Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Questions (59)

Bríd Smith

Question:

59. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his plans to recognise representative associations for members of the Defence Forces; his plans to allow such bodies to join a union (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53015/19]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Defence)

What are the Minister of State's plans to recognise representative associations for members of the Defence Forces and to allow Defence Force personnel to join their union and be recognised as part of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions?

Section 2(3) of the Defence (Amendment) Act 1990 prohibits the Defence Forces representative associations from being associated with or affiliated to any trade union or any other body without the consent of the Minister. Members of the Permanent Defence Force also cannot become members of a trade union. To compensate for these limitations, there are a range of statutory redress mechanisms available to serving members, including redress of wrongs, a Defence Forces Ombudsman, and a conciliation and arbitration scheme for members of the Permanent Defence Force.

In 2017, the European Committee of Social Rights, in a non-binding ruling, upheld the prohibition on the right of military personnel to strike but did conclude that Ireland was in violation of Article 5 of the European Social Charter on the grounds of the prohibition against military representative associations from joining national employee organisations and in respect of Article 6.2 of the charter regarding the right to bargain collectively.

It should be noted that the basis for the complaint predates a number of significant Government initiatives. On collective bargaining, the Permanent Defence Force Representative Associations was afforded equal standing to other public sector trade unions and representative associations during the negotiations that led to the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020.

The findings of the European Committee of Social Rights were considered as part of an independent review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme for members of the Permanent Defence Force, which was completed last year. One of the recommendations from that review was that the official side should, with the consent of the Minister, engage in discussions with ICTU to explore the practicalities of a PDF representative association forming association or affiliation with ICTU, while giving due consideration to any likely conflict that might arise between such an arrangement and the obligations of military service. Association with ICTU poses complex questions for the Defence Forces from a legal, operational and management perspective. I asked my officials to examine this matter further and, in this regard, defence management - civil and military - has engaged in discussions with ICTU. Defence management has also met the PDF representative associations, RACO and PDFORRA, to discuss this matter. I have also discussed the matter of ICTU affiliation with both RACO and PDFORRA.

I am aware of PDFORRA's long-standing ambition to affiliate with ICTU. I am also aware that RACO, the representative body for commissioned officers, has a conflicting position on this matter. The implications of possible association or affiliation are being carefully considered and engagement is continuing with PDFORRA and ICTU on this matter.

The point that jumps out at me from the Minister of State's answer is that RACO and PDFORRA cannot affiliate to trade unions without the consent of the Minister. The question is why the Minister is not willing to consent. We need to tease that out because this has gone on for a very long time. In the meantime, the Defence Forces are haemorrhaging members and finding it very difficult to retain them. Figures on the number of people who left the Defence Forces in this year alone show there were 256 discharges in the first four months of 2019, the highest figure since the reorganisation of 2012. In April alone, there were 86 discharges. It is worth reminding ourselves that each of these discharges costs the individual concerned €300.

The Minister of State is burying his head in the sand in not acknowledging that, despite the acceptance by some of a pay offer recently, the problems in the Defence Forces run very deep and are not being resolved. Soldiers, sailors and others in the Naval Service, etc., believe their best chance of representation is with their trade union and ICTU. They have committed to the understanding that they would not take strike action.

I do not accept any of the Deputy's comments. As part of the terms of reference of the review of the conciliation and arbitration scheme, I asked the chairman of the review, Mr. Barry, to look at ICTU affiliation for members of the Defence Forces. That arose from a decision in a EUROMIL case. It is incorrect of the Deputy to say I have been ignoring this issue. If she had read a little more and explored this issue, she may have found out about my activity in this area. What I will not do is rush into a decision here. I am giving this matter very careful consideration. I have the advice of military management, which I will take at face value. If there is ever an affiliation, I want to get reassurances that the Defence Forces will still have the capability to carry out their day-to-day duties. They are there to defend the State. That is of paramount concern to me.

I am sorry if the Minister of State took up my comment as suggesting he ignored the issue. I did not say that. I said he was not doing what he could do, which is to give consent for members of the Defence Forces to be part of a trade union and part of ICTU. There has been much talk about that issue. We have revisited it time and again and there have been meetings and discussions. It is within the Minister of State's gift to give such consent. PDFORRA has given a commitment that its members would not engage in strike action. Reference to RACO is disingenuous because its members are already happy with the internal procedures and forums in place to address their grievances. I want the Minister of State to acknowledge that whatever deals he has done recently, they will not address the gross underpayment and poor conditions faced by Defence Forces personnel and that their desire and expressed willingness to become part of the ICTU and their belief that they would be better represented in that way should not be ignored, particularly while we face climate chaos. The people we will rely on most when we have flooding events, landslides, rising sea levels and unique storm events will be the members of the Defence Forces. If the Defence Forces are demoralised and haemorrhaging members, we cannot expect to get a full and proper service. The security of the State is being used an argument against allowing these workers to join a trade union. The security of the State is at risk, particularly in light of climate chaos, because we are haemorrhaging members of the Defence Forces.

I acknowledge we have major challenges in the future. To return to the issue the Deputy raised about ICTU affiliation, I noted during a debate on a Private Members' motion tabled by Deputy Jack Chambers of Fianna Fáil that all Opposition Deputies supported membership of ICTU. The motion was supported by all Members of the House at the time. As the Minister of State with responsibility for this matter, I must take into account all the concerns, specifically those of military management. I know RACO, the representative association for commissioned officers, has concerns about PDFORRA becoming affiliated members of ICTU. I agree with the Deputy that we need the Defence Forces in times of crisis. However, when it comes to negotiating, members of the Defence Forces have representative associations but they want to go a step further. I am giving that matter very careful consideration, taking into account all the concerns, specifically those of military management and the Chief of Staff who has written to me about them. I will wholeheartedly take those on board. I am in communication with the Chief of Staff and PDFORRA on these issues.

I am conscious of the time remaining. Four Members wish to contribute and only 23 minutes remain. I ask Members to ensure they comply with the time provided.