Defence Matters: Statements (Resumed)

Senator Buttimer has five minutes.

I will not need five minutes. I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for the work he is doing. All of us are immensely proud of the Defence Forces. As Senator Nash said, it is not an ordinary job. What the Government has done in respect of the opening of recruitment and the allocation of extra capital expenditure for the Defence Forces is welcome. I commend all who serve in the Defence Forces, be it in the Army, the Naval Service, the Reserve Defence Force or the Civil Defence.

There is a responsibility on us in a recovering economy to ensure that the focus is on pay restoration. The Minister of State referred to that in his statement and he is doing that in his work. It is important. The reason I speak in this debate is not only to express my commendation of the Defence Forces but also to point out that I have met service members, their families and ex-service members who have expressed their concerns about the pay and conditions. It would be remiss not to acknowledge that issue. That said, however, we have the Public Service Pay Commission and the Minister of State has established a different forum to examine pay and conditions. Equally, the White Paper on Defence is very much about ensuring that resourcing is high for that.

There is another matter regarding the Defence Forces that should be mentioned and acknowledged. I commend Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, Chief of Staff, and Sergeant Richard Muldarry on the way in which they walked in Dublin Pride Parade. It raised the profile of the Defence Forces and showed them to be diverse and inclusive.

My comments are about advocating and imploring for an improvement in the pay and conditions and ensuring that in a recovering economy we allocate resources not only for expenditure on pay but also for capital expenditure in terms of buildings and equipment. I commend our men and women who serve abroad. I am aware that the Minister of State signed off today on an extension of the mission in Mali. We can take justifiable pride in our Defence Forces, but I was anxious to make my few other remarks.

I will do my best to respond to all the issues raised. It is unfortunate that some of the Senators who made a contribution could not take the time to hear my reply after they had made some accusations, which I have no problem defending. However, that is the way it is.

One of the issues raised is the pay and conditions of the Defence Forces. I have noted on several occasions that pay and conditions have been a challenge. I have acknowledged that in the Dáil and Seanad in the past and on a number of occasions at public events. It is only right and proper to highlight the pay of members of the Defence Forces. I will outline the average gross earnings in 2018 and go through the ranks starting with enlisted personnel. The gross average earnings in 2018 were as follows: €37,529 for a three star private; €41,076 for a corporal; €44,622 for a sergeant; €49,605 for a company quartermaster sergeant, CQMS; €50,224 for a company sergeant; €53,616 for a battalion quartermaster sergeant, BQMS; and €54,878 for a sergeant major. For the officer class they were: €37,108 for a second lieutenant; €42,291 for a lieutenant; €53,138 for a captain; €66,496 for a commandant; €79,162 for a lieutenant colonel; and €88,480 for a colonel. A three star private, if he or she passes out and concludes three star training, will come out with a gross annual salary of €27,913. Three weeks ago there was a new cadet class. A school leaver, a second lieutenant, will come out with €35,614 and a person with a third level qualification, a lieutenant, will come out with €40,566. They are not the lowest paid public servants, but I recognise that there are challenges.

I have stressed another issue here but Members are not willing to listen to me. There are fewer than 90 people on the family income supplement, which is now the working family payment. That is less than 1% of the total organisation. That includes members of the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence. People understand that the working family payment is in place for a reason. It depends on a person's circumstances.

Senator Craughwell spoke about retention. Page 78 of the White Paper refers to retention. It states that the recruitment, training, development and retention of suitable military personnel are essential factors in developing the military capabilities required to discharge the roles assigned by the Government. I assure the Senator that retention is mentioned in the White Paper.

Senator Craughwell spoke about pilots and I presume that he was referring to RACO. Let me state that RACO was consulted on the matter. The views of the association were noted and taken into consideration when preparing the terms and conditions. The fact that the representative association does not agree with all of the terms and conditions does not equate with a lack of consultation. The terms and conditions were drafted by civil and military management, and consideration of the impact of serving members was part of that process and a balanced proposal was finalised. RACO has been consulted in the past on the terms and conditions for individual applications. RACO was also consulted on the proposals for the standardisation of the arrangements. I am also informed that departmental officials discussed the draft terms and conditions with RACO and the matters raised were considered in the development of the document.

RACO has informed me of its concerns as recently as last week. However, I do not accept that the terms and conditions represent a fundamental change for serving members or their promotional opportunities. Recommissioned officers will be offered a short service commission for a period of three years and in that period they cannot compete for promotion. Let me state that the association knows that and was informed of that situation. In that period the officers will not be allowed to compete for promotion nor will they block promotional opportunities for any other officer or pilot within the Air Corps. It is totally disingenuous to say that this blocks the promotion of other members.

Senator Gerard P. Craughwell: What if they extend it beyond that?

The Minister of State, without interruption.

The recommissioned officers may only be offered a substantive appointment after three years. The arrangements provide an appropriate balance between the recognition of those who currently serve in the Air Corps and operational requirements while, at the same time, being fair to those who want to return to service. I have the full support of the military management from the General Officer Commanding, GOC, of the Air Corps and right up to the Chief of Staff on this re-entry policy. It was due to their idea that we came up with this and it is a fantastic idea. We are 33 pilots short at the moment so if there are pilots who are former members of the Air Corps and are willing to come back then I welcome them back into the organisation.

Border security is a matter for An Garda Síochána. As Senators will know, the security of the island of Ireland is a matter for An Garda Síochána and it is as an aid to the civil power that we respond to An Garda Síochána.

We are carrying out all of our work with the Sea Fisheries Protection Agency. Recently an accusation was put to me that the agency was unhappy with our patrol days. In 2018, almost 100% of the requests that the agency made to us were granted. Of course, there are times when we are unable to comply for various reasons.

Senator McFadden spoke about the pay commission. This is a fully independent pay commission and I am allowing it to do its work. There was a full joint submission made to the pay commission by civil and military management. I understand that the pay commission is interviewing members of the Defence Forces at the moment. It will continue to do that job of work over the coming period. As I stated in my opening address, there will be an opportunity for civil and military management to address the pay commission, which I asked for. Management will be given the opportunity and I gave that data in my opening few words.

It is very disingenuous to say that loads of people are in receipt of family income supplement. That is not the case, which I stated in this House the other day and I repeat it here again. I have stated that I will work with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the pay commission to make sure that we finalise this matter as quickly as possible. Whatever job of work that they require and need, I would rather that we gave them the space and opportunity to do that work.

I have addressed the issue mentioned by the Sinn Féin Senator with my comments. Specifically, Senator Higgins spoke about a multi-role vessel. That is in White Paper and in the programme for Government. Work is continuing and we will continue to work on the matter.

The Senator spoke about our policy on neutrality. It is one issue that I continue to highlight and outline at every given opportunity, specifically at all of the European Council meetings that I attend where I always outline Ireland's policy on neutrality. People might not call it neutrality; Senator Craughwell referred to "non-aligned". It is very important that each and every country has different positions and policies. I have highlighted and will continue to highlight our policy on neutrality.

On the White Paper update, that will not alter the fundamentals of existing defence policy, including our policy on neutrality.

Operation Sophia has played a decisive role in improving the overall maritime security in the central Mediterranean. I believe every member of the House here would agree with that. EU member states have agreed to extend the mandate of Operation Sophia for a further three months and to carry out a review. Discussions are taking place right now, at EU level, on the review of the mandate. Once that is concluded we will consider Ireland's participation in Operation Sophia into 2019. The matter will be considered in due course.

Will the Minister of State come back to this House at that point?

There is no need for me to come back to the House and the Government will make the decision. I do not believe that I must come back to the House to discuss the matter because the mission is UN mandated. The matter will be in the public domain and I will make a decision on that.

The Minister's return would be a great gesture.

Senator Nash mentioned psychiatrists. There has been a lot of political and media attention recently regarding the vacancy for an inhouse psychiatrist in the Defence Forces. It must be stressed that there is no delay in referring Defence Forces personnel requiring immediate psychiatric care or assessment. Such cases are referred to the HSE's accident and emergency departments where, if hospitalisation is required, it is provided immediately. For outpatient cases the waiting time for a HSE appointment is approximately three months. In order to provide Defence Forces primary carers with the broadest range of options possible in dealing with the spectrum of cases that present to them, they have also been authorised to refer cases to local external private psychiatrists for outpatient treatment where this is deemed appropriate.

We did seek a psychiatrist but, unfortunately, we were unable to get one because there is a huge demand for psychiatrists. Nobody applied so we had to look at the remuneration and we sent a proposal to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I know that the process has almost concluded and I hope we will have a psychiatrist in place in the very near future. I assure Senators that members of the Defence Forces receive the attention that they require.

Senator Lawlor mentioned the supplementary pension. That is a matter for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and I suggest he raises the matter with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe. The issue has nothing to do with the Public Service Pay Commission.

The Jadotville medals is another issue that was raised. On 13 June 2017, the Government committed, as an exceptional step, to award a medal known as An Bonn Jadotville, or the Jadotville Medal, to each member of A Company, 35th Infantry Battalion, and to the family representatives of deceased members to give full and due recognition in honour of their courageous actions at the siege of Jadotville.

This specially commissioned medal was procured to give full and due recognition in honour of the courageous actions of these personnel during the siege. The words inscribed on the medals - "cosaint chalma" and "misneach", meaning "valiant defence" and "courage" - were carefully chosen to pay tribute to their actions. I was pleased to present the medals to each member of A Company------

With respect, we are not concerned with that medal, but with the Distinguished Service Medal, DSM.

I am coming to that matter, Senator.

The Minister of State without interruption, please.

My understanding is that five people were recommended for the DSM. I have stated numerous times that if new information becomes available, I will pass it on to the military management and the medal board. People have claimed that new information has come forward, but most of what has come to light in recent months was information that is already on file.

What was the name of the school that Senator Leyden mentioned?

Malahide community school.

Deputy Farrell raised the matter with me yesterday. I told him that I would meet a delegation from the school through his office. I understand that he will arrange the meeting. I have no problem with meeting the school on this issue.

A number of issues were raised, although I know I am running out of time. Senator Nash referred to the Organisation of National Ex-Service Personnel, ONE, campaign. I increased ONE's funding by 108% in the recent budget. It does fantastic work. My Department, the Defence Forces and I work closely with ONE, which provides a fabulous service to former members of the Defence Forces. I meet the veterans associations once per year.