Almost two years ago to the day, an RDFRA delegation appeared before this committee in public session to report on the current state of the Reserve Defence Force. At the time, we had an effective force of 2,049 members, or exactly 50% of the Reserve’s total establishment, and we were facing some serious problems. Recruitment had stagnated; with 2,020 places to fill, we had taken in only 471 new recruits in the preceding four years. Retirements due to age and natural wastage were outstripping the Reserve's ability to replace these losses. This was not down to a lack of interest from potential applicants as during that four-year period, more than 10,000 people had applied to join the Reserve, but was rather down to the Defence Forces' inability to give sufficient attention to reserve recruiting. Lengthy delays, frequent cancellations of testing events, and generally ad hoc arrangements resulted in large numbers of applicants losing interest during a frustratingly drawn-out process. By the end of each recruiting campaign, only a handful of dedicated applicants remained to be enlisted on each occasion.
We were also facing other issues that came under the remit of the military authorities relating to the maintenance of personal protective equipment or the timely processing of payment to members of the Reserve for periods of paid training, all of which were raised during our committee appearance. Meanwhile, we discussed issues that fell under the remit of the Department of Defence, namely, its levels of engagement with RDFRA and urgently required initiatives that would require the approval of the Minister of State with responsibility for defence. In brief, early 2017 was not a good time for the Reserve.
Two years on, we are now very grateful for the opportunity to report on the current status of the Reserve to the committee and inform it of the outcomes of our previous appearance. While the effective strength of the Reserve continued to drop in 2017 and early 2018 to an all-time low of 1,653 members in quarter one of last year, by January 2019 it had risen slightly to 1,840 effective members, the highest figure in two years. In 2018, the Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, also revived the office of director with responsibility for the Reserve, which was previously disbanded in 2013, and so the Reserve now once again has a single senior officer whose responsibility it is to grow and develop the force. Since its inception, the two directors who have inhabited the role, Colonel Brian Cleary and the current incumbent, Colonel Ger Buckley, have initiated training courses that will see the commissioning of new Army Reserve and Naval Service Reserve officers in the near future; these new leaders are vital to the future of the organisation. The director's office also streamlined the mechanism by which reservists' pay is processed and is actively seeking to get promotion competitions back on track for all ranks.
Make no mistake, there is still more that the military authorities can do to improve the situation for the Reserve. There is an ongoing eyesight standard anomaly that exists in the Naval Service Reserve, whereby an applicant for the Naval Service Reserve can be rejected on eyesight grounds but that same person can then apply for and successfully join the Permanent Defence Force Naval Service. The permanent force will accept candidates of varying eyesight standards but the Naval Service Reserve is only permitted to recruit those with 20-20 vision. It must be noted that this committee raised this matter directly with the Minister of State with responsibility for Defence when he appeared before this committee on 26 April 2018 and the Minister of State replied that the eyesight standards were "currently being changed". That was ten months ago. However, the RDFRA is aware of an initiative by the military authorities to update the Naval Service eyesight standards in line with international maritime standards; the RDFRA sincerely hopes that these changes will come into force in the very near future. The Reserve will be recruiting again on 1 April 2019 and so time is of the essence. If the eyesight standards are not updated by then, many more Naval Service Reserve applicants will be turned away unnecessarily.
Similarly, with another reserve recruitment competition looming, the RDFRA is hopeful that a new reserve recruitment model that has been developed at the request of the director with responsibility for the Reserve – a recruitment model that was designed by reservists for reservists and that empowers reservists to manage their own recruitment insofar as is possible – will be implemented in time for the next recruitment competition, which begins in seven weeks. If this is not introduced in time, it will be a lost opportunity to maximise our potential recruit numbers from this competition and the Reserve will again suffer needlessly as a result.
To sum up on the RDFRA's engagement with the military authorities in recent years, they listened to our 2017 submission to this committee and took serious steps to remedy the issues identified. There is certainly a lot more work to do but the RDFRA wishes to genuinely acknowledge and thank the Chief of Staff, the assistant chief of staff, Brigadier General Peter O’Halloran, and the military authorities for the steps that they have taken to help save the Reserve.
Unfortunately, the Department of Defence’s attitude towards engagement with the RDFRA has been somewhat more aloof. Two years ago we reiterated the critical need to amend and update Defence Forces Regulation R5, which governs most aspects of the Reserve’s existence, and Defence Forces Regulation S7, which governs our representative association. The Reserve was reorganised in 2013 and new versions of both regulations should have been implemented at that time to reflect the new organisational structures. It is simply beyond belief that new regulations have not been implemented some six years later, despite repeated and consistent efforts on our part to obtain updates from the Department. We have offered our assistance in drafting the regulations in order to support the Department. To date, the Department of Defence has continuously informed us that updated draft versions of both regulations are currently being developed. However, the RDFRA has been prevented from seeing these drafts, which effectively prohibits the association from having any input into these documents. This is an untenable position for the Department to adopt since we and our members will be the end users of this product. Similarly, there has been no movement whatsoever on any of the Reserve-specific White Paper projects announced in that document as far back as 2015.
The most serious new issue involving the Department of Defence and the Reserve is the pay discrepancy that the Department of Defence has allowed to form between the Permanent Defence Force and Reserve Defence Force rates of pay. In the first instance, it must be highlighted that the majority of a reservist's service is unpaid; the best part of training takes place in the evenings and at weekends. However, reservists are entitled to payment when engaged in certain activities, such as full-time training courses. This payment serves to offset the costs associated with a reservist’s service in the Defence Forces, including those relating to mileage, time off work and ancillary expenses. However, for the periods of paid training that reservists undertake, there is now a significant discrepancy between permanent and reserve rates of pay.
Reserve pay is tied to Permanent Defence Force pay rates by two ministerial Defence Forces regulations, R5 and S3. These clarify that reservists are entitled to be paid at the lowest point of the Permanent Defence Force pay scale for their particular rank. However, the vast majority of reservists are currently paid 18% less than the corresponding lowest point on the current Permanent Defence Force pay scale for each rank.
This is particularly enraging for reservists. Not only did we suffer a pay reduction at rates variable by rank in 2009, reservists received an additional 10% blanket pay reduction in 2013. The Reserve pay rate has, in essence, been plundered twice and we are not even on a par with the lowest points on the Permanent Defence Forces' payscale. This has significant impacts for our existing members in terms of the costs associated with their continued and loyal service. It also represents an obstacle to attracting new members, particularly among young people who may not be in employment and who are not in a position to foot the costs associated with serving in the Reserve. RDFRA notified the Department of this breach of regulations last December and while we recognise that it is a complex issue, we have not been given an explanation, a plan to settle the arrears or an expected time to resolution. Our members are deeply frustrated by these delays in taking effective action and rightly question whether a similar attitude would be experienced were the underpayment to have been made to our comrades in the Permanent Defence Forces. The Reserve pay rates need to be realigned with their permanent counterparts immediately. However, RDFRA has serious concerns that such a pay rate realignment could take months or even years for the Department to implement, to say nothing of the payment of arrears.
Currently, it is RDFRA's view that the association's and our members' experiences are just one part of a wider malaise affecting defence in Ireland at present, involving the Department of Defence, the military authorities, our colleagues in the Permanent Defence Forces and their two representative associations. What is good for one element of the Defence Forces is necessarily good for all members of the Defence Forces, both Permanent and Reserve. To truly improve the defence disposition in Ireland for both for the Permanent and Reserve Forces, the committee should seek and establish a commission on the future of defence in Ireland in the spirit of the 2017-2018 Commission on the Future of Policing. We also strongly urge the committee to extend invitations to the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, and the Permanent Defence Forces Other Ranks Representative Association PDFORRA, and the Chief of Staff and the senior military authorities to appear before the committee and give their own views on defence in Ireland at present. It is only by engaging with all stakeholders at this level that the damage done to both the Permanent and Reserve Defence Forces be repaired. Such actions are vital to the long-term growth and stability of the Defence Forces as a whole, and also to the continued security of the State.
I conclude with a brief statement on the value of the Reserve Defence Forces. Taking the RDFRA national executive as an example of what the Reserve has to offer, we are all serving reservists – both Army Reserve and Naval Service Reserve - ranging in rank from private to captain, from leading seaman to Naval Service Reserve lieutenant. In our civilian capacities, we comprise a partner in a major Irish law firm and head of the construction law team for that firm, a trainee solicitor, a legal secretary, a cyber-security compliance specialist for a multinational telecommunications corporation, a vice-president of the trade union, Fórsa, a development manager for a food retail and wholesale company, a telecoms engineer, a PhD history student and a consultant at Blackrock Clinic who also serves as a professor at Trinity College Dublin. That is just our national executive. The Reserve is full of people just like us, yet we are not currently being utilised to the maximum benefit of the State. Beyond the military authorities, there is generally no interest or willingness to engage with the concept of utilising the Reserve in a meaningful way. Instead, there is a preference to limit the Reserve's access to resources, ignore our varied qualifications and skills sets, dismiss our calls for reform and generally display a hope that we will just fade away and that no one will notice. Apathy is now one of the greatest threats faced by the Reserve. Regardless of this, the dedicated remaining reservists are still committed to serving the State.
The Reserve must be meaningfully utilised in order to secure its future. Utilisation provides a meaningful sense of reward. It is a goal to work towards. Perpetually training for training's sake is not enough. With Brexit approaching and a hard border scenario a distinct possibility, the defence landscape in Ireland for the immediate future is somewhat uncertain. The Defence Forces must be able to rely on all available personnel and assets should they be required in any contingent scenario. Further, the support reservists could provide to overseas missions would be of great value to Irish missions abroad. There are already small examples of the true value of Reserve utilisation displayed in pockets across the country, most notably in the areas of ICT and cyber, where reservists with specialist civilian IT qualifications have helped to revolutionise the technological and digital assets available to the Defence Forces. This is just a drop in the ocean of what could be possible with greater Reserve utilisation.
As an achievable first step, a minor amendment to the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006 would allow reservists to serve outside of the State in roles such as duties of a military representative, secondment to international organisations, conducting or participating in training, carrying out ceremonial duties, participating in exchanges or undertaking visits, undertaking monitoring, observation or advisory duties, participating in or undertaking reconnaissance or fact-finding missions, undertaking humanitarian tasks in response to an actual or potential disaster or emergency, participating in sporting events, or inspecting and evaluating stores, equipment and facilities. It would allow the Reserve to take part in a wide range of valuable overseas roles short of deploying on UN missions, which is governed by the Defence (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1960 which we are not seeking to have amended at this time. The Reserve could also engage in activities governed by the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006 on the basis of individual reservists presenting themselves as available for service. This would arguably remove the need for employment protection legislation to achieve this as these activities may be of short duration or may require only small numbers of reservists on each occasion. In short, amending the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006 would provide the vital basis for utilisation that the Reserve so desperately needs.
There also needs to be meaningful recognition of the qualifications and skills possessed by reservists so that, should the legislation be updated to permit proper Reserve utilisation, the individual reservist's qualifications will be fully acknowledged. My colleague, Dr. Mathew McCauley, is an excellent example of a highly qualified reservist whose professional background has received a dearth of proportionate acknowledgment from the Defence Forces. Having qualified 19 years ago, he has served as a consultant in international military healthcare systems for 13 years in the USA and UK. A fellow of both the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland and the Royal Society of Medicine in the UK, he is also an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. A published expert in his field, he is a consultant at Blackrock Clinic and a professor at Trinity College Dublin. Despite such experience and competence, Dr. McCauley was commissioned into the Reserve at the rank of second-lieutenant, the lowest commissioned rank. Should he have joined the Permanent Defence Forces he would have been commissioned with at least the rank of captain, or two ranks higher than the one he currently holds.
The soldiers and sailors of the Reserve Defence Forces are clawing themselves back from the brink. While the senior military authorities are doing what they can to help us, the extent of what they can do is being limited, to a significant degree, by factors outside of their control. The Reserve is still in danger, and so we require committed political support at all levels to ensure our continued existence and future growth. To summarise, our call to the committee is to consider our proposal to amend the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006 in the light of all the positive changes that this would bring about to our Defence Forces. I thank the committee and invite questions from the members.