Deputy O'Donoghue is in possession. He is sharing time with Deputy Mattie McGrath.
Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage (Resumed)
Reports have emerged that soldiers are paid between €2 per hour and €3 per hour at the weekend, which is completely illegal and shameful. It is not acceptable that soldiers could earn more working in a shop than they do in the Defence Forces. The Department of Defence continually fails to use its full budget allocation as it has fewer staff than expected. There are currently 8,600 enlisted soldiers, which is 900 fewer than expected, yet the Department will not pay those soldiers enough to live on. The Rural Independent Group supports calls for the establishment of a special commission to examine all aspects of the Defence Forces, including enlistment and re-enlistment.
The members of the Defence Forces have families. Many of them have children and wives or husbands. They are our protectors. They protect us and this country, as do members of An Garda Síochána. They do significant work around the country, such as in respect of the ongoing environmental issues which are worsening year on year. Whom did we call on for help when Storm Ophelia arrived? Who were the first people called into action? The emergency services, including the Army, were called on to help us. Members of the Defence Forces, along with other front-line services, were the first people out, at all hours of the night, to help us. The State rewards them with €2 or €3 extra per hour in overtime for so protecting us.
When the President of the United States came to Ireland, the Army and the Garda were called on to assist. Members of the Army were sent out with packed lunches and rations and our gardaí were fed. As Deputies know, anyone who calls to an Irish person's house is fed well. The Irish have great respect for people. The gardaí ended up having to feed the members of the Army because there were no provisions allowed for the latter as they carried out their duties. That was wrong.
Equality must start here. Our front-line services should be treated the way we would like to be treated. They looked after us in terms of Covid-19. It is now up to us to look after them. Members of the Defence Forces need equality with other front-line workers. They are our front-line workers and protectors. It is up to the Government to intervene and protect the Army and, in turn, let it protect us. We cannot allow the current circumstances to continue. Equality for all must be respected. I call on the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, to intervene on this matter.
The Fine Gael Party has something against the Army. It destroyed a wonderful tradition in Clonmel, County Tipperary. For generations - for centuries - there was an Army barracks in Clonmel, but Fine Gael just wiped it away, as it did with many other things. I will fast-forward to Fine Gael's current treatment of the Defence Forces. I note that it will have received the reports on the Defence Forces by now. We have seen another programme for Government with a promise to establish an independent commission. The Minister knows well the situation with the Army and he was at the fore of the talks on the programme for Government. If he had any interest in the Army, he should have ensured it got proper respect, acknowledgement and, above all, pay and conditions.
He knows well the two fiascos that occurred earlier this year when the return of troops who had spent six months serving abroad was delayed by a month and subsequently delayed by another couple of weeks. A similar situation occurred three years ago. The Government stated that it was a paperwork problem. The soldiers' families and loved ones, be they wives or husbands, were awaiting their return. First communions and other family events were delayed. That had never happened previously in the history of the State. We have a proud tradition of recognition of Army service that goes back to our troops serving in the Congo and elsewhere in the world on United Nations duties, but serving soldiers have been abandoned abroad three times in recent years. We did not even have a plane to bring them home. I think the Taoiseach stated that there was no carrier to bring them home. That is a Dad's Army situation. The way Fine Gael treated the Army is disgraceful. I know it is the party of the big shots and the landed gentry, but few would have thought it would treat members of the Army, people on whom we depend, in such a manner.
I recently got a call from the HSE about an outbreak at Walsh Mushrooms in Golden. Who were the first people on the scene? The Garda, assisted by the Army, were the first there to put up Army camps and tents in which to carry out testing. The Defence Forces are called on for floods, as Deputy O'Donoghue stated, as well as storms and snow storms. While I was involved with the Army in Clonmel there were many occasions when it cleared snow and brought help to people or rescued them from floods. The town was flooded often enough.
The Government does not respect the Army. The former Minister of State with responsibility for defence, Deputy Kehoe, ridiculed members of the Defence Forces and made little of them. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, heard the figures referred to by Deputy O'Donoghue. I remember reading a report that members of the Defence Forces were treated like refugees while they were minding President Trump on his visit to Ireland last year. They did not even have enough to eat. That is shocking. Their pay, compared with that of gardaí, is downright disgraceful. It all stems from a lack of respect for Óglaigh na hÉireann, our proud Defence Forces. The Government has seen what it has done. It has just divided and conquered. It moved some of the troops who were stationed in Clonmel to Kilkenny and others to Limerick. More of the troops left the Army. The number of members who are leaving is staggering.
I wish to offer my sincere congratulations to Tipperary woman Roberta O'Brien, whom I am sure the Minister knows well. She is the first woman in the history of the Naval Service to achieve the rank of commander. It is a wonderful achievement for her. I know her personally, and I wish her and her family well. It is a credit to the entire family, including her father, William, and her late mother, that this powerful woman from the famed Glen of Aherlow, has gone on to achieve what she has achieved. She has given sterling service in the process.
However, as the Minister is aware, we cannot even man the naval vessels that we have. He has been told that by PDFORRA and others. We do not have the personnel to man the vessels. A staggering 82% of those who left the Army in the past year did so because of conditions and disrespect. Of course, those who served at the Battle of Jadotville in the Congo have not been recognised for that.
The Government does not respect the Army but we may need it very soon. We do not know the day or the hour when we will need it. The members of the Defence Forces need equipment, proper training and all the other resources they should have. They are not looking for anything out of the ordinary. They are expected to be ready, willing and able when they are needed. Thankfully, they are always available to serve.
I refer to the strength of the Defence Forces. Young men used to join the Army as a career. I heard a radio programme recently which reported on members of the Defence Forces who are leaving in order to try to get into other sections of the public service because they cannot survive. The women have come up here many times. I refer to the housewives and homemakers - I am not being sexist - who have begged us to treat our troops with respect. Members of the Army cannot lobby on their own behalf.
I am glad that Deputy Berry is here because he is an excellent advocate for the Army. Its members need to be advocated for. Any Government that has treated them with such total disrespect should hang its head in shame. Big Phil the enforcer - where is he now? - wiped away our barracks in Clonmel and many other things as well. He forced through Irish Water, Uisce Éireann, which is another disaster. The people of Clonmel, elsewhere in south Tipperary and beyond will not forgive the Government for a long time. Fine Gael has not got a Deputy elected in the area in the past two elections. Why would a Fine Gael candidate be elected there? Fine Gael destroyed the dignified and well-earned respect that those soldiers had. One could eat one's dinner off the ground in any part of the barracks complex but now there are weeds, bushes and briars growing all around it. It is a sad sight in the middle of our town. Its gates are locked. When the alarms on the barracks go off at night, they can ring for a fortnight. We cannot get the builder or whoever owns it or the security company responsible for its maintenance to turn them off. It is a sad state of affairs.
We would see the tricolour flying proudly there and the Army drilling and going up the Nire Valley for scheduled training, but now it is closed and covered in cobwebs and dirt. Above all, the Government should respect the Army personnel and recruit the proper numbers so that we will have a proper Army. The Minister should look into that immediately, and not talk about another commission.
Given the week that is in, I will focus on the Siege of Jadotville, which raged for four days 51 years ago this week. It was a stand-out moment in this country's proud history of overseas peacekeeping duties.
In Longford-Westmeath, we are especially proud of our association with this chapter in our peacekeeping history. Fifteen soldiers from County Longford and a further 22 from Westmeath featured in Jadotville. Indeed, the two counties accounted for more than 20% of the complement of soldiers there. One of those who featured was Michael Tighe, a Longford town man. He is currently recuperating from surgery, but he has been at the forefront of trying to get the recognition that he and his fellow soldiers have long been denied.
Regrettably, it has been decided that the surviving soldiers will not be awarded the bravery medals recommended by their commanding officer, Colonel Pat Quinlan. The soldiers have in recent times received many honours and accolades as a result of the campaign headed up by the late colonel's son, Leo, but, alas, they have been denied the individual medals for bravery which were recommended for them following the siege in the Congo in 1961.
During the siege, which was subsequently dramatised in a Netflix movie, 150 Irish peacekeepers with no battle experience held out for an unprecedented five days against 3,000 mercenaries and local militia without suffering a single fatality. Alas, for years afterwards, Colonel Quinlan and his men were derided in Ireland because they had eventually surrendered. Sadly, several of the soldiers who featured in Jadotville subsequently died by suicide.
After achieving recognition for the achievements of his father and the men in recent years, Leo Quinlan has continued to campaign for them to be awarded the distinguished service medal or military medal for gallantry - the two highest honours afforded to anybody in the proud Irish Defence Forces. He has thankfully found the original list of recommendations made by his father after the battle which put forward 33 men for these awards. Eight of those men are still alive, including our own Michael Tighe.
I appreciate and understand the Department's position in that both medals are time bound - two years in the case of the military medal for gallantry, MMG, and four years in the case of the distinguished service medal, DSM. The Department also makes the point that it feels that the issue was comprehensively dealt with in 1965. However, that is not a view shared by many members of the public, and especially in Longford-Westmeath where we have a great tradition and affinity with those who featured in the Siege of Jadotville.
The Minister himself is on record as having said that he will consider any new information to support a reconsideration to award the medals. Equally, I know the Minister is incredibly proud of this nation's record in peacekeeping, overseas duty and the Jadotville Congo era, which is a hugely important part of our military history. I also understand that there is a precedent that will enable the Minister with responsibility for defence to order the rules on time limits to be waived in certain circumstances and I earnestly hope that the Minister will give this due consideration.
I am sharing time with Deputies Ó Snodaigh and Buckley.
I welcome what the previous speakers have said. I would like to add my voice of support for medals and recognition of those who fought at the Siege of Jadotville. It is necessary that we give due respect to our Defence Force.
In a previous sitting in this House when the Minister did not have responsibility for defence, I requested that he would make contact with the then Minister with responsibility for defence on the basis of getting the Air Corps helicopter to deal with a number of serious fires that we have in the Cooley Peninsula over the summer. Luckily, that happened and it worked out well. I thank both the Minister and the Air Corps.
It was said by others in this Chamber that from time to time when we face great difficulties we call on the Defence Forces. The Minister himself visited Dundalk to see off a number of soldiers to whom I wish the best of luck who are on the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in the Gollan Heights and are carrying out necessary peacekeeping operations. I cannot but add my voice to what many Members have said in relation to the ongoing travesty that is the case of pay for members of the Defence Forces. We have all heard the horror stories. It is not only the pay. It is the limited duty payment. In many cases, sometimes families of the military have to engage the services of Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in the form of social welfare. I have heard many soldiers who had entered into the service in Dundalk tell others that it is not now the same option, even for them. They would talk about the lack of pay. They would also say that the pension position is not as good as it was previously. We have a serious issue here that we must deal with otherwise we will not be able to retain the soldiers that we have. This is a necessity. I would ask that the Minister put the difficulty of soldiers' pay at the top of his priorities in defence.
The Minister has another brief. In a previous incarnation, in a time gone by, which none of us would wish to see again, we would have had soldiers engaged in operations on the Border. On the previous occasion I spoke to the Minister in relation to the issue of Brexit, we had not quite seen the legislation but the UK Internal Market Bill is all that was promised in relation to a breach of international law and circumvention of the Irish protocol and the withdrawal agreement. I welcome many of the statements that the Minister has made. He has been utterly forthright. We need to ensure the European Union and the Government remain forthright. Sometimes we are second guessing what the British Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson, is at. Other than it being reprehensible, the Bill gives Mr. Johnson no creditability as a negotiator. However, we need to ensure the net result are the best mitigations possible in relation to Brexit. If we are to believe what certain sections of the British Conservative Party and Mr. Johnson are saying, I call on the Government to look at the possibility that we could face a nightmare situation where they cut a hole in the withdrawal agreement and the Irish protocol and that whatever protections anyone believed are there are no longer there. We could be looking at a disaster. It is a disastrous situation, particularly in regard to places outside Dundalk, such as Faughart where it meets Jonesborough, where the Concession Road meets the Castleblayney Road, and where Culloville and Crossmaglen meet the Shela area. We have numerous Border crossings. We have, as I stated previously, a particular history, and we cannot tolerate any possibility of a hard border infrastructure and we need to ensure that, whatever happens, this is not the case.
I was quite happy to hear members of other political parties state in the past while that if the British Government was to go down this road, it would be a game changer. The Government needs to get real and straight in relation to the fact that if the British Government goes down this road, the only real mitigation will be some form of unity. It literally will be a case of giving people on this island, and particularly those in the North, a choice of staying within the European Union or leaving to operate in what is a dysfunctional so-called United Kingdom.
We support the Bill as a tidying-up exercise for many defence matters. The big issue remaining in the area is that of Defence Forces pay and its inadequacy, which must be dealt with or retention and recruitment will continue to be a problem for a force that we need.
Others have mentioned the siege of Jadotville. I had the honour of meeting Commandant Quinlan in the audiovisual room here last year when we were shown a promotion for the film. Many of those who attended the screening are still aggrieved that we do not take into account that the people who serve in our Defence Forces take immense pride in their job and sometimes it goes down through the family generations. Having watched the film, I think the people there were let down, by the United Nations and our Government and it should never have happened.
I welcome this Bill. Members have described it as being about housekeeping, tidying up and nailing down responsibilities and duties, which is very positive. Many have risked their lives on UN missions and one can go back further. Friends and relations of mine have served in the Defence Forces. I wish to raise the supports for people who have served their country but who, once their time was up and they left the system, were left behind. I refer to post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. I know two people who only realised in the past 18 months that they were suffering from it, having left the service ten or 12 years earlier. We need to think of that when we talk about housekeeping and investing in our Defence Forces, that is, the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps.
Pay has been mentioned. It is very difficult to go into a bank and cash thanks. During the previous Dáil, I tabled parliamentary questions on the subject. It is alarming how many Defence Force families claim family income supplement. It must make things very difficult.
An Garda Síochána stopped at a car on the Ringaskiddy side of the naval base and noticed a young man sleeping in his car. The man was from Wexford and he could not go home because he was unable to put diesel in his car. That is the reality happening in some parts of our Defence Forces. It must be looked at. Throwing money at issues might not be the answer to everything but it is important that people are put on a living wage.
The Minister will be very familiar with Collins Barracks and Haulbowline naval base. People there have given tremendous service and given so much to the country, but I have spoken to many of them in recent years and they feel let down and aggrieved. Sinn Féin has a Bill on the Garda Síochána and Defence Forces which would allow them to negotiate for their rights, and I think we are the only party to have this. Without union representation, they have no say.
The Defence Forces share problems of recruitment and retention with the HSE. This is addressed in the Bill which allows former members to return. There must be acknowledgement of highly skilled people and knowledge is honourable, but it is a question of balance. People who wear the uniform of the country come to me daily, and where they should be very proud, they struggle to put food on the table. It is difficult for people to serve when they feel they are not being valued. This has to be addressed.
I raise the matter of how people are really treated in the Defence Forces and how things are reported. I was spokesperson on defence in the previous Dáil. Unfortunately, I had to submit questions to the Defence Forces on two suicides which were reported as such to me but which are recorded as negligent discharge in the Defence Forces. The Defence Forces simply reply that the coroner decides whether a case was suicide. It is about getting clarity.
I began by noting that the Bill was about tidying up, proper housekeeping, responsibility and accountability. I hope that many of the issues I have raised here will be addressed in future.
This Bill is important but it also illustrates how ridiculous the Government was during the early weeks of the Covid-19 crisis to rush through legislation that we must now amend relating to soldiers, and officers in particular, who wish to re-enlist. We were all told that it was happy days, and officers would re-enlist. We welcomed it then and still do, but it was rushed and for no reason, because it was never the panacea for the Defence Forces' problems, which the Government presented it to the public as. It was not, it is not and it will not be. The problems in the Defence Forces are underinvestment and the undervaluing of its members. For many years, members of the Defence Forces have stayed out of duty, loyalty and the desire to see the Defence Forces act properly, and in the forlorn hope that some Government would take them sufficiently seriously to pay them properly and reflect in their pay packets at the end of the week the hours they put in away from their families. This legislation does not address that, which is a pity as it is something that the Government's first defence Bill should address.
The Bill addresses courts martial and military law to a degree, which is welcome. However, there are many issues underlying the state of the Defence Forces, many of which I have raised over the years, back to when the Minister last held his position, on the use and abuse of Defence Force personnel who were issued with the anti-malarial drug Lariam despite warnings from many other armies and defence forces. Thankfully, its use is at an end but the legacy continues. Dealing with that legacy will be under the Minister's watch.
Ending its use is a slight admission that the policy of issuing it in the first place was wrong.
There is another outstanding issue which needs to be addressed and if it is addressed properly, it would show that the State properly cares for the men and women of the Defence Forces. It is the issue of those in the Air Corps who have been poisoned by chemicals. It is not something that somebody made up. Those men and women, men in particular, have suffered the consequences. There are many unexplained medical complications among those who were exposed to these chemicals. At the very least, there needs to be an investigation into the causes of these complications, into unexplained deaths, unexplained illnesses and the high rate of suicide among a small cohort. It may help some of those military families who have encouraged young people to join the Air Corps. That help is not there.
I know many military families who have had a long tradition of military service and their sons and daughters are not thinking about careers in the Defence Forces any more. Part of it relates to wages and part of it is that they feel that they are not recognised. Another part is the absolute failure of the State. I heard a Deputy mention the establishment number of 9,500 earlier. I am old enough to remember when the State looked for 12,500 from the establishment number, and it is not that long ago. That is the sort of number that the State should be looking at but it will not achieve it. In fact, it is going towards 8,000 at the moment. That is scary because it means that many military installations cannot function and duties cannot be fulfilled, given those low numbers. The State needs to address it seriously and actively. Buying new planes during the pandemic will not address the failures in the Air Corps. Appointing new cadets by itself will not address it. The Government needs to substantially increase the numbers of recruits that are coming in and it needs people with experience who bought their way out of the Defence Forces to come back in. They are the people who will manage the Defence Forces in the interim when there are significant gaps. There are officers of different ranks trying to do the work of two or three people.
I could go on about many other issues in the Defence Forces. Some of it is simple respect for human dignity. I was in the Curragh and saw the state of some of the toilets and living quarters. The Government might be addressing some of it, but it is not quick enough, given what I saw on that day. That is only one barracks. From what I heard from those who live in different barracks around the country, the accommodation, whether living accommodation or accommodation used for meetings and exercise, is below standard. That shows that the State has not respected them properly and does not respect them. I have no major problem with the legislation before us but it is not the legislation that should be before us. The legislation that should be before us should reflect respect for those who are in the Defence Forces.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Defence (Amendment) Bill. As has been said by a number of other Members, this Bill seems fairly innocuous. It may be out of date with some of the regulations that have already come into place. I have some concerns about it though the vast majority of the Bill is grand. It is interesting to note that under the Bill, a force commander would have the authority to arrest and detain a member of the Defence Forces. Would a force commander be a German, Swedish, Dutch or French officer rather than an Irish officer?
We have the acting force commander in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, at the moment, Maureen O'Brien.
Very good. Hopefully an Irish force commander would be somebody in charge of a force that would not be involved in active military deployment. What I am getting at here is Ireland's neutrality and our role as a neutral nation. That is really what I want to see. How does that work with active deployment? For example, if one of our forces was deployed in Afghanistan, could an Irish soldier be arrested by an American force commander? Is that what the Minister is talking about and is that part of this Bill?
The Minister says the Bill does not alter the current command structure in the Defence Forces but merely underpins current practice relating to day-to-day operational control of contingents of the Permanent Defence Force engaged in international operations. That is grand but what has been the modus operandi to date? Have enough controls and safeguards been in place, to the satisfaction of the Dáil? We have been told that they are a pillar of our security and neutrality but I do not recall, in my time here, anything being put before the Dáil relating to that. We have to take it on the Minister or Government's whim or word that our neutrality is protected with everything that we do with the Defence Forces. Is that the case and what is happening in that regard? If one reads this Bill in conjunction with other legislation such as the Defence (Amendment) Act 1993 and the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006, this Bill governs the deployment of Irish troops in the past, according to what the Minister says, and will govern the deployment of Irish troops in the future which will be ongoing when the Bill comes into place.
What is happening with the deployment of our troops? They are already deployed with UN missions which is understandable and accepted in the House. They have also been deployed as part of NATO organisations, such as in Afghanistan. There had been six or so Irish soldiers in Kabul. Are they still there? That is obviously part of a NATO organisation or deployment. What is the situation with that and how does that impact on our neutrality as it exists and in the future? One then looks at the possibility of future deployments. In the past couple of years, we have seen our troops deployed in Mali, which is basically a former French colony. France has made it difficult for Mali to develop democratically since its independence but we are quite happy to send our troops out to Mali to participate in the programme there, which will further undermine our independence and traditional stance of neutrality, which is what I am getting at. It will not come before this House because no Government will bring it before the House to discuss it. We will wake up in a couple of years and realise that we are no longer neutral, and that we are involved in all these conflicts. It may include conflicts in Africa.