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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 13 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 1

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Defence Forces

John Brady


1. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Defence the reviews that have taken place to date of the 1994 Defence Forces service contracts, which have contributed to the retention crisis in the Defence Forces. [25008/21]

What reviews have taken place to date of the 1994 Defence Forces service contracts, which have led to huge difficulties with retention in the Defence Forces?

I do not accept the assertion in the question that the reviews of service limits for enlisted personnel, which have taken place since 1994, have impacted negatively on retention in the Defence Forces. In fact, the outcome from the reviews has enabled such personnel to stay in service longer than originally envisaged.

Military life places unique demands on individuals and it is necessary that Defence Forces personnel are prepared to meet the challenges of all military operations. To this end, it is vital that the age and health profile of personnel are such as to ensure that operational capabilities and effectiveness are not compromised in any way.

The age and fitness profile of the Permanent Defence Force was an issue of serious concern during the 1990s and was the subject of severe criticism in a series of external reports, such as those compiled by PriceWaterhouse consultants and the efficiency audit group. One of the key areas identified for urgent action was the development of a manpower policy with an emphasis on lowering the age profile of Permanent Defence Force personnel.

As a result of this review, and following consultation with PDFORRA, new terms and conditions were introduced for personnel enlisting after 1 January 1994. In 1997, following further consultation with PDFORRA, a new manpower policy was introduced which provided for an initial service for newly qualified privates of a period of five years, with the option of being extended to a maximum of 12 years, subject to meeting standards of medical and physical fitness and conduct. Corporals and sergeants recruited after 1 January 1994 could serve to a maximum of 21 years, subject to meeting similar criteria.

In 2004, PDFORRA submitted a claim for a further review of the terms of service applying to post-1994 personnel. The outcome on the discussions on this claim resulted in a set of criteria being agreed to provide for a maximum service period of 21 years for those still in the rank of private or corporal, and a maximum retirement age of 50 for sergeants.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

In 2011, PDFORRA sought further extensions of the service limits. This matter was processed through the conciliation and arbitration scheme for members of the Permanent Defence Force. The matter proceeded to adjudication in 2015, where it was agreed that privates and corporals in receipt of technical pay group 3 or higher may be extended to age 50, subject to meeting certain criteria for continuance in service.

The adjudicator recommended a further review be conducted on the service limits for line corporals, privates and corporals in receipt of technical pay groups 1 and 2, recruited to the Defence Forces after 1 January 1994. The adjudicator recommended that such personnel be allowed to continue to serve beyond 21 years for a period up to the expiry of the next two promotion panels, subject to them meeting the required criteria and not exceeding the age of 50 years during this period.

In 2019, a further agreement was reached with PDFORRA that all privates and corporals recruited after 1994 be allowed to continue in service to 31 December 2022 or until they reach the age of 50, provided these personnel met certain criteria during the interim period, including medical grades and fitness tests. This agreement was subsequently extended to include post-1994 sergeants, who could also continue in service to the same date, subject to their meeting agreed criteria in the interim period. This will allow such personnel to continue in service beyond the timeframe suggested in the adjudication to allow for this review to be completed. The rank of line privates, which had not been specifically recommended for review in the adjudication, is also encompassed within this measure.

The review of service limits for enlisted personnel is being progressed in the context of a broader review provided for in the high level implementation plan Strengthening Our Defence Forces. This review, which encompasses consideration of the mandatory retirement age limits for privates, corporals and sergeants, as well as senior NCOs, is under way.

I thank the Minister for the response. I disagree with his assessment that the 1994 contracts are not causing a huge difficulty or having a bearing on the retention crisis in the Defence Forces. Retention and recruitment are the biggest issues facing the Defence Forces. This is plain for anyone to see because the level of turnover of personnel in the Defence Forces is leading to dysfunctionality. We see this in the Naval Service, where a number of our naval vessels are tied up due to personnel shortages. If these trends are allowed to continue, the impact on operating with these levels of reduced numbers will have a significant detrimental effect on the ability of the Defence Forces at all levels and with all duties.

Thank you, Deputy.

What are the issues that have been identified?

Thank you, Deputy.

A further claim was submitted in 2004.

Thank you, Deputy.

Will the Minister detail what that claim was and what the resolution was?

I ask Deputies and the Minister to keep to the time limits.

There is a very detailed written response to this and I do not have time to read all of it. I believe it answers many of the questions the Deputy has raised. In 2019, for example, a further agreement was reached with PDFORRA whereby all privates and corporals recruited after 1994 would be allowed to continue in service until 31 December 2022, or until they reached the age of 50, provided these personnel met certain criteria during the interim period, including medical grades and fitness tests. This agreement was subsequently extended to include post-1994 sergeants, who could also continue in service to the same date subject to meeting agreed criteria in the interim period.

The Deputy is correct that we do have serious challenges in terms of recruitment and retention. We are approximately 1,000 people short of where we should be in overall numbers in our Defence Forces. I know this and the House knows this. We are trying to address it in multiple ways, which I am sure I will get an opportunity to speak about later.

I thank the Minister. We are over time.

We must also make sure that people in the Defence Forces are capable of doing the job we ask them to do in the context of fitness and physical health.

I thank the Minister. Again, I disagree with him. We have modern-day fitness and nutrition programmes. The fact that people live longer is one the Government has used to try to increase the State pension age to 67 and 68. The same concept should and could be applied to the Defence Forces. Simple fitness tests for members of the Defence Forces would allow them to meet the criteria over which the Minister has expressed concerns. There are huge issues. Retention will not be resolved unless we look at the 1994 contracts. People are being lost. They go through recruitment courses and drop out shortly afterwards. There are huge difficulties and the Minister must commit that the commission on the future of the Defence Forces will look at this-----

Thank you, Deputy.

-----and that the findings will be implemented, unlike what was contained in the White Paper.

The Deputy is linking a number of issues that are not necessarily connected, with respect. There is an ongoing review on retirement age in the Defence Forces for officers and enlisted personnel.

It is under way. We continue to discuss with representative bodies what is appropriate in trying to ensure we maintain and protect capability within the Defence Forces while at the same time trying to do everything we can to recognise some of the concerns raised by the Deputy relating to fitness potential in later life, improved nutrition, better training methods and so on. All of those are being factored into those reviews. We need to do this in a robust way so as to maintain standards, fitness and capability in the Defence Forces while at the same time reflecting some of the concerns raised by Deputy Brady.

European Defence Capabilities

Gary Gannon


2. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Defence if he or his official have had discussions on Irish troops participating in the proposed European rapid reaction force. [25148/21]

What conversations has the Minister or his officials had with others on the establishment of a European rapid reaction force?

I thank the Deputy for the question. The strategic dialogue phase of what is called the strategic compass is ongoing, with thematic discussions taking place in different fora focusing on specific topics within the four clusters of the compass, which is essentially the debate on the future of defence matters in the European Union. These clusters are crisis management, resilience, capability development and partnerships. The strategic compass is a two-year process that aims to provide strategic reflection on Europe's current and future security and defence needs, the EU's capacity to act as a security provider, its strategic autonomy and its ability to co-operate with partners.

As part of this ongoing dialogue, member states are invited to share their thoughts on how to move the discussion forward through a number of non-papers focusing on the four clusters. Ireland is one of 14 EU member states which, following consultation between the Department of Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs, have co-signed a non-paper on crisis management that was presented by France in the context of strategic compass discussions.

This paper explores some of the matters and options for creating a more coherent, flexible and robust EU response capacity for crisis management operations. Among the topics explored is how the strategic compass may contribute to enhancing the EU's ability to deploy a common security and defence policy operation as first responder to a crisis, for example.

These are only proposals and ideas at this stage and they will require significant further analysis, exploration and consideration. By signing up to the "food for thought" paper Ireland is indicating its willingness to explore some of the options in the paper to enhance EU capability and responsiveness in support of international peace and security. The crisis management cluster was a topic for discussion at last week's Foreign Affairs Council meeting with defence ministers but I have not had discussions on Irish troops participating in any European rapid reaction force.

These non-papers will feed the ongoing discussions on the strategic compass and it is expected that by November 2021, a draft of the strategic compass will be presented to ministers for examination in the first half of next year.

I thank the Minister for his response. I appreciate that this idea is currently in its infancy but the idea of a European rapid reaction force was also floated in 1999 before being done away with in 2003. Eyebrows will be raised that this conversation is happening and that Ireland is one of 14 nations expressing a willingness to take part in discussions, particularly given the current state of numbers and morale in our Defence Forces.

What type of scenario would precipitate a response from the proposed rapid reaction force? What type of emergency in Europe would require it? Would it be a terrorist incident and the response would be a counterterrorist operation? What is the expectation at this stage for Irish involvement in such an initiative? How many troops would be involved according to the initial proposals? With the 1999 proposal there would have been 800 troops involved. I am against the idea of a rapid reaction force but its very concept seems very far-fetched, given the current state of our military branches.

The Deputy stated "given the current state of our military" and mentioned numbers and morale. If he asked people in the military forces if they want to be involved in collective crisis management with other EU countries, the vast majority of them would say "Yes". People join the Defence Forces because they want to act. They want to use their skill sets to save lives as peacekeepers and people who intervene to prevent conflict. They want to be able to intervene in a humanitarian crisis. The Naval Service wanted to go to the Mediterranean to save lives and it took 16,000 people out of the water. That is why people are flying to southern Lebanon this week for the next rotation of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. They want to be there.

This is why people join the Defence Forces. They do not join the Defence Forces to just train and stay out of trouble. We are currently exploring whether the skill set of the Irish Defence Forces can contribute to a crisis response along with other EU countries.

I represent a constituency, Dublin Central, that has two Army barracks. I have friends from school who have joined the Defence Forces. We understand completely the proud tradition of peacekeeping and putting ourselves in harm's way when required. That is very different, however, to creeping militarisation or getting involved with defence initiatives with a more militarised facet. We fully appreciate that the Defence Forces do not want to stand out of harm's way, as we can see with their behaviour over many decades, but I still highlight low morale and the low level of pay and conditions that contributes to an inability of the force to put itself in further undefined conflict zones or scenarios for such a rapid reaction force in Europe. Its remit should be clearer. I appreciate these conversations happened last week but we must be clearer on the expectations from the off.

I take that point but the Irish Defence Forces are really good at what they do. I am very proud of them. It is why we are constantly exploring how the Defence Forces can contribute more to international affairs through peace building, peacemaking, peace interventions and so on.

I reassure the House that we are not part of a creeping militarisation policy in the European Union. We have never been part of that kind of thinking and we are still not part of it. Before Irish troops are sent anywhere abroad, they need to go through the triple lock system, which people understand.

We are currently contributing to a thought process and asking ourselves a question as to whether the EU, as a collective, has the ability to be able to intervene in crises quickly to save lives. I am interested in that. This is not about the creation of a European army. We already have battle groups, which is an unfortunate name but it is essentially a mechanism where countries train with each other to have the capacity to respond to a crisis should it be required. They have never been deployed, despite the process going back to 2004 or 2005.

I reassure people that we will be cautious in how we approach this question. It will be approached from the perspective of Ireland's traditional contribution to crisis management and peacekeeping.

European Defence Capabilities

John Brady


3. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Defence the discussions that have taken place at EU level regarding the further militarisation of the EU leading towards the creation of an EU army. [25009/21]

What discussions have taken place at EU level on the further militarisation of the EU, leading to the creation of an EU army?

I want to be very clear that no discussions have taken place regarding the further militarisation of the EU or the creation of an European army. Defence and security remains a national competence, with any decision to deepen EU defence co-operation requiring unanimity. There is no provision in EU treaties for the creation of an EU army and no proposal has been set out to change this. Any such proposal would require treaty change and no such change has been proposed. The protocol on the concerns of the Irish people on the Treaty of Lisbon expressly states "The Treaty of Lisbon does not provide for the creation of a European army or for conscription to any military formation" and that "The Treaty of Lisbon does not affect or prejudice Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality".

Co-operation between EU member states in defence matters continues through established channels including Permanent Structured Co-operation, PESCO, EU battle groups, EU missions and operations and the institutions of the EU, including the External Action Service, the European Defence Agency and the Commission.

The most recent meeting of EU defence ministers took place on 6 May in Brussels.

The agenda for this meeting contained three main items, namely, current affairs, which was an update on the Sahel, Mozambique and Ukraine, which are all a concern, a discussion on the crisis management pillar of the strategic compass and a lunch meeting with the NATO Secretary General on co-operation in theatres of operation.

I want to reassure the Deputy because he has asked this question before. There are no plans for an EU army and if there were, Ireland would not be part of it. That is not the approach we have ever taken through our EU membership. It is not allowed in EU treaties. The Deputy keeps raising this but it genuinely is really not an issue.

There is an attempt to further militarise the EU. We saw that quite recently when Ireland was named as one of 14 countries that support further militarisation through the rapid reaction force, which the Minister referenced previously. Not only can that venture be classified as being in contravention to Ireland’s long-standing and declared policy of neutrality, it also contradicts the Minister's intentions of presenting himself at the UN as an honest broker and a neutral voice in world affairs. It also represents a very clear snub of the non-aligned nations of the world that voted for Ireland in the belief that we were opting, as I said, for that honest broker.

I get why people join the Defence Forces. I get our active participation in neutrality and peacekeeping. There is a step in a completely different direction at European level, however. I have serious concerns about rowing back on our neutrality and all those arguments I have put forward. I look forward to the Minister's response.

The Deputy continues to raise these issues and I hope I continue to provide reassurance. As somebody who is very much involved in foreign policy and defence policy, let me reassure him that Ireland is not in the space of being part of a more militarised EU. We are in the space of co-operating with other EU countries when we can be a force for good in different parts of the world. That is what we are trying to do now in Mali, for example, where a number of our Defence Forces personnel are working in the EU operations. They are embedded with a German contingent and it works really well. We are also part of an EU training mission with other European countries, which is working well.

The expertise and skill set of Irish troops is being applied to try to save lives; that is what we do. We should not apologise for it or reframe that as somehow compromising Irish neutrality because it does not. We choose to go on whatever mission we go on. We go through a process in the Dáil and in the Government to make sure that is fully understood and transparent in terms of the decision-making process. That is what active neutrality means. We are not forced into any of these missions.

By all accounts, the EU High Representative, Vice-President Josep Borrell, has intentions and plans to send EU forces into Mozambique by the end of the year. I believe the Minister made reference to Mozambique already. It appears to me that the sole intent of this is to protect a French mining company. I want the Minister to answer that claim. Why would the EU be sending forces to Mozambique in a situation like that?

I absolutely fully support Ireland’s role in peacekeeping and active neutrality. That is something I absolutely applaud, and rightly so, we have received huge credit as an honest broker on that footing. If we were to go into ventures such as this in Mozambique and other scenarios, however, that will seriously question our neutrality. It is a further step towards militarisation within the EU, ultimately leading to an EU army, which the Minister said at this point is not the intention. I believe, however, that we are being dragged by the nose into such a scenario.

I ask the Deputy to read a little bit about what is happening in Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique, where there have been terrorist attacks and people have been killed. It is important that the EU supports Mozambique to ensure that terrorist forces do not destabilise parts of the country and that we can protect civilians and a democratic system.

There are no plans for Ireland to be part of any Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, mission in Mozambique. I certainly defend the right of Portugal and other countries to try to give leadership, however, just like Ireland has done in other countries to try to intervene to support democracy and stability.

Many countries in Africa, unfortunately, and particularly the Horn of Africa, need support and intervention at different times. There are no ulterior motives here. I have been involved in a number of debates on the Mozambique issue. This is not about protecting economic interests but about trying to protect democracy and stability.

It is ironic that I am pushing Members on time limits because, unfortunately, some of the Deputies are not present. The Deputy who tabled the next priority question has been unavoidably detained so I will move on. With the Minister's permission, I might come back to that priority question. The next ordinary question is in the name of Deputy Jim O'Callaghan.

Question No. 4 replied to with Written Answers.