Thursday, 17 January 2019

Questions (10, 14)

Brendan Smith

Question:

10. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the proposed recruitment programme for the Permanent Defence Forces for 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1957/19]

View answer

Brendan Smith

Question:

14. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the number of personnel serving in the Permanent Defence Forces at the end of 2018; the projected enlistment for 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1956/19]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Defence)

As the Minister of State knows, the quality of personnel serving in our Permanent Defence Forces is a great asset for our country. We see that in the work of members at home and abroad, often in difficult and dangerous circumstances. The decline in the serving numbers has to be a source of concern to all of us and we need to get the numbers back up in excess of 10,000. I understand that there were about 9,000 serving members towards the end of December. The Minister of State knows that is not a sufficient number to enable our Army, Air Corps and Naval Service to carry out their mandated duties and there is an urgent need to have the numbers enlisted increase.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 14 together.

As of 31 December 2018, which is the date for which the latest figures are available, the whole time equivalent strength of the PDF stood at just under 9,000 personnel.

There are significant career opportunities available at both enlisted and officer level for eligible individuals who wish to have a rewarding and positive career in service to the State. The Permanent Defence Forces continue to offer excellent opportunities for serving personnel and for new entrants.

In order to return to the agreed strength of 9,500 Permanent Defence Forces personnel, recruitment continued throughout 2018. This encompassed two general service recruit competitions, and competitions for cadets, apprentices and instrumentalists along with other intake from direct entry streams. This has resulted in over 611 personnel inducted in 2018. This figure does not include the 15 members of the PDF who were awarded a cadetship last year.

Recently, I met senior civil and military officials to review recruitment plans for 2019 and I can confirm that, subject to further consideration, similar recruitment competitions to those held in 2018 will take place in 2019. At this point it is not possible to predict the precise numbers that will be recruited but it is anticipated that this will be in the region of some 800 personnel. The military authorities have advised that targeted media campaigns using social and traditional media, cinema and print will continue to form important elements of their recruitment drive. A variety of recruitment initiatives will also be undertaken throughout the year, including outreach events at local and national level. Additionally, the Defence Forces will accept general service recruitment applications outside of the two normal competition periods.

Some specialist posts such as pilots, air traffic controllers and certain technicians are presenting challenges for recruitment and retention. I have previously acknowledged this fact, which is reflective of the current economic circumstances and attractive job opportunities in the private and commercial semi-State sectors. The level of training and experience gained by members of the Defence Forces makes them very attractive to private sector employers. The Defence Forces are not unique in this regard and this is experienced by other parts of the public service and by other military organisations internationally. A range of alternative recruitment approaches are being developed, aimed at addressing such vacancies in specialist areas.

A scheme has been introduced that permits former officers with specialist skills to re-enter the Permanent Defence Force and arrangements are in train to provide a similar scheme for former enlisted personnel. Currently there is direct entry provision for those with professional qualifications, which is utilised for the recruitment of medical officers and engineers. A working group is examining the scope for greater use of such direct entry recruitment for certain specialist positions.

The Public Service Pay Commission is examining the issue of the recruitment and retention of specialist personnel within the Defence Forces. When the commission reports, its findings will be considered at that point. The Government is committed to retaining the capacity of the Defence Forces to operate effectively across all roles and to undertake the tasks laid down by Government, both at home and overseas.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. It is disappointing to note that even in the month of December the numbers declined in our Permanent Defence Force. The Minister of State will recall that at the PDFORRA conference last October, its members highlighted how large numbers of soldiers, sailors and Air Corps staff were buying themselves out of the Defence Forces because they were unhappy with the pay and conditions. As we know, PDFORRA has been a good, strong and reasonable advocate on behalf of its members. I know from speaking to PDFORRA that it is anxious that pay and conditions be improved as rapidly as possible.

The serving personnel figure of fewer than 10,000 is stretching our Army in carrying out its mandated duties. It is essential the numbers are increased in 2019. Unfortunately, there will be additional requirements on our Permanent Defence Force in the south of Ulster and along the Border. None of us want to see checkpoints again. Regardless of the outcome of Brexit - and I sincerely hope there is an agreement between the British Government and the European Union - there will be additional responsibilities on our Permanent Defence Force.

I take the concerns the Deputy raised but the EU and UK have recognised that the open border on the island of Ireland has been essential to peace and the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. There is no planning for infrastructure at the Border. In the normal course of events, the Defence Forces carry out analysis and background research into contingencies and this is no surprise. The Deputy spoke about members of the Defence Forces returning to the Border. That is not the case and that is not being envisaged. In the context of security and research, with regard to the Border or otherwise internally in the Defence Forces, it is important that we carry out due diligence.

With regard to the pay and conditions issues raised by the Deputy, the Public Service Pay Commission is looking at this specific issue. A joint military and civil submission was made to the commission in December. I hope we will have an outcome in the first quarter or early in the second quarter of 2019.

I assume, from what An Taoiseach said the other day, that in the context of contingency planning for the outcome of Brexit, every State agency will be doing some prudent contingency planning. I assume this is also under way in the Defence Forces. I never want to see at a checkpoint again. I grew up with them. When the Good Friday Agreement was signed, I consigned them to history in my mind, as I have told the Minister of State at committee meetings. There has to be a review of Army infrastructure in the Border region regardless of Brexit. I argued vehemently with one of the Minister of State's predecessors about the closure of Dún Úi Neill barracks in Cavan. It was the most modern barracks in Europe. It was the only purpose-built Army barracks in our State. It was the most efficient military installation and, unfortunately, it was closed. Now the two military installations along the Border are Aiken Barracks in Dundalk and Finner Camp in south Donegal. Regardless of Brexit, there should be a review of the military infrastructure in the central Border area.

Even though the Minister of State cannot even reach the establishment level of 9,500, does he accept there is a need to look at increasing it to carry out the existing tasks and duties of the Defence Forces? Otherwise the men and women will be stretched to breaking point. There is also a need to go beyond the establishment figure to address some of the problems identified earlier by the Minister of State when answering me on the working time directive.

My priority is to ensure we get back up to 9,500. The Government has provided a full budget to reach this figure. I take the Deputy's views on board. I reiterate the Taoiseach's words earlier last week. All agencies and organisations of the State are engaged in prudent planning for Brexit. I am repeating exactly what the Taoiseach and all Ministers have stated previously. It is my priority to make sure we get back up to 9,500. There are a number of issues with regard to recruitment. I have asked the Department to conduct a review of recruitment. It is something I will prioritise for 2019. We will look at it and we will have a review. I want to make sure it happens this year. A review has not been carried out for a long number of years. My priority, and the priority of the organisation, is to ensure we get back up to 9,500 personnel. It is important that we get back up to this number. Getting back up to 9,500 has been fully budgeted.