Seanad debates

Tuesday, 15 February 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Defence Forces

2:30 pm

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach, and I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, to the Seanad to discuss this very important issue.

I welcome the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces. There is no doubt that this will foster real debate and, indeed, has started to do that around the defence Ireland needs as a modern European country. This is very welcome. It is a substantial report running to 224 pages and making 69 recommendations. I commend all of those involved in this very comprehensive report.

There are many noteworthy recommendations within the report such as: a meaningful transformation in the military hierarchy; an increased focus on cybersecurity; new armed personnel carriers; a larger and more robust naval capacity; a larger aircraft fleet; and many others. Of course, there was a huge emphasis on the people within the Defence Forces. That is absolutely the greatest strength we have.The recommendations for the regeneration plan for the Reserve are critical. The proposal of regular potential officer courses, what we call the commissioning of the ranks, enables experienced non-commissioned officers to train to join the commissioned ranks. They are recommendations that the former Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, made in 2006. In 2022 it is still a recommendation but nothing has happened in between, which is regrettable. We have to recognise there has been a lost decade for the Defence Forces and that defence needs an increase in current funding and investment to undo the damage caused by neglect and return Defence Forces modernisation to the path originally charted in the 2000 White Paper.

I hail from Kildare and represented that area in the last Dáil, where I advocated strongly on behalf of the defence community not just in Kildare but across the country. I have continued to advocate strongly for it in this House. While I am pleased to see the comprehensive report, I am concerned and slightly sceptical about the implementation process. We need to see action now. We have broken the trust of the defence community before by failing to act and this cannot be allowed happen again. For far too long the Defence Forces have been under-resourced, ignored and not shown the respect they deserve. This has to be a turning-point for the defence community in my area of south Kildare and across the country. The days of reports and talking about reports must come to an end. We need to come to the next phase if we are to revitalise our Defence Forces and if we are serious about attracting people to a career in our forces, which is hugely important.

In this House last week, I asked the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, to prioritise the immediate establishment of a permanent pay review body in tandem with my party colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. Pay and conditions for Defence Forces personnel must improve and the establishment of this pay review body must be a priority. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, to outline when we will see a comprehensive implementation plan. How long does the Minister of State estimate full implementation will take? Will he on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, commit to prioritising the establishment of a permanent pay review body as a matter of urgency?

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome to the Visitors Gallery, Ms Nina O'Connor, who is a transition year student. It is great to see young people interested in our proceedings. She is the guest of our esteemed colleague and temporary Chair, Senator Horkan. I invite the Minister of State to respond to the matter.

Photo of Colm BrophyColm Brophy (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney. The Minister welcomes the publication of the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces. The establishment of the Commission on the Defence Forces was set out in the programme for Government and was a key priority for the Minister for Defence. The publication of the report represents the culmination of the work carried out over the past 13 months and is testament to the considerable efforts of all who contributed to its completion.

The report is wide-ranging and comprehensive. As Senator O'Loughlin mentioned, it contains 69 main recommendations and, together with sub-recommendations, there are 133 recommendations in total. The report proposes significant changes for the Defence Forces, including to high-level command and control structures, and for the level of defence provision in Ireland. It challenges the status quoacross a range of areas and is forthright about the requirement for cultural change in the Defence Forces. It proposes a range of measures to make the Defence Forces a more inclusive, diverse, equal and attractive workplace. The importance of the Reserve is also clearly stated.

The report poses serious questions regarding defence provision that we as a society must carefully consider. This includes the type of defence capabilities we should retain and the level of resourcing we are willing to commit to in order to equip and train our Defence Forces for the roles we require them to undertake.The Minister hopes that this report will foster real debate about the defence that we need as a modern neutral European country.

The report sets out three indicative levels of ambition, LOAs. LOA 1 would encompass the current capability; LOA 2 would enhance our current capabilities and seek to address specific priority areas; and LOA 3 would look to develop full spectrum defence capabilities to protect Ireland and its people to an extent comparable to similar-sized countries in Europe.

The commission recommended a step to LOA 2 in the short term, pending more detailed policy debate and decision required for higher levels of ambition. This step up to LOA 2 would require an additional €500 million per annum. LOA three would require expenditure of €3 billion per annum.

Clearly, there are matters that require careful consideration and, in some critical aspects, interdepartmental discussion and agreement. This includes the level of resourcing that may be allocated to defence and the governance framework that will be required to underpin the changes that the commission has recommended. The Minister is also anxious to engage with key stakeholders in the Oireachtas.

There have been calls, obviously, for quick movement on the recommendations in the report and I understand that there may be an impatience to move on certain aspects of the report. The Minister believes that a four- to five-month timeframe is necessary to bring a considered and comprehensive proposal back to Government to address the fundamental issues that the commission has set out. The Minister intends to engage with key stakeholders in the intervening period.

Significant work is currently ongoing, which the commission has referred to in its report. This includes key issues such as the development of a capability development planning process, the work of the independent review into dignity and equality issues, the ongoing procurement of equipment and infrastructure and direct entry competitions and the amendment of legislation relating to the working time directive.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response on behalf of the Minister for Defence. While I note the points that he made, to be perfectly honest, I cannot understand how the Minister needs five months to prepare his response. Nothing in the commission's report can be a surprise to him or, indeed, to his officials because for the past ten years we have been listening to the issues, challenges and problems, particularly around recruitment and retention.

While much of the public commentary has unsurprisingly been focused on the big ticket items, the real meat of the commission's recommendations relate to structural and system reforms that will go a long way to tackle the twin problems of poor morale and personnel retention. These are the two biggest issues that we have.

I participated in a meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence along with the Leas-Cathaoirleach two weeks ago in the Curragh where we heard all of this first-hand. It used be a situation where those who went into the Army certainly took great pride in their role and in their position. While they still take great pride, there is certainly a huge lack of morale and that needs to be addressed.

Photo of Colm BrophyColm Brophy (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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As the Senator will be aware, I have outlined some of the key matters in the commission's report. I will certainly take on board what she has said and the important points that she has raised and bring them to the Minister, in terms of following on from this.

I reiterate that given the significant recommendations in the report, that period of consideration is required. The report will require detailed consideration and interdepartmental consideration. It is important that having done the work the commission has done, the Minister would get those views clearly from all the stakeholders. In that context, four to five months is a reasonable timeframe. The process will proceed from the engagement. I thank the Senator again for raising the matter.