognise former members' past service in the Irish Defence Forces.
The Government, the Department of Defence, the Defence Forces and I recognise the valued public service given by former servicemen and women of the Defence Forces to the State. The programme for Government pledges our support to veterans in recognition of that service. Senator McFadden was the only person who mentioned the commitments in the White Paper on Defence in respect of veterans. My officials and I will continue the process of engagement with the recognised veterans' associations to further these commitments. I will update Senator McFadden personally on the status of the White Paper projects for veterans as I do not have that information to hand now.
The Department and the Defence Forces provide significant ongoing supports to Defence Forces veterans through supporting the officially recognised veterans associations. A service level agreement, SLA, has been entered into with the Organisation of National Ex-service personnel, ONE, and the Irish United Veterans Association, IUNVA.Under the service level agreement, my Department pays annual subventions towards their general overheads to support and encourage them in the work they do. Officials within the Department of Defence hold regular meetings with them. Since taking office in May 2016, I have increased the number of meetings my officials have with the associations representing veterans. Also, just as I have with the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA and the Reserve Defence Force Representative Association, RDFRA, I have committed to formal annual meetings with the veterans' associations. I believe I am the only Minister, going back over a long number of years, who has committed to meeting the veterans' associations at least once a year. My next annual meeting with the associations is scheduled for 13 December. I look forward once again to engaging with them about the issues that affect them and their members. My Department officials have a very good working relationship with all the veterans' associations. They meet them, under my instructions, at least three times a year, which is followed by my own meeting with them. I understand they were met once or twice a year but I gave a standing commitment that they would be met at least four times every year.
The veterans' associations have been provided with contact details of appropriate personnel within the Defence Forces and the Department that deal with issues that are relevant to veterans of the Defence Forces. These personnel are available to engage with the associations on issues such as medals, service matters, medical files, pensions and disability pensions. The Department and the Defence Forces provide support, where possible, for key events of importance to both the Irish United Veterans Association, IUNVA, and the Organisation of National Ex-Service Personnel, ONE, by way of attendance at these events. If I am available, I also gladly attend these events. One such event is ONE's annual Fuchsia Appeal which aims to raise much-needed funds for the services it provides to former members who have fallen on hard times or are homeless.
The Defence Forces organise an annual Veterans Day. This is the third year to have such a ceremony. I have attended the Veterans Day and one of the most recent ones was held in the Defence Forces Training Centre in the Curragh on 8 October. That day I recognised, on behalf of the Government, the significant contribution of former members of the Defence Forces to the 1916 commemorative events and their past service to the State by presenting a framed 1916 Centenary Commemoration Medal and citation to ONE, lUNVA and a third veterans' organisation, the Association of Retired Commissioned Officers. The plaques, signed by both the Taoiseach and myself, are a special acknowledgement from the Government of our appreciation for the selfless service of former members of Óglaigh na hÉireann who have served Ireland and the Irish people since the foundation of the State.
One of the most visible recognition of veterans that I have been privileged to lead is the awarding of a medal to the men of the A Company, 35th battalion, who served in Jadotville. I would also like to thank the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, for his support on this issue. This fully recognises their bravery and courage during the unique circumstances of the Siege of Jadotville. A formal medal ceremony has been organised by the Defence Forces to recognise these men. The ceremony is prioritising the Jadotville veterans and their families, providing
them with military honours in a ceremony that is organised in a similar way to medal ceremonies for serving personnel. I look forward to being in Athlone on 2 December to present the medals to these men and to once again meet them and their families in what will be a momentous day.
I would like to thank all Members of this House and of the Dáil who have contacted to me on numerous occasions about this issue. I would like to thank one person in particular, the former Deputy Nicky McFadden, who has now sadly passed away. She was one lady who felt very strongly about this, and no doubt her sister, Gabby, will have continued the very strong message that Nicky had.
On the presentation of the citation in 2016, I realised the importance of what these men went through in Jadotville. I met each of them and their families and friends. As I stated on that occasion, if I had an opportunity to be able to give them proper recognition with a medal, I would do so. It is regrettable it has taken so long for previous Ministers to honour these great men. I am only one part of a very big link of recognising these people. I am delighted, as Minister with responsibility for defence, to be able to do so on 2 December in Athlone.
I would also state that there are a very small number of veterans who were part of the A Company who were in Jadotville on that occasion who my Department officials have been unable to locate. We have almost tracked down each and every member of the A Company but if anybody is aware of members of the A Company who have not received an invitation for that day, I would appreciate if they would contract either myself or my Department and we can make sure, if they are former members, that they will be included that day. I have asked my Department officials to circulate that message in so far as they can. I was delighted on Sunday evening last to receive an email from a person in the UK whose uncle or father was a member of the A company. We had been unable to track down that gentleman for quite a number of years, so I was delighted to hear from that person. If any Member of this House is aware of any members of the A Company, I would ask them to contact me, my office or my Department.
I recognise the positive intent of the Senator’s Bill to recognise Defence Forces veterans by awarding them with a veterans’ lapel badge. However, I have concerns and reservations regarding the proposal in its current form. Apart from identifying veterans at formal events, I am unclear as to what the purpose of the badge is. It is custom and practice that service medals are worn by veterans at such events. These medals are visually more identifiable and striking than a lapel badge can be. While I recognise that some former members do not have service medals, as many veterans wear their medals I would question the purpose of a lapel badge.
My Department and the Defence Forces have raised many questions as to the practicalities of the award of a veterans' lapel badge. Since the foundation of the State, many thousands of persons have served in either the Permanent Defence Force or the Reserve Defence Force. If the intent is to proactively seek out each former member of the Defence Forces, service records for all would have to be identified and examined to validate their eligibility. Checks would need to be carried out to establish whether these personnel are still alive, what their contact details are and, in the case of any personnel who are still alive but infirm, who should receive the badge on their behalf. This, the Senator will agree, would present considerable administrative challenges.Such a task would deflect the focus of the Department and the Defence Forces from other very important and pressing priorities. No specific benefits have been identified in the proposal and, given the significant administrative overhead, it is difficult to justify it as it currently stands. I consider the proposal is in need of further development so that it can be given due consideration. If, after further development it proved viable, it is unlikely that such a proposal requires an Act of the Oireachtas. An administrative decision is all that would be required to implement it.
A number of issues were raised in the contributions of a number of Senators. Senator McFadden raised the 1916 commemorative plaques. I hope each veteran association will receive its 1916 commemorative plaque before Christmas. I addressed the issue of the number of meetings; there will be one each quarter. I understand the property management branch within the Department of Defence, in conjunction with the Defence Forces, is working with the veteran associations to give them access to military property. I am very much aware of a number of barracks in which the veterans associations have property for their sole use. There is a very fine one in the barracks in Dundalk. There are others in some of the other installations. It is not always possible to accommodate the veteran associations but if they can be accommodated in any circumstances that is done. All of the associations receive annual funding from my Department and that is under constant review.
I thank the Senator for his well-intentioned proposal. However, I ask the House to consider my reservations. I also restate the Government’s and the defence organisation’s commitment to continue the support for veterans through ongoing engagement with the officially recognised veterans association.
One Senator - I think it was Senator McDowell - said we should never underestimate the respect for members of the Defence Forces. I will always respect serving and former members of the Defence Forces, and I know the respect they are held in by each man, woman and child in this country. I very much acknowledge that. I would be the first to state that we have many challenges within the Defence Forces. I do not know which Senator said Rome was not built in a day, and I am doing my best to address the challenges we have. After coming through the difficult economic situation the country has faced in the past number of years, I do not think anyone would expect us to fix all the problems in one go. I assure the Senators - I have stated this in the Lower House also - that I am addressing each of the challenges to the best of my ability with my Department officials and the Defence Forces. I accept the points Senators Wilson and Mac Lochlainn made in their contributions. I ask the Senators to look back, in a practical way, at my record over the past 12 months and the areas I have addressed and I ask them to give due respect to that. Unfortunately, not everyone gives respect but I ask people to look at the number of changes and issues I have addressed over the past 12 to 18 months. I look forward to working with the Defence Forces and Members of the Seanad and Dáil and having a good debate on these issues. If anyone has any practical ideas or proposals, I am very open to them.
I gave the Minister of State three and a half minutes extra. I was not trying to cut him short. It is Senator Craughwell's birthday. We should acknowledge that. I do not know if he got the present he wanted but we should acknowledge it anyway.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Some of the concerns he raised were raised by my colleagues, Senator McDowell and Nash, and will be considered on Committee Stage if the Bill passes Second Stage today. It is very simple. The British system for the award of a veteran's badge is very simple. One simply fills in an online application form with one's service number, rank and name. It is very easy to check military records to establish that the applicant was there and they are given their badge. I agree the badge need not necessarily be confined to formal events. Many of my former colleagues wear their veteran's badges and it is immediately recognisable. The first questions one is asked in the UK is "Where did you serve?" and "What did you serve with?" It is a conversation piece if nothing else. I will not take the time of the House other than to thank the Minister of State for coming here. On the Jadotville issue, I sincerely thank him for what he is doing. I ask him to extend an invitation to all Members of the Oireachtas who would like to attend. It is a very important day. Those men have been waiting 56 years. It is only right they should be honoured by having Oireachtas Members present.