Seanad debates

Tuesday, 18 June 2024

Defence (Amendment) Bill 2024: Second Stage


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

1:00 pm

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Tánaiste. He has ten minutes.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to present this Bill, which will play a key role in driving the necessary transformation of the Defence Forces. Senators will be aware that high-profile reviews have been undertaken on matters relating to the defence sector in recent years. Key reports include those of the Commission on the Defence Forces and the independent review group on dignity and equality issues in the Defence Forces. As I outlined on a number of occasions, there will be a requirement for an extensive programme of legislative reform to give effect to the recommendations set out in those reports. The strategic framework on the transformation of the Defence Forces, which I published in September of last year, brings together into one overarching document the immediate actions to be taken to support the transformation of our Defence Forces. The framework includes my commitment to bring forward two separate Bills this year to amend the Defence Acts. This is the first of those Bills.

It is intended that this extensive Bill, which covers many aspects of the Defence Acts, will give effect to a key recommendation of the independent review group on dignity and equality issues in our Defence Forces regarding the establishment, on a statutory basis, of an external oversight body of the Defence Forces, establish a statutory framework for the Minister for Defence to consent to the military representative associations to associate with ICTU and bring forward a number of important miscellaneous amendments to the Defence Acts, including an amendment to the Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Act 2004.

The general scheme was approved by the Government last December and the drafting of the Bill commenced early this year. As is normal practice during the drafting process, the wording of the Bill includes a number of refinements and modifications to the provisions set out in the general scheme. The general scheme was referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence for pre-legislative scrutiny. As part of this process, there was constructive engagement and discussion between committee members and my officials on my draft legislative proposals. In the context of this engagement, a full list of proposed amendments to the general scheme and the associated rationale was provided by my officials to the committee on 2 April, with further communication concerning another amendment on 16 April.The committee also heard from other key stakeholders. As is evidenced in the correspondence with the committee which I have referred to, my officials and I listened carefully to what the stakeholders and the committee had to say. Accordingly, I am pleased to advise the House that the Bill as published includes a number of modifications and clarifications which take account of a number of the issues highlighted during the pre-legislative scrutiny stage.

I thank all members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence for their engagement and for completing the pre-legislative scrutiny process in a timely and effective manner. As is common with any proposed Bill, there are some recommendations arising from the pre-legislative scrutiny process which I carefully considered but which I was unable to accede to, and I will elaborate on the reasons for this during my speech.

I turn now to the main provisions of the Bill.

Part 1 includes standard sections regarding the Title, commencement provisions, the repeal of an obsolete section of the Defence Act 1954 and the definition of key terms.

Part 2 sets out a number of important amendments to the Defence Act 1954.

Sections 6, 7 and 17 bring forward technical amendments to sections 48, 53A, 196 and 248 of the Defence Act 1954 to update and clarify the wording of the sections in question.

Sections 8 and 9 amend the sections in the Defence Act 1954 relating to the re-engagement of enlisted persons which takes place following the completion of a member's original term of enlistment. The proposed amendment will allow for greater flexibility in the length of the period of re-engagement that may be approved and will also remove an obstacle to increasing the maximum age limits for enlistment in the Defence Forces. This will, I hope, be a useful tool in our efforts to address recruitment and retention challenges.

Sections 10 and 20 remove the outdated requirement for the Minister for Defence to prescribe in regulations changes to the rates and scales of pay for members of the Defence Forces and the Army nursing service. Under these revised provisions, we will move to a more modern way of disseminating pay scale updates to all members. The proposed amendments are about improving administrative efficiency.

Section 11, which amends section 103 of the Defence Act 1954, concerns the codification in primary legislation of restrictions on activities of a public or political nature by individual members of the Defence Forces. There has also been some commentary that this provision might be construed as being disproportionate. There has also been concern that the provision might adversely impact the ability of members of the Defence Forces to fully engage in the activities of the military representative associations. It is my clear view and that of the Attorney General that these concerns, while genuine, are misplaced, and we have dealt with that also in terms of the inclusion of "without prejudice" to the role of representing members. In view of the apolitical nature of the Defence Forces, the Defence Act 1954 has always contained restrictions on the involvement of members in political activities. This is clearly reflected in the oath taken by all members of the Defence Forces when joining and in existing provisions of the Defence Act 1954 and associated regulations. The Bill does not change existing rights and obligations as set out in primary and secondary legislation.

Strong military advice has been received that provisions along the lines set out in the Bill are appropriate and necessary. Similar restrictions already operate across the wider public service and the text of the Bill clarifies that the relevant section will operate without prejudice, as I said, to the rights of individual Defence Force members to engage with, or be represented by, their representative associations. Having considered the matter, I am strongly of the view that the provisions outlined in this section are proportionate to protect the apolitical nature of the Defence Forces. It is also important to provide clarity in primary legislation to that effect.

Section 12 relates to the programme of random drug testing for members of the Defence Forces which has been in place for several years.

Sections 14 and 15 make technical amendments to sections 177 and 177A of the Defence Act 1954 which relate to the investigation of disciplinary charges that may be brought against an officer of the Defence Forces.

Section 16 amends section 184F of the Defence Act 1954 to give the Director of Military Prosecutions greater flexibility in the appointment of persons as prosecutors in court martial cases and thereby assist in the efficient functioning of courts martial.

I am particularly pleased to bring forward section 19, which amends the Defence Act 1954 to provide statutory protection to the term "Óglaigh na hÉireann" and to confine its use to the Defence Forces established and maintained under the Defence Acts.A person who commits an offence under this new provision shall be liable, on summary conviction, to a class D fine. The provision reflects the thrust of the Private Members' Bill introduced in the Seanad and sponsored by Senators Malcolm Byrne, O'Loughlin and Casey. I commend Senator Malcolm Byrne and his colleagues on their work in respect of this important issue.

Section 21, which inserts a new Part XIII into the Defence Act, provides for the establishment, on a statutory basis, of the external oversight body. Section 21 will insert a Thirteenth Schedule into the Defence Act to include additional provisions concerning the external oversight body.

In its report, the independent review group concluded that to implement a successful culture change and transformation programme, a new governance and oversight structure is required to increase transparency and accountability and to hold the leadership of the Defence Forces to account for progress on culture change. Following the acceptance by the Government of the independent review group's recommendations, the external oversight body was established on a non-statutory basis in April 2023. That was totally in line with the recommendations of the independent review group. This Bill puts the external oversight body on a statutory footing, as promised, and ensures that it will have the necessary powers and independence to carry out its remit. The body's function will be to oversee, monitor and advise the Minister for Defence on the implementation by the Defence Forces of a series of organisational reforms. Accordingly, the body will play a key role in driving the necessary cultural transformation of the Defence Forces.

I should clarify that the day-to-day human resource management will continue to be carried out by the Defence Forces on behalf of the Chief of Staff. The new oversight arrangements do not interfere with current management arrangements. Some views have been expressed, including in the pre-legislative scrutiny report, concerning the categories of persons that may be appointed as members of the body. In considering the composition of the membership of the external oversight body, I have been guided by the clear recommendations in the report of the independent review group. I am satisfied that these provisions closely reflect the independent review group's recommendation, including its specific recommendation that membership of the body should include the Secretary General of the Department of Defence. There has been some debate about the inclusion of the Secretary General as a member of the body on an ex officiobasis. I respect the good faith of those who have raised concerns. I thoroughly reflected on the issue following the various debates on the subject and I am satisfied that the presence of the Secretary General is appropriate and important to the effective functioning of the external oversight body as it interacts with the Department and the Minister.

Prior to the publication of the independent review, I recall that Members of both Houses pleaded with me to ensure that I would implement all of the recommendations of the independent review group. It was clear that this body could not be a representative one for the various organisations. The independent review group represented the Defence Forces not the Department. There is a logic to the recommendation from the independent review group in terms of how the Minister effectively carries out his or her duties. I am somewhat concerned about some aspects of this debate at it has unfolded as a result of a kind of them-and-us approach, which is unfortunate. The relationship between the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces was fully understood by the review group in conducting its work. I met with the review group. It was very clear that this body must be different to any other type of body that was set up in the past 20 years, as the review group felt that monitoring groups and so on were not effective in effecting change and transformation. That is a very important point. That is the context.

The independent review group equally understood the benefits of including the Secretary General as a member of the body to expedite the urgent change so clearly identified. Given that the Government has agreed to implement the recommendations of the review group in full, it would not be appropriate for me to now deviate from its recommended membership model.

The Minister for Defence will be responsible for the provision of staffing, equipment and other services as may be required by the external oversight body to carry out its functions. Funding will be by means of an annual grant-in-aid provided by the Minister, subject to the annual Estimates process. In common with other State bodies, the external oversight body will be required to produce a statement of strategy and an annual report.

Part 3 sets out amendments to a range of other enactments. Section 23 includes a technical amendment to provide that the National Archives Act 1986 shall apply to the records of the external oversight body. Section 24 amends the Defence (Amendment) Act 1990, which is the Act relating to the establishment and operation of the military representative associations. This suite of amendments provides a statutory basis for the Minister for Defence to authorise the Permanent Defence Force representative associations to associate with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU. The amendments reflect the commitment to implement the recommendation of the Commission on Defence Forces that the Permanent Defence Force representative associations should be facilitated, if they wish, to pursue associate membership of ICTU, as well as a commitment given in June 2022 as part of High Court settlements with the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, and Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA. The provisions regarding associate ICTU membership will facilitate the attendance of military representative associations at future national pay talks. This represents a positive step forward.

The codification of conditions attaching to associate membership is underpinned by strong military advice relating to the potential implications for the security of the State. I also note that the provisions are underpinned by extensive legal advice. During the pre-legislative process, concerns were expressed that these conditions could potentially interfere with representative associations carrying out their current activities in representing their members. This was not the intention, and the text of the Bill has been drafted to clarify that these prohibitions will operate without prejudice to the purpose of an association to represent its members. To be clear, the provisions in this Bill will in no way affect the ability of the military representative associations to represent their members as provided for under existing legislation. Having fully considered the matter, I am satisfied that the limited restrictions on the activities of the military representative associations, clarified through these amendments, are necessary and proportionate to safeguard the apolitical nature of the Defence Forces and are in line with existing rights and obligations. In considering these issues, I have had full regard to the military advice seeking such restrictions, the views of key stakeholders raised during the drafting process, and the legal advices that have been provided to me. These provisions are necessary to ensure the associate membership of ICTU can continue to remain in place.

Section 25 amends the Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Act 2004 to provide that persons who serve or who have previously served during the previous five years as members of the Defence Forces, or worked either as a civil servant or a civilian employee during the previous five years within the Department of Defence, shall not be eligible for appointment as the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces. This amendment is intended to bolster the independence of the Office of Ombudsman for the Defence Forces.

I emphasise the importance of this Bill. We have debated and agreed in this House the need for significant cultural change within and for the benefit of our Defence Forces. In that context, it is vital that Senators recall the seriousness of the wider findings of the independent review group and the urgency for reform to be implemented. This legislation is an important step forward in that process. The implementation of this legislation will provide the external oversight body with the necessary statutory basis to operate effectively and carry out its crucial body of work. There will be an opportunity on Committee Stage for a more detailed discussion on this legislation. In the meantime, I am pleased to submit this legislation for the consideration of the House. It will not be the only legislation on the Defence Forces coming forward. I am working and have given proactive instructions to my officials to begin drafting Bills not just on the amendment to the triple lock but also with regard to the chief of defence, CHOD, the chain of command and the Chief of Staff of the wider Defence Forces, again as recommended by the Commission on Defence Forces.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Tánaiste and Minister for Defence for being here. I am pleased to be able to speak to this Bill on behalf of my colleague, Senator Diarmuid Wilson, who is a long-time spokesperson on defence. He has a son now serving in the Army, so he is very interested in the topic. While I am also interested, I do not have the same level of experience-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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If I may be released, I have to go the other House for a debate on the migration pact. Apologies.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I am only about a quarter of a page in, so for the benefit of the Minister of State, I will start again. I am sure I will not use my ten minutes anyway. I thank the Minister for Defence and his acting Minister on defence, Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, who is very welcome.

I am pleased to be able to speak to this. I am speaking on behalf of Senator Wilson, who is our Seanad defence spokesperson and has a son serving in the Army, so he is very involved with the topic.I would not speak on this area too often but I am glad to be here to speak on this Bill and, indeed, raise the concerns of Senator Wilson and others about the Bill as it is currently proposed.

I think it is fair for me to say that we do not debate defence matters often enough in this House. It is a valid criticism of public policy that we do not discuss national defence or defence policy sufficiently often. One of the consequences of this lack of attention is the depleted numbers and sagging morale we see in our Defence Forces today. However, I hope that we can all agree there is still much work to be done and can be thankful that there is a comprehensive plan for the revitalisation of our Defence Forces via the recommendations made in February 2022 by the Commission on the Defence Forces. The recommendations give us a clear route map for repairing the current retention challenges and creating an Óglaigh na hÉireann that is truly fit to meet the security challenges of today. The Government's decision to create a level of Defence Forces’ capability equivalent to the Level of Ambition 2, LOA2, as set out in the capability framework, from the commission's recommendations, was a key milestone in that, much in the same way as the production of the first White Paper on Defence in 2000 led to the biggest programme of investment in and modernisation of the Defence Forces.

I also welcome the fact that the Government is committed to achieving an annual defence budget of approximately €1.5 billion, at January 2022 prices, by 2028 through year-on-year increases in the annual Estimates. I am very heartened to see also another step in this process yesterday with the announcement that it has awarded a €76 million contract for the provision of a modern software defined radio system for the Defence Forces, replacing a near 30-year-old system - it is hard to believe the age of the system.

Ensuring we have a strong and capable Defence Forces takes much more than just money. People who have served in the Army, for example Senator Clonan and others, would know more about this than I would. It requires organisational and support structures which are not just fit for purpose but also reflect best practice. These are essential to ensure that every man and woman in the Defence Forces feels both valued and represented and for this reason I welcome the Defence (Amendment) Bill 2024. There is much in the Bill that is excellent and I am pleased to support it. It provides for an important recommendation by the independent review group on dignity and equality issues in the Defence Forces, namely, the establishment of the statutory external oversight body for the Defence Forces. That is very welcome. Like others, I have some reservations about how that is to be constituted and I will set these out shortly.

Before I turn to the ways in which we, in the Seanad, can use our important role as a revising Chamber, let me set out some of the important positives of the Bill. It does create a statutory framework. I will not read out everything contained in the comprehensive speech by the Minister but it is important that I outline certain things. The Bill creates a statutory framework for association with ICTU by the representatives bodies. This has been long spoken about and the Tánaiste is to be congratulated on delivering it.

The Bill also delivers several other long-promised amendments and reforms not least of which is the very important protection of the term "Óglaigh na hÉireann" and the re-engagement of enlisted persons, Permanent Defence Forces and Reservists. These are important reforms and I, again, congratulate the Tánaiste, in his absence, on his work.

That said, I did say earlier that there are some areas which are in need of revision before this Bill is ready to become an Act of the Oireachtas and I think we, in the Seanad, are well placed to do that work. Let me start that work by quoting the words of a predecessor of Deputy Martin's as both the Tánaiste and the Minister for Defence, the late Brian Lenihan senior. Presenting the original 1990 Defence Act to the Dáil on Tuesday, 13 March 1990, the then Minister said: "Spokespersons for the associations will be permitted to make statements to the news media on matters which fall within their mandate." This was a major step forward at the time. It was rightly seen as an overdue signal that the Minister and the Government had confidence in the then newly constituted representative groups to work responsibly and exercise restraint. It is important that we acknowledge that that is precisely what both PDFORRA and RACO have done for the past 34 years.

I am not aware of any major situation where the Minister, the Department or Chief of Staff have felt the need to regret the approach adopted by the then Minister, Brian Lenihan. That is why I worry that the Bill, as currently worded, gives the possibly mistaken impression that the State no longer has the same confidence in the representatives bodies that we had in 1990. I am sure that is not the view of the Minister but I know from discussions with male and female members of the Defence Forces, who have served this country with great distinction and loyalty, that they feel that some provisions are excessive and cast an overly wide net.

I think the associations' right to advocate for the inclusion of the phrase "or matter of Government policy" in two places in this Bill suggest that the Minister and Government believe that the Defence Forces' services means a less than full part in society. I am sure that is not the intention but the reality is there is a view at a time of seriously deflated morale within the Defence Forces that the Government thinks they deserve a reduced status as citizens.I regret its members feel that way. We have a duty to ensure that impression is corrected. Deleting the phrase "or matter of government policy" would send out an important signal as to the importance we attach to the service of the Defence Forces. I am doubtful that we even need to enshrine this matter in primary legislation. There is already an ongoing prohibition on public commentary on political matters. It is working well and should form the basis of a robust code of practice. That would serve both sides much better than a coarse line in primary legislation. HR experts have advised me that producing a comprehensive code of practice is a more appropriate method of dealing with complex restrictions than simplistic legislative prohibitions.

I listened carefully to the Tánaiste when he was discussing the external oversight body. These are the thoughts of Senator Wilson and many others on the external oversight body. We all want robust independent oversight and we want the new external oversight body to be an exemplar of good governance across the public service. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Defence Forces were the prototype for how public sector reform could work in the interests of all. However, mixing oversight and executive functions is not typically good practice. External oversight should be exactly that, it should be both external and solely focused on oversight. I am reasonably convinced by the arguments of the representative bodies and many Oireachtas Members who have experience of life in the Defence Forces, on the inappropriateness, notwithstanding the Tánaiste's rebuttal of that criticism, of having the Secretary General, who is a fine individual and does a good job, as an ex officiomember of the oversight body.

I listened carefully to the Tánaiste's points on this. Any person holding that important post would, by definition, be well qualified. However, there is a perception of a potential conflict of interest which would compromise the independence of the oversight. Similarly, regarding the composition of committees within the external oversight body, it would contribute to the confidence in the independent and impartial oversight, for the Bill to clarify that serving Department of Defence civil servants are ineligible for membership.

I could make other points, especially on making the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces an Accounting Officer, much in the way that the Garda Commissioner is the Accounting Officer for An Garda Síochána, but I am approaching the end of my time.

On pre-legislative scrutiny, I will make a point related to how the legislation was presented to the Oireachtas. On 26 April, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence produced its detailed and considerable pre-legislative scrutiny. It was a serious and well-crafted piece of work that had all-party backing. The Department published the draft Bill on the Houses of Oireachtas website one day earlier. Pre-legislative scrutiny is an important function of the parliamentary system of oversight and the process should be conducted in an atmosphere of co-operation and partnership. I hope we will not see a repeat of this misguided attitude to the Oireachtas in future, especially as the Tánaiste's Department plans to produce even more complex defence legislation in the months ahead.

I welcome the Bill. There are many positive things in it, but we as a Chamber have an opportunity to make this very good Bill even better. I am happy to work positively with the Minister of State, the Minister and colleagues across the Seanad to make improvements and ensure the Bill has the widest possible support, not only in this Chamber, but across the Defence Forces family.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and acknowledge the presence of the Tánaiste earlier in the debate.

As Senator Horkan stated, there are some serious matters in this Bill that need to be addressed. I will come back to them in a moment, but to put the Bill in context, it is being put before the House at a time when the Defence Forces are crippled by at least a decade of neglect. It raises the question whether it was ever wise to do away with the separate Minister for Defence. The Defence Forces have been allowed to deteriorate in numbers to a pitiable state, where there are fewer than 8,000 serving members, ships we paid for are tied up in quays for want of crews to run them, the numbers in the Reserve Defence Forces have collapsed and morale is correspondingly low. That has happened over the past 12 years and, I am afraid to say, in circumstances where - it is all very well to establish a commission on the future of the Defence Forces - it was blindingly obvious that the capacity of the Defence Forces, even to send units abroad to participate in international peacekeeping efforts has been severely constrained by the fact that the numbers in the Defence Forces have collapsed so badly.It is not sufficient for the Defence Forces to have 8,000 members, not by any manner of means, for the proper defence of this country or for proper support for the Government of the day in emergencies of various kinds.

I do not want to make a song and dance about it, but I was a member of the FCA in the 1960s and 1970s. This sounds like ancient history now. There were at that time 20,000 people enlisted as volunteers in a local defence force who could and did come to the aid of the civil power and the Permanent Defence Forces to confront a national crisis. These volunteers do not exist anymore, in the main, and the few volunteer reservists who are there labour under very difficult circumstances. Why is this the case? It is because, short-sightedly, nearly all the bases of operation for the FCA were sold. If people want to be volunteers in the reserve forces, they may have to travel 60 km to 80 km, at least, even to attend a training session. Who is going to do that? Who do we expect is going to do that? Why do we expect that people are going to do that? It is a real disgrace.

I notice the Tory party in England is talking about bringing back national service. We eliminated volunteer support for our Defence Forces by that particular set of policies I spoke of. We now have a situation across Ireland where the number of young women and men who could handle a weapon, take part in an effective military organisation in the case of an emergency and provide support to the Permanent Defence Forces in an operation of whatever kind, be it environmental, insurgency or you name it, has collapsed. The number of people who actually know how to handle a weapon, let alone take an order, has collapsed. In fact, somebody commented recently that perhaps gangland Dublin is better trained than others. This is a sad situation.

I make that point because the Government chose the middle of the three alternative strategies for the Defence Forces to follow on foot of the commission's menu of possible strategies. It is not enough, but even it is not being implemented. We have a situation where Russian submarines are patrolling in our waters, examining our communications cables and the like and our Naval Service can do nothing about it with half its ships tied up in their bases. This is a sad situation. Our Air Corps is fundamentally underprovided for. The decision to award the search-and-rescue function outside the Defence Forces was, again, misconceived. We really have taken one decision after another the result of which has been to run down the Defence Forces to their present situation. We are being told now that everything is going to change. I do not believe everything is going to change because I do not believe there is a will to change it.

I noted the Tánaiste's defence of having the Secretary General of the Department as an ex officiomember of the external oversight body. First, he is not external. Second, the functions of that body are entirely inconsistent with his membership of it. Third, and this is the important point, is the fact that the Tánaiste stood here and said this was merely the delivery of another independent view about who should be a part of this body. I do not really care if that was the view of the body. This is a mistake, and a bad one, and it is compounding a mistake to refuse to change this situation.

I bring the House's attention to page 13 of the Bill, where it is stated that "The External Oversight Body shall be independent in the performance of its functions".Then there is the provision, set out on the next page, whereby the Secretary General of the Department of Defence is to participate in evolving strategy decisions, which are supposed to be external decisions arrived at independently. Nobody in their right mind considers that to be correct. When I introduced the Garda Inspectorate, I did not set out that the Secretary General at the then Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform would decide what was adequate deployment of resources or whatever within An Garda Síochána. The fact the Tánaiste has said that somebody else recommended this and he does not intend to back down on it is no excuse for what is a really fundamental mistake.

The wording of section 2A of the Defence (Amendment) Act 1990, to be inserted by section 24 of the Bill, relates to what is required of military associations when speaking on matters of Government policy. This section should be better and more clearly defined. The House has the opportunity to do that on Committee Stage.

In case I am told I am being too negative, I have one positive point to make.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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Nobody would ever say that about the Senator.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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Section 11 provides for the insertion of the following as part of a new section 1A in the principal Act:

Without prejudice to the Defence (Amendment) Act 1990 and any regulations made thereunder, a member of the Permanent Defence Force shall not- (a) while in uniform or otherwise making himself or herself identifiable as a member of the Permanent Defence Force-
(i)make, without prior authorisation from the member's commanding officer, a public statement or comment in relation to a political matter or matter of Government policy.

I ask colleagues to consider the reference to a "matter of Government policy" in the context of commentary on wages. This provision is nothing to do with the later business about "without prejudice to the purpose of an association". There is no qualification here. A member of the Defence Forces, either in uniform or out of it, cannot comment on Government policy in regard to wages for the Defence Forces. The new section 1A further states that a member of the Defence Fores cannot attend any protest march or other gathering in respect of a matter of Government policy. This would mean, for instance, that members will be prohibited from attending protests about the closing down of some types of schools.

There is a flaw in the Bill in this provision. I will try to be constructive. The proposed section 1A(b) provides that members of the Permanent Defence Force shall not "canvass on behalf of, or collect contributions for, any political organisation or society". This means Independent candidates could have the whole of the Army canvassing and collecting money for them. The provision is badly drafted. I do not expect the Army to man the polling booths on behalf of Independent candidates for the National University of Ireland panel in Seanad elections.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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You never know.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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However, I can well imagine that this lacuna would allow Independent candidates for Dáil Éireann to have Defence Forces members supporting them. The provision is badly drafted. I certainly will support a Government amendment to close the lacuna it creates.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Carroll MacNeill. I welcome the introduction of this Bill to the Seanad. It represents a crucial step in the ongoing reform of our Defence Forces by addressing some of the most pressing issues that have come to light in recent years. The establishment of an external oversight body for the Defence Forces is a particularly welcome development. The initiative was recommended by the independent review group that was tasked with examining allegations of discrimination, bullying, harassment, including sexual harassment, and any form of sexual misconduct within the Defence Forces. The introduction of this body is not just a response to those grave issues but a proactive step towards ensuring such behaviours are eradicated from our military culture.

The mission of the new oversight body is clear and commendable, as set out in the report of the independent review group. It is to "implement a successful culture change programme, led convincingly from the top, and including initiatives grounded in the vision of the future Defence Forces".This body will be pivotal in driving the cultural transformation needed to foster an environment of respect, integrity and accountability. It will bring about a new governance and oversight structure that will enhance transparency and hold the leadership of the Defence Forces to account for progress on this vital culture change programme.

It is, however, important to note a significant concern regarding the composition of the new oversight body already alluded to by the previous speakers. As it stands, none of the associations representing our defence personnel - PDFORRA, RACO, RDFRA or others - are guaranteed a seat at the table. They are not guaranteed a position. This omission is concerning because the perspectives and experience of these representative associations are invaluable in shaping policies that affect the members directly. There is nothing to suggest - there is everything to suggest the contrary - that these people would not take a logical, objective view of proceedings and would not share a desire to put the forces on a proper footing and to eliminate the dreadful cultural aspects we are trying to get rid of. In fact, I would have thought that the representative bodies would have an ownership, a desire, a real anxiety and an ambition, as is the case in other professional bodies, such as the INTO, the INMO and many others, for the very best of outcomes in order that they could project outwards in making demands for salary etc. and show a transparent and excellent force. Their input would be important. It would not obviate the prospects of other groupings or individuals being involved. It would in no way prejudice that. I welcome in that context, as I mentioned, that the Bill includes a framework to enhance and bring forward the representative bodies' association with ICTU.

I strongly urge the Minister to reconsider this aspect of the Bill. The inclusion of representatives from the representative associations on the oversight body would ensure that the voices of our defence personnel are heard and respected at the highest levels of decision-making. Surely we would want that for buy-in to the decisions of the body and for implementation, ownership, etc. It seems logical. It is wrong to suggest that they would be in some way negative or would seek to avoid reform. I think the contrary would be the case. Their insights are crucial to achieve the meaningful and lasting changes to which we all aspire.

The formation of this body is a decisive step towards fostering a safer and more respectful environment for all service members. The association must have a say because they are the most looped in with their members' lived experience. It seems wrong that they would not be involved. The strategic framework on the transformation of the Defence Forces, published in September 2023, has laid out an ambitious and comprehensive plan for immediate actions to support this transformation. The Defence (Amendment) Bill 2024 is a key component of this framework and is the first of two Bills aimed at amending the Defence Acts this year.

This Bill makes several necessary amendments to the Defence Acts 1954 to 2015. It establishes the external oversight body on a statutory basis and provides a statutory framework for the Minister for Defence to consent to military representatives associating with ICTU, which I have already welcomed and welcome in particular. It is an important step towards ensuring that the voices of Defence Forces members are heard within the wider labour movement. By affiliating with ICTU, our Defence Forces members will gain greater representation and influence, empowering them to advocate for their rights and working conditions more effectively, which should address some of the issues correctly identified by Senator McDowell in terms of numbers etc. and morale.It is important that they are at the coalface sorting that.

As we move forward with this Bill, I want us to keep in mind the ultimate goal of creating Defence Forces that not only meet the highest standards of military excellence but that also embody the values of respect, integrity and accountability. The Bill is a significant step in that direction, and I will support it. I am happy to know that the complaints procedure is going well and is being enhanced. It is important within the Defence Forces that there is an immediate, accessible and responsive complaints procedure. I gather there is progress in that regard.

There is reference in the Bill to a continuous professional development plan. This is crucial in addressing retention within the Army. I commend it as very necessary. The removal of the age restriction is important, as addressed in sections 8 and 9. People can be re-engaged in the Army and the Reserve Defence Force. I would certainly like to believe that the whole concept of age has moved on considerably. Our collective revulsion at what brought about this discussion - the abuse, gender inequality, bullying and all of that - merits stating at all times.

In the time remaining, I will address the matter raised by Senator McDowell. I have often raised the same matter in this House. I feel very strongly about it. I refer to the Reserve Defence Force. In the past, it was a wonderful exercise in patriotism. It inculcated civic spirit, leadership and all the right kind of values in young people and is a great outlet. It is an absolute shame that we have let it go. We need not just to aspire to it in some way but to actually do something about it. We need to make the medical checks quicker and we need a better advertising campaign in schools for recruitment to the Reserve Defence Force, which, as Senator McDowell said, will eliminate those 60-mile and 40-mile journeys for people volunteering in their spare time. It is absurd. We need more training opportunities and a proactive approach to developing the Reserve Defence Force. At a time when retention and recruitment into the Permanent Defence Force is difficult, surely that makes it necessary, as in the case of the Garda, to have a potential feeder organisation for the Army and, irrespective of that, a stand-alone defence body. The Reserve should be fit to engage in joint operations with the Permanent Defence Force. In some instances, there is no reason why its members could not go abroad with the Permanent Defence Force. There should be an attractive educational and personal development opportunity within the Reserve in order that it would be attractive to join. I have three young sons. Not one of them has ever suggested that they wished to join the Reserve. It should be an option that is, at a minimum, looked at. They are civic-minded and I would like to think they are patriotic. Surely they should see this as an option. I doubt they are even aware of it as an option. That is how bleak the situation is. This is very important. We need to deal with this matter too. We are in unanimous agreement on the thrust of the objectives.

Will the Tánaiste look at these two matters, namely the involvement of representative bodies in a statutory way and reform of and proper support for the Reserve Defence Force? I wish to get those two points across as being critical.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Before I call Senator Wall, I agree with the sentiments in expressed in respect of the Reserve Defence Force. When it was the FCA, members met at the basketball court in Kenmare every Wednesday night with Bob Purcell, who was a colonel, and the sergeant-----

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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Someone would have to go to Limerick now, I take it.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Everybody was involved. We did our training there. If you had to do any more, you went to Killarney or Castletownbere. All that has changed, regrettably.As Senator Joe O'Reilly has pointed out, however, it is no longer accessible.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for defence into the House today. I believe it is her first debate here on defence. It is very important that she is here. I welcome the comments made by the Tánaiste earlier before he left the House.

Not for the first time in this House I will raise the issue of recruitment and retention. Indeed, it has been raised by colleagues in previous speeches. We all know the figures by now but it is important to state them again. Currently, we are operating with approximately 7,500 serving personnel. A previous White Paper stated that the figure should be 9,500 serving personnel. Of course the Commission on the Defence Forces report sets out an ambition of 11,500 serving personnel. That is why the conversations we are having today on the future of the Defence Forces are so important and should be treated as such.

I welcome the Tánaiste's confirmation that this is the first of two or three Bills he will be bringing before this House. We all take pride, and rightly so, in the great record of our Defence Forces in serving overseas and their continuing loyal and unwavering service in this State. The time has come to seriously address the decline. We have discussed the lack of ships on our sea, as a result of which we have drug traffic coming through on an almost daily basis. Most of our ships are tied up in Cork. We discussed the lack of investment in the air force and the lack of numbers currently serving in our Defence Forces. We need to ensure we attract new recruits and develop those new recruits into serving personnel. We also need to retain those who are serving currently in our Defence Forces.

My own party welcomed the establishment of the Commission on the Defence Forces. We debated the outcome of that commission's report at length in this House. We supported many of the measures which were outlined in that report. We emphasised the urgency of bringing forward legislation. That is why I state again that this is an important Bill we are debating here today. The senior Minister has said he will bring forward a Bill on the triple lock, which I look forward to debating, together with any other issues he may wish to bring forward here. That is important when we talk about where our Defence Forces sit today.

In the Bill before us today, the Government proposes to provide for a new external oversight body for the Defence Forces. The new entity is to be responsible for overseeing and monitoring the human resources of the Defence Forces and reporting to the Minister of the day, as the body deems appropriate. As my colleague, Deputy Howlin, outlined in the Dáil, the oversight body's duties, as set out on page 14 of the Bill, which provides for the proposed new section 322 of the 1954 Act, include the recruitment of members of the Defence Forces. As I have said, this is a critical issue. The oversight body will also be responsible for the induction, training, education and performance management of members of the Defence Forces; the operation of a competition process for the promotion of members of the Defence Forces; and the operation of a complaint or grievance process by or under section 114 of the Act. These are important issues when we talk about recruitment, retention and the skill sets which are involved. This external body is an extremely important new entity, as was recommended. Every consideration should be given to how it will begin its work and assist in the crisis I have outlined. I refer to how this body will play out on a daily basis, as I am sure it will when this Bill is implemented.

It will come as no surprise to the Minister of State that I wish to raise the issue of the Secretary General of the Department of Defence being an ex officio officer of the oversight board. I know that my colleague, Deputy Howlin, tried to tease this out at various stages in the Dáil debate. He was never given a compelling rationale from the Tánaiste and Minister for Defence as to why the Secretary General will be a member. As he outlined in the Dáil debate, the Secretary General of the Department of Justice is not a member of the Policing Authority. We welcome the setting up of this board, as I have said, but why would a person who is responsible for the drawing up of its terms of reference also sit on it, even if, as has been mentioned, he or she will pop out for certain conversations which will take place during its work? It would seem to many that the independence of this much-needed board could be compromised by the Secretary General of the day sitting on it while the important issues I outlined earlier are being discussed.

Another issue I would like to take up is the fact that members of this board are to be appointed by the Minister of the day and are to include specific skill sets as set out in the proposed new section 323 of the 1954 Act. The stipulation for the chairperson is that he or she may not have been a member of the Defence Forces of this or any other state.Questions were raised in the Dáil about the lack of military experience of the chair of the board. Perhaps, the Minister of State could confirm in her reply whether this will change. Are we going to have someone with a lack of military experience on an oversight board when we have a retention and recruitment crisis?

As I and other colleagues have mentioned, the petitions of PDFORRA, RACO and other organisations to have representation on the external body are compelling. As colleagues have done, I ask the Minister of State to consider these again. I disagree with an official from the Department, the Secretary General, being on the board but, if that is to be the case, we should surely have a member of the representative bodies sitting on it as well. That should be the case. The Tánaiste and the Minister of State need to look at that again because the representative bodies are daily looking at issues, such as the retention issue, that this oversight body will need to discuss.

On Part 3 of the Bill, I have looked at the explanatory memorandum and I welcome the fact that "The Bill also provides for the creation of a statutory framework for the Minister for Defence to grant consent to the Permanent Defence Force representative associations to associate with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU)". I do not know who chose this language but the next line reads "and to impose conditions that will apply to the granting of any such consent". In many people's definitions, to "impose" on somebody implies that something will be done against his or her will. I do not believe that such language should be used.

As the Minister of State will probably be aware, I have continually raised the need for trade union representation for the representative bodies of our Defence Forces in this House and I welcome the fact that there has been some progress to date. However, with this Bill, serious questions remain as to what that representation might look like. It seems that, under this Bill, any association would need to be independent of and not associated with any trade union or any other body outside of the Defence Forces and the Minister of the day retains the right to withdraw. It has been said that this is a unique proposal in trade union law. The employer, that is, the Minister, gets to set out the cases and the manner in which, and the conditions and the restrictions under which, the allowed representative associations are allowed to associate with a trade union. It is a very odd set of circumstances to begin with.

From my many dealings with the representative bodies, it seems there is a total and utter understanding of the absolute limits of any contemplated strike action. We need to look at our EU counterparts and how they deal with trade union membership for their own defence forces. I will take the Netherlands as an example. We have a recruitment and retention crisis. I speak to new recruits and they want a body to represent their interests like any other person entering the workforce. They see the benefit of being represented, knowing that there are limits on any actions but also knowing that they will have a voice to stand up for them when they need it most. In my view, the limits to be imposed under this Bill on having a view or associating with congress are far too restrictive. As I have said, conditions are being imposed. This runs counter to any recruitment and retention plan this much-needed new board may come up with.

I welcome the section of the Bill that sets out to protect the term "Óglaigh na hÉireann". It rightly makes it an offence to usurp the proud title of the Defence Forces, something we have unfortunately witnessed too often down through the years. I acknowledge the work of Senator Malcolm Byrne and his colleagues on this matter. It is a part of the Bill that we in the Labour Party totally support.

In the time left, I will take the opportunity to talk about the Curragh Camp in my own county of Kildare. I have previously brought up the issue of the derelict houses with the Tánaiste. In replies, he has informed me that a plan to bring these houses back into use has commenced. I would appreciate any update on that. We are talking about recruitment and retention. Every Member has mentioned that today. I continue to get many requests for assistance with housing from Defence Forces families. When the Defence Forces have houses and land, this course of action should be pursued. This is where we need to go to retain our members and to attract young families into the Defence Forces. The dereliction on the Curragh is despicable and should not be happening. I believe there is a plan in place. We would like an update.

Like my colleague, I appreciate the removal of the age restriction. I look forward to debating this Bill with the Minister of State and with the Tánaiste as it goes through the various stages in this House. Many questions are still unanswered following the Dáil debates. We will most likely be tabling amendments, as we have done before. I ask the Minister of State to consider the points I have made today because it is the future of our Defence Forces that we are talking about and numbers are dwindling as we speak.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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As always, the Minister of State is very welcome. I wish to address some of the key points in this Bill. The external oversight board, EOB, has been mentioned by almost every speaker at this point. We welcome the fact it is going to be set up on a statutory basis, but we in Sinn Féin still have issues with the Secretary General's ex officio membership on that oversight body while representative associations are not included. The Tánaiste is represented on the EOB by the Department's Secretary General in an ex officio capacity. Therefore, the representative associations should be afforded the same status. I have noticed there seems to be a consensus across all parties in this regard. Therefore, I urge the Minister of State to listen and consider this in time for Committee Stage. If there is a consensus on this among colleagues across the group, then it is time for the Minister of State to listen.

Representative associations have proven themselves to be professional organisations. They are well suited to advocate for their members, and they have a valuable contribution to make in terms of reform and oversight of the Defence Forces. They are an important voice and should be represented on the external oversight body. It is an issue my party colleagues have raised in the Dáil, and I will bring forward amendments again on Committee Stage so the Minister might reflect further on this position.

We welcome the legislative basis for representative associations to affiliate to ICTU, although again I share the concerns of the previous speaker about some of the language around that, particularly that language of the Minister imposing conditions. We were concerned the Minister had chosen to exclude military judges and prosecutors from membership thereof as well as giving himself broad power to prescribe other positions within the Defence Forces for membership. We welcome this section's removal. However, the Minister must now do the same as a matter of policy.

There is a particular section of this Bill I find bizarre, which is the new section 2A under section 24(b).` This Bill attempts to introduce new prohibitions on the freedom of expression of members of our Defence Forces. There is absolutely no need for this. PDFORRA, which represents 6,500 enlisted military personnel, stated clearly that members of the Defence Forces feel this is an attack on the right to highlight concerns they have about pay and conditions, terms of service and what happens in their communities. It seems like a draconian measure to a problem that does not really exist, and I do not understand where the need for this provision is coming from.

This brings me to mention one of the biggest issues for our Defence Forces, which is pay and conditions. Sinn Féin is supportive of implementing measures needed to restructure, rebuild, restore confidence in and modernise our Defence Forces and in particular, those measures that have been outlined by the Commission on the Defence Forces. While there have been some changes, these do not go far enough to address the concerns that have been raised. The level of pay is so bad that Defence Forces members are forced to apply for the working family payment. The fact the State supplements wages through the working family payment is surely an acknowledgement that Defence Forces personnel are underpaid. Nearly four years after this Government came to office, the recruitment and retention crisis continues, with more people leaving than joining every year since Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael came to office. There are 7,504 members against an establishment figure of 9,600 and a level of ambition, LOA, 2 target of 11,500. While a series of reports and implementation plans have been published, we have yet to see adequate progress in the implementation of the working time directive, which is one of the most straightforward and impactful things the Tánaiste and Government could do.

We can see the impacts of this Government's inaction. Our Naval Service can currently only put a single ship to sea against an ambition of being able to put out nine double-crewed ships. This saw 89 patrol days cancelled in 2023, increasing from 49 in 2022. There were also occasions when the Naval Service was unable to assist in operations in which it should otherwise have been able.

Most recently, as the Minister of State knows, Ireland withdrew from the UNDOF mission to the Golan Heights. The return of 133 soldiers ends more than a decade of Irish participation in the UN peacekeeping mission, which saw more than 2,700 Irish personnel deployed to the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights. The Tánaiste deprioritised a UN-mandated peacekeeping mission in favour of an EU battle group for which he cannot even secure an adequate complement of volunteers to take part.

The practical impacts of the recruitment and retention crisis are compounded by Government failures to meet the level of capital investment required by level of ambition 2 of the Commission on Defence Forces, which Government missed by €70 million in 2023 and has missed by the same amount again this year, further delaying the acquisition of crucial equipment such as primary radar and subsea monitoring capabilities to adequately monitor and surveil sky, sea and land.The legacy of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in government is a weakened defence force and the squandering of the opportunity presented by the Commission on the Defence Forces to address the key issues. I hope the Tánaiste will consider our amendments on Committee Stage and come up with better excuses for wanting to muzzle members of the Defence Forces and take away their voices. Perhaps he can explain why it was so important to include a provision in this regard in the Bill.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I thank the Tánaiste for taking this Bill. It is welcome in this House that we are having far more debates on defence and security. There is a clear commitment on the part of the Government to address some of the issues concerning recruitment. More can always be done. I also welcome the indication given by the Tánaiste that there will be other legislation coming before the House to deal with some other matters, so I will confine my matters specifically to the provisions within this Bill.

I welcome section 19, which concerns the protection of the title Óglaigh na hÉireann. I am grateful to the Tánaiste for his kind words in this regard and indeed the work of the officials in the Department of Defence for incorporating into this Bill the measures within the Private Members’ Bill I introduced to protect the title. Those who serve are entitled to have the title Óglaigh na hÉireann protected. They serve this country with great distinction. There are those who try to besmirch the title by misusing it, so I am glad that those who will try to do that in the future will be regarded as having committed an offence. The protection is very welcome.

Although there are reservations, I welcome that the Bill will allow PDFORRA and RACO to join ICTU if they so choose, even on an associate level. It will be critical to have meaningful ways in which the representative groups can engage in pay talks, such that they will not be left entirely outside the room. I get that they have a very specific function, but there are certainly provisions within this legislation that are quite welcome.

Much of the discussion has been about the external oversight body. It is very welcome that it is going to be set up. As the Tánaiste acknowledged, it is critical to remember that this is not a representative body. The idea is not to have one person from this sector and another from that sector, each being a representative of the sector from which he or she comes. That said, it is important that the legislation states at least one person should have direct leadership experience of military transformation in another jurisdiction. I am a little worried about some of the restrictions on membership related to having served in the Defence Forces and so on. It is going to be critical, given the very specialised area to be overseen by the body, that the people who sit around the table have sufficient levels of military defence knowledge. This is not an external oversight body of a particular profession; it has a very clear and specific remit. Given the history of much of what went on in the Defence Forces, this matter needs to be considered to ensure a sufficient number of individuals with

military defence and security knowledge. Maybe the minimum number – “at least one person” – could be increased.

I have dealt with many cases related to the next issue I wish to raise. Under section 22, on the insertion of the Thirteenth Schedule, certain people are excluded from membership of the oversight body. I can understand why Members of the Oireachtas and the European Parliament are to be excluded, but once again members of local authorities, simply because they are such members, are to be excluded from consideration.I do not see any reason people who may have the talents required, the experience of governance, management or public administration, or a military background would be excluded from membership of the oversight body simply because they happen to be elected to or co-opted onto a local authority. I have regularly raised such issues about State bodies. We made some progress when Taighde Éireann was established recently. The only people who were excluded because they were elected representatives were TDs, Senators and Members of the European Parliament, for obvious reasons. Members of local authorities were not excluded from consideration. I do not understand why somebody who may have the necessary expertise should be excluded simply because he or she is a member of a local authority. On Committee Stage, I hope consideration will be given to an amendment to that effect.

Photo of Tom ClonanTom Clonan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for attending. I will make a few comments and will echo many of the points of view articulated by my colleagues on both sides of the House. I hope that when we consider amendments on Committee Stage, given that there is cross-party consensus, the Minister of State might take on board some of our concerns.

I began a personal journey as a young officer in 1996 when I came back from overseas. That journey began with PhD research, asking my female colleagues about their experience of service in Óglaigh na hÉireann. Unfortunately, one of the unanticipated outcomes of the research was to reveal the shockingly high levels of harassment, bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape of my female colleagues. That was followed by an independent Government inquiry and the study review group of 2001 which investigated my research and furnished its interim report in 2002. The review fully vindicated my findings. It found that not only young women but also young male soldiers were targeted in this way for sexual assault and rape. This led to the independent monitoring groups, which continued until approximately 2014. Unfortunately, on 11 September 2021, the Women of Honour came forward to restate and reiterate their experiences of sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape within the Defence Forces.

The logical trajectory of this has been the formulation of the judge-led inquiry, which furnished its report last March or April. One of its recommendations was the establishment of the external oversight body. I welcome that development. I have concerns about some of the assertions made by other Members of this House that the decades of research and the investigations by independent bodies do not reflect the reality of military service in our Defence Forces. That is to denigrate the experiences of the vast majority of Defence Forces personnel who know well about the toxic culture that heretofore has existed within the organisation and which has been borne out time and again by research.

In the context of the external oversight body, I note it is often said that perfection is the enemy of the good. The Bill provides for the appointment to the oversight body of the Secretary General of the Department of Defence. She is a person of great integrity who has come in from the private banking sector. I do not know her very well but what I know of her is that she is an extremely capable and professional person. However, having her on the external oversight body compromises to an extent its-----

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I ask the Senator to be mindful when identifying individuals.

Photo of Tom ClonanTom Clonan (Independent)
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I am praising and not criticising her but her appointment compromises the perception of independence. If the Minister of State is not for changing on this point, I would strongly support, as a counterweight, allowing the representative associations, PDFORRA and RACO, similar representation on the external oversight body.

Before I was elected, I gave evidence as an expert witness in a case taken by a member of PDFORRA against the Attorney General and the Minister for Defence. That member was given an order not to attend an event where he might discuss Government policy or even hear arguments about Government policy. Mr. Justice Sanfey published his judgment on 14 May and made reference to freedom of speech and the concept of the citizen soldier.In his conclusion on orders, he states:

It was very clear to me that the case involved important points of principle from the point of view of both plaintiff and defendants. The issue of what members of the Defence Forces may or may not do off duty in relation to matters which might be deemed “political” is a difficult issue; however, it is an area which requires regulation by the Minister in a manner which takes account of the interests and sensitivities of all concerned.

The wording, as pointed out by Senators Wall and Gavan and everybody else here, that members of the Defence Forces in their capacity as members of the representative associations cannot comment on Government policy is overly restrictive. It reminds me of the definition of mutiny that was contained in the King's regulations, from which Defence Forces regulations were cut and pasted. As cadets, we were told that where two or more members of the Defence Forces gather to discuss terms and conditions, that constitutes mutiny, an offence which could awarded with the punishment of death, or any lesser award considered appropriate by our commanding officer.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Is Senator Clonan proposing that as an amendment?

Photo of Tom ClonanTom Clonan (Independent)
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I am not. I am just saying that I do not think it would harm the legislation if that section 2A(1)(g)(i) was just deleted. I think it would go a long way towards remedying the effect. I welcome the legislation. I also want to put on the record that I think the bona fides and integrity of the Tánaiste and his predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, have gone a very long way to remedying some of the problems that confront the Defence Forces. I wish them and their successors every success in bringing our Defence Forces back up to credible strength.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State is welcome to the House to discuss this important legislation. Like others, I welcome the legislation. It is a much-needed step forward. For too long, we have watched our Defence Forces deplete in front of our eyes, so much so that the numbers are down to an all-time low. It is an indictment of successive Governments over the past ten to 15 years that we have allowed this situation to develop. We have now reached a line in the sand, if you want to put it that way, with the report that we have. We are hoping to move things forward. There are many good items in this legislation which I welcome. I, too, congratulate the Tánaiste for bringing forward this legislation.

There are a couple of items that I have concerns with which have been given airtime here this afternoon by many of my colleagues. We are fortunate that for the 34 years since 1990, we have had two representative bodies within the Defence Forces, namely PDFORRA and RACO, which have conducted themselves in an exemplary manner in representing their members. They have been professional, considerate and moderate in their language at all times. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we are, I would go so far as to say, putting a gagging order on these individuals now, as they go about representing the welfare of their members. To enshrine in legislation that members cannot comment on Government policy is over the top, frankly.

Defence Forces members are very much part of communities. If members of a community had an issue with a local hospital or local school and the community organised a march, are we saying that these members are prohibited from joining that march? Perhaps the Minister of State might be able to give me a response to that question. From the way I read the legislation, it appears that is the intention. However I would welcome clarity on the matter. I sincerely hope it is not the case but I would like clarity on that simple example that I have given. These are questions that members of the Defence Forces are putting to me.

As I said earlier, if there was a history of RACO or PDFORRA stepping outside the box with their comments, I would see through it.However, in all my dealings with both RACO and PDFORRA over many years, I found them to be very professional, considered, moderate and sensible, as they go about striving for better terms and conditions for their members. On the comments of my good friend, Senator Clonan, regarding the Secretary General, and this is no slight on the individual concerned, it seems quite strange that such an individual would be an ex officiomember of this group. It appears that perhaps there is potential, and this is no slight on the merit of the person, for a conflict of interest in that regard. Many people have voiced that concern.

By and large, I very much welcome the legislation. There are just two issues that give me great concern. The Bill has been largely welcomed and the representative bodies are very happy with it. The two concerns they have are the ones I outlined. I would be grateful if the Minister of State would shed a wee bit of light on them.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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There are no further contributors. The Minister of State has ten minutes.

Photo of Jennifer Carroll MacNeillJennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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There are a number of issues to address. I thank all Members for their contributions. I will first address matters relating to the Bill. As the Tánaiste said, I reiterate this is the first of two substantial defence Bills that will be advanced this year. Members are aware of what is to come, so let us discuss today's Bill. The major issues being discussed are the establishment of the external oversight body on a statutory basis, which is a priority for the Government because it is the major piece that gives effect to the IRG. I recall and read in full the debate of 25 April 2023, when the House very properly considered that report. Senators were universally supportive of the recommendations implicitly and quite explicitly across different political groups and individuals. There is no need to go too far with that, but they were very clear that the recommendations should be implemented quickly. This Bill attempts to do that. There has been a consultation process between the publication of that report and the publication of the Bill. The intent is to enact the Bill and establish those oversight mechanisms as quickly as possible for the very good reasons Senators described, not just today but in April 2023.

As the Tánaiste said, it was a recommendation of the group that the Secretary General be a member of the external oversight body. That is why provision for that is in the Bill at this time. It was also a recommendation that no provision could be made for members of the Defence Forces or representative associations to become members of the EOB, as it would be inconsistent with the principle of the EOB's independence. I wished to place that issue back in its original context. Of course, we are always trying to develop legislation iteratively to have the best effect, but I wanted to set it in that context.

Similarly, on the piece around protest, as raised by a Senator, and the political or apolitical nature of that, it is very important to state that the Defence Forces are first and foremost apolitical. They are about the defence of the State and an overriding duty to the State that can only be exercised in an apolitical way. The Defence Forces are not alone in that; it is also true of An Garda Síochána and members of the Judiciary. It is worth contextualising some of the Senators' questions in that light. What is attempted in the Bill is simply an extension of the existing regulations. No change or additional restriction is being proposed, as such. This will be teased out in a more technical way on Committee Stage, but no additional restriction is being imposed. It is simply a continuation of the 1990 regulation provision.

The direct answer to the question of whether somebody can protest is he or she cannot protest in uniform or in an identifiable way. Members of the Defence Forces can turn up in their civvies or jeans and go along, as long as they are not identifiable. My question on Government policy in this regard is how I would view a member of the Judiciary going to an equivalent protest in Cork, or wherever it happens to be. Would I regard that as the right thing to do, even if such an individual could do it? Should that person do it? I am trying to say that I think of the Defence Forces as an elevated body in the same way I think of the Judiciary as an elevated body. Without wishing to place any restriction, in order to protect that elevation, there is a question around whether members of the Defence Forces should protest and how they might choose to use their participation in different ways. The answer to the question is "Yes" in civvies.If we had a pandemic again and we required the Defence Forces to support the State in the implementation of whatever measures needed to be taken, it would not be appropriate for members of the Defence Forces in those contexts to question Government policy in that way. Senators are talking about enhancing the ability to talk about the terms and conditions and culture within the Defence Forces. Those issues are incredibly important but they are distinct from a measure of gagging on Government policy. What we very much want to do is create a better culture within the Defence Forces. What we very much want to do is enhance recruitment through a range of different means, in particular, through cultural change.

I will highlight a number of different matters in relation to that. The first is, of course, the changes in the salaries. There has been significant progress on pay in the ranks rising from €39,000, essentially, for a school-leaver up to €48,000 for a graduate. These are very significant public sector salaries and I hope will be some measure towards recruitment. Recruitment is an enormous challenge. Of course, it is not a challenge that is unique to the defence in a full employment economy. We are not immune to losing people to the private sector who have developed very considerable skills through the training in the Defence Forces but there is an enormous focus on that.

I got a briefing in Cathal Brugha Barracks last week on the particular measures being taken to target different groups that might be interested and the use of different means such as social media and other mechanisms of trying to achieve the target of 540 this year, which is important and significant.

I took the opportunity to meet women in the Defence Forces as far as I could - separate from the tribunal and absolutely nothing to do with that - on the broader issues. I am the second female Minister of State at the Department of Defence - former Deputy Mary Hanafin having been in the position some years ago - and that is different. In this debate, for example, at various times I counted seven, eight or nine Senators, all of whom were male, and I am here as a woman. The only reason I point that out is that even at the best proportional representation I had as one in seven, it was still twice as high as the proportion of women in the Defence Forces at all times. That is culturally something. That is something one sees and feels as a woman. Anything that I can do as a female Minister of State in the Department of Defence to say that out loud to the Senators - they will not mind me saying it - to amplify the voice of women in the Defence Forces and to go beyond the measures that have already been taken to make sure that there is cultural, technical and broad change to support women in the Defence Forces is important to me and I will take every opportunity I can to do so.

The Acting Chairperson will forgive me. Do I have one more minute?

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State has plenty of time. She can actually go until 5.20 p.m.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State does not have to.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I was trying to keep that from the Minister of State.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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It is a maximum, not a target.

Photo of Jennifer Carroll MacNeillJennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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That has never happened to me.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State is just very welcome here.

Photo of Jennifer Carroll MacNeillJennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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Perhaps I will speak to what is important to all. Let us talk about defence broadly and the importance of it because that is why the Senators are here. All of us are having this debate to try to enhance Ireland's defence capacity and our defence structures at this time.

Of course, it is fair to say the Government has made some strides in Ireland's security and defence policy with the implementation of the Commission on the Defence Forces report and the Consultation Forum on International Security Policy. There is broad support generally for increased co-operation with the various EU programmes while maintaining our policy of military neutrality. As for areas such as resilience, cyber, hybrid and critical undersea infrastructure, I do not see how anybody could argue with our better capacity in all of these different areas. These are pieces of critical awareness for us. We face real security and defence challenges and we need to learn from and co-operate with other like-minded countries to be able to provide our own sovereign defence. There is simply no question about that. There is, I would say, a new urgency for us all to focus on that as a day-to-day part of our political conversation and we should not step back from or be afraid of that.

At every meeting I go to as Minister for European affairs there is a total focus on security - one that does not reflect the dialogue that we have generally in these Houses.European security is, unfortunately, at the top of every agenda. The establishment of a possible new commissioner for defence industries is something that Ireland is going to need to think about and lean into because that would be very important if it gives Irish companies the opportunity to participate in the receipt of EU funding or in ways that can generate capacity, including technological capacity, and participation for those industries. It is also important that Ireland has the capacity to access materials and weaponry in a way that is most cost-efficient and also efficient in terms of the supply chain. We still need to have military hardware in order to defend ourselves. It is incumbent upon us to set out that the basic defence of our sovereign territory is strategically important.

We must not be afraid to describe our defence spending and our ambition to spend more. Senators are aware that our current spend is far too low and is going to have to increase. We can look at other neutral countries, such as Austria, for example, which spends 1% of its GDP on its defence budget of €3.3 billion, whereas Ireland's defence budget in 2023 was 0.2% of GDP or 0.33% of GNI. It is so far below, and we have so far to get, but we will do it through recruitment and the renovation of housing and capital spending where we can. None of us should be afraid to describe the security and defence challenges we have as an island nation and a tech centre and the need to co-operate further on resilience, cyber, hybrid and a range of different matters to help with the basic defence of our sovereign territory. This conversation forms part of that very broad context. I look forward to Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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Next Tuesday.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 25 June 2024.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar athló ar 4.47 p.m. go dtí 10.30 a.m., Dé Céadaoin, an 19 Meitheamh 2024.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.47 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 19 June 2024.