I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe.
Defence Matters: Statements
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to address the House. I very much welcome the opportunity to engage with the Members of Seanad Éireann on matters related to the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces and look forward to listening to their contributions.
The security of the State and its citizens is a whole-of-government concern. A broad range of Departments and agencies are assigned security responsibilities. Providing for the military defence of the State’s territory is fundamental a security requirement, for which responsibility is vested specifically in the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces. The defence contribution to security also encompasses defence inputs to domestic security, particularly in support of An Garda Síochána which has primary responsibility for protecting the internal security of the State; defence inputs to the State’s response to large-scale emergencies; and defence inputs to international peace and security. In addition, defence resources are used for other non-security tasks which maximise the utility of defence assets for the benefit of the State. All of these requirements highlight the key role the Department of Defence, the Defence Forces and Civil Defence play within the State’s security and support framework.
Security is the bedrock on which a society’s cultural, social and economic achievements are built. Defence underpins Ireland’s security, as well as the promotion of the State’s strategic interests in the international environment. I know that I will have the support of all Members of this House when I say Irish people, rightly, take great pride in the Defence Forces and the contribution they make to domestic security, international peace and security and also to the broad range of supports provided for other Departments and State agencies on an ongoing basis. I have witnessed at first hand the important work the Army, the Air Corps and the Naval Service undertake, both at home and overseas.
It is also important to recognise the excellent work of Civil Defence, as part of the local government response, in supporting communities in times of adversity. The commitment of members of Civil Defence and the Reserve Defence Force is testament to the continued spirit of voluntary service that enriches Irish society in so many ways.
As Members will be aware, the White Paper of Defence provides the strategic and comprehensive defence policy framework for the period up to 2025. Since its approval by the Government in 2015, the White Paper has driven the identification of key priorities and, with A Programme for a Partnership Government agreed to in 2016, informed many of the strategic goals, objectives and actions contained in the shared strategy statement of my Department and the Defence Forces. I am pleased with the progress made to date by my Department and the Defence Forces in the implementation of the White Paper. Their work in that regard has laid solid foundations for many of the developmental aspects of the White Paper which charts a course for the continued development of capabilities across the defence organisation, while recognising that people are the key element of success. The Government is committed to ensuring the defence organisation is one in which people, both civil and military, are proud to serve.
While the White Paper provides the strategic and comprehensive defence policy framework for the ten year period up to 2025, the framework is nevertheless designed to be flexible and responsive, which I believe is important, given the dynamic nature of the current security environment. The framework is also designed to enable the defence organisation which comprises the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces to be adaptive to changing circumstances and use its resources as efficiently as possible. It is within that context that the White Paper has set out the Government’s intention to establish a process of fixed cycle defence reviews which are common internationally and give assurance that policy remains up to date and relevant to changing future circumstances. The White Paper specifically provides that the reviews are to have a three yearly cycle, with every second review being more comprehensive in nature. As such, they are to be styled as a strategic defence review. The White Paper specified that the first in the new cycle of reviews would be a White Paper update, which my Department commenced in July last year. I am pleased to advise Members that work is now well advanced on the White Paper update, with two key strands close to completion. One relates to the work of an interdepartmental and inter-agency group established to carry out a fully updated assessment of the security environment, while the second is a review of progress in the implementation of the White Paper.
Another important element of this process will be my meeting next Tuesday with the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence, at which we will discuss the White Paper implementation project which is being undertaken by a joint civil-military project team and focused on developing a formalised structure for fixed cycle defence reviews. In accordance with the White Paper, the periodic reviews are to become a permanent feature of the approach to defence policy.
It highlights the connectivity between defence provision and the proper functioning of civil society which is not always well understood or immediately obvious. Defence provision, as a foundation element of national security, remains critical and fundamental to the success and operation of most other public policies.
The defence sector is made up of two Votes, namely, Vote 35, Army Pensions, and Vote 36, Defence. The combined Estimates for both Votes for 2019 provides for gross expenditure of some €1.007 billion, an increase of €60 million or 6.4% over 2018. The 2019 provision comprises €758 million for Vote 36, an increase of over €50 million, and €249 million for Vote 35, an increase of €10 million. The 2019 pay allocation of €529 million for Vote 36 provides for the pay and allowances of more than 10,400 public service employees, including 9,500 Permanent Defence Forces, PDF, personnel, 550 civilian employees and 355 civil servants and makes provision for increases due under the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020. The non-pay allocation comprises both current and capital elements. The current expenditure allocation of €123 million for 2019 provides mainly for expenditure on ongoing Defence Forces standing and operational costs such as utilities, fuel, catering, maintenance, information technology and training. In accordance with the National Development PIan 2018-2027, the capital allocation for Vote 36 has been increased to €106 million for 2019, an increase of €29 million. This represents an increase of 38% on the 2018 allocation. The NDP provides for a total of €541 million over the period from 2018 to 2022. This substantial increase in funding will allow the defence sector to undertake a programme of sustained equipment replacement and infrastructural development across the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service, as identified and prioritised in the White Paper on Defence. The Vote 35 allocation for 2019 of €249 million, which is non-discretionary and demand-led, includes an additional €10 million on the 2018 allocation. This allocation will provide funding for some 12,400 Army pensioners and their dependants. The allocation of more than €1 billion for the defence sector for 2019 emphasises the importance attached by the Government to ensuring that the Defence Forces have the resources necessary to deliver on all roles assigned by Government, both at home and overseas, and demonstrates the Government’s commitment to ensuring that the Defence Forces have the capabilities necessary to deliver on all their assigned roles.
As members will be well aware, Ireland has a long and proud tradition of participation in United Nations mandated peace support operations. The deployment of the Defence Forces on such missions continues to provide an active and very tangible demonstration of Ireland’s commitment to supporting the maintenance of international peace and security. Ireland currently has 673 Defence Forces personnel deployed in nine different missions throughout the world and also to a range of international organisations and national representations. Ireland’s main commitments overseas are to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, and the UN Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, on the Golan Heights. The UNIFIL mission is Ireland’s largest overseas mission, with 458 personnel deployed. Irish troops served as part of a joint Irish-Finnish battalion in UNIFIL until November 2018 when, due to other national commitments, Finland withdrew from the battalion. As an interim measure, an additional contingent of approximately 106 Defence Forces personnel has been deployed to the UNIFIL mission to cover the back-filling of the Finnish contingent for a 12 month period. This additional commitment will continue throughout 2019 as Ireland has assumed full duties and responsibilities of IRISHBATT up to November 2019. Poland has advised that it would be willing to partner Ireland in UNIFIL from November 2019. It is proposed that Hungarian personnel would also deploy as part of the Polish contingent. Discussions on the details of this arrangement are currently being advanced. UNDOF in Syria is the second largest mission, with 136 personnel. The main Irish contingent, comprising a force reserve company of 130 personnel, successfully completed its relocation to Camp Faouar on the Syrian side of the area of separation in September 2018.
As members may be aware, the Dáil recently approved Ireland’s ratifying of the EU status of forces agreement, SOFA, and Ireland’s signing and ratifying of the NATO Partnership for Peace, PfP, SOFA. This was a significant and positive decision and was one that I very much welcomed. SOFAs provide for immunities and privileges extended to members of the Defence Forces when serving on overseas missions. It is important that the brave men and women of our Defence Forces serving overseas are as protected as all other military personnel operating on the same mission or on the same exercise. SOFAs also relate to the immunities and privileges extended to members of the Defence Forces when engaged in exercises in EU or NATO and PfP member states, or on standby for the EU battle groups. With this in mind, I want our personnel to benefit fully from the training available through exercising with peacekeeping partners and troop contributing states where such opportunities are available. Ratification of the status of forces agreements assists in the delivery of such benefits for our Defence Forces. It should be noted that the European SOFA could not come into effect until all member states had signed and ratified it. Ireland was the last state to do so. Concerns were raised during the Dáil debates and committee discussions on the agreement of the SOFAs but I want to be clear that Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality is not diminished or reduced by our ratification of the SOFAs. I am satisfied that arising from our agreement of the SOFAs, our national position is now more strongly discernible, given the reservations we are attaching to our instruments of ratification. There is no situation where either SOFA could have application in respect of foreign forces in Ireland, including forces in transit or visiting personnel. On ratification, Ireland is placing reservations on these agreements which mean that the reciprocal nature of these agreements does not apply. Ireland will not be a receiving state.
In terms of personnel numbers, the White Paper on Defence confirmed the strength of the PDF at 9,500, comprising 7,520 Army, 886 Air Corps and 1,094 Naval Service personnel. The strength of the PDF across all services and ranks at the end of 2018 was 8,957 personnel. The Government remains committed to ongoing recruitment to increase this strength to the establishment level of 9,500. In 2018, this resulted in 611 new entrants being inducted, in addition to 15 PDF members being awarded a cadetship. The 2019 recruitment campaign commenced with the recent Naval Service general service recruitment competition which closed on 21 January last. A further 800 new entrants will be targeted in 2019, comprising of general service recruits, apprentices, cadets and direct entry officers. Retention of specialised personnel such as pilots and air traffic controllers in the Air Corps is a significant challenge in the light of the demands arising for such skills in a growing economy. Air Corps personnel are an attractive employment source for airlines and other air service providers given their experience and training. Every effort is being made to address the current shortages in personnel faced by the Air Corps. Actions to return to a full level of air traffic control, ATC, services by the Air Corps are under way which will facilitate a gradual extension of operational hours for ATC services in Baldonnel over the year as newly qualified personnel develop their experience.
Public service pay and pensions are a very significant component of Government expenditure. Similar to other areas within the public service, the pay of PDF personnel was reduced during the financial crisis. The reduction in pay was on a graduated basis with increased rates of deductions for those on higher earnings. This action was one of many measures taken to stabilise the financial situation which faced the country following the economic collapse. Improvements in the economy have provided the opportunity to unwind, in a fair and sustainable manner, the reductions in pay imposed on public servants, including Defence Forces personnel, under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act, FEMPI.
Pay is being restored to members of the Defence Forces and other public servants in accordance with public sector pay agreements. The focus of these increases is weighted in favour of those on lower pay. The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 provides for increases in pay ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement. Increases due to date under the agreement have been paid to Permanent Defence Force personnel. Further increases in pay are scheduled for later in 2019 and 2020. By the end of the current public service pay agreement the pay scales of all public servants earning under €70,000 per annum, including members of the Defence Forces, will be restored to pre-FEMPI levels. The restoration of the 5% reduction to allowances cut under FEMPI is also scheduled in the agreement.
The Public Service Pay Commission is currently examining recruitment and retention issues in the defence sector. This is on foot of an initial submission from the Department of Defence. The commission's work is ongoing. The Government will give due consideration to the findings and recommendations that arise from the work of the commission. The commission has recently written to the management parties seeking a meeting which I understand is scheduled to take place next Tuesday, 5 March. This follows the joint submission by military management and my Department.
Aside from the important issue of pay, the civil and military authorities continue to address a broad range of human resources, HR, related issues such as the working time directive, the Reserve Defence Force, RDF, complaints procedures, including bullying and harassment, the independent monitoring group and other issues such as colour blindness, eyesight standards for the Naval Service Reserve and height requirements. In terms of the working time directive, as I previously informed the Dáil, a Government decision dated 18 November 2016 approved the drafting of the heads of a Bill to amend the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997. This will remove the exclusion contained in section 3 of the Act. There is ongoing contact between my Department and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection with regard to legislative change.
The Reserve Defence Force consists of the First Line Reserve, the Army Reserve and the Naval Service Reserve. Personnel in the Army Reserve and the Naval Service Reserve are represented by the Reserve Defence Force Representative Association, RDFRA, with which the Department of Defence is due to meet in the coming weeks. The Government recognises the important role that the three elements of the RDF play in contributing to Ireland's defence capability. The White Paper on defence is clear that there is a continued requirement to retain and develop the RDF, and it is currently on a developmental path arising from the recommendations of the White Paper. Under the current phase of implementation of White Paper actions, two White Paper projects have been identified which are important precursors to the establishment of a specialist reserve. A gap analysis of skill sets in the Permanent Defence Force will identify potential roles for Reserve members who possess specialist skills. Options to develop the First Line Reserve are also currently being examined.
With regard to Brexit, as part of a whole-of-Government approach my Department continues to engage in forward planning with the other Departments involved in addressing all issues relevant to the UK decision to exit from the European Union. I am satisfied that the necessary arrangements are in place in the defence organisation to address the potential challenges arising from Brexit. Both the Department and the Defence Forces are currently engaged in prudent planning in response to the UK vote of June 2016. Structures have been put in place in my Department to address the potential challenges arising from Brexit. The Government's stated goal remains - to ensure that the current island border arrangements are maintained to the greatest extent possible.
Before I conclude, I should mention that my Department also has responsibilities in respect of emergency planning and Civil Defence. The office of emergency planning, OEP, of which I am chairman, is a joint civil-military office within the Department and supports the incumbent Minister in the role of chairman of the Government task force on emergency planning. The task force oversees the emergency planning preparations in Departments and the public authorities under their aegis. The OEP supports sustained public awareness and reassurance regarding a whole-of-Government approach to emergency planning and responses to national level emergencies and crises. The OEP liaises both nationally and at international level on risk and best practices in emergency planning.
Civil Defence is a statutory volunteer based organisation with units located in each local authority area. The organisation is managed and developed at national level through the Civil Defence branch of my Department. It provides second line support to the principal response agencies, which are An Garda Síochána, the HSE, and the local authorities, and other State bodies for a broad range of operations and events. There are some 4,500 trained and active volunteers in the Civil Defence who provide essential supports in time of need. The Department of Defence has recently commenced a wide ranging review of the roles of the Civil Defence, which is important given that the Civil Defence was established as far back in 1951. A wide range of stakeholders are being consulted on the future direction of the Civil Defence, including the principal response agencies and the Civil Defence officers in the local authorities. As part of the consultation process the Department organised eight regional volunteer consultation meetings which took place in October and November 2018. I am pleased to report that over 400 volunteers attended these meetings, which allowed volunteers to air their views on the future development of the Civil Defence and to contribute to a roadmap for the development of the Civil Defence over the next ten to 15 years. I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend some of these meetings and to meet some of the volunteers.
Finally, with regard to the decade of centenaries and the desire to ensure a successful commemorative programme, both the staff of my Department and members of the Defence Forces continue to work closely with the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the Department of the Taoiseach on planning for appropriate Defence Forces input to the various centenary events that will occur between now and 2023.
I am grateful for the opportunity to address the Seanad this evening and I look forward to hearing Members' thoughts and views on defence matters. I have tried to touch on a number of current issues that have been raised in the House and I will be delighted to address these and any further issues of interest later. I tried to cover as much as possible in my statement.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am substituting for our party's defence spokesperson, Senator Wilson, who is otherwise engaged in his capacity as party Whip. He has been kind enough to provide me with a brief and he asked me to raise some issues on his behalf, which I am happy to do. Before that, however, I wish to say that I have immense respect for our Defence Forces - land, sea and air - as does the entire population. We are proud of them and they do us proud in everything they do. They are loyal to the State and to their commander-in-chief, if that is the proper term, Uachtarán na hÉireann. The current President, Michael D. Higgins, has always acknowledged and appreciated their service and has always given them a proper profile at his functions.
I must state a conflict of interest insofar as in a number of my elections to the Seanad I was nominated by the Irish Conference of Professional and Service Associations, of which the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, and the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, are constituent bodies. I was very proud to receive that nomination and through engaging with those bodies I believe I have an enhanced insight into the operations of our Defence Forces, which has made me admire them even more. In my youth I was a member of Forsa Cosanta Áitiúil, FCA, which sadly is no longer with us and has been replaced by the Reserve Defence Force. It was a very formative and useful experience when I was growing up. Many young people were taught life skills, discipline and patriotism through being members of the FCA. At a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence, we heard from a delegation from the Reserve Defence Force. I ask the Minister of State to attend closely to what it has presented to him as its representatives make some very valid points.
To return to Senator Wilson's concerns, he has stated that since 1992 the Defence Forces have undergone eight re-organisations or reviews.
That is an average of one every three years. It has resulted in turmoil, relocation, uncertainty and confusion for the members of the Defence Forces. Such tensions and family displacements are not conducive to ensuring optimum operational viability, certainty or good morale. The Defence Forces have been an easy target for cost-cutting. Their unreserved loyalty and professionalism have perhaps been taken advantage of. Policy has become a matter of fitting them into a particular budget envelope.
Senator Wilson raised very strongly the point that the lowest paid public servants in the country were the members of the Defence Forces. They alone, of all public service organisations, do not have the option to strike. This should be valued. To a certain extent, one must ask whether they are being punished for their responsible non-action. If somebody has a weapon he or she is not using, it is incumbent on us to appreciate this and try to find other ways to bring the Defence Forces forward. We all know that a large number of members of the Defence Forces are dependent on supplementary social welfare income to feed themselves and their families. That is seriously wrong and shows very serious disrespect for the armed forces. In October two Naval Service vessels were unable to set sail owing to crew shortages, while reservists were brought in to plug gaps on another ship. The Chief of Staff said he would make a direct plea to the Public Service Pay Commission. It is clear that he is losing trust in the Department and the Minister of State in the management of this crisis. At the PDFORRA conference in October it was highlighted how large numbers of soldiers, sailors and Air Corps staff were buying themselves out of the Defence Forces because they were unhappy with their pay and conditions. PDFORRA has stated that since the start of 2018 more than 170 personnel have paid money to leave the service. More than 1,200 have done so in the past six years, with some paying up to €40,000. The association has also stated personnel are not being properly paid for working additional hours, which may mean that some are being paid less than the national minimum wage. According to a retired regimental sergeant major, Noel O’Callaghan, a leading member of a close knit group which is steering the campaign, almost 1,800 Defence Force members are in receipt of family income supplement, a matter to which I have referred.
New information provided for Fianna Fáil shows that at the end of November 2018 there were more than 9,000 personnel serving in the Defence Forces. This compared with a figure of 9,219 in late 2017. The fall comes despite more than 600 recruits having been taken on during the period. The current agreed level for the Defence Forces is 9,500. At this stage it would be progress to reach that level. It has been estimated that 25% of senior Air Corps pilot posts remain unfilled owing to the absence of suitably qualified and experienced candidates. On a cost-benefit analysis alone, given that the cost of training a pilot is around €1.5 million, such a policy would have the combined effect of ultimately saving money and enhancing operational capacity. It takes six years to train a bomb disposal officer, with two years of specialist training being added to his or her four-year science or engineering university degree course. Specialist Naval Service deck officers require years of intensive training to be able to man the bridge of a naval ship. To achieve this wide spectrum of specialist and unique competencies, the State invests vast resources of time and money. The failure to focus on retaining these specialist skills across the Army, the Air Corps and the Naval Service not only undermines capability, it is also a very serious waste of scarce resources
Another matter very close to Senator Wilson's heart is that of Dún Uí Neill barracks in his county of Cavan. When it was closed, nobody thought there was any real risk of violence returning to the Border region, but, unfortunately, we have seen indications that we are not at all secure in that respect. As the Brexit fracas continues to weave and meander its strange way through Westminster, there is a vacuum in the North because of the failure of the two main parties to engage successfully to restore government in the North. Where there is a vacuum in politics, there is always an avenue for people of violence, of which we have seen a little recently in Derry and other places. Whereas I am not one to predict doom and gloom or anything like it, we have to be conscious of this issue. The public are conscious that we are not terribly far away from something that could precipitate another 30 years of the useless, wasteful tragedy of sectarian violence with which we grew up. The Army needs to be ready, supported and funded. If that is not done, we will be taking some very serious risks.
My final comments are on Jadotville, an issue which has been raised several times by my colleague Senator Craughwell. I will not delay the Minister of State, but the people concerned have been campaigning for a long time and the public know that they are right. Insofar as he is able to do so, I ask the Minister of State to comply with their reasonable requests.
The Minister of State is welcome. I congratulate him, the Defence Forces and his Department on the launch of the symposium on the brigade activity reports on the military service pensions collection on Saturday at Cathal Brugha Barracks. It was a tremendous success. The members of the public who were present were extremely impressed by the work done by the military archives. It is a great feather in the Minister of State's cap. Once again, the military showed that it was capable of stepping up to the plate in performing anything asked of it.
The Minister of State mentioned the White Paper, with the issue of retention and recruitment. Unless I have misread it, there is nothing in the White Paper about retention. There is something in it about recruitment, there is but absolutely nothing in it about retention. As my colleague Senator Ned O'Sullivan has pointed out, the finest of men and women whom it has cost the state tens of thousands of euros to train are walking out the door hand over fist. In fact, some are so anxious to get out that they are spending up to €40,000 to do so. That is the first problem with the White Paper. I hope the Minister of State is going to tell us that the review of it in July will include a major section on retention policy.
Another issue about which I have some concerns is the distribution of the Defence Forces. There is a battalion in County Donegal and another in Dundalk, but we really do not have a whole lot more until we move south of a line running from Dublin to Galway. There are troops in Dublin but in insufficient numbers to deal with the requirements of its various military centres. This means that troops from County Donegal, Dundalk and Athlone are travelling to Dublin to carry out standard barrack duties. Troops from Galway are travelling to Portlaoise to guard Portlaoise Prison. Clearly, there is a mismatch between the requirements of the State and the locations of soldiers.
Has the Minister of State or his Department war-gamed the possibility of having to secure the Border, as was done in 2010 during the foot and mouth disease crisis? If we have to have a border, we will need to have troops available. At this stage, nobody can say there will not be a border. People laughed at me in 2016 when I said it might happen. It is now looking very likely that it will, unless some miracle takes place.
Language is everything and I really object to the use of the term "neutrality". Ireland is not neutral and never has been. It is a militarily non-aligned state. If we were to be neutral, we would have to spend the money Finland and various other countries spend to guarantee neutrality.
I turn to the Air Corps and the recommissioning of officers. I would like to ask the Minister of State about this flawed project. It has failed and no new pilots will be commissioned this year. Two former officers will be recommissioned in the coming weeks, but it will not stem the exodus. It is shocking to think that as many as ten pilots will leave the Air Corps this year and with a recommended pilot crew strength of 107, the Air Corps is now in serious deficit.
We also know that there is a serious shortage of aircraft mechanics and that the strength of air traffic controllers is only at 50%. I know that the Minister of State's office has been contacted by at least one qualified air traffic controller seeking direct entry and to my knowledge he has not received a reply. He is currently working as an air traffic controller in the Middle East. I will leave it at that with him.
I have been on my feet in this Chamber warning that what was going on for the past two years would lead to the depletion we have. We cannot replace experienced people with recruits. I know the Minister of State has tried on the recruitment side, but unless we change the terms and conditions, it simply will not happen.
The shortage of pilots in the commercial sector is encouraging Air Corps pilots to leave. Most of them can double the salary they get in the Defence Forces when they work for private airlines and they get greatly improved terms and conditions of employment. The key to retention therefore is to offer comparable and competitive salary, and terms and conditions. Some will argue that people do not join the Defence Forces for the money, but that argument cannot be used if they are living in very poor circumstances
Recommissioning is causing consternation among those in the Air Corps. Some pilots who have been loyal to the State are somewhere close to the ranks of those who are re-entering. I understand one is a lieutenant colonel and one is a captain. The pilots in the Air Corps need to know that their promotional opportunities will not be impeded by these people coming back. I understand they are to come back on a short-term contract for three years. I would want an assurance that that contract will roll over every three years and that they will not be allowed to compete against colleagues who have remained in the Defence Forces. They will come in and stay in as short-term commissions. I wonder what happens to the lump sum they were paid when they left if they qualified for a pension. Do they have to refund that in order to return? A Deputy who loses his or her seat and subsequently becomes a Senator must return any moneys he or she got.
RACO, the commissioned officers' association, has had consultation with the Minister of State. I hope it was meaningful consultation and that he took its concerns on board, particularly with regard to competition for promotion.
In August 2018 the Department of Defence committed to establish a sub-committee of the conciliation council to progress the issue of the working time directive. Officials promised terms of reference by the end of September 2018. Now five months on, those terms of reference have not been forthcoming, despite monthly requests by the representative associations. What is causing this delay? When will the terms of reference be issued? I am aware that the military management working group’s report was submitted to the general staff and Department two weeks ago. Does the Minister of State have any update on this? Has this report being shared with the representative associations? What steps is the Minister of State taking to ensure there are no further cases against the State on the implementation of the working time directive? The Minister of State will be aware that on 12 March, three cases will come before the courts. Once a case goes to the courts, it goes to the State Claims Agency. However, can we do something to stop claims coming forward now to get the working time directive operating? There are plenty of examples throughout Europe where the working time directive has been implemented and works well.
The Minister of State spoke about Vote 36 covering the pay and conditions of 9,500 Defence Forces personnel. I believe the actual number in the Defence Forces now is approximately 9,200 and operationally it is around 8,500. What happens to the surplus money that is not paid out? Can we not use that money to improve the lot of soldiers who are in place?
The Minister of State mentioned Brexit and this brings me back to the issue of the Border. If the Brits crash out of the European Union on 29 March and we are forced to have a border in place, I ask the Minister of State to reassure me that we have places to accommodate those members of the Defence Forces who will be sent to the Border regions. We have lost the barracks in Monaghan and Cavan. Have we war-gamed? Have we earmarked the accommodation that may be necessary should our soldiers have to travel there?
The Minister of State today spoke about three Defence Forces: the Permanent Defence Force; the Reserve Defence Force and the Civil Defence. I have worn all the uniforms and served in all of them. When I was a lad every Tuesday night on every corner there were four or five Reserve Defence Force lads waiting to go for training. Every Sunday morning there were trucks all over Galway city to bring them to the range, bring them on exercise or whatever. That has gone. I understand there are less than 2,000 active available Reserve Defence Force personnel. Clearly a major job of work needs to be done to re-establish the Reserve Defence Force in the way it was. What in the White Paper caused this collapse?
The Minister of State spoke about the approximately 4,500 members of the Civil Defence. I think he will find a number of them are across-----
The Senator has gone beyond his time. I took my eye off the ball there.
I will finish off. On the Naval Service, whether we like it or not, there was a period last winter when seven ships were tied up in Haulbowline and one ship was in the Mediterranean. That suggests to me that we are not patrolling the Irish coastline as we should to carry out work on fisheries protection, drug interdiction and countering people trafficking.
I would like me to say much more but time does not permit.
I gave the Senator a good run.
Albert Einstein is attributed with defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Today I will do something over again that I have done scores of times previously. I was hoping the Minister of State would rescue my sanity by providing us with a different outcome.
Since becoming a Member of the Oireachtas almost five years ago, I have referred to the Defence Forces on 324 occasions. On a number of these occasions, I have thanked them for the great work they have done in times of difficulty, such as the support they gave us while we were helping victims of flooding or snow. On other occasions I commended them on their fantastic peacekeeping work overseas.
However, on the vast majority of those occasions it was to raise some aspect of the pay and conditions of members of the Defence Forces. Whether it was parliamentary questions, Dáil debates, committee debates, Seanad debates, Order of Business, Commencement Matters, statements such as today, or even letters to the Minister of State or his Department, I seem to be asking the same basic questions. I have been asking for movement on the pay and conditions of members of the Defence Forces. The wages of many ranks are poor and the hours of work are often much longer than those specified in the working time directive. I have been calling for an increase in the military service allowance, which is payable to all Defence Forces personnel, but which would not have a knock-on effect on the remainder of the public service.
I have been raising issues about recruitment, retention and recommissioning. Every time I raise these issues, I get the same result: an answer written, with respect, by civil servants and designed to concede nothing. They reheat the same speech over and over again, referring to the White Paper, which, I remind the Minister of State, is now more than four years old. They make vague promises that there may be some reward over the rainbow of the Public Service Pay Commission. Like the rainbow, the end of the pay commission seems to get ever further away.
There have been promises that a sub-committee of the conciliation council would examine working hours but many months later, the Department has still not produced the terms of reference. We have got a vague statement about the pride and esteem in which we hold these brave men and women. However, esteem will not pay anybody's electricity bill and it is not possible to do the weekly shopping with a pocketful of pride.
With a family background in military service and having grown up looking over the parade ground at Custume Barracks, I have a particular grá for those who serve our country and its flag in the Army, Naval Service, Air Corps, Reserve Defence Force or Civil Defence. They provide a diverse range of specialist capabilities across all service branches to support citizens and the State in security and crisis situations. Their professionalism and dedication in the face of demanding challenges is unique to military service and should be acknowledged by the Government. I take no pleasure in complaining to the Minister of State here today. My comments are not intended to be personal. However, the Department has given up on these fine men and women and it is the reason many of them are now leaving the Defence Forces. We must ensure that military service is an attractive career option for young men and women. Currently, enlisted recruits are among the lowest paid public employees and the fact that many must rely on family income supplement and other State supports speaks for itself. Unlike other public servants, they cannot and will not strike and we should not use that fact to treat them less favourably than other public servants.
As we move towards the centenary of the establishment of the National Army in 1922, we must put in place the structures and funding to ensure Óglaigh na hÉireann is motivated and resourced to commence its second century ready to meet the needs of a changing Ireland. Throughout the history of the State, we have seen many occasions on which the Defence Forces have refused to give up. I refuse to give up on them. I will keep going. I will keep doing the same thing over and over and I will continue to raise these issues until we get a different result. If only to give himself some peace from my pestering, I ask the Minister of State to please offer the House some different outcome. Can he tell us anything positive that has changed since the last time we had statements in the House? If he could, it would help his sanity and mine. More importantly, it would finally demonstrate that we support the Army founded by our party's predecessors. It would be the first step towards providing our personnel with the recognition and absolute respect they deserve.
Tá fáilte is fiche roimh an Aire Stáit as a bheith linn don phlé. The Minister of State is very welcome to the House for these statements. I note and appreciate his indication that he has come to the House with a listening ear. Like Senator McFadden and other Members who have spoken, however, I feel a sense of deja vú around the contributions thus far. Like other speakers, therefore, I hope we get to hear some concrete and credible proposals that will begin the process of making an impact and tangible difference to the lives of members of the Defence Forces and their families. I have two matters to raise. The first is the erosion of our neutrality. I disagree with what my colleague, Senator Craughwell, said in this regard. The second is the issue of working conditions and pay of members of the Defence Forces.
Many people are deeply concerned that there has been a consistent drip-feed of measures which are incompatible with neutrality. A few months ago, Fine Gael MEPs produced a document which argued that our neutral position should be compromised to facilitate greater European integration. Several EU leaders, including Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel, have made it clear that they would like to see the establishment of an EU army. I am also concerned that there is evidence that the European Defence Agency is commandeering funding streams such as those for small and medium businesses and social funding streams at EU level for defence projects. A number of these have been successful. The State has recently signed up to participation in PESCO projects which many believe are the foundation for greater EU defence integration and, ultimately, an EU army. Fine Gael MEPs recently voted in the European Parliament in favour of a report calling for each member state to spend 2% of current GDP on defence. Currently, the State spends 0.3% of GDP on defence. The Minister of State must clarify whether he supports this position and intends to raise defence spending in line with other member states. While Sinn Féin supports increased investment in our Defence Forces, in particular to address issues such as pay, we have huge concerns at proposed increases to align us with the European militarisation agenda. This is particularly so in the face of the need for more houses and an improvement in our health services. Sinn Féin has produced a Bill that seeks to enshrine neutrality in the Constitution through a referendum. We believe that most people wish to preserve our neutral status and that any change to that status is a matter for the people, not the Government.
With respect to working conditions for Defence Forces personnel, there have been substantial cuts in pay and allowances. There is a serious issue with retention and recruitment. This has been recognised by the Public Service Pay Commission which is currently examining the issue. Its report was due last year but has been delayed. Numbers have fallen in the Defence Forces from 9,173 at the end of 2017 to 8,975 at the end of 2018. The optimum number is 9,500. Experienced and trained staff are leaving in their droves for the private sector where they can obtain better pay and conditions. The Defence Forces have little or no collective bargaining rights, are prohibited from joining or affiliating with trade unions and cannot strike. Sinn Féin has proposed legislation to provide collective bargaining rights for the Defence Forces and gardaí. The European Committee of Social Rights upheld a case taken by PDFORRA, which represents the ordinary rank and file membership of the Defence Forces, to establish greater collective bargaining rights of Defence Forces' members, although it also stated that the prohibition against strike action was appropriate. Currently, members of the Defence Forces are exempt from the provisions of the working time directive and are required to work extensive hours at very short notice. While many members accept this is a feature of the job to some extent, the issue has been exacerbated by the fact that highly expert personnel have left and those remaining have seen their workloads increase. There are a number of cases being taken in relation to this matter. While the Government has said an internal working group is examining the matter, it refuses to give further details as there are cases ongoing. To me, that sounds like a cop-out. The Government committed to bringing forward legislation on this in 2016 but we have seen no progress. Instead, members of the Defence Forces have been forced to take cases to the High Court, which is a disgraceful necessity.
I note the remarks of the Minister of State on Brexit - all two and a half sentences of them. His last sentence unnerves me in that it says the Government's stated goal remains to ensure current all-island border arrangements are maintained to the greatest extent possible. That is not what the Government is saying. The Government is saying there will be no hard border on the island and that, come hell or high water, there will be no infrastructure, mechanics or manifestation in any way of a hard border. I heard that reaffirmed as recently as this morning at the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality by the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, who was before the committee to discuss Garda numbers and the Garda presence along the Border. The Minister of State might, therefore, reassure the people listening and watching carefully in that regard. I listened to Senator Craughwell refer to war games along the Border and preparations for this stuff. The Border is made up of people's back yards and farming fields. It consists of stone bridges and country lanes. I sure as hell hope we are not preparing in that fashion. I am not saying this to be combative or to undermine any steps the Minister of State must take, but we have one stated and clear position from the Government on the return of any border and something that is a little bit more opaque and different in the statement he made this afternoon. He might take the opportunity to reassure me in that regard.
I have mentioned to the Minister of State before the approach from his Department to recruitment north of that invisible border. I attend a number of major events, including festivals and maritime events, at which significant organisations seek to recruit members. These include university freshers' fairs at which I have not seen a presence on the part of the Defence Forces despite the considerable interest in the service in the community in the North. Many young men and women approach me on foot of my role in the Seanad to see if there are avenues along which they might proceed and to secure letters of support. I appreciate that this comes at the Minister of State from leftfield a little bit. As such, I will follow up with him in writing on that.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and join other speakers in commending our armed forces on the role they have played in the development of the State and in service on United Nations missions overseas. I share the pride of many in that service as well as the concern others have spoken of in great detail about the conditions under which Defence Forces' personnel must work.
It is imperative that those who serve the country in this way are properly remunerated and supported and that there is an opportunity to let their collective voice be expressed. I know there are prohibitions on what they can do in that regard but it is important that they be heard. The working time directive will provide another chance to ensure we move towards serving in this way being a genuine and a liveable option. Some parts of the expenditure the Minister of State outlined will address pay and pension issues. Nobody would argue with that except to say we need more resources in those areas.
The Minister of State also mentioned capital expenditure. It would be good to have a sense of what that involves. Are there plans for a multi-role vehicle, which is a big ticket item? I know it was discussed. It is a real concern because it is not normally compatible with our previous peacekeeping work. Perhaps the Minister of State could indicate whether that is on the agenda.
Does the Senator mean a multi-role vessel or vehicle?
A multi-role vessel for carrying vehicles.
I know some people such as the Tory islanders who got the Queen of Aran, a very old ship, that I travelled on as a teenager, were concerned at the expenditure on items such as military ships when our ferries are so poorly resourced. That points to the general need for assurance because we have seen the Minister of State's party calling for 2% of the budget to be spent on defence at European level. That is also present as a goal in the Permanent Structured Cooperation, PESCO, moving to a very high level of defence expenditure. That is a real concern for many. There have been indications of European social and structural funds being routed into military expenditure. Perhaps the Minister of State could address that. Can he assure us that Ireland's aid and overseas development funding is not being used in any way for military activity or infrastructure? That is important because people take great pride in our aid and development funding.
While on one level reviews are a positive thing, when I look at the regular White Paper reviews I am concerned that they will be used to increase military spending every time one rolls around. Can the Minister of State assure us that Ireland's neutrality will be firmly represented in these reviews and the rolling set of White Papers? I absolutely disagree with others who have spoken. Ireland is a neutral nation. Its neutrality is well documented and has been spoken about at the highest level, including at the UN Security Council. Ireland has both sought and gained recognition, opportunities, derogations based on its neutral status and there are infinite statements over many years about our status. I believe there have been compromises in certain ways by the use of Shannon Airport and by signing up to PESCO but neutrality is something deeply important to the Irish people. We know that surveys show that 80% of the Irish public support it. Given the apparent confusion on the part of some Members of the House I would like the Minister of State to assure us that all his Department's documents will reflect that neutrality. We can expect it to be very visible, not only in the reservations attached to the status of forces agreements, SOFA, which the Minister of State mentioned. He might elaborate on those reservations and how they mention neutrality but also on the White Papers on a rolling basis. Neutrality needs to be cemented. Can the Minister of State assure us that the Government will be strongly asserting our position as a neutral nation over the course of the next year? We know that if the United Kingdom were to withdraw there are many in Europe who would like to see a European army. Many senior Commissioners have openly stated this. Will Ireland make it very clear to our European friends and allies, who we value so much, that we believe our contribution to Europe is made as a neutral nation? Ireland was able, for example, to send Eamon Gilmore, as someone from a neutral nation, to Colombia to help secure peace there. This is the service Ireland's neutrality has done for Europe and the world.
Another border of concern is the one manned by the European Border and Coastguard Agency, Frontex. Jean-Claude Juncker has said that he plans to have 10,000 additional border guards on the borders of Europe. Will Irish military and security personnel be involved in that? Will Ireland be funding that? What is the Minister of State's perspective on that? The militarisation of Europe's borders has deeply undermined our collective human rights reputation.
In 2017 we debated Operation Sophia. The Minister of State said then that transferring to Operation Sophia will result in the redeployment of Irish Naval Service vessels from primarily humanitarian search and rescue to primarily security and interception. Many people spoke about the pride we all felt when we saw Irish ships saving lives. I pointed out at the time that vote meant we were moving away from saving lives. Sadly, that has proved true. There is no longer meaningful search and rescue happening in the Mediterranean. Instead, we are supporting the Libyan coastguard and outrageous situations in Libya as highlighted by Médecins sans Frontières, Amnesty International and Irish journalists who have travelled there. More than 721 deaths at sea were registered in June and July 2018. Those lives might have been saved previously by Irish ships and humanitarian work. This is a really serious concern. How does the Minister of State view the future of Operation Sophia? How does he stand over Ireland's failure in this humanitarian work? How can we justify funding inhumane conditions?
Have any operations taken place outside the UN Security Council resolutions in respect of Operation Sophia? There has been a pull away from the intermediate range nuclear forces treaty. Can the Minister of State comment on Ireland's role in disarmament and how he plans to address the recent concerns of countries pulling away from our international disarmament infrastructure? Could he also comment on India and Pakistan in that regard?
There are several speakers and if everybody uses up their time somebody will miss out at the end. Could speakers be as brief as possible and not repeat what other people have said? That is not a reflection on anyone who has not spoken. I call Senator Nash.
The Senator has advised me not to repeat what anybody else has said but I cannot help agreeing with-----
I have asked the Senator.
-----Senator Higgins's sentiments particularly about the Operation Sophia arrangement. For years we have been signing up to various international arrangements, many quite positive for the Irish Defence Forces in respect of experience and our general commitment to securing peace around the world. Notwithstanding that, however, and despite the reassurances given by successive Ministers for Defence, there is no doubt that our neutrality is being compromised, piece by piece. Some might say a new reality faces us globally and our Defence Forces and policy may need to adapt. I think most of us in this House can agree that our neutrality is something that should be defended and respected. We are famed for our neutrality.
In my own work, even as a Minister of State in an entirely different context, when I was abroad, other governments often mentioned that it was respected, valued and cherished and Ireland's bona fides was always accepted because of our neutrality and the way we manage our defence situation and our history of neutrality. We should continue to value it and never undermine it.
We all talk about how we value the Defence Forces personnel, their families and the commitment they make to our country. However, I agree with Senator McFadden that all too often we just pay lipservice. The value we say we place in the Defence Forces is not always reflected in the way we remunerate their work, their commitment to our country and the sacrifices they make. This is no ordinary job. We know that. It is galling and plain wrong to see about 80% of Defence Forces personnel earning less than the average public sector wage. It is extraordinary and a really sad commentary on the situation. Too many rely on the working family payment to supplement meagre incomes. Defence Forces personnel make enough sacrifices without having to rely on the working family payment. No full-time working individual should have to rely on it to make ends meet. There is no dignity in that. We really need to focus on the work of the Public Sector Pay Commission and the work that is being done by RACO and PDFORRA. I compliment the campaigning work of the families and partners of Defence Forces personnel to draw attention to the pay injustices that are inherent in the system.
This problem did not just emerge today or yesterday. It has been ongoing, as we all know. Successive Governments have to take responsibility for it. Nobody here is entirely blameless. Everybody has responsibility in this regard. I have been reading media reports from last week on the EU training mission, EUTM, camp in Mali, an operation in which 20 Irish personnel are involved. The camp came under attack from suspected al-Qaeda operatives. There could have been a lot of fatalities, including of Irish personnel but, thankfully, there were not. It illustrates the sacrifices that are made by Defence Forces personnel abroad to protect our values, to protect democracy and spread peace and security.
Far too many active and retired Defence Forces personnel struggle day in, day out. Often, retired members are coming from an institutionalised background, where they are used to strict military discipline, and find it difficult to adapt to life on civvy street, as it might be described. There are very high levels of relationship breakdown, addiction issues and psychiatric problems among members of the Defence Forces and former serving members. I pay tribute to the work of the Organisation of National Ex-service Personnel, ONE, in supporting our veterans. I am sure the Minister of State will join me in that. We often forget about our veterans, who have made very serious sacrifices to represent and defend the interests of our democracy. ONE spearheaded a very important and effective campaign to raise public awareness of the issue of homelessness for our former Defence Forces members. Despite its good work in providing very significant levels of accommodation in Dublin and elsewhere, far too many former members of the Defence Forces find themselves homeless and in difficulty. During ONE's campaign, former Defence Forces personnel raised awareness of homelessness by wrapping themselves in a tricolour sleeping bag. That was a very effective way of illustrating the problem and it goes to show why we need to resource ONE to work with the difficult cases it encounters every day and the difficult situations in which veterans find themselves. They deserve our respect and genuine support, financial and otherwise, not just our lipservice or tokenistic support.
I was surprised to learn that there is no full-time psychiatrist employed by the Defence Forces. Perhaps the Minister of State would elaborate on this. I understand that moves may be afoot to try to retain the services of a locum psychiatrist. We have a Defence Forces complement of almost 10,000. Given some of the experiences they face on the front line, the job they do and the difficult scenarios they face in defending our country and representing Ireland on UN missions, our veterans often experience post-traumatic stress disorder. It is really important we focus on the need to engage the services of experienced psychiatric personnel to work with serving members of the Defence Forces to work through any issues they may have. If those issues are not dealt with in the workplace and people are not supported in those scenarios, we store up problems for the future.
Senators Lawlor, Leyden and Buttimer have indicated. We have only nine minutes for the three of them but they are entitled to five minutes each. I ask them to be as brief as they can and to take three minutes each if possible.
I have no problem extending the time if Senators wish to take five minutes each.
The Minister of State would not get any time to respond because this debate has to finish by 6.30 p.m.
I am sure the Acting Chairman will give me ten minutes to respond at the end.
It will not be me in the Chair. According to the Order of Business, this has to conclude by 6.30 p.m. The Leader can propose a change if he likes. I call Senator Lawlor.
I agree with many of the comments that have been made. I know a number of people who have served overseas in all divisions of the Defence Forces. I am familiar with the work they do. We have all mentioned recruitment and the Minister of State referred to it on a number of occasions. I do not think recruitment is the issue. Many people are willing to join the Air Corps, Naval Service or Army. The real problem is retention. The Minister of State made reference to the Public Service Pay Commission. It needs to report very quickly because part of the problem associated with retention is pensions, particularly for those who have recently joined the military. There is a fixed time at which they have to go. They have to retire by the age of 58 or 60, a restriction not applied to anyone else. However, they do not receive their State pension until the age of 66 at present, and that age will be 68 or 69 by the time many of these people are retiring. There used to be a supplementary pension that would cover the time between being forced to retire by the State and receiving the State pension. I ask the Minister of State to speak to the pay commission so that this can be resolved. It is an issue that is upsetting the military at the moment and making it difficult for the Defence Forces to retain personnel, particularly in the 30 to 40 age group, because those people are looking towards where they will be in 20 or 25 years. That is when I started my own private pension. They will have to consider whether to do that then. Can the Minister of State give them some reassurance that there will be something for them when they are forced out of the military and until they receive the full State pension?
The Minister of State made a very comprehensive speech, which will be analysed by the representative bodies, such as PDFORRA and RACO. A good case can be made for the reinstatement of a full Cabinet position. I know the Minister of State attends Cabinet but there is a case to be made for a reorganisation of the Ministry to give defence a real, full say at Cabinet level. That is no disrespect to the Minister of State. He is doing his utmost to persuade Government to support the Army in every way possible. I have a vested interest because my nominating bodies are PDFORRA and RACO. The general secretary of PDFORRA is Gerard Guinan and the general secretary of RACO is Commandant Conor King, the deputy general secretary is Lieutenant Colonel Derek Priestly and the former general secretary is Lieutenant Colonel Earnán Naughton. All of them provide a great service.
They do an excellent job in representing the rank and file and the officers of the Army, which is vital. I understand the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, has a close relationship with the organisations and is accessible to them. I have never heard otherwise, and that is very important. His speech will be analysed by the representative bodies and if there are any queries in that regard, I am sure they will refer back to Members of the Seanad and to the nominees who received the endorsement of both organisations and were elected on the Labour Panel. They would feel we owe them a debt of gratitude for their support and that it is our turn to support them in any way possible.
In that regard, an issue has arisen in the last few days. The Minister of State is probably aware of the emails that have been sent to Members of the Oireachtas regarding the Jadotville situation. I understood there was a recognition of Jadotville and the question of a medal when the Minister of State was in Athlone. The representations have been particularly strong on this. I have received hundreds of emails. An email from Malahide community school states that the school has close links with some of the Jadotville personnel, including Commandant Patrick Quinlan, the officer who commanded A Company and who was deserving of the military medal for gallantry, Captain Liam Donnelly, who was recommended for the distinguished service medal, and Corporal John McManus, who was recommended for the distinguished service medal. The email continues that in recent years the school has become aware of the battle of Jadotville and the issues regarding recognition of the extraordinary achievements of the men of A Company, 35th Infantry Battalion, in the Congo in 1961.
I cannot understand why they have not been given the recognition they deserve. They were courageous but they were written out of history. I hope the Minister of State will give a response to this. The function the Minister of State held in Custume Barracks in Athlone was an important and significant event for the survivors of Jadotville. What other action can he take to recognise their work? They saved their men on that occasion. Otherwise, it would have been a blood sacrifice and that would not have been justified in the circumstances. For some reason there is a feeling, since the time of Conor Cruise O'Brien and others, that their work and sacrifices have not been recognised. They were outnumbered and outmanoeuvred.
I am sorry I do not have more time to speak. Senator Ned O'Sullivan has outlined our position, but I was anxious to put that point to the Minister of State. Our spokesperson in the Dáil, Deputy Jack Chambers, is responding positively to the representations that have been made and he has raised the matter with the Minister of State in the Dáil. We will continue to lobby in this regard.