Thursday, 8 October 2020

Ceisteanna (8)

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

8. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Defence the proposed enlistment number for the Reserve Defence Force for 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29128/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Defence)

It is essential that Ireland has the maximum possible enlistment in the Reserve Defence Force. I fully appreciate that recruitment during a pandemic is not straightforward. The Minister has heard me say previously in this House and at committees that the role of the Reserve Defence Force, and prior to that the Forsa Cosanta Áitúil, FCA, has never been given due recognition. In the area I come from I am very conscious of the good work done by the FCA and the Reserve Defence Force in ensuring an outlet for young people, and particularly young vulnerable people who may have got into wrong company and associated with undesirable groups in the past. The FCA did exceptional work in ensuring a good outlet for many young people. Subsequently, those young people were able to go on to have distinguished careers in the Permanent Defence Force.

I thank Deputy Smith, I know he has a particular interest in this area. The Government recognises the important role that the Reserve Defence Force, RDF, plays in contributing to Ireland's defence capability. The White Paper on Defence sets out a blueprint for the development of the RDF and that its primary role is to support the Permanent Defence Force in crisis situations.

The Army Reserve, AR, and Naval Service Reserve, NSR, has a combined establishment of 4,069 personnel, which is 3,869 for the Army Reserve and 200 for the Naval Service Reserve. A key ongoing challenge for the AR and NSR is to recruit and retain personnel and I am aware that there continues to be a shortfall between the current strength figures and those of the establishment. We are trying to address this.

I am advised by the military authorities that recruitment is ongoing and a recruitment campaign for the Army Reserve and Naval Service Reserve was opened in March of this year. Assessments are continuing at formation level and, while there are no specific dates yet, it is anticipated that another recruitment campaign will be opened in autumn 2020 with two further recruitment campaigns in spring and autumn 2021.

I understand that 2018 and 2019 saw inductions totalling 142 and 144, respectively, into the RDF, however, the ability to conduct RDF inductions this year has been impacted by the Covid-19 public health pandemic. Nevertheless, 63 additional new members have been inducted thus far this year, with 57 inducted into the Army Reserve and six inducted into the Naval Service Reserve.

Supports being provided to maximise recruitment to the Reserve include the use of social media and outreach activities by RDF members. The Permanent Defence Force exit interviews now also contain information on applying for membership of the RDF. The Government remains committed to increasing the strength of the AR and NSR and to further developing the Reserve.

I thank the Minister. It is essential that the recruitment numbers are more substantial than the number of retirements. I understand there has been a substantial number of retirements in recent years. Naturally, this will occur again.

I advocated at previous committees that a more aggressive recruitment campaign is needed and perhaps a focus on second-level schools, colleges of further education and third level colleges.

I believe that currently there is no engagement between the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve due to the pandemic. It is important that a plan be put in place for a return to training, with all the necessary safety guidelines. The Permanent Defence Force needs to have that engagement with the Reserve members, and members need to be involved in training. If there is no ongoing training activity, skills will be lost and it will be very difficult to replace such skills. I seek assurance from the Minister that a level of training within the necessary safety guidelines can be put back in place. I know some young people who are training as members of the Permanent Defence Force and there should be some engagement and some level of training for the Reserve members also.

I take that point but we also have to do it within the parameters and constraints of public health guidelines and so on. This even impacts on my ability to visit barracks at the moment, for example, and in the numbers of serving personnel I can meet at any one time. We all have to try to lead by example in responding to the pandemic in a responsible way. This has impacted on some of the issues the Deputy has referred to.

We have a single Defence Forces concept committed to in the White Paper, which means that Reserve personnel should be training in a way that is complementary to the Permanent Defence Force, to ensure complete interoperability between the two so one supports the other. In the coming months I will be asking the upcoming commission to look at the role of the Reserve, how we can enhance that and how we can make it a more exciting option and choice for people who may want to join. I am certainly open to looking at specialties that can help to fill gaps and support in a complementary way to the Permanent Defence Force, and to allowing Reserve personnel to potentially work overseas also. This would significantly add to the attractiveness of joining the Reserve.

When the Minister establishes the commission and appoints members, I hope that a person with detailed knowledge and association with the Reserve Defence Force over the years will be considered for membership of the commission. Often the Reserve is not given the attention it needs.

I fully agree and fully understand that we must be guided by the health and safety guidelines. That is absolutely essential. If we do not have some level of training, however, there will be a big wastage of skills. It would be very difficult to replace those skills and that knowledge in the future.

Unfortunately, given the medical opinions, we will all be living in a Covid-19 environment for some time. We must develop new ways of training and doing business. I appeal to the Minister to give this matter attention. If engagement is not resumed for the Reserve Defence Force its value and the recognition it needs in society will be lost also. It is extremely important, within the safety and health guidelines, that training activity is resumed if at all possible.

People do not join the Reserve to do nothing. They are not there just to say they are a member of the Reserve. They join up because they want to be part of the action and to make a contribution through training and putting that training to use. This is why we have a Reserve. As of the end of August, the effective strength of the Army Reserve was 1,501 in personnel and that of the Naval Service Reserve was 123.

We are significantly below where we would like to be in terms of the establishment numbers.

What is required is a really proactive recruitment campaign that is public, targets the right people and offers, through a communications campaign, options that will interest and excite people and encourage them to join up. We are going to focus on both elements.