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Thursday, 8 Oct 2020

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Air Corps

Questions (1)

Sorca Clarke


1. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Defence his views on plans for the provision of primary radar. [28523/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Defence)

To the shock and horror of most of the country it was again reported last week that Ireland is the only EU country that does not have primary radar to monitor its airspace. More than 70% of EU traffic literally travels over our heads but we can only see those aircraft if they choose to allow us to do so by turning on their transponders. Why is this, and what is the Minister's view on the provision of primary radar?

I thank the Deputy. As this is the first time she and I have had formal questions, I congratulate her on her appointment. I look forward to working with her.

My priority as Minister for Defence is to ensure that the operational capability of the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service is maintained to the greatest extent possible so as to enable the Defence Forces to carry out their roles as assigned by Government, both at home and overseas.  

The acquisition of new equipment for the Defence Forces remains a clear focus for me. Future equipment priorities for the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service are considered in the context of the White Paper on Defence and as part of the capability development and equipment priorities planning process.  The principal aim over the period covered by the White Paper will be to replace and upgrade, as required, existing capabilities in order to retain a flexible response for a wide range of operational requirements, including response to security risks and other emergencies, both at home and overseas.  

Regarding primary radar, the 2015 White Paper on Defence states that should funding beyond that required to maintain existing Air Corps capabilities become available, the development of a radar surveillance capability for the Air Corps is a priority.  The 2019 White Paper update pointed out that the National Development Plan 2018-2027, which provides €541 million in capital funding for defence for the period up to 2022, does not make provision for a radar surveillance capability for the Air Corps.

 The Equipment Development Plan 2020-2024, which was published in June 2020, sets out the key priorities for equipment investment in the Defence Forces. The provision of a primary radar capability is included in the equipment development plan's pre-planning category.  Funding for the provision of radar surveillance capability for the Air Corps has not been provided in the current resource envelope under the equipment development plan.  Any future decisions in this regard will be in the context of Defence Forces priorities, having regard to the ongoing security environment and any associated developments.  However, the inclusion of a primary radar project on the equipment development plan will ensure that should funding become available, Department officials and Defence Forces colleagues will be in position to progress the matter through the equipment development plan's prioritisation and decision-making process.

Some years ago, an agreement was negotiated whereby the Royal Air Force, RAF, would patrol our airspace. I understand that agreement was signed by the Department of Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Irish Aviation Authority, a commercial State body not directly answerable to the Oireachtas. Is it true that the input of the General Officer Commanding of the Air Corps, who has statutory responsibility for military aviation, was not included in these negotiations? When was that agreement reached? What are its details? What impact will Brexit have on that agreement?

The lack of primary radar is the reason other state entities have been probing our airspace for years with high-altitude bombers and escorts. These foreign aircraft can see us but we cannot see them. They are not testing their capabilities, but those of the RAF.

It is important to be honest with people. The Air Corps is not equipped to monitor aircraft flying over the entirety of Irish airspace, nor is it tasked with that role. We have a relatively small Air Corps which does a really good job at what it is asked to do. We are not like many other countries that spend hundreds of millions or billions of euro on fighter aircraft that can monitor and defend airspace. For many years, we have chosen not to prioritise that equipment and funding. As Minister of Defence, a brief which I have held previously, I think it is important to be upfront about our capability and the role we ask the Air Corps to perform. We have just purchased three new Pilatus PC-12 aircraft which are very well equipped for surveillance. The Air Corps has a limited defence capacity, but it is important not to pretend to have a capacity we do not have.

Regarding relationships with our closest neighbour on defence issues, we have a memorandum of understanding with the UK on training and several other issues. Some arrangements for sharing capacity, which might be expected of two countries next door to each other, are in place.

I note the Minister did not actually answer the questions on when the agreement was reached or the impact Brexit will have on it. At the moment, our skies are patrolled by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, an organisation we consistently refuse to align with, citing our neutrality. Our pilots are trained in America and Australia, one of NATO's largest troop contributors. These facts can be viewed as eroding our expressed neutrality, the cornerstone of our foreign policy. The international standing of Ireland can now be legitimately questioned in this regard. In my opinion, this is a serious loss of sovereignty. I will ask the Minister again. What are the details of the agreement with the RAF and what impact will Brexit have?

Along with many others, I am working very hard to minimise the impact of Brexit across all areas and ensure that Ireland and the UK continue to co-operate in partnership on a range of issues, as would be expected of two neighbouring countries.

The idea that the Deputy has a problem with military personnel training abroad to ensure we have the most advanced training capabilities available to us when we are training soldiers, Air Corps personnel and naval officers is bizarre, frankly. Ireland is not a member of NATO and is not going to join it. We are not compromised by our relationship with NATO. We are a neutral State that is militarily non-aligned and we behave as such. That does not mean that we do not speak to NATO or engage in overseas peacekeeping operations in a way that is linked to NATO, as we have done in the past. We currently work with NATO on operations in Kosovo, for example, and we previously worked with it on de-mining in Afghanistan. There is nothing wrong with that. It does not mean that we are compromised in any way. Rather, it means we focus on interoperability to ensure that when we have peacekeeping missions abroad, we can work with others to make sure we protect our troops and do a good job.

Defence Forces Representative Organisations

Questions (2)

Peadar Tóibín


2. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Defence when he will meet representative organisations of the Defence Forces and discuss the high-level implementation plan for strengthening the Defence Forces. [29116/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Defence)

The members of the Defence Forces are heroes and patriots. They have been the last form of defence for the country on many occasions. They travel the world to defend peace in difficult and dangerous places. They work in shockingly difficult conditions with very low pay. That has been very damaging to morale within the Defence Forces and has also dealt a blow in terms of their numbers to the extent that it is increasingly difficult for the Defence Forces to function in the manner they wish. When will the Minister meet representatives of the Defence Forces?

On assuming my role as Minister for Defence, one of my first actions was to meet the Permanent Defence Force representative associations, namely, PDFORRA, and the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO. At the meeting in a barracks in Cork, we agreed that we should commit to meeting on a more regular basis and I am happy to follow through on that. I hope we can meet quarterly or at least three times per year or as needed. As the Deputy will be aware, the report of the Public Service Pay Commission on recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces was published on 4 July 2019. The report was accepted in full by the then Government and, in order to facilitate implementation, an extensive high-level plan entitled Strengthening our Defence Forces – Phase One, was agreed and published on the same date.

I am aware that the representative associations have been briefed on a regular basis by the officials of my Department charged with co-ordinating all the projects in the high-level plan as to progress in each of the project areas. I understand that some ten briefings, oral and written, have been provided to date, with the latest taking place on 1 October. In addition to the briefings, there is a standing invitation to the representative associations to submit any material they wish to be considered relating to any of the projects. In this context, several submissions with extensive observations have been made and I appreciate this engagement.

The immediate pay recommendations in the high-level implementation plan have all been delivered on foot of their acceptance by the representative associations. The timelines for the other projects which are set out in the plan were reviewed as the projects progressed and as work requirements become more evident. I am satisfied that the projects outlined in the plan are being prioritised and delivered as quickly as possible. However, it must be acknowledged that the anticipated timeframes for certain projects were overly ambitious. In addition, the Covid-19 emergency has impacted on some of the project timeframes. In some cases, personnel resources were necessarily reassigned to matters relating to the Covid-19 response and where other essential work was necessary, that took priority. However, work is ongoing on all projects and they are being progressed as quickly as possible.

I intend to develop a very good relationship with the representative bodies. I hope we can meet regularly. I expect that we will meet next week to go through the terms of reference for the upcoming commission for the review of the Defence Forces. I also wish to speak to them about a series of other issues. My style and approach as a Minister will be one of engagement. If necessary, that will be robust engagement, but I certainly wish to hear what the representative bodies have to say. We will respond as best we can.

I welcome the Minister's statement because I have spoken to representatives of the Defence Forces and they have asked when the implementation plan for the strengthening of the Defence Forces will be discussed. A representative of RACO recently stated that there are 300 fewer personnel in the Defence Forces than there were when the plan was put in place last year. Although there is a plan, we are still going in the wrong direction. Military officers have been quoted in newspapers as stating that, so far, it has been allowed to fail. It was obvious that the plan was failing well before Covid hit, so it is not necessarily the case that the pandemic has affected its implementation. A retired general told me that the low numbers are affecting operational capability on land and sea. I understand the Minister may have a different perspective and approach and I welcome that, but it is really important that he discuss with representatives of the Defence Forces how each level of the strengthening of the Defence Forces plan is implemented.

To be blunt, that is happening. It is true the benefit of the plan has not yet been seen in terms of increasing numbers in the Defence Forces. We had and continue to have a recruitment and retention challenge in the Defence Forces. That challenge was particularly acute in the Air Corps which, frankly, did not have enough pilots. That has been turned around in the past 12 months or so and it now has enough pilots. As Members are aware, there are particular problems in the Naval Service. Ships that should be going to sea are tied up because there are insufficient crews and specialties in terms of skill sets to crew them. That is not acceptable to me or this House. We have been working with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to try to address some of those issues and we are continuing to so do. Likewise, investment is required in certain areas of the Army. It is often the case in politics that when things are done they tend to get banked and people move on to the next thing. A significant amount of implementation of the plan is already in place and signed off on. There are some matters outstanding but we are prioritising getting them done as quickly as possible. There are other things that need to be done beyond the plan, which is why we are putting a commission in place which it is hoped will be set up in the coming three or four weeks, ahead of schedule. That will be a clear statement to the Defence Forces that we are prioritising the upcoming commission and the work it will do.

I acknowledge the Minister stated things have been done, but this issue did not arise overnight. It is not the case that people have just put in requests for these changes. This is not recent analysis on the weakening and reduction of the Defence Forces. The Minister rightly indicated that it is quite shocking. It is amazing that ships are currently tied up because crews are not available to deliver services on them. I refer to the working time directive, which I will discuss at a later stage. That legislation dates from 1997 and was the subject of a court case in 2010. It is now 2020 and we are still wondering when the implementation will be ready. I understand the Minister cannot do everything overnight but these are critical issues and I am asking that he meet the representative organisations to ensure the measures are fully implemented.

I do not wish to pretend that just because I am now Minister for Defence everything is different. My Department has been working with representative organisations to get many things done relating to the reports that have been completed. I am looking at a list of projects, most of which are complete and some of which are under way. Some of the asks of the report were for reviews etc. There are some asks which will be considered under the new round of pay negotiations and so on. It is important to state that much has been achieved because often the narrative around the Defence Forces focuses on what is not working and what has not been achieved.

Sometimes that contributes to our recruitment challenge because of the impression that is being given.

There are real problems. We are trying to address them and I intend addressing them head on. Some of them involve resources and money and some involve ensuring we have open terms of reference for this upcoming commission and we appoint top-class people to that commission to make sure the work the commission will do over a 12-month period or so can impact significantly on the future of the Defence Forces. It is an exciting time to be Minister for Defence. We have problems to solve but we also have robust mechanisms with which to do that.

Departmental Properties

Question No. 4 replied to with Written Answers.

Questions (3)

Sorca Clarke


3. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Defence if the site of Columb Barracks, Mullingar, will be examined as the potential national headquarters of the Army Reserve forces as part of a strategic State and Defence Forces role. [28524/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Defence)

In 2012, Columb Barracks in Mullingar ceased to be permanently occupied by the Defence Forces. Since then, there have been periods of local use by sporting bodies, An Garda Síochána and other valued and valuable community groups. Despite neglect by Government since its closure, the barracks, with its historical buildings on a large site, continues to have enormous potential. Unfortunately, it continues to fall into disrepair. It is now time to re-envisage the future of Columb Barracks in Mullingar as a national headquarters for the Reserve Defence Force. I ask the Minister to examine this proposal as a matter of urgency.

The Government recognises the importance of the role of the Reserve Defence Force, RDF, 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.

The primary roles allocated to the Reserve remain to augment the Permanent Defence Force, PDF, in crisis situations and to contribute to State ceremonial events. The commitments in the White Paper serve to underpin these important roles.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to establish an independent commission on the Defence Forces. I referred to this earlier. This commission will examine the role and contribution of the RDF, including its legislation, the regulations governing the RDF, the development of the first-line Reserve, and whether specialists from the RDF should be able to serve overseas. I have made comments in response to Deputy Cathal Berry's questions on this issue and on whether we should accommodate it in the legislation on defence that is coming through the Dáil.

The assignment in 2018 of responsibility of director of Reserve Defence Forces to the director of combat support and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance, ISTAR, based in Defence Forces headquarters, has allowed for the provision of guidance, across all units and formations with RDF 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. The focus is to harness RDF skills and talent, maximising its potential development on the basis of mutual engagement with the PDF. Specific project areas focus on training, regulation, recruitment, retention and promotions and are supported through RDF and PDF reciprocal training, mentoring and education.

In relation to Columb Barracks, it is the assessment of the Department that it is no longer required for military purposes. The current financial and administrative burden resulting from its retention cannot be sustained forever. For this reason, my officials have been proceeding with the disposal of the barracks in line with Government policy. They have been working with the new Land Development Agency on that process. I will come back to it because I am sure the Deputy will have questions on it. The site certainly has considerable potential. The barracks was closed in 2012, which is some time ago. The whole point of the Land Development Agency is to try to maximise for the State the potential of strategic sites such as this one. That is probably where the focus needs to be now.

The Reserve has always played a pivotal, if somewhat undervalued, role in the history of the State and the Defence Forces. We are now at a critical junction where a decision needs to be made on both the Reserve Defence Force and Columb Barracks. The investment in development and education, particularly for the youth, in experience in military lifestyles and military skills is best evidenced in the Reserve. It encompasses positive life choices that we want for our younger people, for example, healthy living, dedication to others, skills and leadership building.

When the Defence Forces reorganised in 2012, most elements of the Reserve were twinned with a parent regular unit. In theory, this leads to greater integration, but we live in the real world, not theory. This concept only works where there is a genuine commitment on the part of the State to develop the Defence Forces. I think we can all agree that the commitment level needed by the Defence Forces has not been met in previous years. We are now at a pivotal stage of considering the geographical location of Columb Barracks and how the barracks could meet the need of the Reserve Defence Force while also meeting other needs.

As the Deputy will be aware, since the closure of Columb Barracks in 2012, my Department has explored a number of avenues to try to secure its long-term future for the benefit of the local community which is, ultimately, what every asset should be about. Departments and other public bodies, including Westmeath County Council, have been invited to declare an interest in acquiring the property. However, no interest was expressed from any of these bodies.

In May 2016, officials from my Department attended a public meeting in Mullingar on the future use of the barracks. A local group was subsequently established to prepare a feasibility study on the community use of the premises. For all sorts of reasons, a report from that group has not been furnished to the Department. This is not about blaming anybody. We have tried and we had a lengthy process of exploring options for use of the barracks that could add positively to the local community and the area.

More recently, the Land Development Agency, on its establishment, was tasked with developing an initial tranche of eight sites, which were seen as strategic sites nationally, including the barracks in Mullingar. Since the establishment of the Land Development Agency, the Department has actively engaged with it on the modalities associated with legal transfers, etc. We will continue to work as best we can but it is important that I do not raise expectations around the military use of the barracks in the future because that may not be the direction of travel.

I am interested in developing the potential and capacity of the Reserve Defence Force. The Reserve is under strength and I hope we will be able to change that in the months ahead. As I say, I am certainly open to new thinking with regard to how the Reserve functions and its role complementing the Defence Forces both at home and, potentially, abroad. We have started that conversation within the Department.

When the Minister was looking at potential options for Columb Barracks, was a national headquarters for the Reserve one of those options? Mullingar occupies a strategically important geographical location. It is less than one hour from Dublin and less than 100 km from the Border. It is within easy reach of Carna, the Curragh and the Glen of Imaal. It has a multitude of land suitable for small and large-scale military exercises. It is close to lakes and rivers. It is ideal for water-based training. Most critically, it already has in place infrastructure to house military units and water units on a temporary occupation. Given the size of the site - I presume the Minister is familiar with the layout of Columb Barracks and how its existing structure is essentially landlocked by existing housing developments - it could be adapted to serve the needs of the Reserve, the groups that currently use the facility as well as other needs in the town.

While I take the Deputy's point, I am loath to start raising expectations about Columb Barracks. The community groups currently using the barracks are Westmeath GAA, the Irish United Nations Veterans Association, Lakeshore Wheelers, the Order of Malta, Mullingar Boxing Club, a crafts school, Mullingar Sub Aqua Club, the north-Westmeath adult literacy service and a youth organisation. As I said, the Land Development Agency was established for a reason. It is looking at how we can maximise the use of strategic assets nationally. We must also protect the infrastructure that has already been put in place, which is very significant in the case of the barracks in Mullingar.

That is likely to be the way the future gets designed and implemented, through the LDA. We are there to support that process and offer any input that we can regarding some of the ideas the Deputy suggested.

Question No. 4 replied to with Written Answers.

Defence Forces Representative Organisations

Questions (5)

John Brady


5. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Defence the details of the reasoning behind the ongoing refusal to allow members of the Defence Forces to form an association with a union (details supplied). [29077/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Defence)

I raise the Government's refusal to allow members of the Defence Forces to associate with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU. This has been a long-standing request, particularly from PDFORRA, since 1994. Will the Minister outline the rationale for this continued refusal?

I have spoken to Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, on this previously and I am sure that I will do so again. Under the Defence Acts, 1954 to 2015, the permanent Defence Forces representative associations are prohibited from being associated with or affiliated with any trade unions or any other body without the consent of the Minister.

To compensate for these restrictions, 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.

In 2017, the European Committee of Social Rights, in a non-binding ruling, found that Ireland was in violation of the European Social Charter in respect of the right to organise, that is to affiliate to certain organisations, and the right to negotiate collective agreements.  It found that Ireland was not in violation of the charter in respect of the prohibition of the right of military personnel to strike.

The Government is aware of the long-standing desire of PDFORRA to associate with ICTU. However, association with ICTU poses complex questions for the Defence Forces from a legal, operational and management perspective. It is critically important that Defence Forces operations are not restricted and this is a key concern.

The European Committee of Social Rights, in arriving at its decision, took into an account a statement made in the complaint which claimed that ICTU had stated that “PDFORRA could be affiliated to ICTU with whatever conditions the Government deemed necessary”. Defence management, civil and military, have engaged in discussions with the permanent Defence Forces representative associations and ICTU regarding the practicalities of a Defence Forces representative association forming association or affiliation with ICTU. These discussions have encompassed matters of concern to all parties.

PDFORRA subsequently initiated legal proceedings on this matter on 26 June 2020. As this matter is now subject to litigation, it would not be appropriate to comment further.

This is an issue I would rather was not in court and was not concluded by legal ruling. What we are trying to do in setting up a commission to look at all issues, including pay and structures within the Defence Forces, and the commitment in the programme for Government to set up a separate pay entity to assess pay within the Defence Forces after the initial commission's work is to recognise that serving in the Defence Forces is different to other public sector work. People take an oath to the State, they are the last line of defence for the State and compromises come with that. My job is to ensure that we more than take account of that in the structures that are there to represent Defence Forces personnel properly, whether that be in public sector pay talks or in any other area. I do not have a closed mind in this area but I have real concerns and will continue to speak to PDFORRA and other representative bodies about their concerns.

The Minister will be well aware of how bad things are in the Defence Forces, something which several Members have mentioned earlier. The numbers of members of the Defence Forces who have to rely on the working family payment is a stark illustration of this and for public sector talks to go ahead with no input from members of the Defence Forces is not right. Unfortunately, legal proceedings had to be initiated because of the Government's heel dragging on the issue. It is not a route that anyone would like to go down, particularly members of the Defence Forces or their representative bodies.

Many European states allow members of their defence forces to engage with trade unions and enjoy the right to collective bargaining. It should be no different here. Many of the concerns that have been raised in the past have been addressed by PDFORRA and other representative bodies. Will the Minister outline his concerns? It is a fundamental right to be able to associate with a trade union.

The Deputy mentioned the number of Defence Force personnel that are on the working family payment. I understand there are as many people in my Department on working family payment as there are in the Defence Forces. The payment is calculated based on a range of factors. I do not want there to be an impression that members of the Defence Forces are the only people in the public sector that are on working family payment; that is just not true. Of course, we are looking at pay and conditions in the Defence Forces to try to ensure that it is an attractive career path and we can deal with the recruitment and retention issues that everyone knows has been a problem, but let us not exaggerate for effect, please, because that also has an impact, as I keep saying, on our ability to be able to attract people into the Defence Forces. Every time we talk about the Defence Forces in this House, the questions come up in a very negative light. My job is to be real and to accept problems when they are there. I do, and there are problems which we need to fix, but there are also very positive aspects for people who choose a career in the Defence Forces in what that career path offers.

I do not have a closed mind on this issue but my primary focus is to ensure that the Defence Forces are always there when we need them and that no decision I make can impede the ability of that response that we rely on the Defence Forces for. We need to ensure that concerns are reflected and that there are systems in place to support Defence Forces personnel in that regard.

I find it absurd that the Minister would pit low-paid workers against each other, as though it is some badge of honour that staff in his Department rely on the working family payment. That is shameful and really low. The stark reality is this sector has no input into national pay agreements and must take the agreement or leave it, unlike other workers who are allowed have representatives around the table.

An argument put forward is that it would be completely wrong if members of the Defence Forces, having associated with ICTU, might go on strike. That red herring has been put forward time and again. PDFORRA has stated categorically that it has no intention of doing so and that it would withdraw if there were any concerns on that issue. The European Committee of Social Rights stated that the right to strike is incompatible with military service and PDFORRA completely accepts that argument. From my perspective, and that of the representative bodies, there are no reasons they cannot freely associate with ICTU. The Minister said he is open to it; now is the time to do it.

No one wants to go down the route of taking legal proceedings, but they can be withdrawn if there is a commitment from the Department and the Government to allow the freedom to associate with ICTU. I ask that the Minister make that commitment on the floor of the Dáil.

I am not pitting anyone against anybody. That is not my style. That the Deputy would try to create that narrative reflects his approach to this issue. I am working hard to ensure that everyone in the Defence Forces is understood in terms of the frustrations and challenges he or she faces and that we respond to those financially and from a policy perspective. This is what I am doing to try to ensure that we can attract the numbers and talent we need into the Defence Forces. I am not pitting anyone against anybody. I am simply giving the Deputy the factual position on the working family payment. Unfortunately, he chooses to try to twist that into something else.

It is important to say that representative bodies in the Defence Forces will have representation in this round of pay negotiations. I will ensure that. It does not necessarily mean being affiliated to ICTU, but those bodies will be heard and they will be in the room to make their case. Not only that, but we are setting up a structure separately to the pay negotiations to consider the specifics of serving in the Defence Forces. Not only have we committed to setting up a commission to consider the future of the Defence Forces as well as all of these issues, but we are committing to establishing a pay body specifically to consider the future of Defence Forces personnel's pay and conditions.

Please do not give the impression that we are not trying to prioritise Defence Forces personnel. We absolutely are trying to prioritise them, recognising that they play a unique role in public and national service. I do not have a closed mind on the question of whether their representative bodies being affiliated to ICTU enhances that process but I have not been convinced by the arguments. People have a right to take legal challenges, but the issue that will determine this for me is the question of what is the right thing to do for the Defence Forces and the country in the context of the role the Defence Forces play.