I welcome this opportunity to respond to Senator Craughwell's Private Members' Bill which proposes the establishment of a veterans’ lapel badge to be conferred upon former members of the Irish Defence Forces. The Bill proposes that the badge is to be worn on formal occasions to enable other people to recognise former members' past service in the Irish Defence Forces.
The Government, the Department of Defence, the Defence Forces and I recognise the valued public service given by former servicemen and women of the Defence Forces to the State. The programme for Government pledges our support to veterans in recognition of that service. Senator McFadden was the only person who mentioned the commitments in the White Paper on Defence in respect of veterans. My officials and I will continue the process of engagement with the recognised veterans' associations to further these commitments. I will update Senator McFadden personally on the status of the White Paper projects for veterans as I do not have that information to hand now.
The Department and the Defence Forces provide significant ongoing supports to Defence Forces veterans through supporting the officially recognised veterans associations. A service level agreement, SLA, has been entered into with the Organisation of National Ex-service personnel, ONE, and the Irish United Veterans Association, IUNVA.
Under the service level agreement, my Department pays annual subventions towards their general overheads to support and encourage them in the work they do. Officials within the Department of Defence hold regular meetings with them. Since taking office in May 2016, I have increased the number of meetings my officials have with the associations representing veterans. Also, just as I have with the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA and the Reserve Defence Force Representative Association, RDFRA, I have committed to formal annual meetings with the veterans' associations. I believe I am the only Minister, going back over a long number of years, who has committed to meeting the veterans' associations at least once a year. My next annual meeting with the associations is scheduled for 13 December. I look forward once again to engaging with them about the issues that affect them and their members. My Department officials have a very good working relationship with all the veterans' associations. They meet them, under my instructions, at least three times a year, which is followed by my own meeting with them. I understand they were met once or twice a year but I gave a standing commitment that they would be met at least four times every year.
The veterans' associations have been provided with contact details of appropriate personnel within the Defence Forces and the Department that deal with issues that are relevant to veterans of the Defence Forces. These personnel are available to engage with the associations on issues such as medals, service matters, medical files, pensions and disability pensions. The Department and the Defence Forces provide support, where possible, for key events of importance to the Irish United Veterans Association, IUNVA, and the Organisation of National Ex-Service Personnel, ONE, by way of attendance at these events. If I am available, I also gladly attend these events. One such event is ONE's annual Fuchsia Appeal which aims to raise much-needed funds for the services it provides to former members who have fallen on hard times or are homeless.
The Defence Forces organise an annual Veterans Day. This is the third year to have such a ceremony. I have attended the Veterans Day and one of the most recent ones was held in the Defence Forces Training Centre in the Curragh on 8 October. That day I recognised, on behalf of the Government, the significant contribution of former members of the Defence Forces to the 1916 commemorative events and their past service to the State by presenting a framed 1916 Centenary Commemoration Medal and citation to ONE, lUNVA and a third veterans' organisation, the Association of Retired Commissioned Officers. The plaques, signed by both the Taoiseach and myself, are a special acknowledgement from the Government of our appreciation for the selfless service of former members of Óglaigh na hÉireann who have served Ireland and the Irish people since the foundation of the State.
One of the most visible recognition of veterans that I have been privileged to lead is the awarding of a medal to the men of the A Company, 35th battalion, who served in Jadotville. I thank the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, for his support on this issue. This fully recognises their bravery and courage during the unique circumstances of the siege of Jadotville. A formal medal ceremony has been organised by the Defence Forces to recognise these men. The ceremony is prioritising the Jadotville veterans and their families, providing them with military honours in a ceremony that is organised in a similar way to medal ceremonies for serving personnel. I look forward to being in Athlone on 2 December to present the medals to these men and to once again meet them and their families in what will be a momentous day.
I thank all Members of this House and of the Dáil who have contacted me on numerous occasions about this issue. I would like to thank one person in particular, the former Deputy Nicky McFadden, who has now sadly passed away. She was one lady who felt very strongly about this, and no doubt her sister, Gabby, will have continued the very strong message that Nicky had.
On the presentation of the citation in 2016, I realised the importance of what these men went through in Jadotville. I met each of them and their families and friends. As I stated on that occasion, if I had an opportunity to be able to give them proper recognition with a medal, I would do so. It is regrettable it has taken so long for previous Ministers to honour these great men. I am only one part of a very big link of recognising these people. I am delighted, as Minister with responsibility for defence, to be able to do so on 2 December in Athlone.
I would also state that there are a very small number of veterans who were part of the A Company who were in Jadotville on that occasion who my Department officials have been unable to locate. We have almost tracked down each and every member of the A Company but if anybody is aware of members of the A Company who have not received an invitation for that day, I would appreciate if they would contract either myself or my Department and we can make sure, if they are former members, that they will be included that day. I have asked my Department officials to circulate that message in so far as they can. I was delighted on Sunday evening last to receive an email from a person in the UK whose uncle or father was a member of the A company. We had been unable to track down that gentleman for quite a number of years, so I was delighted to hear from that person. If any Member of this House is aware of any members of the A Company, I would ask them to contact me, my office or my Department.
I recognise the positive intent of the Senator’s Bill to recognise Defence Forces veterans by awarding them with a veterans’ lapel badge. However, I have concerns and reservations regarding the proposal in its current form. Apart from identifying veterans at formal events, I am unclear as to what the purpose of the badge is. It is custom and practice that service medals are worn by veterans at such events. These medals are visually more identifiable and striking than a lapel badge can be. While I recognise that some former members do not have service medals, as many veterans wear their medals I would question the purpose of a lapel badge.
My Department and the Defence Forces have raised many questions as to the practicalities of the award of a veterans' lapel badge. Since the foundation of the State, many thousands of persons have served in either the Permanent Defence Force or the Reserve Defence Force. If the intent is to proactively seek out each former member of the Defence Forces, service records for all would have to be identified and examined to validate their eligibility. Checks would need to be carried out to establish whether these personnel are still alive, what their contact details are and, in the case of any personnel who are still alive but infirm, who should receive the badge on their behalf. This, the Senator will agree, would present considerable administrative challenges.
Such a task would deflect the focus of the Department and the Defence Forces from other very important and pressing priorities. No specific benefits have been identified in the proposal and, given the significant administrative overhead, it is difficult to justify it as it currently stands. I consider the proposal is in need of further development so that it can be given due consideration. If, after further development it proved viable, it is unlikely that such a proposal requires an Act of the Oireachtas. An administrative decision is all that would be required to implement it.
A number of issues were raised in the contributions of a number of Senators. Senator McFadden raised the 1916 commemorative plaques. I hope each veteran association will receive its 1916 commemorative plaque before Christmas. I addressed the issue of the number of meetings; there will be one each quarter. I understand the property management branch within the Department of Defence, in conjunction with the Defence Forces, is working with the veteran associations to give them access to military property. I am very much aware of a number of barracks in which the veterans associations have property for their sole use. There is a very fine one in the barracks in Dundalk. There are others in some of the other installations. It is not always possible to accommodate the veteran associations but if they can be accommodated in any circumstances that is done. All of the associations receive annual funding from my Department and that is under constant review.
I thank the Senator for his well-intentioned proposal. However, I ask the House to consider my reservations. I also restate the Government’s and the defence organisation’s commitment to continue the support for veterans through ongoing engagement with the officially recognised veterans association.
One Senator - I think it was Senator McDowell - said we should never underestimate the respect for members of the Defence Forces. I will always respect serving and former members of the Defence Forces, and I know the respect they are held in by each man, woman and child in this country. I very much acknowledge that. I would be the first to state that we have many challenges within the Defence Forces. I do not know which Senator said Rome was not built in a day, and I am doing my best to address the challenges we have. After coming through the difficult economic situation the country has faced in the past number of years, I do not think anyone would expect us to fix all the problems in one go. I assure the Senators - I have stated this in the Lower House also - that I am addressing each of the challenges to the best of my ability with my Department officials and the Defence Forces. I accept the points Senators Wilson and Mac Lochlainn made in their contributions. I ask the Senators to look back, in a practical way, at my record over the past 12 months and the areas I have addressed and I ask them to give due respect to that. Unfortunately, not everyone gives respect but I ask people to look at the number of changes and issues I have addressed over the past 12 to 18 months. I look forward to working with the Defence Forces and Members of the Seanad and Dáil and having a good debate on these issues. If anyone has any practical ideas or proposals, I am very open to them.