I have listened with great care to the response of the Minister taking Leaders’ Questions. I am not sure if she has read the commentary reported in today’s media and listened to the interview on “Morning Ireland”. These are unprecedented criticisms of the Department of Defence and defence policy made by a retiring senior military officer. He described our Defence Forces as being dismantled and demoralised. He said the sense of betrayal across our Defence Forces is palpable.
These are extraordinary comments. In my political lifetime I have never heard a retiring Army officer say anything as strong as this. They are normally reserved people. It is extraordinary that a senior officer would also think it necessary to take early retirement in order to be free to make this comment. That makes it all the more urgent and that the Government and all Members have careful regard to what he has to say. This morning he said he is leaving the Army not because he hates it but because he loves it and has been forced out.
There is a retention crisis and 9% of Defence Forces personnel are leaving. No organisation can sustain that amount of loss. It is a massive exodus. The bottom line is financial. Our Defence Forces, of course, need a total review of pay and conditions. It is on the desk of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform now. It is not as simple, however, as even doing that. If someone can earn twice as much in a meat factory as they can in our Defence Forces - as well as working much greater hours in the Defence Forces - then it is not just good enough.
Members of our Defence Forces are not permitted to join a trade union or advocate in their own interests as every other worker can do. That is no longer acceptable. I join with Sinn Féin in asking the Government to accept that. When in government, we wanted that. Let us agree to it now and allow members of the military to join a trade union. During peacetime and outside of specific missions, there is no reason we would not do that. Will the Government allow our Defence Forces to unionise? What has the Minister to say in the face of these unprecedented criticisms?
The notion that it is simply another group of public servants to be treated like all others in this context is quite simply not acceptable.