Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 9 Nov 2016

Vol. 928 No. 1

Priority Questions

Defence Forces

Fiona O'Loughlin


12. Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his views on the report on the well-being of members of the Permanent Defence Force; his plans to address the principal issues which require attention; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33932/16]

Before I put my question to the Minister of State, I wish to take a moment to pay tribute to Colonel Frank Lawless, the former director of Defence Forces training and education, who passed away in service last month. He was a native of Newbridge and came from a very distinguished military family. He served his country with expertise, dignity and distinction. He was an exemplary member of the Defence Forces and is a huge loss to his family and military colleagues. He served with distinction and will be well remembered and respected for the compassion and kindness he showed to the soldiers with whom he served. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

My question relates to the response of the Department of Defence to the report on the well-being of members of the Permanent Defence Force and the plans to address the principal issues which require attention.

I join the Deputy in offering my condolences to the family of Colonel Frank Lawless on their recent bereavement. I had the opportunity to sympathise with his wife and two children recently. He is a huge loss to the Defence Forces, particularly the training college at the Curragh where he played a very important role as director.

The independent monitoring group was established in May 2002 to oversee implementation of recommendations arising from a report on interpersonal relationships within the Defence Forces. Both the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, and the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, are represented on the group.

The third and most recent report of the group was published in September 2014. Among its recommendations was that a climate survey be conducted within 12 months and subsequently at reasonable intervals. A similar survey was conducted in 2008. The aim of the survey which was conducted by the University of Limerick was to identify trends to inform best practice in human resources management and training and education within the Defence Forces. As with the 2008 survey, approximately 11% of the workforce, in this instance, 1,055 personnel, were sampled. The key findings of the survey are grouped under topics such as work-life balance, peer support, organisational justice within the organisation, procedural justice, organisational fairness, Defence Forces integrity and supervisory justice. The researchers who undertook the project point out that the findings of the report and its recommendations are interconnected and that caution should apply to reading or responding to any one finding in isolation.

I have reviewed the report in detail. I have also received a briefing on the findings from the University of Limerick. The survey findings clearly point to challenges for the Defence Forces, particularly in the areas of leadership, communication, organisational culture, the working environment and active management of personnel expectations. However, many positives also emanated from the survey, especially regarding the commitment of personnel to the values and mission of the organisation, high levels of work satisfaction, pride in the organisation and positive views on culture and work support.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The response to the issues raised in the report on the climate survey will be led by the Chief of Staff by way of an action plan which involves the engagement of all levels of management within the organisation.

Both RACO and PDFORRA were recently briefed by the University of Limerick researchers on their findings and conclusions. Following that briefing, I recently met the representative associations to hear their views and listen to their concerns about the report. At the meeting we agreed that they would be fully engaged in the response to the report and the proposed action plan through the implementation monitoring group framework, whereby they could put forward their views on appropriate responses. The group provides a collaborative environment in which issues can be surfaced and addressed jointly by management and staff representatives. It was also agreed that there would be a further meeting with the University of Limerick and the implementation monitoring group to further consider the findings and get behind the quantitative data contained in the report. The associations will also attend planned focus groups, to be facilitated by the University of Limerick, to further explore the issues raised in the climate survey report.

I take note of what the Minister of State has said, but I wish to focus on a number of issues. It is very clear from the survey responses that Defence Forces personnel have become less happy in recent years with their working conditions. There is a very strong perception of a lack of justice in the organisation. It is also clear that there is a disconnect between the expectations of members of the Defence Forces and how they are met. It is particularly disturbing that while 70% of respondents felt loyal to the Defence Forces and its values, only 23% felt obliged not to look for work elsewhere. This means that 77% would consider looking for work elsewhere. I understand it is the intention of the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces to engage the University of Limerick to conduct a series of focus groups with serving personnel. When will these focus groups commence? What is the schedule and when will a report be delivered to the implementation monitoring group?

Establishment of the focus groups is a matter for the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, with whom I have engaged in some consultation. I have asked him to revert to me with a plan and profile of the timelines for the focus groups. It is important to recognise that it was very courageous and forward-looking of the Defence Forces to take the initiative of conducting a climate survey and questioning their members. The survey gave personnel, who number more than 9,500, an opportunity to express their real feelings about the Defence Forces. There is no doubt that there are huge challenges ahead on foot of the findings of the survey. In such a large organisation the management of expectations is a huge challenge for the leadership of the Defence Forces, but it is one that can be met.

I take note of the Minister of State's reply and also commend the Defence Forces for carrying out the climate survey. It is very disconcerting to note, however, that more than 10% of commissioned officers and 25% of enlisted personnel have left the Defence Forces since the 2013 reorganisation. There are significant gaps in capability, expertise and unit manning levels. There are no conclusions or recommendations made in the report as to how the Department of Defence can deal with this issue. Another key question relates to the initiatives that can be taken to mitigate the extent of voluntary exits. It is well known that retention initiatives are deliverable at a fraction of the cost of constant recruitment and training.

I have a specific question about the 38 vacancies in the middle and lower ranks of the Naval Service. The non-filling of these vacancies is preventing ships from going to sea and negatively impacting on the welfare, productivity and operational capacity of the Naval Service.

The Deputy is correct in pointing out that many initiatives taken by the Defence Forces are cost neutral. The Defence Forces have introduced a number of initiatives to improve family life for personnel, for example.

Probably one of the biggest is the rotation of personnel abroad where they can do a three-month tour of duty instead of a six-month tour. That was one of the initiatives to help families and often young families, fathers and mothers who were separating themselves from their sons and daughters.

I wish to meet with the representative organisations, which are the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers and the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association. I met both organisations recently and my officials and I had a discussion with them to find out what their feelings were following the publication of the climate survey. I will continue to interact with the organisations because they are the representatives of the people on the ground and if there is a message to come forward, it comes from the bottom up

Defence Forces Deployment

Aengus Ó Snodaigh


13. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his views on the role of Defence Force personnel serving with the EU training mission in Mali, EUTM Mali, and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33874/16]

My question concerns members of the Defence Forces serving in the EU training mission in Mali, which the Minister of State visited recently. He stated that they were an essential partner in the reconstruction of the Malian state and the main instrument for the reconstruction of its armed force. Why are Irish troops providing training and mentoring to the Malian armed forces when the same army has been responsible for well-documented human rights abuses during the civil war in 2012?

On 18 February 2013, at the request of the Malian authorities and in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2085 (2012), the European Union launched a training mission for Malian armed forces named EUTM Mali.

The objective of the mission is to train and mentor the Malian armed forces to improve their military capacity and their effectiveness in guaranteeing the country's territorial integrity. Training is also being provided in international humanitarian law, the protection of civilians and human rights.

During my recent visit to Mali, I witnessed at first hand the significant contribution that Irish Defence Forces personnel are making to the mission. The Defence Forces have been participating in EUTM Mali since March 2013. Currently, Ireland is contributing 18 personnel to this mission - an increase of eight personnel over the last six months. A total of seven Irish personnel occupy staff appointments in the mission headquarters in Bamako and the remaining personnel are based in Koulikoro Training Centre. The mission is now completely integrated into the military training structure in Mali. EUTM Mali is recognised as an essential partner in the reconstruction of the Malian state and the main instrument for the reconstruction of its armed forces. Our continued participation in this mission supports Ireland's ongoing obligations to international peace and security and the commitment to maintaining the Defence Forces capabilities in international operations.

I wish the Irish soldiers and those on the UN mission in general well given that they have been under attack on a number of occasions since the mission started. My question, part of which the Minister of State alluded to, concerns the role of our soldiers in mentoring an army that has been found to have carried out such a level of human rights abuses. I note from the Minister of State's reply that part of the job of the mission is to provide mentoring in international humanitarian law and human rights. How successful has this been? How can it be undertaken? Is it intended to increase the number of Irish soldiers involved in that mission?

We will monitor on an ongoing basis whether there is to be any increase in personnel. If it is to be increased, I will, of course, inform the Deputy. The strategic review of the EUTM Mali mission was completed earlier this year. Following the review, the Council of the European Union approved EUTM Mali's third mandate in March 2016, which adopted the existing mandate and extended it by a period of two years through to May 2018. The objectives of the third mandate are training support for the benefit of the Malian armed forces, in which the Irish Defences Forces are very much involved; training and advice on command and control, logistical chain and human resources as well as training on international humanitarian law, protection of civilians and human rights; and a contribution upon Malian request and in co-ordination with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali to the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process framed by the peace agreement through the provision of training sessions in order to facilitate the reconstruction of inclusive Malian armed forces. I witnessed at first hand what our Irish personnel are doing on the ground, specifically training the Malian armed forces, and how difficult a job that can be. I can assure the Deputy that the job that Irish Defence Forces personnel are doing out there is crucial for the Malian armed forces and in stabilising that country.

In respect of the crucial and important job that needs to be done in Mali and many other zones around the world, the question is whether it is appropriate for Irish soldiers to be in Mali and whether that contribution is valued and adds to the experience of the Irish Army. Has consideration been given to the fact that Irish forces are there because the French, who were involved in many imperialist ventures in Africa over the centuries, requested that other armies go into Africa to pick up the pieces in areas where imperialist forces have been in the past? If an increase in the number of Irish soldiers is requested, I ask that at the very least there would be a major debate in the House, particularly given that it would be greater than what would have been allowed.

Our continued participation in this mission supports Ireland's ongoing obligations to international peace and security and the commitment to maintaining the Defence Forces' capabilities in international operations. I take the Deputy's views on board and I will keep him and the House informed if we are to increase membership.

Curragh Plains Representative Forum

Fiona O'Loughlin


14. Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the coordination that has taken place in the management of the Curragh Plains since the establishment of the Curragh forum and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33933/16]

My question concerns the Curragh Plains Representative Forum, for which I was full of hope. I was led to believe that it would bring all the stakeholders in Kildare and the Curragh together for the greater good of the public in Kildare while improving the lot of those who live, work and have leisure time in the Curragh. My question is based on the description that was given in the plans. There have been two scheduled meetings that I am aware of, one on 8 March and the other on 19 July. I inquired about the agenda and topics relating to those meetings of the forum but received rather bland answers on each occasion.

As the Deputy is aware, the Curragh Plains Representative Forum was established to enable key stakeholders of the Curragh Plains to meet and contribute to the ongoing management, protection and future development of the plains. Membership of the forum, which is chaired by the Department of Defence, includes representatives from the Defence Forces, An Garda Síochána, the Curragh Racecourse, Curragh race horse trainers and Kildare County Council. The forum will also consider representations from other representative groups of stakeholders and interested parties as required.

To date, there have been three meetings of the forum, the most recent of which was held on 27 October. Issues discussed have included illegal encampments, illegal parking, dumping, over-grazing and the ongoing management and maintenance of the Curragh Plains. At the most recent meeting, a number of measures were agreed by the members of the forum to assist in addressing these issues. I am well aware of the many issues which need to be addressed in the context of the day-to-day management and use of the Curragh Plains. Consequently, I am supportive and appreciative of the work being undertaken by the forum. I am confident that in working together, the members of the forum will provide the resolve and expertise to greatly assist in the identification and implementation of solutions to the problems which need to be addressed.

I thank the Minister of State. I would appreciate the opportunity to see what arose from the meeting on 27 October. I am delighted that the serious issues of illegal camping and dumping were high on the agenda. I had asked that two issues be addressed. I had asked that ambulance cover for jockeys riding out on the Curragh be included, but my request was refused. Jockeys and workers in the horseracing sector experience injuries during their employment. The other issue about suitable notification for road closures due to firing on the rifle ranges has yet to be resolved. Has there been any discussion on those issues and, if so, have there been any achievements or resolutions to date?

Illegal camping and dumping were very high on the agenda. The Deputy has raised the issues with me previously as has Deputy Heydon. I have asked that the forum would specifically look into these ongoing problems on the Curragh plains.

The Deputy spoke about the horseracing sector and horses being ridden out on the Curragh Plains. I am not sure if that was discussed at the last meeting, but I will get back to the Deputy to let her know.

The Deputy previously spoke to me about road closures around the rifle range area. I do not want to be flippant in saying this, but this is the middle of the Curragh and residents understand that on occasions the roads have to be closed. I have asked the Defence Forces to communicate through social media, in local newspapers and on local radio to inform the general public if they are to close roads.

While I accept that, the issue is about adequate notice for residents in the area.

I believe there is a strong will to achieve something positive with the Curragh amenity. I have spoken to many of the stakeholders involved who have great enthusiasm for developing the plains and making them a strong natural feature. I acknowledge the help of Department of Defence officials regarding the issues I raise. If the Curragh were designated as an NHA, it would be afforded legal protection by underpinning the existing Curragh of Kildare Acts and its current designation as a recorded monument under the National Monuments Act. The addition of an interpretive centre and visitor points would greatly enhance the tourism potential. Allocated parking areas would also help to reduce the random uncontrolled traffic on the plains.

I firmly believe the Curragh Plains should be designated as a national park under the natural heritage area guidelines as they meet all the criteria. Has the forum ever discussed how this could be achieved or if the archaic legislation governing the plains could be revised?

I would be very careful about recommending that the plains be designated as an NHA because we need to avoid over-regulation of the Curragh Plains which is a recreational area where people can enjoy themselves. There is potential for a number of quick wins that do not cost any money by updating the by-laws where necessary for the protection of the Curragh, putting in place processes for the reporting of breaches of any of the by-laws, and working with An Garda Síochána, the local authority and the Defence Forces organisation there.

I believe in the development of facilities in the Curragh Plains for the use of the public. I pass through the Curragh going to Newbridge once a week or once every ten days and I can see how important the Curragh Plains are to the public. I would love to have such a recreational area in my county of Wexford.

I take on board the Deputy's concerns, which will be registered with the Defence Forces. I will come back to the Deputy regarding jockeys riding out.

Defence Forces Medicinal Products

Aengus Ó Snodaigh


15. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if he has met representatives of the group, Action Lariam for Irish Soldiers, or if he will confirm the date when he will be meeting the group. [33875/16]

In a previous debate with me on Lariam, the Minister of State said he had no problem meeting one of the groups that has been active on this matter, Action Lariam for Irish Soldiers. Has he met representatives of that group and if not, when can he meet them?

I am advised that former Ministers for Defence have met representatives of the group previously. Mr. Alan Shatter met representatives of the group on 26 May 2011 and on 3 February 2012. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, met representatives of the group on 14 January, 2016.

In late June 2016, I indicated to the group that I am open to meeting it. The group responded indicating that prior to any meeting it was seeking responses to numerous questions which it had raised at its meeting with the former Minister for Defence, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, in January 2016. The group was provided with the relevant response and it subsequently indicated that it was seeking a meeting date at some time after the Dáil summer recess. I have asked my officials to follow up to arrange a suitable date and time for a meeting.

The Deputy will be aware of ongoing litigation in respect of the use of Lariam in the Defence Forces, to which the Minister for Defence is the defendant. The State Claims Agency, SCA, is managing these claims on behalf of my Department. The SCA has advised that 51 claims have been made by current or former members of the Defence Forces who allege personal injury as a consequence of their consumption of Lariam. Proceedings have been served in 38 of these cases. The State Claims Agency advised that for various reasons seven individuals did not progress their cases which were discontinued and are now statute barred. Due to this ongoing litigation I will be limited in terms of what can be discussed at any meeting with the group. This has been indicated to the group by my officials.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. Hopefully, he will be able to meet the group soon even with the restrictions of possible litigation. It was interesting that the note we got on the grouping of questions listed the branch in question as "litigation branch". I had not seen that previously.

As the Minister of State said, representatives of the group, Action Lariam for Irish Soldiers, have met former Ministers. However, things are moving very quickly internationally. Since the group met the former Minister, Deputy Coveney, a former chief of staff of the British Army has indicated an apology to the members who served under him. In addition the Canadian House of Commons is holding hearings on the effects of Lariam. One of the four demands of the campaign is the immediate cessation of the issuing of Lariam and generic drugs to Irish soldiers serving in theatre at present. Hopefully the Minister of State will be able to give greater consideration to that in the coming weeks.

I have no issue with meeting representatives of the group. They had a protest during the summer at which they wanted to give me some correspondence. Unfortunately, it was on a Saturday and as I had other commitments, I was unable to meet them. I understand there was a briefing here in the Houses of the Oireachtas regarding the Lariam group. I sent a representative from my office to the meeting and he advised me of the issues raised on the day.

Regarding Lariam, my first priority and that of the Department and the Defence Forces is the welfare and health of the men and women of the Defence Forces, who are serving in countries where malaria is prevalent. As the Deputy understands, malaria is a very serious disease.

I have absolutely no issue in meeting the group but the Deputy will understand I will be limited in what I can add to the conversation. I will listen to its concerns and it is only right and proper that, as Minister of State with responsibility for defence, I do so. I and the Defence Forces rely on the medical evidence from the chief medical officer of the Defence Forces, and on his knowledge and expertise, to make the decisions.

The group gave an interesting briefing with harrowing stories. I accept that the Minister of State's number one priority is the welfare of the Irish soldiers who are in the theatre, as the leaflet puts it. The Minister of State was in Mali recently. Perhaps he will explain if the Irish soldiers who are operating in Mali currently are receiving Lariam. He might also disclose if he had to take Lariam when he was travelling out there.

Yes, the personnel serving in Mali now are taking Lariam, but for my short visit, I was prescribed Malarone which is the more suitable drug for a very short visit. I had to take the medication for three to four days before I travelled to Mali, during my stay in Mali and for a further seven to ten days after my trip, along with other prescribed medications I was advised of - injections and other medication. That is what I had to go through, based on the expert advice I received. There is other expert advice given for the members who are serving out there currently. I will rely on that expert advice.

Defence Forces Recruitment

Brendan Ryan


16. Deputy Brendan Ryan asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his plans to introduce measures to ensure a larger and dedicated contribution of female Defence Forces members in peacekeeping operations, taking into account UN Resolution 1325 which acknowledges the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on women and girls; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33973/16]

I am interested to hear the Minister's response on what he will do to build a first national action plan for UN Resolution 1325, which was introduced by a previous Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the former Deputy Eamon Gilmore and former President Mary Robinson, and how the follow-up national action plan 2015-2018 is progressing.

The Government remains committed to a policy of equal opportunity for men and women throughout the Defence Forces and that the Defence Forces have no restrictions as regards the assignment of men or women to the full range of operational and administrative duties, including in respect of participation in UN peacekeeping operations. The advancement of the women peace and security agenda in peacekeeping operations is an area in which Irish peacekeepers have taken a very proactive role.

In preparing contingents for overseas operations, significant training is provided on gender to all Defence Forces personnel. Moreover, a gender perspective is included in the planning and conduct of all overseas military operations, something that is particularly relevant in circumstances where gender-based violence has occurred.

In May 2015, during a visit to Ireland, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, observed the value in some situations of being able to call on female peacekeepers having regard to the multifaceted nature of peacekeeping challenges. He requested that consideration be given to the contribution of women soldiers to UN operations and that Ireland might factor this into its approach to such operations. The recent White Paper on Defence highlights the importance of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in setting out the vital role that women can play in conflict prevention, conflict resolution, peace building, post-conflict reconstruction, reform and governance.

The White Paper also contains commitments to significantly increase participation of women in the Defence Forces. A number of projects have been identified to give effect to these commitments and work has recently commenced in my Department to this end.

At the recent UN Peacekeeping Ministerial held in London, which I attended, one of the main issues discussed was improving peacekeeping, including increasing the involvement of women at all levels in overseas missions. I contributed to the session on the participation of women in peace and security, outlining actions currently undertaken by Ireland in that area and confirming our commitment to increase the participation of women at senior decision-making and leadership levels in the Irish Defence Forces.

I am delighted to say that Ireland recently appointed the first female officer to the prestigious position of officer commanding a Defence Forces contingent on an overseas mission with the appointment of Lieutenant Colonel Mary Carroll to the position in UNDOF, where she is currently undertaking.

At any one time there are a number of conflicts in the world and the general balance of the world order is influenced heavily by a small number of influential actors. On the election of Donald Trump last night I share with many millions of people across the world an anxiety about what is around the corner. Hopefully, this anxiety is unfounded and there is no escalation in international conflict. The UN Resolution 1325 recognises the disproportionate impact of war on women and their vital role in building peace. For the first time, gender was made a matter of international peace and security. That was 16 years ago. I welcome the action plans introduced by the last Government. We now need to know what impact these action plans have had on our peacekeeping operations.

I wish to inform the Deputy that currently there are 551 women serving in the Permanent Defence Force, amounting to 6.1% of serving personnel. There are currently 496 personnel serving overseas. There are 20 women overseas on UN peacekeeping duties and five females are deployed on humanitarian operations by the Naval Service in the Mediterranean on Operation Pontus. This amounts to 5.04% of the overseas personnel. The Irish unit commander to UNDOF, in charge of the 54th infantry group is female, Lieutenant Colonel Mary Carroll. This is the first time a female has commanded a mixed operational infantry unit on a United Nations' peacekeeping mission.

In Donegal a couple of weeks ago I reviewed the personnel of the 109th infantry battalion travelling to Lebanon for service with United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, in which there was a total of 21 female personnel travelling out as part of the Irish unit. It is great for the Permanent Defence Forces that we are able to attract women into the organisation. I really believe that women add a different dimension to the leadership and peacekeeping participation.

This matter must be taken seriously and there has to be a real energy behind it. I am not sure if it is there yet but I am positive about what the Minister of State has said. With our proud and honourable peacekeeping record, Ireland should be leading the charge in implementing UN Resolution 1325 and we should be the exemplar in gender-led peacekeeping.

One of the family-friendly initiatives, which has been taken up by many of female personnel, is the option to serve three months overseas instead of six months. It is a great initiative but the Defence Forces are currently working on a number of other initiatives to raise the awareness among Irish society that all roles and operational appointments are open to women. To this end, the Defence Forces have employed civilian experts to assist with marketing campaigns and gender-specific messaging. The Defence Forces have developed a number of family-friendly initiatives for the good of the organisation that have been taken up by a large number of female personnel. There is no doubt that women bring a different dimension to peacekeeping operations while abroad, compared to some of their male counterparts. When one witnesses at first-hand the participation of women in peacekeeping duties when they go in to the villages and towns, and the way they are able to interact with the locals and with the male and female leaders of communities, we see that these personnel really play a very important role. We are taking this issue very seriously indeed.