Thursday, 17 January 2019

Questions (9)

Jack Chambers


9. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his priorities for the Reserve Defence Force in 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1860/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Defence)

What are the Minister of State’s priorities for the Reserve Defence Forces in 2019? During his tenure, he has said little about the Reserve Defence Force. There has been a recruitment problem which has been outlined by the Reserve itself. What are his plans to address the diminishing numbers in the Reserve?

The Reserve Defence Forces, RDF, are comprised of the First Line Reserve, the Army Reserve and the Naval Service Reserve. The Government recognises the important role that the three elements of the RDF play in contributing to Ireland's defence capability. The 2015 White Paper on Defence is clear that there is a continued requirement to retain and develop the Reserve Defence Forces 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. The specialist Reserve will seek to develop individual members of the Reserve, who by virtue of their professional civilian qualifications, have the competence to undertake specialist tasks. The Government has decided that a panel of such professionally qualified members of the Reserve, to be known as the specialist Reserve, should be established. A gap analysis of skill sets in the Permanent Defence Forces, PDF, will identify potential roles for Reserve members who possess specialist skills. Options to develop the First Line Reserve are also currently being examined.

Last July, the Chief of Staff assigned the responsibility of director of Reserve Defence Forces to the director of combat support and ISTAR. In this context, plans for 2019 provide guidance, across all units and formations with Reserve Defence Forces assets, in developing their capabilities. This is in line with the single force concept and the role of the Reserve as described in the White Paper for Defence. The focus will be to harness RDF skills and talent, maximising their development on the basis of mutual engagement with the PDF. Specific project areas will focus on training, regulation, recruitment, retention and promotions and will be supported through RDF and PDF reciprocal training, mentoring and education.

A key ongoing challenge for the Reserve Defence Forces is to recruit and retain personnel. I am aware that there continues to be a shortfall between the current strength figures and those of the establishment, which provides for 4,069 personnel and recruitment is ongoing. The Defence Forces will run two recruitment campaigns for the Army Reserve and the Naval Service Reserve this year, one in March and a second in October. Supports being provided to maximise recruitment to the RDF include the use of social media and outreach activities by RDF members. PDF recruit exit interviews now contain information on applying for membership of the RDF.

Engagement will continue with the Reserve Defence Forces Representative Association, RDFRA. My officials are scheduled to meet RDFRA in the coming weeks. I would like to assure the Deputy that I remain committed to the ongoing development of the RDF within the framework set out in the White Paper, having regard to resource availability. It is my intention to ensure that momentum on its development is maintained throughout 2019 and the coming years.

The Minister of State told me in reply to a parliamentary question just before Christmas that the effective strength of the Reserve Defence Forces stood at 1,745. As with the Permanent Defence Forces, the Reserve has been in decline for years. While the Reserve Defence Forces had 2,280 effective members at the end of 2015, this had reduced to 2,049 by the end of 2016 and to 1,975 at the end of March 2017. The agreed established strength of the Reserve is 4,069.

While the Minister of State mentioned that he wants to have specialist training for the Reserve Defence Forces, to value them and to recruit them, the reality is represented by what the Reserve Defence Forces said themselves at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence in 2017 when they said that there are elements within the Department that they feel "simply could not care less about the Reserve Defence Forces." Some of the issues that were mentioned at that committee meeting need to be addressed at a policy level because the numbers are diminishing and the Minister of State needs to seriously address it or we will not have a proper Reserve.

I got correspondence about the issues that were raised at the Oireachtas committee by the Reserve and the Department replied to that in conjunction with the Permanent Defence Forces. They raised a number of issues and those issues were answered and replied to. The effective strength of the Army Reserve and the Naval Service Reserve as of 31 December 2018, which is the latest date for which figures are available, was 1,779 personnel. The Army Reserve had 1,666 and the Naval Service Reserve had 133. The strength of the First Line Reserve on 31 December 2018 was 288 personnel.

I have previously stated that if people have any ideas about encouraging the general public to get involved in the Reserve Defence Forces they should make them known. We have put a very rigorous recruitment programme together that is very attractive in terms of training and education for people when they join up.

Much of this relates to the large breakdown in rural and regional units of the Reserve Defence Forces. Mr. Richardson mentioned at that committee meeting that 6,000 applications were received between September 2015 and December 2016 and out of those applicants, 60 were recruited. That shows the mismatch between the numbers who might be interested and the numbers who go on to become reservists. We have a destructive policy where there is an element of contagion. The breakdown of the units is leading to a lack of involvement in proper defence policy.

The Minister of State needs to have the Reserve as a more integral part of defence policy so that they are actually valued within the whole architecture of defence.

The Chief of Staff has appointed a director of the Reserve, as I stated in my original reply. That shows the commitment from the Permanent Defence Forces and the value they place on the Reserve but it is up to the units on the ground to encourage members to apply, to join and to become members of the Reserve as well. When I speak to my colleagues across Europe, they all have the very same issue with the Reserve and the number of people who apply for the Reserve Defence Forces is not the same as would have applied previously. I have stated at the committee on numerous occasions that if members have any ideas around encouraging young people to join the Reserve Defence Forces they should make them known because people have received fabulous opportunities due to being members of the Reserve Defence Forces. Those people do not want to join the PDF but they want to be members of the RDF. They show the leadership skills and learn specific skills in different areas that they might not otherwise be able to get.