I call Deputy Catherine Connolly from the Independent Group who has 15 minutes.
Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which has been described as a straightforward tidying-up Bill that has not necessitated pre-legislative scrutiny. While I agree that the vast majority of the Bill's provisions amount to a tidying-up exercise, the decision not to have pre-legislative scrutiny should not have been taken. Pre-legislative scrutiny would have been a very good way of ensuring accountability and transparency and would have reassured me and my colleagues that that is the simple purpose of the Bill.
I mention Jadotville, which was also mentioned by a number of Deputies in the debate last week. I was due to speak on this Bill last week, which I believe would have been 59 years to the day since day two of the siege of Jadotville in 1961. As many Deputies have done, and we raised this issue with the Taoiseach and the previous Minister for Defence, I ask the Minister to re-examine that event. This is a time when we need true heroes and people to look up to. On this occasion, those heroes happen to be all men, and I have no difficulty with that, but I ask him to do the right thing. One hundred and fifty-five Irish soldiers who were defending themselves against 3,500 better armed forces, many of them mercenaries, were caught up in a nightmare scenario where they acquitted themselves beyond belief. While a number of them were wounded, nobody was killed. I ask the Minister to honour what the commandant asked for at the time, which was to give these men medals for bravery. He named the soldiers who deserved those medals, and they have never been honoured. I have no idea what the difficulty is with that. I may be an innocent human being in this world but it seems to me that at a time when we are crying out for heroes and people are begging us to do the right thing, this is one way to do that.
It is in the power of the Minister to implement Commandant Pat Quinlan’s recommendations regarding the soldiers. I had the privilege of knowing some of them. I will not list them. One of them died just three years ago in Galway. I have read the books and I have watched the movie. I recently read The Same Age as the State by Máire Mhac an tSaoi. She has one version of what happened. I have read other versions also. A number of soldiers have not been honoured. The parents of some of them were collecting the children's allowance at the time in question. The young men went out and did what they had to do. I understand that the defence tactics used in the siege of Jadotville have become standard textbook procedure in the German Army and other armies. I will leave that for now and ask the Minister to do the right thing for the soldiers.
I will mention the circumstances in Lesbos towards the end of my contribution. We certainly cannot talk about the Defence (Amendment) Bill without considering what has been happening in Greece and the belated action of the EU. The EU finally announced today it is going to do something but, of course, the emphasis is on strengthening the borders and not on examining the root causes of the conflict and what is leading people to leave their homes and families. People do not just get up and leave for the sake of it; they do so because of horror, war and violence. That should be recognised, particularly by the Irish, who have left these shores for hundreds of years.
I will leave aside the subject of the delegation of operational control for a moment and revert to it later. I understand the re-enlisting of suitably qualified people is now not part of the Bill. The Minister might correct me if I am incorrect on that. It is noteworthy that we have a need to re-enlist because we allowed for the development of circumstances in which we have run down all aspects of our Defence Forces. Commandant Conor King warned in September 2019 that the loss of expertise was having a direct impact on the safety, operational performance and well-being of Defence Forces personnel. I do not believe much has changed since except for the very limited recommendations on the commission.
The White Paper of 2015 recommended a review of HR policies, including retirement policies, and age profiles. According to the former Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, in 2019, a review of mandatory retirement ages in the Defence Forces was to be undertaken. It was never undertaken. The Minister might address that in his concluding speech.
The tidying up in respect of not enlisting minors is very welcome. I absolutely could not go against that. The gender-neutral language is also very welcome. We are taking out the words "minor" and "his" and including gender-neutral language. Again, it is interesting and significant that we are doing so against a background in which only eight of the 75 inducted into the Defence forces in the year up to 28 July 2020 were female. Five of the 44 recruited into the Army, three of the 28 recruited into the Naval Service and none of those recruited into the Air Corps were female. As of 31 July 2020, there were 483 women in the Army, by comparison with 6,304 men. There are 65 women in the Naval Service, by comparison with 838 men. There are 37 women in the Air Corps, by comparison with 685 men. It is important to put the gender-neutral language in context.
I have no difficulty with the extension of time to bring forward an appeal for a summary court-martial.
For me, these are the tidying-up exercises. I shall now address the main section, which inserts a new section, 17A, to permit the delegation by the Minister for Defence of a limited degree of control and authority over a Defence Forces contingent, referred to as "operational control". The Minister tells us this is simply to underpin current practices regarding day-to-day operational control of contingents of the Permanent Defence Force. It is regarded, therefore, as a tidying-up exercise but perhaps if the pre-legislative scrutiny had not been bypassed, we would have found out the modus operandi today. There was delegation without legislation or safeguards. What problems emerged? What analysis was done in this regard to this ad hoc delegation of power? How many times was operational control delegated in this manner? What analysis of risk was done regarding our policy of neutrality? I would like those questions answered because we have sent soldiers to Mali as part of a very questionable, French-led, neocolonial approach. There are many other examples. If the Minister is asking us to pass tidying-up legislation, there is an onus on him to have an open and transparent approach. Have all the facts come out? How many times did the Minister delegate? In what way? What problems emerged? What were the safeguards? Did anything else emerge?
There is a little line at the end of the explanatory information on the Bill that states, interestingly, that there will be no cost to the Exchequer. This is ironic in a context in which our Defence Forces are the lowest paid of all public servants. Defence Forces strength is at its lowest in 50 years. All these facts and figures have been quoted ad nauseam by various Deputies and I am not going into them again except to say it is difficult to consider legislation such as this without commenting on the reality on the ground.
With regard to what is happening in Lesbos, I am simply horrified by the lack of action by the European Union, including this country. We can rush into action to pass legislation when it suits without mentioning the substantive problems on the ground. My difficulty with the section the Minister is inserting is that it is too open-ended. Operational control is ceded, albeit on a limited basis, for a certain purpose but there is no information so I cannot make a judgment. I want to support this Bill as tidying-up legislation but, in the absence of knowledge, I have a difficulty with that. When the power is delegated, in what capacity will the forces be used? Will they be helping out NATO? Will they be helping out a future European army? Will they be used in PESCO activities? I am aware we are involved in one such activity in an observational capacity. Every time we mention a European army, we are told we are hysterical and paranoid and that this has nothing to do with what the EU is about. I refer the Minister to the document produced by MEP Deirdre Clune, former MEP Brian Hayes, who went on to greater things in the golf club, MEP Sean Kelly and former MEP Mairead McGuinness, who has gone on to greater things. Page 13 states, "Can anyone really say for sure that we are now a truly neutral country?" They are looking at having a progressive Irish security and defence policy at EU level. The entire paper is an attempt to loosen what has already been loosened beyond belief – the concept of neutrality. They are loosening it up even more. I mentioned this to the Minister previously, and I believe he has his own views on that. He might enlighten us again as to what his views were on that paper and whether they have changed in the meantime.
We talk about there being no cost to the Exchequer but we are contributing a huge amount of money. Again, there is no transparency in that regard. There is no way that I, as a Deputy, mother and woman, can find out exactly what we are spending to enhance our military capacity in Europe while some of our soldiers here are in receipt of State subsidies under various schemes.
We have no problem increasing our money and our financial contribution to Europe with no transparency around it. My greatest difficulty is with that section. Perhaps the Minister could help me with my difficulty by clarifying what I have asked. How many times has that power been delegated in the past and for what purposes? What analysis has been conducted and why the need for it now as opposed to previously?
Finally, I cannot stand here without raising Lesbos again and our failure to do anything. The announcement today on the belated or promised action by the EU is troubling. The emphasis is on strengthening our borders and sending migrants back. If a person is a true refugee, however, we will let him or her in. This is the type of appalling language that is used. I do not think that is the Minister's language, actually. I do not think that is his way of doing things.
It is time we led through our new role in the UN and, indeed, I saw one of the Minister's colleagues commenting in the paper on Sunday on our role in the UN and he talked about our independence, empathy and vision. If anything, our strongest asset as a tiny country is our independence and, in the most positive way, we will stand up for our neutrality in the best way possible to allow us to be a shining light for peace in the world and not peace enforcement, which is exactly what happened in Katanga in 1961. It was an absolute catastrophe with regard to UN peacekeeping. It became peace enforcement on behalf of the rich mine owners and the white people. It is now almost 60 years later and we are using all of that language again, that is, "peace enforcement", as opposed to asking what are the best ways to bring peace to the world. Clearly, one of the best ways is to get rid of poverty and inequality, to allow people to stay in their own countries, to recognise the role of our very rich countries in allowing situations to develop where refugees and migrants run out of their countries which is something they do not want at all. We copper-fastened that by doing a despicable deal with Turkey. I have never agreed with that. It was not done in my name or the people I represent, nor was the situation where we prevailed on Greece to hold 13,000 people. Depending on which report one reads it could be 15,000 people, with 4,000 children and hundreds of unaccompanied minors. Can the Minister please clarify what we are doing about that as a neutral, strong independent country and as a proud and temporary member of the UN Security Council?
In some ways, this Bill is just a dotting of i's and crossing of t's the Government might regard as a necessary function. However, current members of the Defence Forces have a different opinion of what they deem is necessary. The level of pay is so bad that members of the Defence Forces are forced to apply for the working family payment. The fact that the State supplements wages through the working family payment is an acknowledgement by it that they are underpaid. There are also those within the Defence Forces who earn a couple of euro over the qualifying threshold. We are talking about the cost of a loaf of bread or a pint of milk. They do not get any assistance. These families are forced to make tough financial choices between food on the table, paying the rent, mortgage or whatever it might be and back to school costs. Every run-of-the-mill expense that we have as civilians is fraught with fear and anxiety because of lack of money. This is not acceptable in a modern day defence force.
Our Defence Forces are the working poor because of years of Government neglect. I was talking to a constituent who is a father of five and has served 22 years in the Defence Forces. The reality of the situation for him and his family is that for him to survive he must sign up to serve overseas as a peacekeeper on a regular basis. He has done this seven times. This father is missing so much time with wife and five children. This is time he will never get back. What is often forgotten in this regard is that in his absence his wife is basically rearing the children on our own until her husband returns. This proud man also disclosed to me today that he has since had to apply for the defence forces stress fund since his most recent tour abroad to survive. This man has served 22 years. He has gone abroad as a peacekeeper seven times and must come back and apply for the stress fund. That is just not good enough.
This is like déjà vu for me because I am a proud son of a Defence Forces veteran. My father served 25 years both here and abroad. I recall when we were younger my father had to often work two additional jobs on top of his Army duties for us and the family to survive. Circumstances have not changed. This was contrary to Army regulations back then and I am sure it is now. My father, who is a good, honest man, was breaking Army regulations, something he did not do lightly but had to in order to survive.
As I said earlier, members of the Defence Forces are still the working poor of today and it is just not good enough. I want to put this into the context of what is going on at the moment. Next week, all Deputies will receive a 2% pay raise. This is unwarranted and undeserved and it is totally out of sync with what is happening in society right now. We in the Sinn Féin party will return this increase to the Exchequer. In fact, I found this bizarre when I looked into it. I was elected ten months ago for the first time in the by-election. Since then, this is my third time returning money to the Exchequer. That is three increases in ten months I have returned to the Exchequer. I am not putting myself up on a pedestal and saying I am great. In the context that Deputies are getting a raise three times in ten months when Army veterans are struggling to pay their bills, it is just not good enough. It goes to show how out of touch the Government is.
The Defence Forces on the front line when it comes to the battle against Covid-19. While I acknowledge and thank them for their selflessness in all the work they have done, I also say this in the knowledge that a round of applause and my thanks and acknowledgement will not pay the bills at the end of the month and keep the wolves from the door.
As the previous speaker mentioned, we recently learned that the surviving soldiers of Jadotville will not be awarded the medals for bravery recommended by their commanding officer almost 60 years ago. There was no hero's welcome for those who fought in Jadotville. They were portrayed by some as a national embarrassment and instead of receiving full recognition for their courage, the competence they showed and their bravery, they were isolated, ignored and forgotten. This must be rectified and those medals need to be awarded. The requests of the veterans are minute in comparison to the service they gave this State.
On the subject of medals, in 2016, a medal was issued to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising. This beautiful medal was issued to serving members but retired members did not receive one. I am going to read a letter into the record that I received from Paddy Hyland from Clondalkin who served in the Reserve Defence Force for more than 45 years. He states:
I was a member of the [Reserve Defence Forces, which is the old FCA] from 1965/2010. I first served with the 11th [signatory] corps. I then enlisted in the military police until my retirement in 2010. Over the years I have received a medal for 7 years service, 12 years, 21 years. After I retired a medal was struck, to honour the present serving members of the Reserve Defence Forces... It would be my honour to receive such a medal. Many thanks Mark.
That is not a big ask for a man who has served 45 years in this State. Paddy, and others like him, deserve these and the previous medals I spoke about in recognition of the service they have provided.
In conclusion, the Bill is a tidying-up exercise and will have no real impact on the daily lived experiences of current and former members of the Defence Forces. The Defence Forces have been failed by successive Governments for too long and the time for talking is over. It is high time that members of the Defence Forces get the pay and conditions they deserve. The buck stops with the Minister and the Government.
I add my voice in support of the Bill and I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the topic. I represent a constituency that is still proud to have an operational Army barracks. Sarsfield Barracks, which the Minister has visited many times, is situated within the heart of Limerick city. I am delighted to say the personnel based there contribute enormously and favourably to the vibrancy of my home city.
Members of the Defence Forces have represented the people of Ireland with distinction whenever and wherever they have served abroad. They are respected by members of other armed forces and have made a courageous contribution to all their missions. One needs only think of the humanitarian mission undertaken by the Naval Service in the Mediterranean in recent years. It is estimated that our Naval Service contributed to rescuing more than 18,000 migrants from the sea. Those individuals are a credit to us. I mention this to highlight the good work the Defence Forces do. Equally honourable contributions have been made by the land- and air-based strands of our Defence Forces. This is a group of women and men who have sacrificed many of the comforts the rest of us take for granted in the service of the people of Ireland.
The Bill is positive, but it does not address the key concerns we deal with every day regarding the well-being of members of the Defence Forces and their families. Their dedication and sacrifice are not matched by the pay they receive. In recent years Government cuts have led to a decline in Defence Forces numbers and a decline in morale among serving members. I believe this is due to a lack of appropriate pay and conditions. The State invests in the training of recruits and yet due to the lack of competitive pay, many members depart for the private sector. Last year 139 members of the Naval Service left. Many Defence Forces members must resort to sleeping in their cars because they cannot afford to pay rent. These concerns are demonstrated when we consider that the Naval Service and Air Corps are operating at 80% of their recommended staffing levels. Members of the Defence Forces need and deserve to be given fair wages. It is extraordinary that Defence Forces pay is among the lowest of all our public servants.
The programme for Government commits to creating a commission on the Defence Forces that would be then followed by the creation of a pay-review body. As I understand the commission on the Defence Forces has not yet been established, how long will they have to wait for that pay-review body to be set up and more importantly to report back?
Sinn Féin believes that a pay review should be conducted in earnest. We must stop the drain of talent from our Defence Forces. We must fairly compensate those brave women and men who serve us with honour and play a vital role in the fight against the arrival of narcotics into our State. They protect our people at times of national crisis and disaster and they must be paid fairly for this.
The Government must start listening to the concerns of Defence Forces members. We must allow their representatives to engage in collective bargaining with the proviso that they not be allowed to strike. We recommended this previously and were blocked back then by previous governments. As I said, Defence Forces personnel are among the worst-paid workers in the public service with many of them relying on the working family payment to make ends meet. Members see a long-term career in the Defence Forces as unsustainable and unviable. In order to provide for their families, they are leaving the forces in droves, often paying to do so themselves.
The Government must start listening to their concerns. It must recognise that members of the Defence Forces are employees and entitled to the same protections as all other workers. This needs to be legislated for. Sinn Féin introduced a Bill in 2017 to do this. I moved amendments to the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill, but unfortunately they were not accepted. We also introduced the Organisation of Working Time (Workers Rights and Bogus Self-Employment) (Amendment) Bill 2019. That Bill, if enacted, would have extended workers' rights to members of An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces. These moves, at the time, would have been particularly important.
As the Leas-Cheann Comhairle mentioned, last year we heard from a retired senior officer of the Defence Forces that the Government is treating them with contempt and disdain. It is simply not good enough. This is particularly relevant to many people in my constituency, based in Sarsfield Barracks. To serve in the Defence Forces is an honourable career, but it is not an attractive one due to the pay and conditions. Why should families need to seek social welfare assistance to get by?
I offer my support to these servants of the State. I offer my support to the Bill, but more must be done and it must be done soon.
I think this is my first opportunity to congratulate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I wish her very well in her post in the years ahead.
I am glad to have the opportunity to make a few points on the Bill. Obviously it is to be welcomed in the sense that, as the Minister said, it deals with some housekeeping matters relating to the operational command issue which makes sense, the extension of courts martial where necessary provided they are looked for within the initial period, and the recruitment of former members to try to deal with the very low numbers we have. As many Members have said on the previous day and today, there are obviously reasons we are losing Naval Service men and women to the Army because of better conditions and terms. We are losing many Army technical personnel to the private sector. We are very good in here at times when appropriate debates come up like this one on the Defence Forces to pay lip service and cash in on the need to say a few words in the Dáil and praise members of our Defence Forces for the great work they do at home and abroad. They are out in all weather and work in all conditions without complaint. Of course, that is what we expect, but they happily do it.
My constituency has Finner Camp and the area has a long tradition of people serving their country in the Fourth Western Brigade which once existed and which I hope will exist again following the independent commission's consideration of the brigade structure. We must acknowledge there are reasons we are not attracting people and there are reasons we cannot keep the people. Clearly, we have national pay agreements and I know the programme for Government very specifically states we do not want to venture outside those pay agreements. It seems obvious to me that the existing pay agreements do not cater adequately for our Defence Forces. There have been previous reviews and White Papers, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle alluded to earlier. I do not know how many reports we need. As so often with programmes for Government, manifestoes, policy documents and so on, we seem to be laying out yet another process where we give a commitment to deal with something once that process is complete. However, some things do not need a report by PwC, KPMG, an international review group or anybody else. Terms, conditions, salaries and so on are not what they should be. The UK has its permanent pay review group for all its armed forces. I do not know why we do not skip the independent commission portion relating to pay and move on to come up with an appropriate structure commensurate with the commitment and work these people have.
Deputy Berry has mentioned in the House previously - I bow to his first-hand experience of military life - that there was a commitment to a 10% increase in allowances across all the military and that did not occur. I know the Minister is very aware of this. Most recently in July he suggested we might need some emergency provisions for fair remuneration commensurate with the work of our Defence Forces members. I hope that is still possible. I agree with his view as articulated then. While I appreciate that the independent commission, according to the programme for Government, is to be set up by the end of the year, we need to move on things with pay much quicker than that and we can do so. All it needs is the political will.
Obviously, we will need to find the money. If resources need to be taken from elsewhere - precious resources - to give our military personnel a fair day's pay for the work they are doing, that is what we should do. I ask the Minister to comment on that. The chronology is that a permanent pay review body is to be established after the independent commission and the independent commission is to take a year. If we had a 1981-82 scenario, we could have three general elections and three governments in that period.
Army families are living in most constituencies, albeit there might not be a base there, and we will hear it at first-hand through our constituency offices from people we know, friends and family of people who are serving the real hardship which, as other Members have pointed out, require social supports to make ends meet.
The winding down of the 4th Western Brigade means personnel are leaving Carrick-on-Shannon, Leitrim, Sligo town or Lifford and heading to Finner Camp, collecting their gear and then travelling to Dublin to do their duty. It makes no sense. I expect that when the brigade structures are looked at, west of the Shannon at least, there will be political support, across all parties and none, for the re-establishment of the 4th Western Brigade. Given the uncertainty we face as we look to the future, with Brexit and so on, that is something useful we could do.
The recruitment of former members is a very good thing to do. It applies to people who have either served their full term, based on the five-year terms they do at a time, or people who had purchased their way out for €300 or whatever the fee is. Those people would all be eligible for return. I ask that the Department review the status of everybody who was boarded out, in military speak. For the benefit of us civilians, these are people who were forced to retire for health-related reasons, whether physical or mental. I know of people in that situation who have since recovered. They have military expertise, were totally committed to military life and completed many courses and so on which added value to the Defence Forces. There may be people among those who were boarded out who are of the appropriate age and with the appropriate experience and whose reasons for being boarded out have become obsolete. We should examine whether some of them might be capable of doing duties such as communications, training or something else that would not require the physical output expected of new recruits and active soldiers. We may find some numbers of people very willing to come back and who could be a great asset to the State. I ask that such a review be considered.
According to social media reports in the UK, Hilary Meredith, of Hilary Meredith Solicitors, claims to be representing a number of former military personnel in cases she is bringing on their behalf in regard to the use of Lariam, which is the drug that was prescribed to regular or listed soldiers to prevent malaria. As I understand it, this solicitor is saying that the Ministry of Defence in the UK has acknowledged to the people she represents that it provided no choice other than Lariam to soldiers and did not advise them of its side effects. A number of her clients have had offers of settlement, through her, from the Ministry of Defence. While the situation now is that soldiers serving abroad have the opportunity to choose between a number of different medications other than Lariam, that choice did not exist for a significant period of time for many soldiers and some have since complained of side effects and have gone through some misery as a consequence of taking this medication.
Many of us in Army constituencies are familiar with the Irish soldiers who have suffered the same side effects. Is the Government aware of what the Ministry of Defence in the UK has done? Is the Minister considering introducing a redress scheme that would offer the appropriate supports to people who have had side effects and suffered injury and health issues because they took Lariam and were given no other option but to do so? It was a case of this is what one takes if one is serving overseas to protect against malaria. They were not advised of any side effects which they might experience. Does the Minister agree it would be prudent to put such a redress scheme in place rather than waiting until such time, perhaps a number of years down the road, when many hundreds of thousands of euro have been spent in legal fees and there has been a great deal of suffering by the relevant families? If we had such a scheme to cater for those people who have suffered, it would be prudent from an Exchequer perspective but, more than that, it would be the right and fair thing to do for those families who have suffered. It has been reported in the UK - I do not know whether it is true - that officers were not required to take Lariam. They were provided with a different form of antimalarial medication which, it seems, did not expose them to the same side effects as Lariam.
In light of these reports, I ask that the Minister examine the issue. People in his Department can check the details. As I said, a firm called Hilary Meredith Solicitors in the UK is reporting that the Ministry of Defence has accepted the difficulties experienced by the clients it represents as a consequence of taking Lariam. On that basis, it might be helpful to pre-empt further suffering on the part of already long-suffering Defence Forces personnel and save hundreds of thousands of euro in legal fees for both the State and the families concerned by putting together an appropriate redress scheme to cater for those who were unfortunate enough to suffer for following the correct advice. That advice was to take this tablet, there being no other option, and they would not get malaria. Unfortunately, as we know, the medication is alleged to have come with a number of side effects.
I hope the Minister can take some of the issues I have raised on board. I also hope he does not mind me using my time on Second Stage of the Bill to raise a number of issues that are not included in its provisions. I intend to support the Bill as a good housekeeping exercise that needed to be done. I conclude by asking again that a review be undertaken to assess the situation of all of those personnel who were boarded out but who may still have a lot to offer to the Defence Forces.
I am sharing time with Deputy Tóibín. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I want to put on record my acknowledgement that the Minister has remained in the House for the totality of the debate. I commend him on that because it does not often happen. I know it is difficult to do with the pressures of time under which he is working.
An tUachtarán na hÉireann, Mr. Higgins, has said that serving men and women have a right to expect an income that provides for themselves and their families. Several speakers have pointed out that, sadly, many members of the Defence Forces with families are relying on social welfare assistance through the working family payment. We must ensure that no member of the Defence Forces is in a position where he or she has to rely on social welfare assistance to meet his or her day-to-day needs. The existing situation is a far cry from where we should be in terms of a minimum wage, never mind adequate pay for the work members of the Defence Forces do. As a former Minister, I discussed this issue with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, at Cabinet on a number of occasions in the past. He is well aware of my particular view on it. It is deeply disappointing that personnel are leaving the Defence Forces due to poor pay and conditions, many of whom would rather remain within the forces. The issue is not just to do with pay but also allowances and conditions. I acknowledge the announcement the Minister made last week in regard to personnel who are travelling abroad on UN work and have to self-isolate for 14 days in advance of their deployment. It is a small but very significant and positive step.
Part of the challenge we face as a consequence of the issue with pay and conditions is that we have fallen far short of the figure of 9,500 which should be the established strength of the Defence Forces. That is really putting pressure on personnel in the many roles they undertake. Coming from a midlands county, I have seen at first hand how we have had to rely on the Defence Forces during severe flooding. We were damn glad to have them available to us and to make use of their field ambulances to take people out of marooned situations and transport them to hospital. We all saw that type of work being done by the Defence Forces throughout the country during Storm Ophelia.
On a daily basis they patrol our territorial waters, which are nine times bigger than the island we reside on. It is impossible to do this even with the fleet they have, not to mention that some of those ships are tied up in Cork Harbour.
We are going to have additional challenges such as the one the Minister is facing at the moment in Brexit. That brings into focus again the operational capacity, particularly in Dundalk barracks, Finner Camp and Custume Barracks in Athlone. We need to look at the capacity of those three barracks to deal with the challenges we could potentially be facing post-Brexit at the end of the year. While it is Government policy to ensure we do not have any type of a border - and we are all determined about that and supportive of it - we need to have a contingency in place. That contingency will have to ensure sufficient resources, capacity and capability are available in those three barracks in particular.
When the 4th Western Brigade was abolished in 2012, the then Minister, former Deputy Alan Shatter, gave a commitment to the late Deputy Nicky McFadden that 1,000 personnel would be maintained in Custume Barracks, Athlone. It is imperative that that commitment is maintained insofar as is humanly possible. I accept that numbers have fallen across the board but particularly in the context of Brexit we need to have that capacity there. Colleagues have mentioned in the past, as have I, the practice of personnel from Dundalk, Finner and Custume Barracks travelling in and then getting in vehicles and travelling to Dublin to carry our their duty is completely unsustainable and is an issue we really need to address. That practice is demoralising for our Defence Forces.
On of the huge successes of the Defence Forces has been the operation of the air ambulance at Custume Barracks which became operational back in 2012, if I recall correctly. I have noticed recently that overflights do not seem to be as frequent as they used to be for some reason. I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Health on this. It has been referred on to the National Ambulance Service and I will probably get a reply this side of Christmas. There is a lot of talk locally about the operation of the air ambulance and I would like the Minister to clarify whether the facility and service in Athlone are fully operational and available to the National Ambulance Service seven days per week.
An issue related to the air ambulance service, which I have taken up with the Minister and his predecessors, is the ability to provide a night-time air ambulance service. I am aware that a night-time air ambulance service would require specifically designated landing sites and those sites need to be lit up. I am aware also that at the time of the establishment of the service, An Garda Síochána in counties Roscommon and Longford identified landing sites throughout both counties suitable for air ambulances operating at night. These were a number of GAA pitches which had plenty of light. Individuals who would turn on the lighting and ensure the facilities were open were designated. This issue needs to be looked at again, particularly for the communities in west County Roscommon, east County Mayo and north-east County Galway which have a very inferior ambulance service. They are essentially dependent on a single ambulance based in Loughglynn. That service is totally inadequate to meeting the needs of a very large geographic area in the middle of Connacht. It is important we have a properly resourced road ambulance service. We should consider the extension of the air ambulance service to night-time operations.
During the previous debate on this Bill, my neighbour, Deputy Joe Flaherty, mentioned the siege of Jadotville and a number of Deputies also referred to it. I was thinking during the contribution last week that it is a long time since former Deputy Dinny McGinley and I were sitting on the Government benches raising the issue of the need to acknowledge the role played by each and every one of the individuals present at the siege of Jadotville. I commend the work of the previous Government, in particular the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who was determined to ensure those personnel were given the acknowledgement they deserved. The last piece in this jigsaw is the provision of individual medals for bravery to the eight living members of the Defence Forces who served at Jadotville and had been recommended for distinguished service medals. I earnestly encourage and ask the Minister to acknowledge those eight individuals and ensure they receive those medals.
The final issue I will raise relates to the role Defence Forces personnel are playing in contact tracing. If the Minister cannot provide me with a response tonight, I would appreciate it if he could revert to me with one. During the lockdown and subsequently, Defence Forces personnel played a very valuable role in contact tracing. My understanding, however, is that those Defence Forces personnel have returned to their former roles and are not currently providing that service. I raise this specific issue because we in the west have a particular problem with speech and language therapists. Three quarters of speech and language therapists in counties Roscommon and Galway are currently involved in contact tracing. Prior to the lockdown, there was a four-year waiting list for speech and language therapy in counties Roscommon and Galway. At present, 1,049 children in these two counties are waiting for access to speech and language therapy and three quarters of our speech and language therapists are involved in contact tracing. That is not a good use of resources. I would appreciate it if, as an interim measure pending the employment of the new contract tracers the HSE is currently recruiting, the Minister could assist by ensuring the redeployment of some Defence Forces personnel to contact tracing. We could then release speech and language therapists to do the job they should be doing, namely, working with children and young people across Roscommon and Galway. Will the Minister explore the feasibility of that and address this particular problem which is wholly and grossly unacceptable?
I commend the Bill. I and my colleague, Deputy Berry, will support it and the Minister in his capacity as Minister with responsibility for defence.
I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Bill, which I support. It is important that we put it into law as soon as possible. We must make sure our troops are protected. I note that under the Bill a captain from another jurisdiction, by agreement, can give an instruction. That is okay but we must make sure we keep our unique identity. Irish troops have gone all over the world. They have carved out an unusual record because they are recognised everywhere they go as peacekeepers. We need to make sure we keep this focus as peacekeepers.
The Minister has heard all evening that we do not know how Brexit will go. We all hope for the best but it is not looking good at present. We need to make sure the numbers are there in the Army because we do not know what we will face over the next six months. We must make sure the resources it will need are there. We do not know. Numbers have been depleted over a number of years and there has been a lot of discontent. This could be our hour of need, particularly with the way the Brits are going on at present. We have to make sure we have the resources and the numbers. Athlone and Finner Camp are very close to the Border and are accessible.
A difficult decision was taken a number of years ago. Promises were made on the 4th Western Brigade but unfortunately nothing seems to have developed. Athlone is in the middle of Ireland and resources need to be put in there. The current and legacy issues need to be resolved and the promises and assurances made on numbers should be adhered to. I cannot understand - perhaps the Minister will be able to explain it to me - why we see Army vehicles bringing personnel from one part of the country to another even though there is a barracks closer to them. I cannot for the life of me understand the criss-crossing of the country when we have personnel in various areas. We must also recognise the work that has been done by the Defence Forces at times of flooding with pumps used and people who are in trouble rescued.
With regard to the air ambulance, I remember sitting down in 2016 with the Government when there was an agreement on doing a review of the air ambulance service. The experts recommended that at least two air ambulances would be required. Every club with a football pitch in the country, with the support of the sports capital grant, has made a good job of making sure there are no wires overhead. Given the instruments on board an air ambulance, I cannot understand how we do not have co-ordinates that can be punched in to make sure they can be flown at night. With regard to the golden hour after a stroke and heart attacks, in parts of Roscommon, east Galway, Mayo and elsewhere in the country there is a deficit in how quickly an ambulance can get to people. This hour is crucial to make sure somebody's life is saved.
Three or four months ago, I listened with interest to a discussion on the problems with staffing the air ambulance. I was aware, as was the former Minister of State with responsibility for defence, of people who had more flying hours than most people in the country who had left the Air Corps and sought to return after a number of years. They had a serious amount of experience but their attempts to get back in to the Air Corps went on and on. On the one hand, we were saying we had a shortage but, on the other, we were not bringing people in or putting through the paperwork. Allegedly, paperwork was lost three or four times. We need to make sure that we are proactive and have the number of people we need to fly the air ambulances.
Wages and conditions are vital. These personnel do not have the luxury many other groups have of being able to go out on strike. They have a representative body. We need to make sure they are treated right, can earn a genuine living and are not struggling to rear families. We must realise these people make huge sacrifices. They leave Ireland for six months to represent the country in other places.
I concur with Deputy Naughten on the point he made about contact tracing. If there is a lull whereby a number of people in the Defence Forces could do another job to help out their country at a time of need, I do not think they would have any problem doing this and we need to look at these issues. On the way here today, I received a phone call with regard to a youngster who was tested a week ago but a result has not been received. The father of this person is self-employed and is about to lose a job because he is self-isolating. Self-employed people do not often have the choices that others do, particularly those in the building game. A brickie who has promised to do a job cannot be left for a full week. Last Wednesday, the child was tested but the results are not yet back today. The family is doing the right thing for the country by making sure they are in isolation but the results are not being given. This is why it would help if we thought outside the box. There may be opportunities in contact tracing.
In general, I support the Bill and I will not talk about it all night.
I hope I will be able to answer some of the questions that have been raised, even those that are not directly relevant to the legislation but this is an opportunity to address some Defence Forces issues.
I thank all Members of the House who spoke for their constructive contributions and comments during the course of the debate. I am pleased to have an opportunity to bring the Bill before the House. As I stated in my opening remarks, although it is a relatively short Bill, it addresses some important issues. Before commenting on the Bill itself, I will comment on a number of other issues.
I recognise the continued and ongoing contribution of the Defence Forces in the Covid-19 emergency, which has been referred to by some speakers. As always, members of the Defence Forces have stood up to the plate at a time of national crisis. There has been a sustained and dedicated response to the challenges we have faced in each of the services, land, air and sea, supported by the Department of Defence and other arms of the State.
The Air Corps has been active in repatriating our personnel in association with our partners in specific missions, along with the transport of Covid-19 tests to Germany. I would also like to recognise the emergency deployment of PPE, personal protective equipment, by the Air Corps to Beirut following the explosion and humanitarian disaster there.
This shows the effectiveness of the cross-Government response to such crises where a targeted and rapid response is required. It also shows how the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Defence are linked by a policy perspective and I am given the privilege of providing leadership in both Departments. It allows for rapid responses to catastrophes, such as the one in Beirut. In that instance, we were able to use our intelligence from our peacekeepers in UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, with the diplomatic network of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in providing humanitarian assistance.
The Naval Service has played its part in support of Covid-19 testing with the deployment of vessels in support of testing facilities. The Army has played a substantive role in setting up Covid-19 test centres, supporting the HSE through the storage and distribution of PPE, as well as support for its testing facilities. It has also assisted in the fit-out of other HSE facilities, patient transport and the ongoing operation of the Aviva Stadium testing facility. The Defence Forces are available to the HSE if needed for whatever reason. It is about being the last resource of the State which can be used in cases of emergency.
On re-enlistment, the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 allowed for the acceleration of the enactment of section 4 of this Bill. As I said in my opening statement, I will be moving an amendment on Committee Stage to delete section 4. However, I will take this opportunity to update the House regarding the scheme for the re-enlistment of formerly enlisted persons.
At present, the Permanent Defence Force has shortages of personnel in several specialised posts such as technicians, fitters, chefs, communications and IT specialists, as well as naval staff and avionics experts. In some cases, it can take up to four years to train individuals to the standard required to fill these positions. Last April, the former Minister of State with responsibility for defence, Deputy Kehoe, launched a scheme to re-enlist former Permanent Defence Force enlisted personnel who have the skills and expertise required to fill identified of vacancies which currently exist. The scheme will allow for initial re-enlistment for a minimum of six months and up to three years. The duration of the term of re-enlistment offered will be dependent on the vacancies which exist and the preference of the individual.
This is just one of many actions being pursued to address the skills shortages in the Permanent Defence Force. Those who re-enlist will do so at the rank and salary point on which they left. They will be required to meet a range of eligibility criteria as outlined in the terms and conditions which were agreed with the representative association, PDFORRA. The restriction of the scheme to suitably qualified and trained individuals, provides a fair and balanced approach which will allow existing members to continue to advance their careers through internal training, development and promotion. Personnel recommended and approved for re-enlistment also have to successfully meet medical and security clearance requirements.
While a total of 647 applications have been received since the launch of the scheme, unfortunately, many of these proved ineligible due to age and other criteria. Some Members have suggested that there has been no interest in the re-enlistment scheme. This is simply not the case. The Chief of Staff must recommend individual personnel for re-enlistment. So far, I have approved the re-enlistment of 24 personnel on foot of recommendations by the Chief of Staff. I am advised that further recommendations for my consideration are imminent. Attestations for a first batch of ten re-enlisting personnel took place on 15 September, with attestations for a second group planned for later this month and further re-enlistments planned for later this year.
A scheme to recommission former Permanent Defence Force officers already exists. Expressions of interest are also invited from those with specialist skills who wish to be recommissioned. Some 38 applications have been received under this scheme and 16 went forward for further assessment with corps directors. Since the launch of this scheme last October, five officers have been recommissioned into the Air Corps and a further batch of former officers has now been submitted by the Chief of Staff for my consideration.
On the proposed amendment to section 17A of the Defence Act 1954, the Office of the Attorney General has provided extensive advice as to what was required from a legal perspective to address the issue. This advice is reflected in the text. As I stated in my opening statement, this amendment will not alter the current command structure in the Defence Forces. The delegation in no way undermines overall control of the contingent by the Irish authorities. It provides a clear statutory basis and legal certainty for the current delegation of operational control in overseas missions. It reinforces what already happens in practice but puts a legal basis under that, as advised by the Attorney General. There was significant consultation across the Defence Forces on this issue before the arrangements were finalised.
With regard to sections 3 and 7, I am particularly pleased that this Bill will give full effect to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.
I am also happy to progress the technical amendments to the Defence Act 1954 provided for in sections 5 and 6.
On apprenticeships, I can confirm that there continue to be apprentice opportunities in the Permanent Defence Force, principally in the Air Corps as apprentice aircraft technicians. This programme offers successful candidates the opportunity of becoming an effective member of the Air Corps, as well as the opportunity to pursue the career for which he or she is selected. The age limit for enlistment as an apprentice is between 18 and 23 years, which has been the case for some time. It should be noted that on recruitment, an apprentice becomes a member of the Defence Forces, subject to military law and liable for military duties. As such, in accordance with the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, any such person cannot be a minor and, therefore, must be at least 18 years of age.
The Defence Forces recruitment process is subject to continuous monitoring and appraisal to ensure that it remains fit for purpose. Recruitment plans for 2021 have not yet been finalised but will be informed by a review of recent campaigns.
Deputy Berry, as a former member of the Defence Forces, had much to say on the Bill. On his comments on the Reserve Defence Force, this is an issue on which I intend to focus. Whether we will be able to achieve some of the measures he called for, I am not sure. I certainly want them to be considered seriously. If they can be introduced in time for amendments on later Stages, I am open to that. If not, there may be other ways of doing it.
I am open to members of the Reserve Defence Force being able to serve overseas. There may be some concerns about this among some members of the Permanent Defence Force. It is an issue I would like to explore with them. If we are to make the Reserve Defence Force attractive, particularly to skilled people who can add significantly in terms of a collective approach working with Permanent Defence Force personnel, we must offer the opportunities to serve and to put such skills to use.
If we are serious about a singular approach towards Permanent Defence Force personnel working with Reserve personnel, we must have a process that allows them to operate efficiently together. It is not about taking away opportunities from Permanent Defence Force personnel; it is about complementary work. In specialised skill sets - IT, cybersecurity and a number of other areas - there is a really interesting opportunity to explore and develop with the Reserve Defence Force. I hope the commission will be able to look at that, and I will talk a little about the commission in a moment. We will look at this but I would like to speak to the representative bodies about it to ensure we are all pulling in the same direction on making the Reserve Defence Force a much more attractive option. Our Reserve is not at the strength at which we want it to be. To make it more attractive we need to think differently about its role and its importance, likewise ceremonial issues abroad and so on. There is no reason we should not think about and look at not only potential re-enlistment in the Reserve but also the transition Deputy Berry raised, whereby somebody finishing a career in the Permanent Defence Force may want to serve a role in the Reserve. That may suit the person's career choice or lifestyle.
As for some of the non-legislative issues, I am more than aware of the pressures the Naval Service is under, such as the shortage of certain specialties and the pressures that have resulted in a number of ships being tied up when they should be out to sea. We are working with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to try to agree a sensible package of proposals that can respond to that pressure in a way that is conscious of public sector pay deals and so on. I hope we will be able to bring that process to a conclusion in the not-too-distant future.
I hope the Department has responded to the issue of quarantine that was raised, from both an allowance and a tax perspective, to the satisfaction of the many people involved. I said very early on to the representative bodies that in my view this issue should have been solved long before now. If one is required to quarantine or self-isolate away from one's family, in a barracks somewhere, before one goes overseas, the mission effectively starts two weeks early and the allowances should reflect that, in my view. I pay particular tribute to the new Secretary General of the Department, who has been very involved in trying to get this issue resolved.
As for the issue of medical support, I would like to have a timeline for the House on that but I will just say we are committed to the programme for Government commitment. I was very involved in putting this issue into the programme for Government. It is not acceptable to me that there are different levels of medical support in the Defence Forces depending on whether one is an officer or administrative personnel. We want to make sure there is adequate and equal medical support for every member of the Irish Defence Forces. People who put their lives or health at risk serving the State should have consistent medical support across the Defence Forces as a whole. This cannot be resolved overnight, and I ask people to bear with me in finding a way of resolving it. It may be resolved over a phased basis but we are committed to doing it. It is in the programme for Government and we will try to get on with it.
In response to Deputy Berry's comments, I will make a point about the Curragh generally. I spent some time in the Curragh a few weeks ago with members of the Defence Forces, the Chief of Staff and his team, and my team in the Department of Defence. There is work to do. There is too much dereliction in the Curragh, which needs to be resolved, but again, it cannot be done overnight. We are committing to a very significant capital expenditure programme across the Department of Defence. Only two days ago I welcomed a €45 million investment in three new PC-12 aircraft into the Defence Forces. We are also planning for new ships in the future and investing in barracks in various parts of the country. However, I can understand the importance of investing in the Curragh, given its scale and size and link to morale within the Army. I am very cognisant of that and we will put together a plan in that regard. A plan has been already put together for elements of the investment that is needed in the Curragh, but I am committed to a more comprehensive plan than that.
There is a lot to do, but one of the things I am quite taken by in this Second Stage debate on defence is that the majority, though not all, of the people who have spoken have spoken about the Defence Forces as a career in a very negative light. If there is one thing I am committed to doing as Minister for Defence, it is changing that perception. A career in the Defence Forces is a good one for people to choose. We need to ensure we test salary structures, promotion opportunities and so on. That is why we are putting in place a commission to test all that and to benchmark internationally how we support our Defence Forces and how we can do it better. Serving one's country should be seen as a privilege. My job and the job of Government is to ensure that privilege is rewarded appropriately from the perspective of income, work conditions and legislation. We are trying to do some of that with this Bill.
Looking at what is coming down the line as we try to address some of the challenges that have been raised in this debate, the Department is, as we speak, talking to another key Department about trying to address the pressures in the Naval Service. We are planning to ensure the Defence Forces get appropriate representation and have a real and clear voice in the context of the upcoming round of pay talks. The Department is, as we speak, trying to finalise draft terms of reference and the appropriate people to be on a commission on the Defence Forces, consistent with the programme for Government, to get that commission up and running two months before we committed to doing so, by the end of the year. I hope we will be in a position by the end of October to do that early, which again gives a signal of the determination, commitment and enthusiasm within my team, the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces to get on with this commission work.
The Department is also, as we speak, assessing the pace of implementation of the defence White Paper, which has an awful lot in it that has not yet been delivered. Linked to that and to my other responsibilities in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, we are also talking about the kinds of peacekeeping missions we need to be preparing for next year, the year after and in three or four years' time, and how we continue to build Ireland's reputation internationally as a standard-setter in conflict management, post-conflict management, peacekeeping, peace enforcement and all the other things around which Ireland has built a reputation within UN circles, particularly in the context of Ireland taking its place on the UN Security Council in January.
There are a lot of positive things happening for and with the Defence Forces now, and so they should be happening, but we as a collective, as a Parliament, have to start talking up careers in the Defence Forces, rather than constantly looking for the negative, if we want people to join and be part of them. Of course I need to answer all questions, and there are negatives that need to be fixed, but there are also a lot of positives. If we want bright, skilled young men and women, women in particular, joining our Air Corps, our Army, our Naval Service and our Reserve, we have to start reflecting the fact that this is an attractive option.
I hope that much of what I have outlined tonight will reinforce in people's minds that we are trying to bring about the change and modernisation in the Defence Forces that will ensure those careers are exciting and well-rewarded and that they will be encouraged in a way that will allow us to respond to the gap we have in terms of shortages in our Defence Forces, which needs a response. I thank all Members and I look forward to the remaining Stages of this Bill, in which we will focus on the detail of the Bill.
Does Deputy Tóibín wish to speak?
I thought that was the Minister's wrap-up speech. Does the Minister wish to allow Deputy Tóibín to speak and does the House agree?
I am in the Acting Chairman's hands. I would not look to silence anybody, particularly Deputy Tóibín.
Does the House agree? Okay, ar aghaidh leat.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach agus leis an Aire freisin mar gheall ar an am a thabhairt dom ag an bpointe seo. The Defence (Amendment) Bill before the Dáil today is uncontroversial and in a way is full of formality rather than substance. Thousands of members of the Defence Forces have served this country bravely at home and abroad in numerous conflicts and even during Covid-19, and yet the Government is more concerned with formality when it comes to the Defence Forces rather than substance. There is a long list of serious grievances that the Defence Forces have and for which the Government have shown scant regard or concern. In a week when the Government has hired an army of special advisers to help make decisions and given itself an ill-deserved pay rise, members of our Defence Forces are still waiting on the Government to honour commitments from July 2019. The then Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, said in July 2019 that it would not be fair to restore pay to our troops because it would mean they were being singled out for special treatment above others in public service. The opposite is the case. The Government is singling out the Defence Forces for special treatment but it is the wrong type of treatment.
Operational capacity is extremely important and most citizens in the country would not be aware that right now the Defence Forces number approximately 8,374 members, at least 1,000 shy of the 9,500 that are needed. The figure is getting worse as there is an ongoing exodus of Defence Forces service members every year. Some 882 service members left the Defence Forces in 2019 and various surveys estimate that anywhere between 70% and 85% of Defence Forces members are thinking about leaving or wish to leave. If one was ever to look at a reflection of how a group of people think of their job, the most obvious reflection is whether they want to stay or go. I listened to the Minister's words about the idea that we need to talk this up and make it an attractive career to people across the country. The kernel of it is whether it is attractive to people who are working in the Defence Forces now. If it is not attractive to them, it is virtually impossible to make it attractive to young people around the country. The first thing to do is to fix the Defence Forces from the inside. At present, there are 1,126 positions within the Defence Forces which are unfilled. There are 620 junior management vacancies in the Defence Forces and eight out of 15 high-level, implementation plan projects are behind schedule. Under the tenure of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael our Defence Forces have fallen into a pitiful state. If a Russian plane was to fly over Ireland tonight, we would have to politely ask our friends in England to spare a plane to chase that Russian plane out of Irish air space. The Defence Forces have been left in a weakened state in other parts of the world, such as the Congo and Lebanon. Recently, I made representations on behalf of two soldiers in the Congo who were unable to get back to Ireland. They were in an area of heightened tension, had only sidearms to protect themselves and were not in a compound but an apartment. They were finding it difficult to make their way back to Ireland. By any estimation, that shows a poor regard for their welfare and well-being.
I will touch on pay, allowances and supports. The main driver behind the exodus from the Defence Forces is not any decline in patriotism but the unacceptable conditions and pay that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael expect our Defence Forces to handle. Neither of those parties nor anybody in Government would accept such pay and conditions for themselves. The problem with the technical pay agreement that exists is that a deal was concluded worth €10 million, from which a 10% increase was meant to be given in military allowances to personnel but 14 months later the Government is still sitting on its hands. The sum of €10 million is less than the bare minimum of what the Government should be paying but it still will not pay it. Yet, if one adds up the numbers of special advisers the Government has, it adds up to roughly €5.4 million on annual wages of about 60 special advisers in this State.
Since 2008, our troops have been fighting for restoration of pay. Why do they have to fight to have their pay restored? This is not for a pay increase but merely the restoration of pay. The denial of that restoration is a disservice to our services. Speaking with Defence Forces stationed in Syria, Aontú was shocked to learn our troops are taxed at the higher rate of taxation, notwithstanding the bravery of the service they are in. Several troops have not seen their family for up to six months and there is a probability that could be increased by another three months. Around the world, most Governments refuse to tax their troops at the higher rates as a token of appreciation for their services in such dangerous and perilous environments. Not so the Irish Government, which taxes money paid by the UN at the higher rate of taxation in addition to the already appalling rates of pay our Defence Forces suffer as a whole. The Government does not hesitate to call in our Defence Forces in times of crisis.
I have been, as I am sure the Minister has, at marches and demonstrations by ex-service members and their families outside these Houses and one point they make on a regular basis is that much lip service is paid to the Defence Forces in this State and people queue up in the political sphere to almost virtue signal about how much they support and how much respect they have for the men and women who fight and serve us in our Defence Forces. Yet, there is a chasm between that lip service and the action necessary. Any ten-year-old would know that actions speak louder than words. I would hate that the Government would damn itself with false words on these really important issues such as pay, capacity and conditions.
Next year will be the 60th anniversary of the siege of Jadotville, where 158 members of the Irish Defence Forces fought off 3,000 mercenaries in the Congo in 1961. They were eventually forced to surrender but their bravery and the tactics under Commander Pat Quinlan is studied in military colleges around the world as one of the best uses of perimeter defence in battle. When they returned home, the Government and the Defence Forces refused to acknowledge that battle. They were derided in many quarters for having surrendered. For the benefit of their careers, they did not mention Jadotville. They were only awarded service medals in 2017, 56 years afterwards. However, Commander Quinlan recommended several troops for medals for bravery, some of whom were as young as 15. Parents were collecting children's allowance for some of the participants of that battle. Successive Governments have refused to take up Commander Quinlan's recommendation and award the medals of bravery. Apparently, the bravery is good enough to be studied in military colleges around the world but not good enough to be recognised and rewarded by the Irish Government.
I will make two small points in the time I have left. I attended a protest outside the Chinese embassy today concerning the treatment of the Uighur people. I do not believe that the Government is using its voice strongly enough to oppose the horrendous things happening in that part of the world. People are being forced into thought camps, there is forced abortion and sterilisation and people are going missing. It is very important that we do not just speak through the UN on this issue, but that we raise our voice regarding human rights. Human rights are universal, and not for particular countries. They are for all countries.
I spoke to the Minister about this next issue previously in private. Richard O'Halloran has been in China for some time and away from his family. It is important that he is returned to Ireland and to his family. It is a shocking situation and my heart would be broken if I were separated from my family for the length of time that Mr. O'Halloran has been. He has done nothing wrong whatsoever. I know the Minister has been working in the background on this issue, and I commend him on that. I think, however, that there may be a need to change the strategy on this matter to see if we can get some result.