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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 27 Jan 2022

Vol. 1017 No. 1

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Defence Forces

John Brady


92. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Defence the details of the progress of the Commission on the Defence Forces to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3890/22]

Brendan Howlin


93. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Minister for Defence when the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces will be published; the process that he will put in place to implement the report; if the Defence Forces representative associations will be directly involved in the implementation of the report; if he intends to set out a timeframe for the implementation of the report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3563/22]

The report of the Commission on the Defence Forces was due to be published by now. Has the Minister seen a final draft of the report and can he give us a timeline for when it will be published?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 92 and 93 together.

The programme for Government committed to the establishment of an independent commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the Defence Forces. The independent Commission on the Defence Forces was established by the Government in December 2020 and its terms of reference provide for it to examine and make recommendations regarding the structures and size of the Defence Forces, defence capabilities, HR polices and strategies, the Reserve Defence Force, governance and high level command and control in the Defence Forces, and pay structures.

The commission has undertaken a broad consultative process and has also met with a wide stakeholder groups, including the Defence Forces representative associations, commissioned and enlisted members of the Defence Forces, senior officials and personnel from my Department and the Defence Forces as well as other groups. Members of the commission also conducted site visits to military locations across the country, meeting nearly 1,000 military personnel. In addition, the commission held two webinars, one in conjunction with the Royal Irish Academy and another in conjunction with the Institute of International and European Affairs.

The commission is finalising its work with a view to completing its report as soon as possible. At that point, the report will be fully considered. Given the significant issues provided for in the commission's terms of reference, there will be a requirement to consult ministerial colleagues on any matters that fall within their remit and to consider the legal and governance implications of the commission's recommendations, where required. I will also be seeking the views of my Department and the Defence Forces. When these deliberations are completed, I intend to revert to the Government with a proposed plan of action.

I would like to assure the Deputies that the Defence Forces representative associations will be consulted on all matters that fall within the scope of representation relating to the implementation of any approved plan. As the Deputies will appreciate, in advance of the publication of the report and the subsequent consideration of its recommendations, it would be inappropriate for me to engage in speculation regarding any of the commission's potential recommendations or the response to those recommendations.

We will need to have a very comprehensive debate in this House on the report of the commission. I have not yet seen a final draft of the report. I have met with the chair to get an update in terms of where the commission's work is at, and so I have a reasonable idea as to where it is going in terms of recommendations and approach, but I await the final draft of the report. I hope that in the next couple of weeks this process will conclude. I will need to bring the report to the Government, but I would like to have a significant amount of time set aside in this House and in the Seanad to debate the contents of the commission's report. This is potentially a watershed moment in the context of the future of defence policy in Ireland, how the Defence Forces are resourced and structured and what we ask of them in the context of new and developing threats.

I want to try to build all-party consensus, if possible, on how we respond to this report and the resources that will be required to respond to it comprehensively, which I believe may well be significant. In my view, this is arguably the most important strategic report for defence and the Defence Forces that we have seen in a very long time.

We need to give it the time and attention it deserves when it is published which, as I said, it will be in February. I suspect this will happen in the first half of that month.

The newly appointed Chief of Staff has a very difficult task at hand. We have an organisation that is on its knees. There is a lot of hope around this commission and its final report. The Minister's comments last night showed poor judgment. They completely undermined the Chief of Staff and the difficult role and task he has at hand. It showed extremely poor judgment on the Minister's behalf.

The final report has been long anticipated. There have been a number of leaks and a number of comments attributed to different people in senior positions. I am not sure whether it is an attempt to undermine the report or an attempt to be helpful by ensuring the final report adheres to the terms of reference. Some of the commentary around it has suggested it is a fudge and a missed opportunity. Does the Minister believe the report is in line with the terms of reference? Will it do everything that is hoped by giving clarity and addressing the serious failings within the Defence Forces?

I welcome the statement made a moment ago by the Minister. It was important and timely. The Minister is right to underscore the report of the commission as a watershed. It is a pivotal moment. For many years, morale in the Defence Forces has been poor. Members of the Defence Forces feel badly done by, under-resourced, badly paid and in receipt of poor accommodation. A lot of hope is now vested in this process and it must meet those aspirations and expectations. I welcome the Minister setting out what he wants to do with it.

On the timeline for the report, it was to be published in December and then in January. I am concerned about the timeline now being referenced by the Minister to the effect that it will be some time before the final report is available to him, at which point he will have intergovernmental discussions about it. When will we have the opportunity to see what the future of Defence Forces will look like and, more importantly, when will Defence Forces personnel see that?

I thank both Deputies. The expectation was that this piece of work would have concluded by the end of last year but this is not a straightforward piece of work. There are quite a lot of people on the commission who bring extraordinary expertise and experience and are anxious to get this right. This is essentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset and recalibrate. In some ways, it will mark a new direction for the Defence Forces. I have been clear to the chair of the commission that I want the right outcome rather than being overly demanding in setting deadlines or anything like that. The report is not going to be delayed for long. I hope it is being finalised as we speak. As I said, I expect to be bringing the report to the Cabinet for noting in the first half of February. I hope we will also be debating the commission report in February. However, I also want to hold extensive consultations with the Defence Forces and their representative bodies in the context of this report once it has been published. I will be making clear to the Cabinet that we cannot simply adopt an implementation plan for the commission's report immediately. It will take a significant amount of consultation and work. Significant resource allocation may well be required. I will need to work with my colleagues and the Government to do that, and that will take some time. As part of that consultation, I would certainly like this House to be central in the context of the debate and the response to it. We are not going to have to wait much longer. The report is a couple of weeks away at most.

There is a lot of expectation and hope about what may come from the final report, which we all eagerly await. I hope that timeline can be adhered to. There is also concern over what may come about in terms of proposed reductions in the size of the Army, for example. There are concerns in that regard. The Minister's Cabinet colleague, Deputy Eamon Ryan, made comments yesterday about the potential closure of Cathal Brugha Barracks and a feasibility study, of which he already knows the outcome, that will see the closure of the barracks and the development of up to 1,000 residential units in their place. That has sent out a negative message to the Defence Forces, which are on their knees and concerned about their future and viability at a time we are talking about the closure of barracks. Does the Minister think the timing of that intervention by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was helpful? What kind of message did it send to the Defence Forces? Was it appropriate for the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to make those comments and announce a feasibility study before the final report has been produced, discussed and debated?

A report of the magnitude of the one the commission is doing will, of course, attract commentary. People will express concern and ambitions that they want accommodated in the commission's report. There has been some such commentary and that is to be expected. I ask people to be patient and wait for the content of the report. My understanding is that this will be a substantial report with a lot of recommendations, some of which may relate to fundamental change. Let us wait for the report and assess it. My role will be to build as much as consensus as possible about the way forward as a result of the report. It will create a new direction and not only for the length of one Government term but for a much longer period of time. It is important to get it right.

The comments that were made yesterday about Cathal Brugha Barracks were in the context of the Housing for All update report, which was launched and commented on yesterday. What I have agreed to in the Department of Defence is a feasibility study to look at Cathal Brugha Barracks in the context of housing demand. However, there is no predetermined outcome of that feasibility study. Let me be clear about that.

The Minister should talk to his Cabinet colleague.

This is an issue on which the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has firm views. My job as Minister for Defence is, of course, to look after the interests of the Defence Forces. We are looking at various options but I can assure the House there is no predetermined outcome.

I will focus on the commission report. I think the Minister will agree that some of the commentary about it is unhelpful. Somebody has seen the report. There have been suggestions that a draft of the report was submitted to the Minister's Department. Commentary emerged that the draft is in part vague and in part contradictory. We should not be having commentary on a report that has not been published. It is important for the Minister to marshal and control the information before the report is finalised and published.

I welcome what the Minister has said about the implementation strategy and that the report is not going to be rushed but will be thought about. A pivotal part of the implementation strategy will be engagement with the representatives of Defence Forces personnel, who understand first-hand exactly what needs to be done. Their understanding, commentary and in-depth knowledge of what needs to be done will be critical in the implementation of the recommendations of the report.

I ask the Minister to respond on those two points - the need to marshal the information to ensure these things are not shot at before the report even becomes a public document, and the need for a clearly discussed implementation plan that is not presented to the Defence Forces representative bodies but negotiated with them in terms of how this transformational document is to be implemented over many years to come.

We are working hard to make sure that as this document gets finalised, is protected in terms of its content. As I said, I have not seen any final draft. I had a meeting with the chair, as one would expect, to get an update report in terms of where things are and the direction of travel and so on. I understand various different amendments were still being considered this week in terms of the report being finalised and we must respect that process.

It is not a surprise on something of this scale that there would be commentary and people outlining perspectives and so on. That is what we have seen. People will not have to wait much longer to get the detail of this report, however. We will do what we can to try to protect the integrity of that process.

In terms of the implementation strategy, which I do not want to say too much about because I need to bring a proposal to the Government and get it accepted, certainly I will not be in a position to simply accept the commission's report's recommendations and start implementing them on day one. There may well be some early actions that we take on the back of that report, of course, but because this is such a substantial report, we will need to take some time and, as the Deputy said, talk to and work with representative organisations but also with other colleagues in government and with the Taoiseach's office to ensure we can actually put an implementation plan and timeline around that in place, which I can then bring back to the Government for approval. I certainly believe that getting the input of all parties in this House as well as representative groups and other stakeholders will be helpful in this process. That is certainly what I intend to do.

Defence Forces

Sorca Clarke


94. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Defence if he will provide an update on the engagements and progress made in relation to the Women of Honour. [3831/22]

Can the Minister please provide an update on the engagements and progress made to date with regard to the Women of Honour? I will draw the Minister's attention to the fact that again this week at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, we repeatedly sought a reply to correspondence on this issue that was sent to the Minister's Department last December.

On Tuesday last, following Cabinet approval, I announced the establishment of a judge-led independent review group to examine the effectiveness of systems, policies and procedures dealing with workplace issues relating to bullying, discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in the Defence Forces.

The independent review will be undertaken by former High Court judge, Ms Bronagh O’Hanlon, who will be the chairperson; Mark Connaughton SC, who was recommended by the Attorney General's office; and Ms Jane Williams, a HR consultant who has worked with the commission for the last 12 months. I thank the members of the review group for agreeing to undertake this significant piece of work. The independent review is seen as a critical and vital next step to ensure the workplace for serving members of the Defence Forces is safe, where there is zero tolerance of unacceptable behaviour and where we learn from historical experiences.

My Department and I have engaged extensively in recent months with the Women of Honour group and other stakeholders, including both serving and former members of the Defence Forces; the representative associations; PDFORRA; the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO; the Reserve Defence Force Representative Association, RDFRA; and a second group representing former members. These engagements have brought serious issues to my attention, which indicate that it is not just an historic issue, unfortunately. Incidents of alleged unacceptable behaviour are continuing to occur. Current and former members of the Defence Forces have been clear that the culture that is pervading and the application of those policies, systems and procedures for dealing with unacceptable behaviour have not and are not serving all Defence Forces personnel as well as they should be. A further round of engagement with stakeholders took place on Tuesday afternoon last when I provided an update to stakeholders on the Government decision to proceed with the independent review. This was the seventh meeting at senior level that has been held with the Women of Honour group since last September, three of which I attended personally.

Current and former members of the Defence Forces have welcomed the review. While I acknowledge the disappointment expressed by the Women of Honour group, which has been seeking a commission of inquiry, I am strongly aware of the need for immediacy of action to ensure safety of serving Defence Forces personnel. I want to be clear that this does not preclude the Government from considering further bodies of work that may be necessary. The review group has been specifically asked to advise on whether further work is required to examine issues of an historic nature and to make any recommendations regarding how this might be pursued.

When I first asked the Minister about abuse in the Defence Forces almost a year ago, he told me that a robust system was in place and that there was a supportive workplace culture. Following that documentary with Ms Katie Hannon - I will give credit where it is due - the Minister had a turn of heart at that point. That was most welcome for those who had such negative experiences. After that documentary, the Minister told me that "real change" would be delivered and that there were "too many stories in this space that are not historic but current". With regard to the Women of Honour, he categorically said that he "absolutely" believed its members. He acknowledged the women's "sincerity and courage" and expressed a "deep appreciation" to them. He spoke, as he has done today, about the strong "culture [of abuse] that is pervading" and said that the systems in place "have not and are not serving" members of the Defence Forces. He said that "significant efforts have been made .... but they have not worked", that "confidential reporting systems have been put in place but [have] not worked" and that the "first thing I want to do is to work with the women". If these statements were true, and the Minister has repeated some of them today, why is it that his review seeks to primarily establish what he has acknowledged he already knows?

That is not the case. If the Deputy looks at the terms of reference, we are asking this review group to advise us on the changes that are necessary in the Defence Forces in terms of structures, legal underpinning, procedures and end-to-end complaints procedures. There is, therefore, much work in that regard. This is a difficult area in which efforts have been made to respond to and change structures to accommodate and so on in the past. Clearly, that has not worked to the extent needed. We have now asked an experienced group of people to look at this and report back independently to me. We have discussed this with various different interested parties, including the Women of Honour, whose members' sincerity I absolutely acknowledge and whose role in raising this issue in a very public way has resulted in many of the actions that have subsequently taken place.

The Minister has gone over time.

We want to continue to work with the Women of Honour and, indeed, other groups through this review group. If recommendations come from the review group for new structures in dealing with historical cases - for example, a commission of inquiry - of course I will bring that to the Government.

I believe we need a group that can report back in the next six to nine months, and that is what this review group can do.

I am deeply concerned that the approach to which the Minister appears to be wedded will result in another failure for these women in their plight to get justice. When the Minister mentioned dignity and equality issues in his press release the other day, essentially he undermined the seriousness of the allegations these women made because they are so much more than that. When he mentioned the terms of reference of the review group he has put in place, he was effectively putting responsibility for any further action on a group of people he has tasked to do a job and who are doing so in the realm of the terms of reference in which those who brought us to this point - the Women of Honour - cannot engage and have faith. Surely the Minister can acknowledge that one of the fundamental principles of healing after trauma or any kind of abuse is to feel not only that one has been heard but also that one's concerns have been taken on board. I am very concerned that this will result in another failure and we will all be back here in a number of years having the same conversations again.

I give a commitment to this House, the Women of Honour and other groups that I have met in this regard. I remain open to talking to all groups, by the way, while this review is undertaken but I also encourage everybody to engage with the review group.

Ms Justice O'Hanlon is absolutely committed to this process, as is Jane Williams and the senior counsel who is working with both of them. We are determined to bring about fundamental change on the back of the report that comes from this independent review, which needs to be independent of the Department of Defence. The Department and the Minister’s office are part of the review of how complaints are responded to by the Department, as well as the role of the Defence Forces. It was an ask of the Women of Honour that we added to the terms of reference. As well as this, historical cases, how we deal with those historical cases and the structures that are there to deal with them are also additions to the terms of reference, on the back of what the Women of Honour asked for in my meeting with them in December. We remain focused on this discussion. We would like now for this review group to get under way quickly, which I understand is going to happen so that we can get an interim report back in the summer and a final report before the end of the year with real recommendations around how we can bring practical change to the Defence Forces in this space to improve the safety of the workplace for everybody.

Defence Forces

Michael Fitzmaurice


95. Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice asked the Minister for Defence the number of Defence Forces personnel that have been stationed at Custume Barracks, Athlone over the past five years; if there are plans to upgrade its status in the next few years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4169/22]

I ask the Minister for Defence the number of Defence Forces personnel that have been stationed in Custume Barracks over the past number of years and if there are plans to upgrade it. I say that in light of the development yesterday. I have heard the Minister’s comments today, in fairness, where he said he is looking at this in respect of Cathal Brugha Barracks. If changes will be made there, there may be an opportunity for the likes of Custume Barracks to increase numbers.

I thank the Deputy for the question, but I am afraid that he might not be happy with this answer. The brief I have is that for operational security reasons, the details of the numbers of Defence Forces personnel that are currently stationed at Custume Barracks in Athlone, as well as those over the past five years, cannot, and should not, be disclosed. It should be noted, however, that the number of personnel stationed at a particular location will frequently vary on an ongoing basis as it is a normal operational feature for there to be a constant flow-through of personnel into and out of military installations.

The rolling Defence Forces build infrastructure programme provides a blueprint for investment in Defence Forces built infrastructure over a five-year timeframe and is designed to modernise and enhance the training, operational and accommodation facilities of the Defence Forces. The completion of the new dining hall complex was an important project to upgrade the facility in Custume Barracks. The main works contract, valued at €4.1 million, was awarded in October 2018 and work was completed in 2020.

Following a commitment given in the programme for Government, a commission on the future of the Defence Forces was established by the Government in December 2020. Its report is expected soon. The commission's terms of reference include the consideration of appropriate capabilities, structures and staffing for the Army, the Air Corps and the Naval Service. Their report will be fully considered when it is received. As I said earlier, I hope we will have a long debate in this House on it.

It would be inappropriate for me to engage in speculative discussion regarding the recommendations of the commission's report or the outcome of a subsequent deliberative process prior to the completion of that process, as well as prior to a Government consideration of any proposed plan of action. However, I assure the Deputy that Custume Barracks is, and will continue to be, an important operational military barracks as part of our military structure.

I thank the Minister for his answer, although I think it is rather regrettable. I do not buy into it that "for operational reasons" they cannot tell us the number of Defence Forces personnel in any part of the country. It is disgraceful and whoever wrote that answer should be ashamed of themselves. Public representatives are not told, no matter where they are from, whether it is Cathal Brugha Barracks for someone in Dublin, or us in the west of Ireland. I am not asking for the names of people and I am not asking about individual sections. I asked a straight question about the number of personnel in an Army barracks. Whoever is sidelining that is doing so for the simple reason that the numbers are down, and they are not prepared to say it. I do not blame the Minister, but whoever wrote the answer, be it the civil servant or the person in the Army. It is disgusting to think that they will not even write down or tell us the number of people. I asked a simple question. When the Minister was in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, if I asked him a question, for example, over the past five years the number of personnel in the Department right around this country, he always gave it. Now we seem to be stifled by the Defence Forces. It is disgraceful.

With respect, giving the numbers of personnel linked to Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is very different from giving the numbers for our Defence Force personnel and where they are. I assure the Deputy that there is no downgrading of Custume Barracks at all; in fact, the opposite is the case. We continue to invest there, and we will continue to invest there. However, the advice that I have is that for security and operational reasons, from a Defence Forces perspective, we do not talk about numbers in individual barracks. I understand that because I asked the question before coming in. I knew that the Deputy would say what he has just said. I understand his frustration. I understand that this has been a consistent approach to written parliamentary questions as well. However, I will inquire as to whether I can come back to the Deputy with a more detailed answer. That is all I can do. I will try to be as helpful as I can, but obviously I will not release information if the advice is that it is sensitive from a security perspective. I do not want to overplay that, however, and I will have a look at it again and see if I can come back to the Deputy with more detailed information.

If the Minister can have a look at it, I would welcome that. It will not be to the detriment of our country or our line of defence if Members know how many different Defence Forces personnel are in each part of the country. We are given a number right around the country. That would have been given previously. It would be interesting to see over the past number of years whether those figures have gone up or have gone down. That is what I am trying to achieve.

I take that point. We are about to have a debate on everything from overall Defence Forces numbers, the numbers within the Army, the Air Corps, the Naval Service, resources for cybersecurity, military intelligence, capacity issues to structures within the Defence Forces and how they interact with each other and so on. It is my hope that this will allow us to have a broad, forward-looking debate on how we resource the Defence Forces appropriately into the future, as well as the capacity issues that need to be addressed, given what we ask of them. I assure the Deputy that will include a discussion on Custume Barracks, the infrastructure and numbers there and so on. In the context of the commission report, which we will see in the next few weeks, we will be able to pick up this conversation again. However, I assure the Deputy that if I can come back to him with actual numbers, I will do that. If I cannot, I will explain why.