I thank the Chairman and members for having us, it is great to be back here. During our last appearance before this committee, in November 2014, we spoke at length about multiple issues that faced the Reserve Defence Forces at that time, namely the introduction of key performance indicators to the Reserve, structural conflict between the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve Defence Forces, recruitment and the package of supports required for the Reserve into the future. We also spoke about the hidden costs to individual reservists which are an unwelcome element of membership of the force. We spoke about the training, roles and functions of the Reserve, issues that existed at the time within the Naval Service Reserve element of the force, and international trends regarding the utilisation of reserve forces and the supports required for this to be achieved effectively. The final matter we spoke about were the benefits of reserve membership to individuals and the benefits that reservists bring to the military, their civilian employers, and their communities in general. We believe a brief update on these matters is warranted.
Key performance indicators are annual performance benchmarks that a reservist must meet in order to be considered as an effective member of the force. The most serious challenge facing reservists is the annual medical exam. It had to be conducted during working hours in a military barracks and was not the easiest task to organise for volunteer reservists who have civilian employment. Thankfully, we can report that an interim measure now exists which allows reservists to be medically examined by their GP, in their own time and at no cost to the individual thereby dispelling this problem. It is a positive development but, unfortunately, the Defence Forces have not revised its personnel management infrastructure to cater for medical grades provided by GPs which presents an obstacle for reservists in terms of access to fitness tests and courses.
In terms of the Naval Service Reserve, we are happy to report that forum meetings have been subsequently held between us and the military authorities with a view to rectifying many of these outstanding issues. These meetings have been extremely productive and all involved are actively working towards improving the Naval Service Reserve into the future.
We can also report that the employer engagement programme which we initiated has been formally adopted by the military authorities. A Defence Forces working group on Reserve Defences Forces employer engagement has been established and it includes two members of this representative association. The working group will shortly release a Reserve Defence Forces employer's handbook which is the first step to actively engage with Irish employers but more will be needed in this regard.
The issue of recruitment is still a matter of significant ongoing concern. Following the reorganisation of the Defence Forces in 2012, the Reserve was reduced from an establishment figure of 9,500 down to 4,069 personnel. That figure has been increased to 4,169 personnel following the announcement in the White Paper of an increase in the Naval Service Reserve establishment figure. At present, the Reserve has 2,712 members due to a lengthy recruitment and promotions embargo which has adversely affected the supply of new personnel needed to bring the force up to the establishment figure. The embargo has also had the knock-on effect of making it difficult to fill vacancies as they arise.
This year, recruitment competitions yielded an increase of just over 300 new members but retirements due to natural wastage have resulted in a loss of more than 200 other personnel. Overall this means that there has been a net gain of approximately 100 new members. If this rate of increase were to continue on a yearly basis into the future then it will be 2030 before the Reserve will have recruited up to its establishment figure which is a period beyond the intended life of the White Paper.
With regard to the package of supports required by the Reserve into the future, one of the key issues is the use of staff from the Permanent Defence Force. We completely recognise and acknowledge that specialist instruction from highly qualified members of the Permanent Defence Force is vital to the progression and development of the Reserve. Therefore, we contend that the involvement of such highly qualified Permanent Defence Force instructors with the Reserve, as instructors, should come with a financial incentive.
With this in mind, a Reserve Defence Force specialist instruction allowance should be investigated with a view to its implementation for members of the Permanent Defence Force, specifically for those Permanent Defence Force instructors who can provide expertise that the Reserve does not organically possess.
The roles and functions of the Reserve in respect of training have been formalised in the recent White Paper. The White Paper states that the primary role of the Reserve is to augment the Permanent Defence Force in times of crisis, and a further formal role assigned to the Reserve is to contribute to State ceremonial events. In this regard and in particular in respect of the primary role, we seek clarification on what exactly is defined as a time of crisis. If this definition is allowed to remain vague and nebulous, as it is currently, it could arguably result in the under-utilisation of the Reserve in times of great national need. Furthermore, in respect of the primary role of the Reserve being a force to be called on only in times of crisis – an as yet undefined term – the White Paper also references the creation of a specialist Reserve because:
...there may be professional skills that on occasion may not be readily available in the PDF. In this context, there may be individual members of the RDF, who by virtue of their professional civilian qualifications or in the case of members of the FLR, professional military skills, have the competence to undertake such specialised tasks. These could include ICT, medical, ordnance and engineering professionals.
While we are delighted that such a specialist Reserve is to be created, it makes little sense to attract highly-skilled and qualified professionals to this force, only for them to be told that they might be used in a future time of crisis, whatever that might be. A serious motivating factor for such qualified professionals to join a specialist Reserve would be to apply their civilian skills in a military environment, i.e., to actually do a job. Therefore, we strongly request that the Reserve be provided with a defined role that includes utilisation of the Reserve outside of crisis situations, for the sake of attracting qualified professionals to the new specialist Reserve and to get the best value for money and engagement from the Reserve Defence Force in general. Everything, including recruitment, training, the level of commitment of members and organisational outputs, flows from purpose. This purpose must be real, current and tangible rather than a distant maybe. Personnel need to be utilised for operational roles and the requirement of that operation will drive the training and standards.
The hidden costs of membership are primarily the costs of travel to and from reservist barracks or training centres. These costs have actually risen following the barracks closures of recent years which have forced many reservists to travel further afield to attend training. Recently, the Minister stated his intention to use an element of the €437 million capital spending plan on defence to begin rolling back the pay cuts imposed on members of the Permanent Defence Force by the Lansdowne Road agreement. The Lansdowne Road agreement similarly resulted in Reserve Defence Force pay cuts, and so we are seeking assurances that any roll-back in Permanent Defence Force pay cuts will include a roll-back of RDF pay cuts as well. Unlike the Permanent Defence Force, those in the Reserve do not enjoy graduated pay scales. On obtaining a given rank, a reservist will be paid at the entry level for this rank for however long he stays at this rank, despite length of service.
Similarly, the end-of-year gratuity was taken from Reserve members in 2012. Ostensibly this was to provide a force of 4,069 members with 41,000 paid training man-days per year but this was a membership figure the force was never enabled or allowed to reach. Moreover, the number of paid training man-days has been slashed annually to its current allotment of 26,000 per annum. This effectively negates the reason for removing the gratuity from members in the first place. In contrast, members of the first line Reserve, that is, ex-Permanent Defence Force members, still receive a gratuity, as do members of the Garda Reserve. The White Paper states that reactivating annual paid training for members of the first line Reserve is to be investigated, i.e., the provision of an additional source of income for this group. To members of the Reserve, the benefits of a returned gratuity would also outweigh the relatively small cost. It would have a significant and positive impact on recruitment and retention within the Reserve, primarily by making it less expensive for someone to be a member of the force and thereby producing the greatest value-for-money to the State. The gratuity was generally a much-needed end-of-year reimbursement for the often substantial costs incurred travelling to and from barracks and other military training locations. We contend that the reintroduction of a gratuity needs to be investigated as a matter of urgency. We believe Reserve members, who are loyal and committed volunteers in the service of the State, should not have to pay out substantial sums in annual travel costs to give this service to the State. Furthermore, we completely agree with the earlier statements from the Minister to the effect that the Reserve needs to recruit the right people. A gratuity would certainly go a long way towards attracting qualified professionals to the force.
We broadly welcome the contents of the recently published White Paper on Defence and consider them positive and constructive. Outside of Chapter 8, which deals with the Reserve Defence Force, we have identified initiatives that could be expanded to utilise or benefit Reserve personnel. First, a scheme similar to the defence contribution to employment support scheme for those aged 18 to 24 years, as outlined in Chapter 4 of the White Paper, could be established for unemployed reservists. This would see these individuals obtain skills that could aid them in securing employment. These skills would also then be retained within the Defence Forces. Second, in respect of women in peacekeeping, Chapter 3 of the White Paper identifies that all-female overseas units may be required in gender-sensitive peacekeeping roles. While the Permanent Defence Force is comprised of 6% women, the Army Reserve is 16.3% female while the Naval Service Reserve is 22% female. This clearly marks Reserve female personnel as worthy of serious consideration for inclusion in any such all-female overseas peacekeeping unit.
We are keen to clarify that this representative association completely supports the implementation of the contents of the White Paper, but we also wish to advise on how elements of the White Paper, as they pertain to the Reserve, could and should be implemented. The White Paper provides scope for such suggestions, for example, "The Department of Defence will undertake a review of the provisions of the Defence Acts and bring forward proposals for any changes to the Defence Acts that may be required in order to reflect the possible crisis situations, where activation of members of the Reserve is appropriate." Another example is, "The broader RDF organisational structures will be kept under ongoing review by the Department of Defence." A further example is:
Accordingly, approaches to recruitment and retention will be kept under ongoing review having regard to their success rates and the key goal of having an efficient and effective Reserve. In this context, the current organisational structures will also be kept under review.
A final example is, "The Department will identify the options available to underpin the engagement of those specialist members of the Reserve..."
The word "review" is mentioned many times. It is evident that the specifics of how decisions relating to the Reserve will be implemented have yet to be finalised. Therefore, we are keen to advise on how several elements of the White Paper of relevance to the Reserve Defence Force could be rolled out or advanced in future. Furthermore, we are requesting that this representative association should remain central to any panels or boards involved in such implementation, since the presence of representative association delegates in such circumstances could only benefit the overall process. Representation is an essential part of the military management blend and we require assurances that no unilateral decisions will be taken without proper consultation. I thank the committee and I am happy to invite any questions members of the committee might have.