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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 28 Jun 2022

Vol. 1024 No. 3

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Defence Forces

Sorca Clarke

Ceist:

72. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Defence the specific recruitment drives that have taken place in respect of school leavers and graduates from third level education; and if there were targeted campaigns in respect of areas of known understaffing in the Defence Forces. [34161/22]

I ask the Minister to provide details of specific recruitment drives that have taken place in respect of school leavers and third level graduates. Are there targeted campaigns in respect of areas of known understaffing in the Defence Forces, with specific reference to engine room artificers?

I have previously acknowledged the staffing challenges in the Defence Forces, both in specialist and general roles, and a range of measures are being implemented to tackle these. In this regard, I recently launched the new Defence Forces recruitment rebrand, entitled Be More with the Irish Defence Forces.  By demonstrating the opportunities and skills a career in the Defence Forces offers, the new marketing strategy aligns the desire to continuously improve and learn new skills with ensuring long-term career advancement.

The Defence Forces continue to engage with the education sector through career talks in schools, regularly participating in virtual career discussions through career guidance websites and hosting question-and-answer sessions on social media channels with the desired demographic. Transition year students can avail of placements within the Defence Forces to undertake various programmes demonstrating career opportunities. This also serves to raise awareness of the requirements of a career in the military.

In addition, recruitment teams frequently attend recruitment and career fairs and events to promote career opportunities within each branch of the organisation. To date in 2022, the teams have attended 22 such events.  The attractiveness of a career in the Defence Forces is emphasised at such events, including the opportunity for continuous upskilling and to avail of third level education. A recently developed infographic on the benefits of a career in the Defence Forces also highlights this point.

  The Defence Forces have also engaged a marketing and media partner to assist with recruitment advertising to ensure engagement with the recruitment demographic across social media and other platforms is as good as it can be. Advertisements for specialist recruitment by direct entry are placed in industry-specific publications and websites. In recent years, the scope for direct entry has expanded and a total of 12 direct-entry competitions are being utilised in 2022.

 My focus is on restoring all branches of the Defence Forces to full strength, facilitated by ongoing staffing initiatives and the promotion of careers within the organisation. Furthermore, consideration of the recommendations of the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces is ongoing.  I intend to revert shortly to the Government with a proposed response to the recommendations and a high-level action plan that will set out proposed timelines and oversight arrangements for its implementation. There is a lot going on but I suspect there is a lot more to come in the months ahead. Figures in respect of staffing are available at https://data.oireachtas.ie/ie/oireachtas/debates/questions/supportingDocumentation/2022-06-28_pq72-28-06-22_en.xlsx.

How many of those events, engagements and media partnership relationships have resulted in people signing up as members of the Defence Forces, particularly the navy? I give credit to Niall O'Connor on his article published on thejournal.ie this evening. On a specific question relating to that article, was the Minister informed at his recent trip to Cork that there was an impending need to tie up another navy ship due to staffing shortfalls? Earlier this year, the Minister, along with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, announced €2.4 million for the Defence Forces in connection with Science Foundation Ireland. It is a clever initiative. However, there are only six or seven educational qualifications that allow a person to become an engine room artificer with the navy. What direct engagement has been had with those students on those courses in respect of pursuing a career in the navy? It appears that those students are being poached by much higher paying employers. There is also the fact that, given the pressures that crews on Naval Service ships are under, the current Government programmes in the context of tax credits are simply not viable.

The Deputy referred to my recent visit to Cork. I live there, actually. I live a couple of miles from the naval base, so I visit it regularly. "No" is the straight answer to the Deputy's question. I was not informed that another ship would potentially be tied up. We are seeking to decommission three ships in the Naval Service. That is well known at this stage. To replace them, we have purchased two new ships that are coming from New Zealand and will be in at the end of the first quarter of next year. We are then going to move ahead with the development of a multipurpose vessel which will be the largest ship ever commissioned in the Defence Forces and the Naval Service. Obviously, that will take several years to develop. There is a lot happening in terms of reorientating the fleet. The Deputy is correct. In order for that to work, we need to get more people into the Defence Forces or the Naval Service, which will shortly become the Irish navy. Of course, we have plans to do that. I can give the Deputy the details of all the inductions in 2021 and so far in 2022 afterwards, rather than reading them all out now. There are people coming into the Defence Forces but not enough of them, and there are too many people leaving.

There is a very unusual situation in the navy. There can be several people on the same boat doing the same job but getting three different levels of pay. That is simply unacceptable. What is clear, even in terms of the seagoing service commitment but specifically in respect of the tax credit, is that one cannot penalise Naval Service personnel for not reaching 80 days at sea if the ship on which they are meant to be serving does not have the correct staff complement to be able to leave the dock.

I return to the issue of the minimum educational qualifications for a person to become an engine room artificer in the navy. What engagement has the Minister had with the Minister, Deputy Harris, in respect of encouraging the students who are currently pursuing those educational qualifications to consider a career in the navy? I refer to the establishment that is there. According to the latest figures from the Department, relating to May 2022, there were 845 personnel in the Naval Service. That is a shortage of 250 personnel. We can have all the boats in the world but they will be little use to us if we do not have the people to put onto them. As an island nation, this should be a priority.

We need our navy at sea. Our justice system needs our navy at sea, as do our fisheries, to prevent the smuggling of illicit items coming in off our coasts.

Thank you, Deputy. The time is up.

In terms of operational capacity and human resources specifically for the navy, I highlight this as a real concern.

If a school leaver or third level graduate wants to join the Defence Forces, he or she is faced with taking psychometric tests, which 60% of applicants fail. Are we missing something here? These tests include an assessment of verbal, analytical and abstract reasoning. A failure rate of 60% is extraordinarily high for people who want to join the Defence Forces. Will the Minister comment on that and indicate whether there is any intention to review the process? Given the failure rate, the tests seem to present a very high bar to jump before applicants who really want to join can get started.

First, Deputy Clarke knows only too well what the qualification criteria are for the seagoing service commitment scheme. We were required to put those criteria in place to ensure the scheme was not just seen as a way of securing a pay rise. We are looking at whether we can review the qualification criteria to get more people into the scheme, which would be helpful.

Deputy Stanton has asked me before about the psychometric tests. I have had conversations in this regard with people in the Defence Forces. Two things need to happen in terms of recruitment. First, we need to maintain standards. There must be thresholds and processes to ensure people who join the Defence Forces are suitable and will thrive within the rigours of serving in uniform. We cannot just lower those standards because we want to bring in more people. Second, although I know it is not what the Deputy is asking me, there is a valid question as to whether, be it by way of psychometric tests, fitness tests or otherwise, we can look to a process whereby we assess people over time and train them into becoming more suitable, rather than having cut-off points whereby large numbers of people fall out of the system.

Thank you, Minister. We are well over time on this question.

We are looking at that at the moment. Ultimately, however, the decision has to come from the Defence Forces, rather than politicians, in terms of maintaining standards.

Question No. 73 replied to with Written Answers.

Ukraine War

Catherine Connolly

Ceist:

74. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Defence further to Parliamentary Question No. 140 of 1 June 2022, if he will report on the meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group on 15 June 2022; the person who represented Ireland at the meeting; if minutes were taken at the meeting; if so, if they will be published; the reason no official public record was published in respect of the group's meeting of 23 May 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34097/22]

My question is very specific. Will the Minister give a report on the meeting of 15 June of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group? Who represented Ireland at the meeting, were minutes taken and, if so, will they be published? I ask that he also comment on the record of the previous two meetings, the second of which, I understand, Ireland attended.

Following a conference at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on 26 April, organised by the United States to discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine, particularly Ukraine's defence capabilities, as well as to pledge and co-ordinate further support to Ukraine, Ireland was invited to join the newly-formed Ukraine Defense Contact Group. Meetings of the group took place on 23 May and 15 June. On both occasions, Ireland was represented at senior official level by the Department of Defence and at senior military level by the Defence Forces.

The group provides a forum to discuss the response of the international community to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ireland has already provided military equipment in the form of body armour and ready-to-eat meals to the Ukrainian armed forces and has committed to contribute a further €44 million through the European Peace Facility. More than 45 countries, including almost all NATO and EU member states, as well as a number of African and Asian countries, participated in the most recent meeting. There is no published official record of these meetings.

It is considered useful for Ireland to avail of all appropriate opportunities for high-level and diplomatic engagement on issues relating to Ukraine, particularly as regards the long-term perspectives for the conflict and the potential scenarios ahead, including any eventual pathway to a negotiated solution, as well as the wider transformation of the European security landscape. At this point, no further meetings of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group have been scheduled.

I am not sure why there is no official record of these meetings. Part of my question concerns who represented Ireland and at what level from within the Department of Defence and the Army. Why is there no record of the meetings?

The Minister has agreed that Ireland is a neutral country. He has described it as "non-aligned" and said we are not neutral in regard to war. Like most Deputies, I certainly am not neutral in regard to any suffering but we are a neutral country and we should be using our voice for peace. Instead, we are participating in meetings led by NATO and the US regarding the military capabilities of Ukraine. I really would love the Minister to tell us how he is using his voice to stop this appalling illegal war. I fully agree with him that the attack on the shopping centre yesterday was absolutely despicable. However, we seem to be joining NATO in a piecemeal fashion. I put it like that because we are attending meetings that are unrecorded and in respect of which there are no data. We are not part of NATO.

There were many countries in attendance who are not in NATO. We are not neutral in this war. I have used my voice around the Security Council table and within the EU and the Council of Europe to look at ways in which we can promote peace and bring an end to this madness. I have been to Turkey and have spoken to the Turkish foreign minister about that country's efforts, co-ordinating with the UN and with Moscow, in terms of trying to get ships out of ports near Odesa that are bringing grain from Ukraine. There are more than 20 million tonnes of grain trapped because of what is, in effect, a Russian military embargo in the Black Sea, which is preventing ships from getting in and out of Ukraine.

We are involved in all these discussions. Ireland's credibility lies in humanitarian interventions and, when we can do so, in peace interventions. We are not contributing lethal weapons to the Ukrainian military but we certainly are supporting that country in every other way we can. This is about trying to protect people from brutality and from the global military superpower that is attacking them with no regard for international law, conventions or standards. It is deliberately targeting civilians, thus far driving 6 million Ukrainians into the European Union. I met the Polish ambassador today. A total of 4 million Ukrainians have crossed the border into Poland alone.

I hear what the Deputy is saying. Of course we need to be an advocate for peace and diplomacy to work.

However, all the advice we are getting at the moment suggests there is no appetite in the Kremlin at this time for a peaceful outcome in the short term in the form of a ceasefire.

I do not accept that. I accept the Minister's bona fides in wanting peace but I do not hear our voice as loud as it should be as a neutral, non-aligned country that holds respect in the world. What is happening in Ukraine is deplorable, unacceptable and illegal but joining a meeting led by NATO is not a way to bring peace. The Secretary General of that body, Jens Stoltenberg, has told us the West must prepare to continue supporting Ukraine in a war lasting for years. That is his view of what lies ahead. I do not accept that and I do not think the world can accept it. It is way too dangerous to think this war could be let go on and on. It is extremely worrying when Ursula von der Leyen says things like Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. That type of language is not peaceful language. While deploring what Russia has done, we are different from any other country. Ireland is a small country and one of the very few neutral states left in the world that can use its voice for peace.

I will not go over time as I know how difficult it is to be in the Chair.

I wish we could use our voice to bring about a ceasefire and peace. However, anybody who looks at Russia's actions will see it has sent a signal to western leaders meeting this week by way of the brutality of what it did yesterday. This is not a country that is seeking peace. It is a country that is seeking to dominate its neighbour and bring Ukraine back into the Russian sphere of influence. That is what is happening. I wish it were not but Russia is deliberately undermining the very infrastructure of peace and stability on our Continent right now.

I assure the Deputy that Ireland will be the first in line in the context of trying to find diplomatic solutions that can bring about a ceasefire. We will also, however, be conscious of what Ukraine wants and is asking for. It knows Russia better than anybody. If the Deputy were to travel, as I have done, to the Baltic states and speak to those in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and they understand Russia only too well in respect of the Russian mindset, he would get his answer. Compromise is seen as weakness. That is what they would say. Therefore, we need to support Ukraine to try to protect itself while we try to find a way to talk some sense into the leadership in Moscow. I do not believe that anybody in the West or in NATO wants this war to continue. I do not believe that Ukraine wants it to either, but I do not think that country has a choice in the context of the aggression demonstrated by Russia.

Naval Service

James O'Connor

Ceist:

75. Deputy James O'Connor asked the Minister for Defence the plans that are in place for the future use of the LÉ Eithne; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34198/22]

John Brady

Ceist:

81. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Defence the plans that his Department has for the proper disposal of a number of vessels from the Naval Service fleet which have come to the end of their service life and are due to be decommissioned; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34173/22]

I thank the Minister for being here. This question concerns the LÉ Eithne, which is a prominent ship in our Naval Service and which serves as our flagship. The vessel was built in the constituency represented by Deputy Stanton and me. I ask the Minister for an update on its future use. I would appreciate any details that he may be able to provide.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 75 and 81 together.

I accepted the recommendation of the working group on decommissioning, dated December 2021, that the decommissioning and disposal of three Naval Service ships, namely, the LÉ Eithne, P31, the LÉ Orla, P41, and the LÉ Ciara, P42, should be progressed as soon as is practicable, taking into account resourcing and the current impact of maintaining the ships.  Officials in my Department are examining options on how to dispose of the ships post decommissioning in the most efficient and effective manner and to ensure that the ships can be taken out of the Naval Service base in Haulbowline at the earliest opportunity in order to free up personnel resources and berthage space and keep the cost of maintenance at the minimum.

Dublin Port and Cork County Council have made representations to me regarding the donation of the LÉ Eithne for use as a tourist attraction or museum piece.  In this regard, I have asked my officials to consult these bodies on their proposals and to report back to me before I finalise my approach to the disposals.  Consultations are ongoing. My officials are also exploring the option of a government-to-government transfer of the LÉ Orla and LÉ Ciara. The Department of Foreign Affairs is providing assistance in this regard. I have not made a final decision on the method of disposal of these vessels, but I hope to finalise my approach to the disposals shortly.

There is interest in turning the LÉ Eithne into an attraction. We must explore the viability of that proposition. If that is viable, then I would like to do it, because this ship has an extraordinary history and people would like to see it being used to good effect. Regarding the other vessels, if we can ensure that they have further use in another country which may be able to use them, then we are certainly examining those options now, rather than breaking up or disposing of the ships. If they can be used in a way that ensures sensible security guarantees and so on, then we are very much open to that option. We are exploring that possibility, but the important thing is that we move these three ships on. They are taking up significant human resources that could be used on other ships now, in respect of their basic maintenance, berthage, etc. We want to make decisions on these issues over the next few weeks in order that we can progress these projects.

I thank the Minister for the update. It is welcome to hear that an examination is under way, especially regarding the future use of the LÉ Eithne, including, perhaps, for tourist purposes within the State. It is, of course, of great historical significance. It was the last of our Naval Service ships that was constructed in Cobh in Cork Harbour. It would be fabulous to see it being retained somewhere in Cork. I do not want to start a tug of war between the constituencies of Cork South-Central and Cork East as to where the ship might be located. I would, though, love to see it remaining in our harbour for future use. It would be an important attraction to bring people along who may have an interest in joining our Defence Forces to see what life is like on board some of our naval vessels. I know that happens already, but to have a permanent fixture in place would be fantastic.

For many years, this ship gave great service to the State. This must be recognised. Many people undertook training and served in our Defence Forces on board the LÉ Eithne. It is important that we take this into consideration when examining the ship's future use. Is there any timeline for the work being undertaken? I refer specifically to the LÉ Eithne. I will leave it to my colleagues to raise the matter of the other ships. Is there any timeline in this regard concerning when a decision may be made about the LÉ Eithne?

Not to be outdone, I am going to make a proposal as well. While Cork is well served by Haulbowline and the footprint of the Naval Service there, we will have to consider the east coast in the context of our Naval Service as well, and there would be no better location to establish a base than Arklow in my constituency. It would be a great home for the LÉ Eithne in future.

We must consider the decommissioning of these three vessels and learn from our previous attempts where we caused controversy back in 2015, or I should say that the Maltese caused some controversy when they described the LÉ Aoife as being past its sell-by date and, essentially, as a piece of junk. Further controversy ensued in respect of how the Aisling was decommissioned and ultimately ended up in the hands of a Libyan warlord. After being sold by the State for a mere €110,000, the vessel was eventually sold to the individual in question for €1.3 million. In light of that, we must consider this issue seriously.

The Minister spoke about the option of a transfer to another government of two of the vessels. I ask him to elaborate on those discussions and what exactly is being examined in that regard.

What happened with Malta in the past was that there was a comment that got quite a lot of media coverage, but that vessel became the flagship for the Maltese Navy for several years afterwards. The transfer was very successful. It is important to say this. The ship had quite a number of extra years of life and it was very useful at the time to the Maltese. They were very thankful for it. We have a close relationship with the Armed Forces of Malta in the context of joint training programmes, etc.

Several options for the disposal of the ships are being examined. One is disposal by safe and environmentally sound recycling via an EU-approved ship recycling facility. Another is sale by auction, which is sale as seen, to a private or government buyer. A third option is a government-to-government transfer or purchase of the ships. We have purchased two in-shore patrol vessels from the Royal New Zealand Navy, and that was a government-to-government deal. It is going to be very successful, and we got great value for money. When people see the vessels, they will see why that is the case. As I said, those vessels will be here early next year. The final option is that we could donate the ships to be used as a possible visitor attraction, museum or visitor centre. That is easier said than done. It involves a cost. I hope we can do it, but we must be careful that the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces do not have to continue to manage vessels. The whole idea of this exercise is to allow us to move on and look for more modern vessels. If we can use the older vessels and if they can be managed under the auspices of Dublin Port or Cork County Council as a tourist attraction, then we are certainly open to that option.

I wholeheartedly agree with the point made that if the LÉ Eithne were to be turned into a maritime museum that it should not be up to the Defence Forces to foot the bill. The co-operation of the Defence Forces would be more than welcome, but it is great to see that Cork County Council and that councillors on that local authority have expressed interest in this regard. Approaches have been made to me private, with people expressing an interest in the vessel in the context of Youghal and Cobh to see if those locations might be viable in the long run. I just put that point on the record.

While I am on my feet, I compliment the 60th class of new cadets for the Naval Service. I was privileged to be at my first naval ceremony recently, along with the Minister for Defence. I commend those cadets on the significant work they put in over the last two years. That must be commended in the House. I appreciate the information that the Minister has come back to me with. When a date is available for the conclusion of this work being undertaken, I ask that it be communicated to our office and to those of other Deputies with an interest in this matter. It is welcome, so I thank the Minister again.

I wish to return to the point the Minister made about a government-to-government transfer and what is being looked at regarding the transfer of LÉ Orla and LÉ Ciara.

The Minister will be well aware of comments made by Members of the House calling for the vessels to be transferred to Ukraine. As sympathetic as I am with Ukraine and what is going on in there in terms of the illegal invasion by Russia, if that option is being looked at it would seriously undermine Ireland's position as a military neutral country. It would be very concerning if that is being looked at. Will the Minister put on record whether that is currently being looked at by him and, indeed, the Government or the Department? It would be very concerning if it were. He has previously outlined what we are doing to help people in Ukraine. I stand by and support that, but any military investment would run contrary to Ireland's military neutral position.

Does the Minister have an exact date for when the LÉ Eithne will finally be taken out of service? Which of the vessels will be designated as the flagship vessel for the Naval Service? When does the Minister expect to finalise decisions with respect to the future of the LÉ Eithne, whether it will become a floating museum, visitors' attraction or whatever?

There has been no expression of interest from the Ukraine Government in terms of a government-to-government transfer of these vessels between Ireland and Ukraine. It simply has not come up. There has been an expression of interest from elsewhere, which we are looking at, but there is no final decision yet. If we were to share those vessels with Ukraine, I do not think it would undermine Irish neutrality. These are not war-going vessels in reality; they are patrol vessels. I do not believe that issue will likely arise because the request has not come from Ukraine.

Deputy Stanton will know the significance of the LÉ Eithne in terms of his part of the world and the Verolme dockyard - I think it was the last ship built there - so it has a lot of resonance with that part of Cork Harbour. I do not have an exact date but I will obviously inform the Deputies when I have it. We are hoping to do this in the coming weeks if we can and if not in early September. Whenever I get clear recommendations as to the viability of what either Dublin Port or Cork County Council are offering, we will be in a position to make decisions at that stage. I have to wait for an independent recommendation to come back to me on that. As much as I would like to hand the LÉ Eithne to Cork County Council, we have to pursue the best option in terms of finance.

Defence Forces

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill

Ceist:

76. Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill asked the Minister for Defence the work-life balance measures that are being considered by his Department to make the Defence Forces a more family-friendly environment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33633/22]

I ask this question on behalf of Deputy Carroll MacNeill. What measures are being considered by the Department to make the Defence Forces a more family-friendly environment?

That is a very good question. I am advised by the military authorities that there is an ongoing programme of HR development within the Defence Forces, part of which is aimed at ensuring that, where at all possible, there is an appropriate work-life balance for its members. The Defence Forces have piloted new work-life balance initiatives, including reviewing how career courses are conducted to make them more accessible to those with family commitments and facilitating job sharing for overseas deployments. In this regard, prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, a number of family-friendly overseas appointments for commissioned and enlisted personnel were introduced whereby the normal six-month tour of duty could be shared with another member of the Defence Forces, resulting in a three-month deployment. There is scope, I understand, to re-introduce these arrangements once all remaining restrictions pertaining to overseas deployments are lifted.

The Defence Forces have also placed a renewed focus on members whose spouse or partner is also in the organisation, with a view to ascertaining how they can be assisted when their spouse or partner is deployed away from home. This includes 24-hour duties while partners or spouses are deployed overseas, or for two years for a mother after the birth of a child. A range of harmony measures have also been implemented, including hot-desking for certain enlisted and commissioned personnel who have been posted away from their home address, and remote working is considered for a limited number of personnel depending on the circumstances.

The Defence Forces are also able to facilitate the periodic working from home of some personnel. However, given the fundamental and specific nature of military service, there is limited capacity in this regard, as many Defence Forces appointments are not suitable to this practice. Working from home is utilised for specific appointments for which it is suited and having regard to the requirement to develop and maintain an appropriate level of military capability.

In line with the introduction of the Blended Working Policy Framework for Civil Service Organisations earlier this year and the commitments made in the programme for Government relating to remote working across the public sector, I confirm that the defence organisation is examining these policies and commitments in the context of the unique nature of military service.

There is a lot going on but a lot more is coming in this space. On the back of recommendations from the commission, we are about to introduce a new position of head of transformation, which will be a senior appointment within the Defence Forces, that will report directly to the Chief of Staff. This position will be filled by a civilian who will focus on the management of people and quality of life issues, work-life balance, flexibility and so on.

I thank the Minister for his detailed reply. I have no doubt he could provide much more detail and perhaps he will in due course by way of a supplementary response.

Deputy Carroll MacNeill has asked me to focus on one or two areas, to which the Minister has alluded. First, remote working is not realistically going to be practical considering the nature of the work members of the Defence Forces undertake, particularly military as opposed to civilian staff. Will there be a focus on the nature of domestic postings? We appreciate the need for foreign postings, but there is a need to ensure that domestic postings are realistic to the housing and familial commitments of all members of the Defence Forces.

Second, regarding accommodation, what efforts have been looked at in terms of on-base housing? In the Curragh Camp, a number of former officers' residences are boarded up at present. There has been debate about the barracks in Rathmines and talk about selling it off for housing without realising that it is housing for many members of the Defence Forces. How can we maximise use of those facilities?

Honestly, we are looking at all of these matters. One of the possibilities for the next few years, on the back of the commission report, is that we will see a radical restructuring of the Defence Forces, in particular the Army. We will see a new Army headquarters, a new defence headquarters, a new structure headed up by a chief of defence for the first time in Ireland. Senior decision makers in the Defence Forces will be civilians, such as head of transformation and head of HR management. The commission has set very ambitious targets for us in terms of encouraging more women into the Defence Forces. It is not just about women; it is also about young men coming into the Defence Forces. In order to do this, we have to respond to the new realities which are that people expect more flexibility, they expect a work-life balance to be a part of their work. The real challenge is how we marry that with military service, which is of course a different form of public service to anything else.

I agree with the Minister that there are extremely exciting times ahead for our Defence Forces. The report of the Commission on the Defence Forces provides so many avenues, not just in terms of operational capacity but in terms of structural reform. The Minister mentioned the position of head of transformation, and we need to learn from the lessons that have sadly worried us in terms of the treatment of certain members of our Defence Forces over the years and the importance of having a people-focused, soldier-focused, sailor-focused, pilot-focused approach is so important to our military. It comes back once again to the need to ensure that when members of the Defence Forces are stationed domestically, when they are in-country, they should have as balanced a life as possible.

That is when we look at the retention of troops and other people to ensure that their commutes to their places of work will be accessible and that we do not have people driving up from Cork to Rathmines and having to sleep in their cars.

What is the current position on work-life balance and maternity leave and paternity leave in the Defence Forces? Are there plans to improve this?

As for accommodation, if there are people sleeping in their cars, I would like to hear the details of that. I have heard people say that before and I always ask for the details but I have not got them yet. It may have happened. I do not know. If it is happening, it should not be and we should be addressing it. We are investing a lot of badly needed money in accommodation in various barracks. Some of the accommodation is not good enough; some of the new accommodation is really good. It is about upgrading all our barracks, including accommodation and gym facilities. We opened two new fantastic gym facilities in Kilkenny and Limerick recently and we have more of that to come. We are investing in improving accommodation in the Curragh and multiple other barracks. We are about to start a big project in Galway that is badly needed. That rolling capital investment programme is important.

As for maternity leave, Deputy Stanton will know because of his proximity to the Naval Service that this has been a big issue for the Naval Service and an insistence on going to sea. If Deputy Stanton has not already seen them, I think he will see changes in policy in this area very shortly.

Defence Forces

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

77. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Defence when it is intended to make decisions on the recent report of the Commission on the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33620/22]

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

85. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Defence the timeframe for completion of inter-Government consultations and a draft for an action plan in respect of recommendations of the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34202/22]

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

89. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence the steps that have been taken to address the issues raised in the recent report on the Defence Forces; the extent to which the report is likely to be embraced; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34152/22]

I will not delay the Minister in asking the question because he has been asked it already tonight. It is about the Commission on the Defence Forces and when decisions will be made on the recommendations of the commission. The Minister might let us in as to which option he will go for.

I would love to give Deputy Ó Cuív a load of detail on that but I probably owe it to my Cabinet colleagues to tell them first. All I can say to him is that I have given a commitment to bring to the Government recommendations from the commission report in the month of June. We are at the end of June now, so that will be done very shortly - next week, I hope. If, however, we cannot get agreement next week, it will be the following week, but I hope to be able to do this shortly. There has been an enormous amount of work by both the Chief of Staff and his team and by my Secretary General and her team on trying to get this right. The civil military co-operation in turning this commission report into an action plan is the single most impressive process of co-operation I have seen between civil and military in the Department of Defence, in my time anyway, and previously. There is a genuine commitment between the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General to work very closely together to make sure we turn what is a really credible and good report with a very strong evidence base for its recommendations into an action plan that is real for Defence Forces personnel across the country. I hope to be able to bring those recommendations to the Government as soon as next week but certainly within the next two weeks. This will cost a lot of money, and it is not easy to get a series of recommendations of this scale agreed. We are working with other Government colleagues to be able to do that as soon as we possibly can.

Does the Minister accept that the Defence Forces have lost skills in recent years because people have left the Defence Forces due to the unattractive wages or salaries and conditions? Will the Minister make sure that that issue is addressed when decisions are being made on the commission's report? Also, is any consideration being given to having a second naval port, a subsidiary one, along the west coast of Ireland? It seems strange that on an island of this size we have only one naval port, particularly as there are, I understand, recommendations to improve the Naval Service and to provide more ships etc.

My question, No. 89, is similar to Deputy Ó Cuív's. Have the Defence Forces been kept informed of progress in order to ensure that they recognise that the report is about them and for them and that it is intent on coming to conclusions on the issue before the end of this Dáil session?

As for the consultation on this, I have been to virtually every barracks in the country and have asked the Defence Forces to put a balanced selection of people into a room with me. I have taken questions for a couple of hours in most cases. That includes Donegal, Galway, Cork, Athlone, Dublin and the Curragh. We have met as many Defence Forces personnel as we possibly can to explain to them what we are trying to do, the rationale for upsizing significantly, not downsizing or rationalising, the Defence Forces in the years ahead, how we will do that restructuring, how we will bring about a new culture in the Defence Forces and how both the policy certainty and the funding certainty that are needed will be provided by the Government. It has been a really good process. We have encouraged Defence Forces personnel to be blunt and honest about their frustrations and concerns as well as their ambitions for the future of an organisation to which they are deeply committed. That has been a good process, and the personnel are very much involved and know exactly what is happening.

In response to Deputy Ó Cuív's questions, we are looking at a naval docking facility on both the east coast and the west coast. It makes sense for lots of reasons. We are looking at what is called double crewing for ships in the future, meaning many more people in the Naval Service but also less time at sea and more time for the ships at sea. In order to do that well, we have to have a base - a mini base, if you will - on the west coast, serving the west coast and north-west coast, and on the east coast, serving the Irish Sea. However, we have not decided on locations for that yet.

The Minister talked about money and the need to save it. One item of expenditure I understand it is recommended to do away with in the commission report is the need for a military presence at the E wing of Portlaoise Prison. That is costing €2.74 million. There are 12 prisoners there. The vast majority of them are due out within two years; in fact, some are due out before the end of this summer. They are already getting temporary releases. It seems an amazing cost, €200,000 a pop, to have that presence. These are by no means the prisoners who cause the greatest threat to the State at this time. Will this matter be looked at seriously? It seems to me to be unnecessary now, whatever justification there was for it in the past.

Will the conclusions be announced and endorsed by the Government by the end of this Dáil session - in other words, before the summer recess?

"Yes" is the straight answer to that question. I hope that that will happen well in advance of our breaking up in a few weeks' time.

I do not believe that it is either justifiable or necessary for the Defence Forces to have the presence they have in Portlaoise Prison indefinitely. My view is that the Defence Forces should be phased out of Portlaoise Prison but, of course, we have to work with the Department of Justice and the Prison Service to do that efficiently. If we are trying to narrow the scope of what we are asking the Defence Forces to do, that is one area where they have done a fantastic job, but I think the Prison Service should be able to replicate that work without having Defence Forces personnel in Portlaoise Prison. That takes up a lot of resourcing and is quite expensive, and I think the Defence Forces could be used elsewhere more effectively in their core role. That is a recommendation in the report. I strongly agree with it. I do not think it will happen overnight because these things need to be managed, but I certainly intend to pursue it in a reasonable timeline.

Cybersecurity Policy

Richard Bruton

Ceist:

78. Deputy Richard Bruton asked the Minister for Defence his plans to increase cybersecurity defence in Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33667/22]

Barry Cowen

Ceist:

79. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Defence the way that he proposes to implement the recommendation of the Commission on the Defence Forces for the enhancement of Defence Forces structures across the cyber domain; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34205/22]

Although Deputy Bruton is not present, his question has been grouped with Question No. 79, which will be introduced by an Teachta Ó Cuív.

Question No. 79 asks how the Minister intends to implement the recommendation of the Commission on the Defence Forces for the enhancement of Defence Forces structures across the cyber domain. Can the Minister also tell us what the plans are on cybersecurity and the role of the Defence Forces in that, which most people think should be central to it?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 78 and 79 together.

There will be a new cyber command within new Defence Force structures. That will report into the Defence Forces headquarters, which will be headed up by what is called a CHOD, which is a military term for a chief of defence. We envisage that the cyber role of the Defence Forces will be increasingly important in security terms. People do not need me to remind them how vulnerable every country is to cyberattacks, including this one. In the middle of a pandemic, we experienced a cyberattack on our health system which meant that many of our hospitals were run on paper-based systems for quite a period. I estimate it cost the State well over €100 million to resolve that issue. There are vulnerabilities there that we need to guard against but primary responsibility, in terms of Government Department for cybersecurity for the State, does not rest with the Department of Defence but with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. Nevertheless, we work closely with the National Cyber Security Centre.

I have to guarantee that the Defence Forces and their security infrastructure is fully protected against potential cyberattacks on our systems and networks. For that, we need more resources and people and an increased priority for the cyber domain, which I intend to pursue in a way that is consistent with the recommendations in the commission report.

I welcome that response. In building up this cyber capability, will the reality of the need to attract very skilled people into this space in the military be taken into account in laying out the type of salary levels and conditions that these people will work under? If one wants to attract and retain very high quality people, one will have to pay the competitive wage for such people from outside of the military.

More generally on the wage issue, let us not forget that the Defence Forces are part of the public sector pay negotiation. Both PDFORRA, which has been campaigning on this issue for years, and the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, asked me to facilitate the associate membership of their organisations in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, for the purposes of this round of pay negotiations and we have done that, which is a first.

If the Defence Forces' representative bodies are part of that ICTU structure now, it is difficult to ask for separate treatment of wages outside of the public sector pay deal. Having said that, we need to attract the right skill set, particularly specialists, into the Defence Forces. I believe we will see some civilianisation also in some of this space which can work, just like we have seen civilianisation within An Garda Síochána, which has worked quite well. We will be exploring various different approaches but undoubtedly the Deputy is correct in that we need to get skill sets that can deal at a senior level with the cyber security threat and we will need to compete with the private sector to get that skill set. That will not be easy.

I take it that the Minister would accept that in the past, certain specialists had special salaries, for example medical personnel, and so forth, within the military. Otherwise, they would not have been attracted to work in that sector because of the salaries available outside of it for people so qualified.

Can I take it that the rates that would be set for people like this with very high levels of skills will be equivalent to those in the private sector? I wish to put on record that I welcome the decision that PDFORRA and RACO could affiliate to ICTU in the way they did. That is a step forward.

One of the things that one cannot do forever, however, is that where there are wage anomalies, just because there are issues of parity, this cannot become an absolute rule that one can never change anything. Then the past becomes the present becomes the future. We have to have flexibility that where something needs to change, it can change.

Yes, but it will have to change within public sector pay policy. That is not to say that we cannot strategically use allowances within the Defence Forces in a way that perhaps gets better outcomes and the commission makes some recommendations in that regard. Undoubtedly, we have to find a way of ensuring that we have a sufficient number of specialists, particularly in the cybersecurity space, but there are other specialist areas also around engineering, navigation and various other types of engineering specialties that we have to get into the Defence Forces, across the Naval Service, the Air Corps and the Army. I am conscious of that and, of course, we will make a case to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform if there are gaps that can only be filled by making an exception. We will have to get approval for that, however, which is never easy because it has a knock-on impact in precedent terms in other areas of the public sector. My job is to get the best deal possible for the Defence Forces and that is what I will be trying to do.

We will move on to the final questions now. We will not have the full time for it and I ask Deputy Richmond to start the questions, in any event.

Ukraine War

Neale Richmond

Ceist:

80. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on the supports his Department has sent to Ukraine; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33648/22]

James Lawless

Ceist:

108. Deputy James Lawless asked the Minister for Defence if he will be authorising any further defence supports for Ukraine; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34151/22]

Briefly, my question is to ask the Minister what supports his Department has given to the people of Ukraine.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 80 and 108 together.

My Department, along with the Defence Forces and the Civil Defence, has been working across Government to provide a range of supports in response to the Ukrainian crisis.

Following a direct request from Ukraine, the Defence Forces has provided approximately 10 tonnes or 5,000 units of ready-to-eat meals and 200 units of body armour which have been shipped from Defence Forces stocks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.  The contribution of the ready-to-eat meals and body armour is a specific element of the Government’s contribution through the European Peace Facility, EPF.

The Air Corps, on behalf of the HSE, has completed four air ambulance airlifts of Ukrainian patients and their families from Poland. The Department of Defence continues to engage with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the HSE in support of potential similar assistance in the future. 

The European Peace Facility allows the EU to support the capabilities and resilience of the Ukrainian armed forces. In February, March, April and May of 2022, the Council of the European Union adopted assistance measures under the European Peace Facility. To date, a €2 billion package has been approved that will allow the EU to support the Ukrainian armed forces in defending the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country, and to protect the civilian population against the ongoing Russian military aggression.

In line with the commitment laid out in the 2020 programme for Government and the provisions of the memorandum on the European Peace Facility, approved by the Government in March 2021, Ireland’s financial contribution supporting the Ukrainian armed forces via the European Peace Facility is directed towards providing non-lethal support such as food, medicine and personal protection equipment, which have been specifically requested by the Government of Ukraine. This equipment could include such items as body armour and helmets. A similar approach is also followed by both Austria and Malta. Ireland is providing its full contribution to the EPF assistance measures. Ireland’s contribution so far stands at €44 million.

Following a request from the Ukrainian Prime Minister to the Taoiseach for the provision of specialist training to the Ukrainian armed forces, the Defence Forces have been in contact with the Ukrainian armed forces to clarify the precise training needs and to assess the possibility of providing such training.

In terms of any future defence supports, my Department will continue to assess fully any requests for assistance that are received. We have, of course, also sent ambulances and so on, but that has not been a military support, as such, and is of a more general nature.

Briefly, I thank the Minister very much for that fulsome reply. When he mentions ambulances, a question I would put to the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, is to ask that An Garda Síochána might follow the example of the PSNI, which has been asked by the Ukrainian police to send surplus equipment. In the Minister's own opinion, does he believe that we could be doing more? He mentions that we are constantly reassessing the provision but I have been contacted by quite a number of people who have looked at other EU member states, admittedly not Austria and Malta.

They have donated Javelin missiles, anti-aircraft hardware and armoured vehicles. I appreciate the constraints we are under. We have to be frank. We see the video images of Russians shelling Ukraine once again and blowing up shopping centres. We see people crying over the dead bodies of their loved ones. There was a level of fatigue in western countries for a few weeks as Russia intensified the attacks. That level of fatigue has been shaken from its stupor but we could be doing more.

We want to do more but where we can do more is where Ireland has skill sets and credibility. I referred to training programmes earlier. There has been a specific request for training on demining. This is something in which the Irish Defence Force has specific expertise. We have been involved in demining training programmes in Afghanistan and Mali. This is something we should pursue. I was very involved in finalising the wording of the European Peace Facility. We got agreement on including in the programme for Government being part of the European Peace Facility on the basis of not providing lethal weapons through that funding mechanism. Of course we can provide everything else. The European Peace Facility was not designed to do what it is being used for in Ukraine. It is a useful vehicle to assist the Ukrainian military. We will continue to look to do more but we want to try to do it in a way that is consistent with the programme for government.

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