Taoiseach plays down impact on Defence Forces as staff buy their way out

PD-Forra says short-term contracts driving sailors, airmen and soldiers to quit

Defence Forces: Irish soldiers train for a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. In the past five years 2,840 personnel have left the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service, leaving its combined strength below 9,000

Defence Forces: Irish soldiers train for a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. In the past five years 2,840 personnel have left the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service, leaving its combined strength below 9,000

 

The Taoiseach has played down concerns that the number of personnel quitting the Defence Forces has left the combined strength of the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service at a 50-year low.

A high turnover is a normal feature of military organisations, Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday, as it emerged that more than 1,000 members have paid to leave the Defence Forces over the past five years.

The Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, noted in the Dáil statistics from PD-Forra, the largest military staff organisation, that 2,900 people had taken early retirement and 1,000 had paid the State a “discharge purchase”, averaging €300, to leave before their contracts expired.

Mr Varadkar reiterated the Government’s commitment to ensuring a full strength of 9,500 personnel and said 800 would be recruited this year. About 580 people leave every year, and “that’s been the case for the past decade”. The Taoiseach said “other military, such as the United Kingdom, are experiencing similar issues”.

PD-Forra

PD-Forra, which represents sailors, airmen and soldiers, believes the flow of personnel leaving the military could at least be slowed if people whose contracts were about to expire were allowed to stay much longer.

Personnel who joined after 1994 were recruited on five-year contracts that have been extended several times. They all now face having to leave the Defence Forces from 2019 even though many will still be in only their late 30s.

PD-Forra said the Government should begin talks towards extending their contracts immediately. “I call on the Minister to instruct his officials to get down to the task of real negotiation, on a fair basis, with PD-Forra,” said its president, Mark Scally. “These members and their families deserve clarity and fairness in respect to their futures.”

He was speaking at PD-Forra’s annual delegate conference, in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, which also heard that the depletion of military personnel had affected specialist areas such as air-traffic control and bomb disposal. Delegates were told as well that although the Naval Service has eight ships, it has enough members to crew only seven of them.

The Taoiseach acknowledged in the Dáil that the State was having a “particular issue” with military air-traffic controllers, information-technology specialists and bomb-disposal experts quitting the Defence Forces, as their skills “are very valuable now in the private sector, and with the economy recovering we’re losing some groups”.

He also said that measures were being taken to make the Defence Forces more attractive and that pay restoration was having an impact; a “newly qualified three-star private and their naval equivalent can now expect to earn €27,000, up from €21,000 when pay restoration began”.

Recruitment drive

PD-Forra believes that unless personnel whose contracts expire soon are assured of military careers after 2019, many will leave now. It also wants another recruitment drive, as the numbers interested in joining have halved in four years, with most of those not completing the entrance test. Only 8 per cent of those who did express an interest joined the Defence Forces, according to the association’s general secretary, Gerry Guinan.

Mr Guinan said falling numbers were putting pressure on personnel left behind, as was the poor pay: some members earn so little that they qualify for family income supplement, according to the association.

Mr Guinan added that military personnel are unable to campaign for better pay and conditions. “My members have been sidelined by a Government who profess they will treat us fairly because of the need to exclude us from membership of Ictu,” he said. “Yet they do not give us comparable treatment at pay talks. My members deserve fairness, and this association demands it.”

The Defence Forces’ chief of staff, Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett, and Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe TD are both due to address delegates on Tuesday evening.