Seanad debates

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Defence Forces

12:30 pm

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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The terms of reference for the Commission on the Defence Forces were published some days ago. Why has the Department of Defence been excluded from the commission given the strategic role it plays and the input into and control it has on all matters relating to our defence forces? It seems like a glaring omission from the commission's terms of reference. It is a specific request from the representative associations. They are deeply frustrated and disappointed by the omission. I ask the Minister of State to relay to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, that he might reflect on the decision, review it and amend the terms of reference to include the Department.

The representative associations have put it eloquently when they describe this as a once in a generation body of work. The Commission on the Defence Forces is very welcome. It gives us the opportunity to examine all aspects of the Defence Forces, not just pay and conditions, which will form an integral part of the work, but also how we operate our Defence Forces and how we can make them more effective and resource them properly. A point made to me by the representative associations time and again is that we often get a very small, miserable defence budget and try to jam defence policy to fit the budget when it should be the other way around. We should devise a defence policy that is properly resourced by the Government to deliver on it. That has not happened to date.

Fianna Fáil has long supported our Defence Forces; we need to show that support again now. We need to amend the terms of reference to include the Department of Defence so that we can get full buy in from all stakeholders. If we do not have the representative associations on board, it will not work.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for being present to take the matter but I must express my disappointment that the Minister for Defence is not here to listen to our points and give us the basis for his reason to not include the Department of Defence from the terms of reference. When this commission was announced it was good news. It was in the programme for Government and it was something that we in Fianna Fáil had fought for. I am grateful to those who have agreed to serve on the commission and give their time, experience and expertise. However, not including the Department of Defence in the commission's terms of reference was a glaring omission. In all the conversations we have had over the years with Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, and the Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces WPDF, it was always very clear that the Department was a big part of the part of the problem in the workings of the Defence Forces. The commission is examining recruitment and retention along with pay and conditions and the excellent service given by Defence Forces personnel and seeing how that can be promoted, but to not include a review of the role and workings of the Department is quite wrong. It was a very specific request by those in the Defence Forces and was the basis of much of the complaints we have had over the years, such as the Department's oversight, that it is in charge of policy and its control of the purse strings and its refusal to allow the military leadership the appropriate resources or ability to make decisions for the Defence Forces, which is wrong. Senator Chambers and myself are asking the Minister of State to ask the Minister of Defence to reverse this decision.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senators for raising this. I know their commitment to the Defence Forces well. Senator Chambers served in the Reserve Defence Force for many years and Senator O'Loughlin has constantly been a strong advocate for the Defence Forces publicly and within the parliamentary party. I take my colleagues comments very seriously indeed.

I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Defence. He is also the Minister for Foreign Affairs. It is quite busy at the moment for him, and for me, and we are all trying to help each other out, so I agreed to take this for him today as there is a lot happening.

The Minister was delighted to announce last Tuesday that the Government has approved the establishment of an independent commission on the Defence Forces. The Government also approved the terms of reference and the membership of the commission. The decision taken at Cabinet yesterday follows a specific commitment made in the programme for Government, as agreed by the three parties, to establish a commission on the Defence Forces before the end of the year.

The establishment of an independent commission on the Defence Forces underpins the Government’s commitment to ensuring that the Defence Forces are fit for purpose, both in meeting immediate requirements and in seeking to develop a longer-term vision. In establishing this commission, which contains impressive national and international high-level expertise and experience, the Government is seeking to ensure that the outcome of this process will be a Defence Forces that is agile, flexible and adaptive in responding to dynamic changes in the security environment, including new and emerging threats and technologies.

The membership of the commission has been carefully chosen to ensure the optimum range of expertise in key areas including management, human resources, security policy, public service, as well as both domestic and international military expertise. The commission will be chaired by Mr. Aidan O’Driscoll, a former Secretary General of the Department of Justice, and previously Secretary General of the Department of agriculture, and will be supported by an independent secretariat under the direction of the chairperson.

The terms of reference require that the commission’s overall approach will be guided and informed by both the White Paper on Defence 2015 and the White Paper Update 2019, which set out Ireland’s overall defence policy approach. This is against a backdrop of the high-level defence goal which is to provide for the military defence of the State, contribute to national and international peace and security and fulfil all other roles assigned by the Government. This fits within the broader context of the protection of Ireland’s defence and security interests nationally and internationally.

In accordance with a commitment made in the programme for Government, the Minister for Defence consulted widely on the terms of reference, involving a wide stakeholder group comprising the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, the Defence Forces representative associations, the Defence Forces veterans associations, the unions and associations representing Department of Defence staff and civilian employees, the Defence spokespersons of Opposition parties, the Institute of International and European Affairs, the Royal Irish Academy and all other Departments. In finalising the terms of reference, all submissions were carefully considered, in the context of what we agreed in the programme for Government.

The establishment of the commission is a significant opportunity to address the issues agreed in the programme for Government. The Government and the Minister want the work to the commission to take a visionary but practical approach to a range of issues and the Minister is very anxious that the commission is not deflected in this task. He is aware that others have suggested that the scope of the commission be widened but he wishes to keep its remit within what is envisaged within the programme for Government. In giving priority to the matters in the programme, the Minister took account of the position that like other Departments, the Department of Defence, has been subject to a wide range of review and reform measures both internally and through the Civil Service reform and wider public service reform. In 2021, it will be subject to an organisational capability review. In recent times, the Department has led action 10 of Our Public Service 2020 to embed project and programme management across the public service. It has led out on the adoption of the provision of shared transactional HR and payroll services and is currently participating in the programme to deliver shared financial services across the Civil Service.

In concluding, the Minister has asked me to stress that, in observing some of the external commentary about the Department of Defence and its approach, it in no way accords with his experience. He makes this point based on his leadership as Minister for Defence and in seeing at close hand over an extended period what the Department does and the sustained commitment of officials to ensure the best outcomes for the citizen. There will always be alternate views, however, this kind of difference of view will always feature in every area of public policy. The commission’s focus is targeted precisely on the issues identified in the programme for Government for urgent but positive attention.

The Commission on the Defence Forces has a mandate from the programme to report within 12 months, and given the wide ranging and comprehensive scope of the detailed tasks set out it has a challenging job ahead. I understand arrangements have already been made for the inaugural meeting of the commission to be held early next week, and the Minister looks forward to receiving its report this time next year.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for the reply but, with respect to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, the fact that he has had a good personal experience of the Department of Defence is beside the point. Having looked at the terms of reference, the defence community have questions over the independence of the commission and questions as to why the Department was excluded. There are members of the commission who have clear links to the Department of Defence. If there is not buy-in from stakeholders and if there is an air or degree of suspicion around this process before it even gets started, we are nobbling ourselves before we even get going. The whole point of this was to work with the defence community and to take on board its recommendations and ideas. This has not happened in the way it should have.

One of the key requests made by RACO was that the distribution of decision-making throughout the defence organisation be looked at and assessed. How can decision-making throughout the organisation be assessed if one arm of that organisation is not included in the terms of reference? It is a glaring omission which needs to be addressed. There should be nothing to hide and nothing to fear. This is not about targeting any one individual. It is a root-and-branch review of our defence organisation with a view to improving conditions for members and improving how we run defence in this country.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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May I just come in for a moment?

Sharon Keogan (Independent)
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The Senator may have 30 seconds.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate that. The relationship between a Minister and his or her Department is completely different from the relationship between a Department and those whom it purports to serve. It is not good enough for the Minister to simply state he has always had a good experience. If this issue is not addressed, the commission will be made unworkable. I accept the point the Minister of State made with regard to the Minister, Deputy Coveney. I know it is a very busy time for both. On behalf of all of us in the country, I wish them well in the talks on Brexit.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I again thank my colleagues for their sentiments, which I take very seriously indeed and which I will certainly relay to the Minister and to the Taoiseach. I will, however, take the opportunity to remind the House that the establishment of an independent commission on the Defence Forces follows a very specific commitment made in the programme for Government, as agreed by Government parties, to establish such a commission before the end of the year. The continuous review programme of the Department of Defence will continue in 2021, when the Department itself will be subject to an organisational capability review, which I hope might address some of the issues Senator Chambers raised in her latter contribution. The commission has been given wide-ranging and challenging terms of reference, which focus on ensuring that our Defence Forces are agile, flexible and adaptable in responding to dynamic changes in the security environment including new emerging threats from technology. The Minister has stated that the commission is going to proceed with its important task and we look forward to the completion of this work.

Sharon Keogan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State and the Senators. I wish the Minister of State, Ann and the children a very happy Christmas.

Sitting suspended at 1.23 p.m. and resumed at 1.32 p.m.