Tuesday, 28 September 2021
Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on a very successful trip to the United States of America. Following his meetings with world leaders and our friends on Capitol Hill, I believe that a message has been sent out loud and clear by the latter regarding their support for the Good Friday Agreement and the ongoing discussions about the protocol and Ireland's position on that. I thank the Minister for all of his work.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. Before I address the legislation before us this evening, perhaps the House will allow me to say that I met with some very brave women today. I had the privilege of meeting the group that is now referred to as the "Women of Honour" and also a group of serving women of various ranks from the Army, the Air Corps and the Naval Service. The accounts of the experiences they have had in the Defence Forces are totally unacceptable in the context of the kind of Defence Forces we should have whereby everybody, regardless of their gender or background, should be able to develop careers in a positive, protective and safe environment. That has not been the experience for far too many people. I want to say that I believe the women and am determined to ensure that the culture which allowed women to be bullied, sexually harassed and treated unfairly needs to change, and will change. We will introduce a comprehensive review mechanism, which will be independent of the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence, in order to ensure that we do an extremely in-depth piece of work here. We are going to work with that group of women, those I met today and others, to ensure that they can believe in and be convinced by the terms of reference and make-up and focus of the group.
There have been many changes in this space in the Defence Forces over the past 20 years but it does not seem to have changed a core culture that continues to expose, isolate, and at times bully female members of the Defence Forces and some men too. The Department, the Chief of Staff for the Defence Forces and I are determined to address this very comprehensively. I can give a commitment to this House that I intend to do that. I will be happy to come back and brief Senators on it as we move ahead.
I will now turn to the Bill. I am pleased to present the Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020 to the House. From time to time there is requirement to amend the Defence Act 1954, the primary Act relating to defence matters, to address ongoing issues that arise in relation to the Defence Forces. The purpose of this Bill is to make a number of necessary amendments to the Defence Act. I will outline these in detail.
Senators will be aware that on foot of amendments accepted on Report Stage in Dáil Éireann, the Bill provides for a significant enhancement of the role of the Reserve Defence Force and removes the absolute prohibition currently contained within the Defence Acts on members of the latter serving overseas. Apart from matters relating to the Reserve Defence Force, the principal issues dealt with by this legislation relate to the overseas operations and the enlistment of minors. In addition, the opportunity has been taken to make a number of minor amendments of a technical nature to the Defence Acts.
I wish to outline the main provisions of the Bill. Section 1 provides definitions for key terms used in the Bill. Section 2 inserts a new section into the Defence Act 1954 to provide for the delegation by the Minister for Defence of a limited degree of control and authority, referred to as operational control in the Bill, over a Defence Forces contingent deployed as part of an international force to the force commander of that force. I know there are some in the House who have formerly served in the Defence Forces and they will understand the technical nature of why that is needed. The purpose of the amendment is to underpin and provide legal certainty in relation to existing practice whereby a limited degree of control and authority over an Irish contingent is provided to the force commander of an international force to allow for the efficient operation of a mission with which the Irish contingent is serving.
This amendment will not alter the current command structure within the Defence Forces and full command of the Irish contingent will remain with the Irish Defence Forces. Specifically, the amendment provides that a delegation of operational control by the Minister of Defence to a force commander will be in writing and may be subject to such exceptions and limitations as the Minister may determine, having had regard to such requirements as are necessary for the efficient operation of the mission concerned.
I wish to take the opportunity to explain briefly the exceptions and limitations that would typically be included in a delegation of operational control. First, a delegation of operation control relates to a particular mission. The principal exception and limitation included in a delegation is that the Irish units and subunits of the Irish contingent assigned to the mission are at all times under the command of an Irish officer. In this regard, the amendment specifically provides that a delegation of operational control does not include the authority to assign separate employment of any component of the Irish contingent that has been assigned to the international force.
In addition matters relating to discipline are not included in a delegation. I should point out that this amendment will allow the military police component of an international force, under the authority of a force commander, to arrest and detain a member of the Irish Defence Forces serving with the international force in question. However, this is subject to the member in question being handed over to the Irish military authorities as soon as practicable. Any subsequent disciplinary issues that may arise are dealt with by the Irish military authorities.
The other principal exceptions and limitations in a delegation of operational control would relate to the safety and welfare of the members of the Irish contingent. The amendment also provides that a delegation may include any other ancillary provisions as the Minister may deem necessary for the efficient operation of the mission to which the delegation refers.
As previously advised, the amendment reflects long-standing practice and will ensure that the arrangements for the delegation of operational control over a contingent of the Defence Forces to a force commander of an international force are explicitly provided for within the Defence Act. The section has been developed following extensive consultation with the Office of the Attorney General and the Defence Forces and I assure the House that the delegation in no way undermines overall control of the contingent by the Irish authorities.
In regard to sections 3 and 16, the purpose of these sections is to make a number of amendments to the Defence Acts to remove the references to the enlistment of minors. Historically minors were allowed to enlist in the Defence Forces. However, this has not been the practice for a number of years now. In this regard, under regulations made pursuant to the Defence Act 1954, persons under the age of 18 are not allowed to enlist in the Permanent Defence Forces or the Reserve Defence Forces. Notwithstanding these provisions the Defence Act 1954 still contains references to the enlistment of minors. These amendments remove any such references. The amendments give full effect to the Defence Act to the optional protocol in the convention on the rights of the child on involvement of children in armed conflict.
Sections 4 to 11, inclusive, 14, 15 and 17 relate to the Reserve Defence Force and associated matters, which has become the core of this Bill, with the amendments that we made in the Dáil. The purpose of these sections is to provide the legislative basis by way of enabling provisions to allow members of the Reserve Defence Force to serve in support of Permanent Defence Forces at home and overseas, on a voluntary basis. As I already indicated, these sections arise out of the amendments to the Bill which were accepted on Report Stage in Dáil Éireann. It got all-party support from what I can remember, including from the Independents as well.
Sections 4 and 5 of the Bill amend the Defence Act 1954 and set out a mechanism under which a member of the Reserve Defence Force may, on a voluntary basis, be deployed on military service, referred to in these amendments as supplemental military service. Any such deployment will be where there is a particular deficiency in skills and expertise in the Permanent Defence Force which would be addressed by the deployment of a member of the Reserve Defence Force on supplemental military service or is otherwise in the best interest of the Defence Forces.
The amendments have been carefully drafted to underpin the voluntary nature of the supplemental military service. In this regard, any deployment on supplemental military service may only take place where the member concerned has consented in accordance with these amendments, and to any such deployment. The consent given by the member will indicate the nature and duration of military service that he or she is prepared to render if requested. In addition, deployments of members of the Reserve Defence Forces on supplemental military service will be subject to the approval of the Minister.
I am particularly pleased that the amendments set out in sections 14, 15 and 17 remove the absolute prohibition currently contained within the Defence Acts on members of the Reserve Defence Force serving overseas. As a consequence of these amendments, it will be possible for a contingent despatched for overseas service to comprise membership of both the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve Defence Force.
I am confident that these amendments will significantly widen the opportunities for members of the Reserve to provide support to the Permanent Defence Force. I think this is something that we all want to try to achieve. If we are going to have successful recruitment into the Reserve to get the kind of numbers we want and have targeted, then they must believe that they have a function as opposed to solely focusing on training with very limited opportunities to support and supplement the Permanent Defence Forces. This is a signal, and I hope it will be taken as that, that I am, and this Government, are very anxious to build up the Reserve, and not to see any further reductions, and to ensure that it has a very real role to play so that we can use the skill set it provides in parallel with and complementing the significant skill set that we have within the Permanent Defence Forces.
Of course, as might be expected, following on from the legislative changes to introduce the concept of voluntary military service for members of the Reserve Defence Forces, there is a requirement to make a number of technical or consequential amendments to the Defence Acts 1954 to 2015.
Members will have my full script but for reasons of time, I will skip over some of the technical elements which I do not think are needed to add to the debate. In summary, the purpose of the sections of the Bill relating to the Reserve Defence Forces is to provide the legislative basis by way of enabling provisions to allow members of the Reserve to serve in support of the Permanent Defence Forces at home and overseas on a voluntary basis.
Moving on to the other provisions of the Bill, sections 12 and 13 make some minor amendments to the Defence Act and provide for the repeal of a redundant section, which is section 318. Section 12 provides for a minor amendment to section 178E of the Defence Act, which deals with appeals to a summary court martial. The amendment clarifies the timeframe in which a summary court martial may consider an application for an extension of time to submit an appeal to the court martial. Section 13 contains some minor amendments to the Defence Act to provide for the restatement in modern form of section 74 relating to the discharge of reservists elected to public office and the repeal of the now redundant section 318. Finally, section 18 is a standard provision which deals with the Short Title of the Bill as well as arrangements for the commencement of the legislation.
In conclusion, this Bill deals with important matters that need to be addressed. Indeed the removal of the absolute prohibition currently contained within the Defence Acts on members of the Reserve Defence Force serving overseas is a significant change, which will make a strong statement in law about the ambition that I have for the future of the Reserve.
Before concluding my contribution I want to move away from the provisions of the Bill for a moment and take the opportunity to thank the Defence Forces once again for their continuing role in the context of the Covid-19 emergency, where they have made a very significant, welcome and necessary contribution. I am very pleased to submit this legislation to the Seanad and I look forward to hearing Members' comments on the Bill.
I am speaking in place of Senator Joe O'Reilly, who is on business with the Council of Europe.
I welcome the Minister back from his UN visit where he again served our country with distinction, as he normally does. I record my support and that of my colleagues for all the work the Minister undertakes in the Departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs on behalf of the State. He is a man of the utmost integrity and that is beyond doubt.
I welcome the Bill and the changes that are set out including amending the Defence Act 1954 to remove references to the enlistment of minors; providing a legislative basis to allow members of the Reserve Defence Force serve in support of the permanent forces at home and abroad; and amending the Act to underpin practice in relation to the day-to-day operations and control of the Permanent Defence Force engaged in international operations.
It is right and proper that Members of the House recognise the great work done and sacrifices made by our full-time and reserve personnel. In particular, we are grateful for the excellent reputation our Defence Forces have gained abroad on peacekeeping missions. Earlier this year, Brigadier General Maureen O'Brien was appointed to the United Nations as deputy military adviser in the office of military affairs at the department of peacekeeping operations, which is a significant role. My cousin, Captain Marie Carrigy, read the Proclamation in front of the GPO only last Easter.
We currently have 561 brave women and men of the Defence Forces serving overseas in peacekeeping missions in various parts of the world. Irish troops were first deployed on UN missions in 1958. Since then, not a single day has passed without Irish participation in UN peace support operations. This is a unique record and one of which we can be proud. This commitment to international peacekeeping is a practical expression of the values we hold dear as a nation and our commitment to the UN and multilateralism. Since Ireland's first deployment, 87 members of the Defence Forces and a member of An Garda Síochána have lost their lives in the service of peace overseas. We remember them today.
There are a number of issues in the Defence Forces. One is pay and remuneration for personnel. We need to make the forces more attractive so that young people making a decision on a future career will have a long-term career available to them. That issue needs to be looked at.
The recent documentary "Women of Honour" painted the Defence Forces in a very poor light. I welcome the Minister's strong comments in this regard. I welcome that the Minister met a number of these women today and the commitment he just gave that this will not be tolerated and will be dealt with strongly. There must be a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of harassment, bullying or violence in the workplace, whether in the Defence Forces or any other workplace.
As the Minister will be aware, I come from Ballinalee, which is the home of General Seán MacEoin. In 1922, General MacEoin took command of Custume Barracks in Athlone from the British and later went on to serve as Chief of Staff before entering political life and serving as Minister for Defence in the 1950s. It is important that this link is maintained and strengthened. Columb Barracks in Mullingar and Seán Connolly Barracks in Longford have closed in recent years. I ask that the Department examine strengthening the role of Custume Barracks in Athlone and maintaining that strong link that goes back to the foundation stone of our State, be it in re-establishing the barracks as the third brigade in Athlone, relocating the brigade commander, perhaps from Cathal Brugha Barracks, or re-establishing non-commissioned officer training at the barracks. I ask the Minister to take back to the Department the message that the barracks be strengthened. There is a fear in this regard and I ask that the matter be looked at.
I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to the House. More especially, I thank him for meeting these women today and giving such a strong statement in the House.
I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for taking the time to meet the women of honour today.
I will place on record the concerns my former colleagues in the Defences Forces have. The nature of the complaints being brought forward by the women of honour, brave women that they are, and the things they talk about tend to happen behind closed doors and in secret. The few perpetrators who are involved in this horrendous activity have brought the entire Defence Forces organisation into disrepute. The independent inquiry the Minister is setting up will, I hope, get to the bottom of this issue and kill the culture that exists among those who perpetrate this activity.
I cannot speak on defence without speaking about the over-50s contract that needs urgent attention, the Army Ranger Wing and the technical pay issues that are outstanding. It was interesting to hear my colleague from Fine Gael speaking about the re-establishment of the third brigade. The Minister and I discussed the matter in the past and I wish Senator Carrigy well as he drives it home. With regard to Columb Barracks in Mullingar, the local community is looking to have a wonderful resource at that location. The Minister might engage with it that.
We are here not to discuss those issues but the Defence (Amendment) Bill 2021. I very much welcome the legislation and note the work of my colleague, Deputy Cathal Berry, in driving it forward with the Minister. I congratulate the Minister on the foresight in seeing the benefits the Reserve Defence Force can bring to deployments overseas. It is a truly historic day for the loyal members of the Reserve Defence Force who, for decades, have wanted to play a part in Ireland's peacekeeping role and other overseas missions. That day is finally here and it is a defining moment for the Reserve Defence Force. As a former training sergeant of the 5th Field Medical Corps in Galway, which in those days was an FCA unit, I know my former colleagues would be delighted at this legislation coming forward.
In recent research on the lived experience of Defence Forces personnel, Nicolas Canavan, a master of arts student in Galway, found that overseas deployments constituted one of the main highlights of the military careers of all participants. Respondents said these experiences afforded personal, new and unique viewpoints on life, unlike what any other profession could provide. The Minister has met members of the Defence Forces overseas and takes any opportunity he gets to engage with them. We would like that to be more often but his foreign affairs role takes up a lot of his time. I know, however, that he understands the benefits of overseas service to serving personnel.
The passing of this legislation can be nothing more than an exercise unless it is commenced. When does the Minister propose to commence the legislation? Will we see members of the Reserve Defence Force overseas in 2022? This is an important issue for them.
In welcoming this legislation, I must emphasise that the focus of the Government must remain on retaining and supporting programmes for Permanent Defence Force members to facilitate overseas deployments. The role of reservists must be in niche specialist areas, such as the cyber and medical areas. The experience young surgeons would get overseas treating injuries from the horrific accidents that take place would be invaluable to them. The Defence Forces are experiencing shortages due to an inability to retain suitably qualified and experienced personnel. There must be no impact on the Permanent Defence Force's training or future training systems to professionalise its members and bring them up to speed, commensurate with the expertise that we will be bringing in from the Reserve Defence Force from time to time.
If the Minister is serious about deploying our professional RDF personnel overseas, they must be adequately trained and equipped for overseas service and they and their families must be supported when they go overseas. Commencing this legislation without adequate employment protection legislation means that it simply will not work. A useful place to start might be with the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, who could deal with public servants and people working for the State who volunteer to go oversees. The Minister could guarantee the employment of Reserve Defence Force volunteers who go oversees, that it would not impact their career trajectory, and not impact their pension rights and things like that. We could start there as a pilot project before we start to bring in the private sector. Enabling the legislation immediately will provide the Permanent Defence Force with the ability to alleviate the burden on Permanent Defence Force members who are currently experiencing a high frequency of mandatory selection for overseas service at short notice, which is having a detrimental impact on their morale and family life. This legislation would be an ideal opportunity to augment that.
We all know that the Reserve Defence Force is 60% below strength but this legislation has the potential to reverse the decline of the force, which the Minister mentioned in his speech. I honestly believe that this is a defining moment for the Reserve Defence Force. I can only encourage it, in legislation, and those who are listening to this legislation, who have not joined the Reserve Defence Forces, to join it.
The Minister has mentioned two areas that I feel obliged to mention today, one of which was minors. It is no secret that I joined the FCA when I was 13 years of age and joined the Army when I was 16 and a half years old. For me, it was a positive experience the whole way. I ask the Minister to look over the water and see the boy soldier and girl soldier academies that exist in the United Kingdom. There is a tremendous advantage in bringing young people through a military discipline at a very young age and it feeds into the defence forces at large. People will probably be aghast at me saying that but such a system works extremely well in the UK and it works in other countries around the world. Having such a system here is something that the Minister might look into.
On the issue of Covid-19, I want to express my pride in the Defence Forces in the work they did. People have talked about one particular profession doing more than another particular profession in the area of Covid-19, and how nurses and doctors were front-line workers so they should get this, that or the other. It is my view that it should be everybody. I refer to truck drivers, soldiers, doctors, nurses and everybody who put their shoulder to the wheel. If there is something to be done by way of a public holiday or a bonus then everybody should get it and not just the ones who were in hospitals. They were well protected with personal protective equipment, PPE, whereas bus drivers had to face the public wearing nothing but their suit or ordinary clothes. Truck drivers had to collect goods not knowing from whom they were collecting. We should hold everybody in equal esteem and nobody did any better than anybody else.
I will finish by saying that the Government did a fantastic job over the last two years. The acting Government that we had in place after the election did phenomenal work and the Government itself did really great work during this Covid-19 crisis. I love to have a go at the Government any chance I get but sometimes one has to be honest and congratulate it on the work it did.
I and my Fianna Fáil colleagues support and welcome this Bill. It makes a number of important required changes that exist in defence laws and will address the ongoing issues in the Defence Forces. The Bill also includes provisions on the role of the Reserve Defence Force, including the removal of that prohibition currently contained in the Defence Acts on members of the Reserve Defence Force serving overseas. We all absolutely support that and it is a welcome development.
I take this opportunity again to pay tribute to our Defence Forces and support them in the work they do. They stepped up again to play their part in the Covid-19 challenge and provided support to front-line emergency workers. They participated in a number of official groups such as the high-level task force on Covid-19 vaccinations. In addition to supporting the HSE, the Defence Forces have also provided a broad range of supports to other Departments and agencies. Sadly, as has been mentioned, the number of personnel in our Defence Forces continues to be significantly below the approved 9,500 level. Covid-19 will most likely add to the challenge of recruitment but we must look at why this is the case and act to rectify the situation.
The commitments to defence in the programme for Government must be acted on urgently. I, personally, am very proud of Óglaigh na hÉireann and always describe it as "ours". I am very proud of our officers, their great service and their great tradition of protection and peacekeeping. I feel that we can all have an emotional attachment and feel ownership when it comes to Óglaigh na hÉireann. It is because of that pride and emotional attachment that we owe our serving and retired officers the height of dignity and respect. We owe them. They always show up for us whether that be Covid-19, providing flood relief supports or support during heavy snow storms. There are so many occasions when they show up for us. Indeed, they show up internationally and have an incredible reputation for peacekeeping. We owe them so we must act on the commitments in the programme for Government.
One key commitment, and a priority for Fianna Fáil, was to establish a commission on the Defence Forces. The commission was established last December, it will continue to work throughout 2021 and a report is due in December 2021. The work of the commission will inform the future development of the Defence Forces. I plead with the Minister not to let this report sit on a desk like we have seen happen to many reports. I urge him to get the report and act to improve the conditions and pay for so many of our officers and their families. I mention their families on purpose as they make a huge sacrifice too. On that note, I want to pay tribute to the McNeela family in Dundalk who last week saw their son and brother honoured. Private Michael McNeela, who was 21 years of age, was a member of the 27th Infantry Battalion and serving in Lebanon when he was shot as he manned a checkpoint in 1989. Last week, one of Dundalk's most scenic walking routes, the Riverside Walkway, was renamed in honour of Private McNeela. I pay tribute to our fallen soldier who was the son of Kathleen and John, and brother of Julie. I also congratulate the Michael McNeela branch of the retired veterans group called the Organisation of National Ex Servicemen and Women, ONE, who worked tirelessly on this project. I was glad to support a motion tabled with the Dundalk Municipal Council in support of renaming the walkway. The walk will be a symbol and a reminder to all who walk the route of the life of a person who served this country but did not get a chance to live and grow old in a country that he loved.
I want to mention the women who participated in the "Women of Honour" programme and pay tribute to these brave women. I welcome this evening's announcement and the commitments given. I welcome the fact that the Minister has pledged that the issues will be addressed adequately. Eventually the Department has woken up to the issue. It was decades ago that sexual harassment was highlighted in the Defence Forces by Dr. Tom Clonan and nothing was done. The most worrying thing is that it is not historical harassment or bullying but it concerns the present. I wrote to the Department months ago on the issue and I did not receive a response. I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is shocking and upsetting to think that individual victims, researchers and, indeed, public representatives were ignored when they asked the Department of Defence about sexual harassment in the Defence Forces. Why does the State sit still until something blows up? I feel that wrongdoing is only acknowledged in the country after victims have had to scream to be heard and shame the authorities into acting. I believe the Minister is sincere but I ask him to please do not allow antiquated procedures or structures to be an excuse not to make the victims the priority. This country must wake up to the fact that often it is no country for women or the vulnerable.
I applaud the work done by the Minister in this area. I look forward to seeing the results and how he will work for the women featured in the "Women of Honour" programme.
I welcome the Minister back to the House. From a Fianna Fáil perspective, as outlined by my colleague, Senator McGreehan, we are happy to support the required changes needed to be made to defence laws. Like many others, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to members of the Defence Forces for the work they do on behalf of the State. They do what they always do. They step up to the plate whenever it is required and Covid-19 was just another example of them doing just that. We are extremely proud of them. When many sectors are coming forward making a case for themselves, and in many cases rightly so, regarding what they did during the pandemic, I think we should not forget the members of the Defence Forces like we should not forget the many others that have been mentioned by my colleague, Senator Craughwell.
When there is talk about the Defence Forces it saddens me when I hear representatives of those men and women of the Defence Forces, whether that be PDFORRA or the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, talk about the low morale in the Defence Forces. It has been so for a number of years.They feel they are isolated and not being listened to. This has been going on for too long. I hope the Minister will be the Minister who finally listens but also acts on what needs to be done in our Defence Forces. The figures speak for themselves. We should have a force of 9,500, yet we have been struggling with around 8,500 members for some time. I hope the Minister will address that particular issue.
I welcome the Minister's comments on the Reserve Defence Force. It is important that RDF members see a pathway to a career in the Defence Forces. I look forward to this legislation acting as such a pathway for them. When reserves step up to the mainstream Defence Forces I hope they will see a long-term career and be able to support themselves and, as Senator McGreehan mentioned, their families because it is a family commitment. No one joins the Defence Forces to make money. They do so because service is a vocation and they are proud to serve their country. It is about time this country recognised the role members of the Defence Forces play and gave them proper recognition, both financially and in the conditions provided for the work they do.
I congratulate the Minister on meeting some of the women of honour this evening. I found their accounts harrowing, sickening and saddening. They showed courage in coming forward. By raising their voices about what happened to them, they more or less kissed goodbye to their careers in the Defence Forces. That is very sad. I hope the review will show, as Senator Craughwell observed, that only a limited number of people were involved in this sickening behaviour. Whoever they are, they need to be rooted out because they are sullying the good name of the Defence Forces. I look forward to that review taking place and I hope its recommendations will be acted on.
The worrying allegations in recent weeks have proved upsetting for many. I reside in a county with a very proud Defence Forces record. The vast majority of members of the Defence Forces, who work so hard, are upset about the besmirching of and damage done to the good name of the Defence Forces and everything they stand for. The allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and workplace bullying and discrimination in the Defence Forces are clearly intolerable but what has compounded the issue are not the actions of a very few but the manner in which it was dealt with, or not dealt with. These allegations highlight a workplace culture that appears intolerant of diversity and which, to date, has been bereft of the ability to deal with it. The Green Party commends the courage, strength and heroism of the women of honour in telling their stories and bringing these manners into the public domain. Every organisation must counter bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination head-on. Organisation leaders need to lead this fight.
On this day, I think of retired captain, author and security analyst, Dr. Tom Clonan. Speaking truth to power can at times be a lonely, dark experience. We should ask Dr. Clonan. I think of the many great advocates that Ireland is blessed to have, such as Noeline Blackwell, the great lawyer. I thank the Minister for being unequivocal because anything less than an external independent review would have been entirely unacceptable.
What can we do for these people who have suffered so much? At this late hour, there are a few things we can do. Under the Criminal Evidence Act 1992, as inserted in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, in the case of sexual offences in the criminal courts, the accused is no longer permitted - thankfully by legislation - to personally conduct a cross-examination of the complainant, as the victim is known in criminal law. This legislative move also prohibited the accused person in serious sexual offences in the criminal courts from carrying out any cross-examination of any witness under 18 years or any complainant victim. This prohibition was not imposed on the court in absolutist terms, and nor should it be. The court has the discretion to act in the best interest of justice. It can grant civil criminal legal aid and, if needs be, it can appoint a legal representative to carry out what might be a necessary cross-examination. That could be a lasting legacy.
Perhaps we should look at this issue in the round and undertake a broader review than just courts martial. I am thinking of coercive control matters which may not be related to a sexual offence. Perhaps we should prohibit personal cross-examination by the accused of the victim in such cases. If the Department of Defence will not do this, I will undertake to introduce legislation, perhaps on a cross-party basis, an area in which the House has a proud tradition. Words are not enough at this stage. We can help the situation by translating words into action.
I congratulate Katie Hannon. It was upsetting for many last night to hear that the accused, with a smirk on his face, was able to cross-examine a brave and courageous victim by asking her if she had taken many drinks and why she had not locked her bedroom door. Those days are over in Ireland and Seanad Éireann will ensure that is the case if the Government does not do so.
The Defence Forces, as the organisation charged with defending our society and its values, must be an exemplar to all. It is vital, therefore, that the Defence Forces provide an inclusive workplace where differences are respected and fulfilling and fruitful careers are achievable by all, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or social circumstances.
Throughout the history of the Defence Forces, particularly when the State faced major crises, notably in the 1940s, for a protracted period in the 1970s and also in the past 18 months, we have been able to call upon the Reserve to augment the Permanent Defence Force. This work is often not visible as reserves integrate seamlessly, to their great credit, with their permanent colleagues. Sadly, however, recent years have seen the almost terminal decline of the Reserve Defence Force. Despite the tremendous efforts of those personnel still serving, the total number of reservists has dwindled for years to the point that the very survival of the Reserve is now in question. This Bill, which the Green Party and I are happy to support, marks a significant milestone in the history of the Reserve Defence Force. I welcome further discussion of this important legislation because I see its passage as an opportunity to reinvigorate the so-called Reserve, start afresh, breathe new life into it and give meaningful and rewarding roles in the future to those who dedicate their time to serving the State. They are definitely not doing it for money, as Senator Gallagher said. They believe in our flag and country.
Contributing to international peace and security through overseas service is one of the most important roles of our Defence Forces. Our reserves will also be able to contribute to these very important missions.It is well known that the Permanent Defence Force is suffering critical skills shortages and this is starting to place considerable strain on a number of areas. Specialists from the Reserve Defence Force in areas such as engineering, medical fields and IT have the potential to offer assistance overseas in the short term. Overseas service should not simply be limited to specialist areas, however. Over the medium and longer term, overseas service should also be an option for all reservists. This will require further action from the Oireachtas in terms of employment, protection and other supports. I look forward to working with Members on this.
I will conclude in the way I started. It would be remiss of me not to lead and finish by thanking the Minister again but he also said something that will mean so much to those victims. He said that he believes them. It is a short and small thing to say but he said it with sincerity and no-one questions his integrity. I believe we have to turn to a brighter future with a clear, new break from the past. Let us start with conducting a proper, thoroughly independent and external review of those wicked allegations, which are really upsetting and are damaging the great work of so many who were in the Defence Forces - the Óglaigh na hÉireann of which we are so proud.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus ba mhaith liom mo leithscéal a ghabháil leis as a óráid a chailleadh ach tá a ráiteas léite agam.
I apologise for missing the Minister's opening remarks. I have read the speech that was given to us by the ushers. I am sure many of the sentiments I express tonight will be similar to those expressed by colleagues already.
During the debate in the Dáil on the raft of amendments contained in the Bill, my colleague, Deputy Brady, made it clear that Sinn Féin supported this legislation. He did so on the basis that the issues contained in the Bill had been extensively debated on Committee Stage, and the Minister had honoured his commitment to follow through by bringing forward amendments pertinent to the issues that were required to make the Defence Forces more efficient and effective.
The context for the changes that are required is the morale of Defence Forces personnel, both permanent and reserve. The Permanent Defence Force is well below the established figure of 9,500, with membership currently sitting at 8,500. The Reserve Defence Force is considerably worse off in terms of its numbers, with membership at 4,160 with a 60% shortfall. The expectation is that this legislation can address these gaps and I sincerely hope it will.
Other issues of concern include opportunities for meaningful operational service for reservists at home and abroad. While the Bill will remove some of the impediments to allow members of the Reserve Defence Force to engage in that activity, there also needs to be meaningful employment protection as well. Meaningful employment protection is a critical element in the plan to enhance the membership and competency of the Defence Forces. The Minister's public commitments in respect of employment protections are equally critical. His reference to the Commission on Future of the Defence Forces and its report to be delivered within a specific timeframe highlights the urgency attached to resolving the employment protection issues. The hope is that the commission's report can be completed by the end of the year and that the necessary protections will be in place for the Reserve Defence Force. I sincerely hope that can indeed be the case. To ensure the momentum is maintained, I hope the Minister can also ensure that discussions begin straight away with respect to employment protections.
Two other issues of huge concern are remuneration and the working time directive. These must be satisfactorily addressed within both the permanent and indeed reservist elements of the Defence Forces, especially when the reservists are on duty locally or overseas. The Government should bring forward any EU regulations with respect to the working time directive for the Defence Forces. The Minister should act on this as a matter of urgency.
It is also important for the morale of the reservists that their service in the Reserve Defence Force is recognised and that they are paid for it. The notion of unpaid activities must be abolished and the Reserve Defence Force must move into this century. An hour for hour pro rata system should be introduced and all allowances available to the Permanent Defence Force should also be available to members of the Reserve Defence Force for undertaking certain categories of activity.
I will digress slightly from the legislation to mention an issue of relevance to the Minister with regard to this brief. One of the issues I and other colleagues have raised consistently with the Minister, and with some of his predecessors in the previous Seanad, is the issue of recruitment and retention. I have noticed an upsurge in television advertisements and events being posted by the Defence Forces around various towns and cities. I have seen billboards and posters on buses. That is welcome because it is necessary. We have made the case as to why more people need to join the Defence Forces, either permanent or reserve. One of the problems is that I do not see any of that at home in Ireland's second city. I see television advertisements on RTÉ; I do not see them yet on UTV. I do not see advertisements in the Irish Newsor the Belfast Telegraph. I do not see posters on the sides of buses there. What I see are lots of young people, who are interested in joining the Defence Forces, contacting me all the time for assistance in how to signpost them. Some of them may want references for their application. There is, therefore, a willing and entitled audience of people who should be sought out and encouraged to pursue a career in the Defence Forces from right across all of our Thirty-two Counties because that is the right and proper thing to do. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it makes sense because it is a logical and beneficial thing to do in terms of strengthening the numbers, capabilities and talent within the Defence Forces.
The content of this Bill and its passing reflects the fact that serious issues need to be resolved to put the Defence Forces and their personnel in a place where morale is high and they have the resources to fulfil their obligations in an effective and efficient way. There are morale issues in the Defence Forces. This has been openly spoken about, most recently at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence. Much work, therefore, needs to be done and I know the Minister appreciates that. I hope he can lead the implementation of these changes to ensure the Defence Forces are fit to do their jobs in an enthusiastic and upbeat manner.
Like other colleagues, I will finish by welcoming the Minister's meeting today with the Women of Honour group to discuss its experiences and concerns. While standing in absolute support and solidarity, I am going to reserve commentary until I have had the opportunity to meet with and hear from the group directly. Certainly, what has been corresponded to us and what we have heard relayed in the media is cause for deep concern, and indeed, disgust given what has been suggested. I welcome the Minister's firm commitment this evening to the review. I wish that review a positive, speedy and effective conclusion that satisfies the needs of victims. The Defence Forces must be a place where those serving are treated with the utmost respect and given corporate protections and safeguards.
I welcome this Bill and look forward to working with the Minister and other colleagues across the Chamber in ensuring that it is brought about as efficiently and quickly as possible.
I welcome the Minister to the House. We are, of course, told that the Bill before us is largely a technical Bill to make amendments to the Defence Act 1954 and address ongoing issues with regard to the Defence Forces. In addition, following amendments on Report Stage in Dáil Éireann, the Bill includes a provision on the role of the Reserve Defence Force including, as has been mentioned by colleagues, the very welcome removal of the absolute prohibition currently contained within the Defence Act on members of the Reserve Defence Force serving overseas.
I take it as a signal, as the Minister said in his statement, that he will use the expertise and skills available in our Reserve Defence Force into the future. That was a very welcome comment among a number of welcome comments made by the Minister, to which I will refer as I go through my speech. We in the Labour Party will be supporting the changes sought by Government in this Bill, as we did in the Lower House.
I would also like to take the opportunity to address a number of issues with regard to our Defence Forces given the fact that the Minister is with us. One of the amendments before us is section 3, entitled Non-enlistment of minors, and section 16. The purpose of these amendments is to remove references in the Defence Act 1954 to the outdated reference to the enlistment of minors. Notwithstanding what my colleague, Senator Craughwell, said and given the undoubted problems that our Defence Forces are having in the recruitment of personnel, has consideration been given to increasing the enlistment age to our permanent and reserve defence forces? As the Minister will know, currently a person must be under the age of 25 on the closing date for application to apply for the Army and under the age of 27 on the closing date for the application to the Naval Service.We included this point in our submission to the Commission on the Future of the Defence Forces. It has also been mentioned by others. Given the changes in the lifestyles and fitness of our population, will consideration be given to increasing the age limits for enlistment and, potentially, opening a career in the Defence Forces to those who may have started down a different path but who would now like to embark on a career in our Defence Forces?
Three words uttered by the Minister tonight were the most important he has said regarding the Women of Honour. I welcome that the Minister is here with us and that he met representatives of that group today. I also congratulate, as have some of my colleagues, Katie Hannon and RTÉ for publicising the issue in a programme. I am sure we all join in condemning the horrific treatment of the female members of our Defence Forces in the form of sexual harassment and bullying, the silence in that regard and the power of those who carried out that sexual harassment and bullying. We must ensure that this type of treatment is called out and stopped, as the Minister said. The culture, as the Minister also said, must change.
I welcome that the Minister has agreed to an independent inquiry. I received the Minister's press statement earlier, and I welcome that the experience of the women that the Minister spoke to today will be reflected in the terms of reference. That is important. I am sure that my colleagues will join me in welcoming that development. In this regard, I also ask that the terms of reference for the independent inquiry reflect input from the representative organisations, namely, PDFORRA and RACO. That is also important, because those organisations represent their members and their daily experience. It is mentioned in the Minister's press statement but I would like him to confirm that it is intended that representatives from those organisations will be included in the process. That would be welcome. It is no wonder that only 7% of the members of the Defence Forces are female when this culture exists. The Minister's comments tonight are important. Most important were these three words: "I believe them". We all look forward to the independent inquiry and what it will bring forward for those people who need it.
I am from Kildare, where we are all very proud of the Curragh Camp and the role it has played in the history of the Defence Forces. The Minister visited the camp during the past year. He will be aware of the dereliction to be found there and the urgent need for investment. As an aside, we were promised a new secondary school there more than two years ago. Recent correspondence with the Minister for Education has indicated that the site has still not been secured. Following his visit, the Minister will also be aware of the number of derelict homes in the camp. In replies to my Labour Party colleagues previously, the Minister stated that he has no direct responsibility for housing.
In the context of the current housing crisis, however, and I get calls every week from families struggling to find housing, the Government must invest in this area. Replying to a query last September from a colleague who represents the constituency, the Minister stated that, "There is too much dereliction in the Curragh, which needs to be resolved, but again, it cannot be done overnight". I agree that it cannot be done overnight, but we must start tackling this issue. The Minister continued by stating that, "A plan has been already put together for elements of the investment that is needed in the Curragh, but I am committed to a more comprehensive plan than that". I would appreciate if the Minister could update us on that plan for the Curragh.
The Minister will be aware of the ongoing problem, as my colleagues have mentioned, with recruitment and retention in our Defence Forces. I will raise several issues. The first concerns the PDFORRA medical assistance scheme, PMAS, which is a cross-border health initiative that has been given Government approval until the end of the year. This scheme has had a tremendous effect on retention in our Defence Forces. It has been mentioned previously by my colleagues here and in the Lower House. Will the Minister and his Government colleagues commit to extending that approval into the new year? As I understand the situation, the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Board has committed to continuing with this scheme until at least the middle of next year. Given the benefits that accrue to the personnel serving in our Defence Forces, I hope the Minister will agree to work with his Government colleagues to have this scheme extended.
Mention was also made of the post-1994 contracts, as they are called. The Department has a report on this matter, or at least that is what I have been told. I understand that approximately 700 serving personnel have contracts that may finish by the end of next year. I ask the Minister to comment on that aspect and to tell us what he intends to do in this regard, as my colleagues have also requested. We cannot afford to lose the experience of any of those 700 personnel who may wish to continue serving after December 2022.
I will also mention briefly the debate we had on Jadotville. In fairness, the Minister gave several commitments that night and he also said that he would come back to us once we had all read the report. He might comment on where he stands with those undertakings now. Several commemorative events were also meant to be in the planning stages and the Minister might also let us know how things stand in that regard.
I finish by recognising, as always, the continued and ongoing contribution of the personnel of the Defence Forces during the Covid-19 pandemic emergency, in their continued service overseas, an aspect mentioned by my colleagues, and the ongoing daily assistance they provide here at home. I reiterate that this Bill will have a transformative effect on our Reserve Defence Force. It will, I hope, allow our Defence Forces to tap into the qualities and skills of those who serve under the banner of the Reserve Defence Force. The Minister is aware that our Defence Forces need investment and certainty. This Bill will play a small part in doing that. We all hope that the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces will be transformative and will ensure that our Defence Forces will play their rightful part in the country's future. I thank the Minister for coming to the House and I look forward to his response.
I join with others in welcoming the commitment to holding an independent review regarding the experiences of the Women of Honour. It is correct that there is a need for cultural change and concrete protections. Both are needed. Cultural change is crucial within the Defence Forces. As Senator Martin, I think, referred to, however, there is also a need for a wider cultural shift concerning how we treat those who have experienced sexual abuse. I note that legislation is also going through the Oireachtas in respect of whistleblowers. It is at the stage of pre-legislative scrutiny.
Members spoke about Tom Clonan and other people. It is unfortunate that so often those people who raise the alarm about issues of abuse and malpractice are themselves victimised and then suffer in turn. That is something else that we must address. It should not take an issue being covered by RTÉ to cause a matter like to be addressed. It should be sufficient for a flag to be raised internally in an organisation to bring about action. We know that flags were raised concerning these issues for a long time. None of us could deny previous concerns in this regard in respect of the Defence Forces. Senator McGreehan spoke eloquently about that aspect.
Regarding this Bill, I welcome elements of it. It is important that we formalise the non-recruitment of minors. It is not the practice here, obviously, but this move is important in an international context, where the recruitment of minors does occur. I lived in New York during and immediately after 9-11. I saw aggressive recruitment of minors. There were times when funding to schools was conditional on recruitment conversations happening within those school settings. There is of course a need to advertise and to encourage recruitment. It is important, however, that it is done ethically. I state that because I recall being in Times Square in New York and seeing a giant billboard showing a very young army officer climbing up a tower to fight a dragon. That was the recruitment video. It was purveying a fantasy of what military action is.
It is therefore important that we recruit and that we have an ethical aspect to such recruitment. I agree completely with those who say that what we should be doing is extending the age limits for recruitment into the military upwards to allow people who are older and have life experience to apply for enlistment. I refer to people who may be in their 20s or 30s and who may wish to enter the armed forces. It is important that they will be supported to do that. Equally important will be the terms and conditions associated with the work they undertake. I refer to housing conditions, opportunities for progression, security of pay, working time and clarity in that respect and regarding overtime payments. All those things are aspects that would make it possible for people in their 30s and 40s to either join the Defence Forces or remain there. This is not just about recruitment, because one of the key issues is retention. It is the major issue. People feel that if they have a family life that there comes a point when they are not able to sustain their engagement in the Defence Forces. We really should not be losing people in that way.In that regard, I wish to highlight a concern about one aspect of the Bill which was in the original text, which was removed in the Dáil and which related to re-enlistment. It is important that we have routes to re-enlistment. It was stated in the Dáil that it was covered by the emergency Covid legislation. The latter will expire, however, and, as a result, the question of pathways to re-enlistment is important.
I welcome many provisions for the Reserve Defence Force. It is important to note that overseas work is and has been powerful in nature. It has been spoken about. It is not there simply for the experience. The work that the Army and Naval Service have done overseas have been done not just because it is a function but because it has purpose. The difference is that the mandate the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps have had is unique . That mandate emanates from Ireland, a neutral country that is committed to peace, neutrality, peacemaking and peacekeeping across the globe. The humanitarian mission is crucial. People know when they are serving that they do not take part in wars of interest but only in military action to protect human rights rather than interests. The actions taken are about principle rather than power.
That brings me to the crux of certain aspects of the Bill. I am concerned about the slippage we have seen in recent years. I know that many in the Naval Service were heartbroken when Ireland stopped doing search and rescue and when we went from saving 8,500 lives in 2015, as part of a humanitarian mission, to only 1,888 in 2018 as we changed policy and joined Operation Sophia. There has been slippage in permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, where we are engaging in military procurement. What will that be used for by those in the partnership? If we are researching new weaponry, how may it be used? I am saying this because I am concerned about section 2, which provides for the delegation of military authority to international forces commanders. I do not believe that there is sufficient safeguarding in that with regard to which international force commanders it applies to and under what circumstances.
There are references to the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006, specifically section 3(1)(a) regarding one of the grounds for despatching for service, which will now be layered with a delegation of authority to command, and about carrying duties. Section 3(1)(a) contains the phrase "carrying out duties as a military representative or filling appointments or postings outside the State, including secondments to any international organisation". The definition of international organisation is quite wide and could include EU and other forces. That is a concern. Section 3(1)(f) already allows us to ensure that Irish armed forces can take part in humanitarian tasks even outside a UN Security Council brief. This is not a necessary provision in order for us to take urgent humanitarian action. What kinds of actions are we taking? We have seen the slippage from when we joined Operation Sophia and then PESCO. Last year, our armed forces were appointed to EU battle groups. We had a discussion regarding matters in 2020 that did not go ahead-----
They have joined a German-commanded force. The key point is that this is slippage. Where is the clarity about our UN and humanitarian mandates? How can we reinforce this, given the discretion that the Minister asks us to give him under section 2 of the Bill to allow operational control to be delegated? The limitations and exemptions that the Minister mentions relate to important issues regarding the security of forces, the safety of staff and the reallocation of services but I want to see safeguards, limitations and exemptions relating to mandate. We need to bolster it. I will finish now. My final point is that 82% of people in Ireland support our role as a neutral, peacebuilding country in the most recent poll on that. It is important that we remember and reinforce that because it strengthens our role internationally.
I welcome the Bill. I read it as a technical and tidying-up measure that also makes provisions for the Reserve Defence Force. I completely support it.
I will begin by taking the opportunity to thank our Defence Forces. Over the past 18 months, they have been extraordinary. At the height of one of the most frightening periods, I had to bring my daughter for a test. The whole thing was managed extraordinarily well and with military precision. There was safety and comfort in seeing members of our Defence Forces there. It was something that felt familiar and secure. I am grateful. The Naval Service, the contact tracing and the flying in of equipment and personal protective equipment have been extraordinary. I have had the honour in my career of working as a counselling psychologist in Kildare and had members and their families stationed in the Curragh come into my practice. As someone who never really had any contact with members of the Defence Forces, I was struck by that sense of honour and pride in our identity and what we did at home and overseas. As things were mentioned in the course of their duties and shared with me, I came to know the diverse way that the Defence Forces interact in our lives, unknown to us.
Recently, the Army rangers went to Afghanistan. I am old enough to remember cash transit vehicles having to be surrounded by Army personnel to keep us safe and to defend the State and its money. When we see things like that, we see evidence of what the Defence Forces do. Otherwise, outside of that, people are unaware of their daily work and its sheer extent, and just how committed and fantastic they are. In the context of this reserve and opening up, it would be good to have an information campaign for people to know just how amazing they are and what they do all day every day. Since we do not go to war, we only have the perception of those who go away with the UN in the blue berets, but that is out of the context of our everyday lives. There is a role in informing about that.
We see the issue of recruitment and the opportunity for the Defence Forces to be a career for people to explore and to go into apprenticeships. I am sure the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, would be only too delighted with a widening of apprenticeships and opportunities within the Defence Forces, and to work on and facilitate that with the Minister, Deputy Coveney. An information campaign is needed with regard to our Defence Forces, to know what they do daily, that would be beneficial to all of us because we all get that surge of pride when we see them in action.
Much has been said about the "Women of Honour". Those women should be applauded for their courage and honesty. We are horrified and stand in solidarity with them. I agree with the Minister that we believe what they are saying. I appreciate the steps that the Minister has taken and the meeting. His words are reassuring. I congratulate him for that. A basic constitutional right to natural justice and fair proceedings is that people do not investigate or cross-examine themselves, as has been spoken about by Senator Martin. There are principles in criminal law that should have been applied in this situation, whereby nobody gets to question a victim and survivor in the manner which we have heard of. I appreciate the Minister's actions in that regard and thank him. We look forward to a speedy resolution to the sharing of a culture that dishonours the many honourable men in our Defence Forces, with a small few blighting all of them.That said, there are also people standing around, seeing it happen and not speaking up. They need to be called out. I applaud the women.
I am speaking now because Senator McGreehan had to leave the Chamber.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I pay tribute to the Defence Forces throughout the country who, throughout Covid, have made us proud of what they do. We should also remind ourselves of the increased role of the Defence Forces in dealing with unfortunate communities that have been hit by severe flooding in this country in recent years as well as their fantastic ability to help people by removing them from difficult situations where there is flooding. We should reassure to people. I am proud of the work the Defence Forces do, as are many others.
The events of recent days have saddened me greatly. I am proud when I see how women members of the Defence Forces turned out and of how proud they are of their job. However, the fact that this type of carry-on went on for so long while those affected were afraid to speak out is shocking and deplorable. I praise the Minister because he acted on this matter straightaway. Having listened to the people affected and the group concerned, they appreciate that he is listening to them and taking action. We must all support him in that. It is important that we give a clear statement to the people who have been carrying on like this that their behaviour is not on and is completely out of order.
As previous speakers stated, this is a technical Bill. I will not go into the technicalities of it. I note the Minister stated in a written reply that "Recruitment continues and has resulted in 238 personnel being inducted as at 30th June 2021". How many further inductions will take place this year? The Minister, in his reply, also stated:
As at 30th June 2021, the strength of the Permanent Defence Force (PDF) was 8,519 personnel ... [and] the Government remains committed to returning to, and maintaining the agreed strength of the Permanent Defence Force at 9,500 personnel, comprised of 7,520 Army personnel, 886 Air Corps personnel and 1,094 Naval Service personnel, as set out in the White Paper on Defence (2015).
It would be lovely to see the Air Corps personnel figure increase to 1,000. It is a nice round figure and it would be great reach that level, but we all must commit to bringing the number of Defence Forces personnel to 9,500 again.
When speaking to young people in second level schools, in particular, and some starting third level, I am struck by the number who say they would love a career in the Army. For some reason - perhaps it is because we do not sell it to them - the interest just dwindles away. We need to look at a better way of selling a career in the Army, promoting it in a different way and giving it a special place. When people speak to their career guidance counsellor, it should be explained that a career in the Army can be highly satisfying. I know many people, some of whom went to school with me, who are now retiring. Serving in the Army was such a satisfying career for them where they travelled abroad and helped communities. I recall how, in rural Ireland, the Army provided security for the cash being transported to the banks. When we were going to school it was exciting to see the Army on the street at our local bank branch as the money was brought in by the security people. Unfortunately, not many bank branches are left in our smaller towns.
I commend the Minister on the way he is handling recent events. We are taking this opportunity this evening to make that point and I am sure he appreciates that. I wish him well with the progression of the Bill. He will certainly have my full support in ensuring Defence Forces numbers increase to 9,500 and, in whatever possible way, we sell an Army career to people in a more professional way because many more people would join if it was sold in a better way.
I thank Senators for their contributions. To respond to the issues they raised, which have come to light because of public comments made by the group now called "Women of Honour" and which have been reinforced by conversations my Department and I had with serving personnel, I wish to reinforce to the House how determined I am to address this issue. I say to anyone who suffered during his or her time in the Defence Forces that, as Minister for Defence, I am truly sorry that they had that experience. That is not the Defence Forces that we work for. There is a need for a core change of attitude and culture among some in the Defence Forces towards women and diversity more generally. It is not only women who are affected in the Defence Forces. That is a matter that my Department and I and the leadership of the Defence Forces are determined to deliver. We will first work with women who have been brave enough to come forward, and others, to make sure we put in place a structure that is independent, strong and robust enough, has terms of reference that are fit for purpose and allows a group to start that piece of work and come back with clear recommendations that we can focus on implementing.
A number of Senators asked why it takes a public scandal for action to be taken. When Dr. Tom Clonan did his doctoral thesis on this issue in November 2000, his findings were shocking from many people at that time. Quite a lot happened after that. In September 2001, an external advisory group chaired by Dr. Eileen Doyle was established to deal with the challenge of the workplace in the Defence Forces. Its remit was clear. It was "to determine the nature and extent of any harassment, bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment within the Defence Forces; to review existing policies and procedures on interpersonal relationships within the Defence Forces specifically in regard to harassment, bullying, discrimination, or sexual harassment; to make recommendations on strategies and programmes for the development of a culture based on dignity of the individual and mutual respect." That was 20 years ago.
Unfortunately, we have heard far too many examples of disgraceful breaches in standards that have resulted in isolation and discrimination and, at times, sexual harassment in the Defence Forces. We have also heard stories that occurred all too recently. This issue is not necessarily about putting structures in place. In 2004, we had an independent monitoring group, phase 1. In 2008, we had an independent monitoring group, phase 2. In 2014, we had an independent monitoring group, phase 3. Good people were on those review panels trying to bring about change, and the Defence Forces tried to put new structures in place to respond to that.
In 2015, there was a report of Defence Forces which included a have your say climate survey conducted by the University of Limerick. It was comprehensive survey work which tried to understand people's concerns and anxieties in the Defence Forces in order that we could respond to them. In 2016, phase 2 of the report, Workplace Climate in the Defence Forces, was published. In October last year, a report by the Defence Forces working group on the implementation of the independent monitoring group and its phase 3 recommendations was published. There has been much supposed change but the truth is we must ask if it is changing the environment for vulnerable people or those who become vulnerable in the Defence Forces because of the attitude problem of a minority who can cause huge problems for people trying to develop a career in the Defence Forces. We have an obligation to protect them in terms of structure and systems, standards and attitudes.We are going to fix that this time. I wish to state clearly to Members that we are going to work with people who have been brave enough to come forward because sometimes that has a consequence and takes its toll on people on a personal basis, that is, on their family, friends and indeed on their careers. We know that and consequently, despite all the work that has been done in the past 20 years, we must find a way of really changing the experiences of people in the Defence Forces for the future. If we do that we will make a very significant contribution to the lives of young women and men who join the Defence Forces, of course, but we also will make a positive impact on recruitment and retention. We will see a shift within the unique structure of the Defence Forces, which, as many Members are aware, is a hierarchical structure with a chain of command and so on. Nobody in the Defence Forces, regardless of who he or she is or how high-ranking he or she is, should be allowed to abuse their power and people must be held to account. I am not sure who made the point but this is both about a change in culture and about clear protections and accountability within the Defence Forces from the very top down. That is what I hope we will be able to achieve, following the bravery of many people who have come forward in the last number of weeks.
As for the legislation itself, on the Reserve and the multiple questions people have had in respect of employment protections, Senator Craughwell is right in this regard. If you are a reservist who is working and if you want to volunteer for a mission at home or abroad, we must find a way of ensuring you can do that without risking your own job, whether it is in the public or private sector. I gave a commitment that we would try to progress that. I cannot progress that on my own as Minister for Defence. I must work with other Ministers who are responsible for employment legislation and so on, be that across the public sector or more importantly, in respect of employment legislation in the Department with responsibility for employment. We will try to progress something there and do it in a pragmatic way that can work for employers but also for people who want to be active members of the Reserve.
On the issue of training, it goes without saying that I am not going to sanction anybody travelling abroad to a complex peacekeeping mission without appropriate training and equipment. The life of a reservist is just as important as that of a member of the Permanent Defence Force. It is my obligation to do anything we can to manage risk before sending anybody abroad. We will of course ensure the standards are as they should be.
On the issue of child soldiers, I am very outspoken internationally on this issue, as is Ireland as a country. We must be crystal clear on this issue, that is, no children coming into the Defence Forces. I understand about some of the programmes and schemes in other countries with respect to pre-military training and so on but in law we must be very clear and consistent with international law, quite frankly.
I take the point Senator Craughwell made and am not casting aspersions on that. I am just giving the reasoning for why we are so clear on that.
Some Members have raised individual barracks and so on, such as Custume Barracks in Athlone. It is a fantastic facility and I can promise we will continue investing there. It is a very strategic part of our Defence Forces infrastructure, as Senator Carrigy knows. It has very strong advocates and we hear them.
There are of course other issues in relation to HR, which we are working on. I hope to be able to make a decision on the post-1994 contracts issue quite soon. I am meeting both of the Defence Forces representative groups, namely, PDFORRA and RACO, in the next few weeks and hope we can come to a conclusion on that sooner rather than later. I gave a commitment we would do that before the end of the year. We can do that well in advance of the end of the year - within the next few weeks - to be able to give people certainty quite a long way out before the issue comes to a head, as it otherwise would, at the end of next year. We owe that to people.
Many Senators have raised the role the Defence Forces play in the context of Covid-19. As Minister for Defence, let me tell Members that what the Defence Forces have done during this period has been quite extraordinary. Whatever we have asked of them, they have delivered. This includes hotel quarantine, quietly dealing with supplementing staff in nursing homes, doing some of the most difficult transportation for patients who may have tested positive and flying samples to Berlin to get quick turnaround times from labs there. Whatever it is they have just delivered it and that is the way the Defence Forces are. It is important to recognise just how flexible they are because it does not work like that in many other countries.
I am more than aware of the recruitment and retention issues. Believe me, it is a big priority. As I said, I hope there will be a positive by-product of dealing with some of the fundamental issues and problems in the Defence Forces with respect to diversity and sexual harassment and bullying more generally.
Senator Wall asked a number of specific questions on the upper age limits, rather than the lower ones. I do not want to make any commitment on that, apart from to say I will look at it. I have a good record of looking with an open mind at issues relating to the Defence Forces to try to improve things, particularly numbers. By the way, on the independent review we are going to bring about over the next few weeks, we will include both PDFORRA and RACO in the consultation process on that, as well, of course, as the women involved, as I said earlier.
On the Curragh Camp, it is in many ways the flagship of the Defence Forces. It is the headquarters of the Army. While it is true there is still some dereliction there, we have a rolling investment programme which is quite evident when you go there. It cannot happen quickly enough as far as I am concerned but obviously I must operate within budgets. We will continue to invest, as we have committed to in the investment programme.
On Jadotville, I am somewhat limited in what I can say because there is a judicial review under way and that constrains me in making any comment on it. Once that legal issue is settled I am certainly happy to have that discussion and debate again. We must delay any ceremonies we may have planned until we get legal clarity on that issue.
On what Senator Higgins said, I was listening. I apologise, I probably should not have interrupted her in relation to battle groups. The term, "battle group", is a very unfortunate name for groups that are effectively there to ensure countries can train together and work on interoperability. The purpose is to ensure that if we must send an emergency mission somewhere that involves more than one country, however comprehensive or challenging that may be, our soldiers can go and work shoulder to shoulder alongside others with whom they have been training. This is a good thing, not a slippage or a bad thing. I hate the name "battle groups" because these are essentially crisis intervention groups and this is very much consistent with peacekeeping, peace enforcement, post-conflict management and so on, which is what Ireland brings to many of these missions. In relation to the safeguards around the triple lock, which I assume is what the Senator was talking about, and on ensuring there is a UN mandate and so on to send Irish troops abroad, if we needed a triple lock and a UN mandate to send troops on a humanitarian mission we could not have sent a team to Kabul. Within 48 hours we made a decision because we managed to get the partnership and co-operation we needed with the French to be able to get a team in there quickly, to get people out quickly and get everybody back out within 48 hours.
I specified that that was under a different section than the one under which I have a concern.My concern relates to Part A, which involves the delegation of the secondment of forces. It is Part F that relates to humanitarian concern. This is just for clarity.
I am just dealing with the general point. When we sent ships to the Mediterranean Sea, I was the Minister who made that decision. Some people did not agree with that at the time but it turned out to be an extremely valuable mission for the Defence Forces, particularly the Naval Service, and also for some 18,000 people who were taken from the sea by our personnel. That was, in the first instance, a humanitarian mission to which Ireland signed up, working on a bilateral basis with Italy. It was simply no longer possible to work on a bilateral basis with Italy once Operation Sophia was set up, particularly as Italy was central to that operation. We did not have the option to keep doing what we were doing. We had the option to leave or to stay involved in a new and more structured mission. I felt, on balance, that it made sense to stay. You have to work with what you have in front of you in terms of what is possible and the partners who are willing to work with you. You cannot operate in isolation on your own in the Mediterranean Sea. That is what happened there.
The point being made by the Senator on the delegation of powers to a force commander is fair. There is no actual change in practice regarding what happens today. When I choose to send troops to UNIFIL in southern Lebanon, we have to transfer a certain amount of power to the force commander of UNIFIL so that he or she can ensure there is proper co-ordination between the countries involved in contributing troops across the board to the mission. I believe this can involved up to 15 countries. The position is the same in the context of UNDOF and with the mission in Mali to which we have deployed personnel. You have to have a force commander who has a leadership function that co-ordinates across all countries. That transfer of power, however, must be limited within the confines of what I outlined earlier in order to ensure that Irish troops are still the responsibility of the Irish leadership and Irish officers. If there is a military police investigation, the matter would be handed back to the Irish system to conclude investigations and so on.
The Senator's question was a fair one but I wish to reassure her. This issue also came up in the Dáil when people wanted to understand what we are actually doing here, namely, if we were giving away power to a force commander from another country who could ask Irish soldiers to do things that they were not comfortable doing. The answer to that question is "No". That circumstance is not going to happen because force commanders must operate within a UN mandate. Believe me, for UNIFIL, UNDOF or other UN missions, this is a pretty clear mandate given by the UN. This is what the force commander has to manage. Within that, we are responsible for the welfare of Irish troops and the role that they play. There has to be a leadership balance between the force commander and a lead officer that ultimately has responsibility for the Irish troops when they are abroad.
One of the reasons for this Bill is that we have asked the Commission on the Defence Forces to do quite a lot of work on the future role of the Reserve Defence Force and the capacity issues relating to it. I wanted this legislation done by the time the commission makes its recommendations. The last thing I want is for the commission to make a recommendation for new roles for the Reserve and then for me to have to start the process of legislation that might take another year after that. We are getting the legislation out of the way first and then we are giving the commission the option to be able to make decisions. I hope the commission will be as ambitious as I am for the potential role of reservists at home and abroad. Once this legislation is enacted, we will no longer have a legal impediment in the context of our ability to implement future recommendations from the commission. Will it be possible to have reservists abroad and overseas next year? I believe that would be very ambitious but, legally, it would be possible. Of course, from a training and equipment point of view, and in the context of coherence and interoperability that would work for the Permanent Defence Force too, and that may take a bit of time.