Defence Forces to undertake fewer non-military tasks amid retention crisis

Officers group tells Coveney plans to grow the military by more than 3,000 ‘are not realistic or achievable’

The Defence Forces is to reduce the range of services it provides the State amid the worsening staff crisis, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney has said.

This will see the military performing fewer non-military tasks, known as Aid to the Civil Power (ATCP). This process has already started with plans to end the practice of soldiers guarding the high security Portlaoise Prison in Co Laois, the Minister said.

The Minister was speaking at the annual conference of the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers where he was told that military officers face impossible demands due to the large number of trained personnel leaving the organisation.

Earlier this year the Government announced plans to increase the size of the Defence Forces to 11,500. It is currently has just over 8,000 members, including those in training.


RACO General Secretary Lieutenant Colonel Conor King said this goal of 11,500 personnel is “not realistic or achievable” under current policies. He said the organisation faces an “almost Sisyphean task” to simply get back to the current establishment strength of 9,500.

Lieut Col King criticised the focus on recruiting new personnel rather than retaining skilled and experienced members.

The rate of new recruitment is placing an “unbearable training demand” on existing personnel, he said. Meanwhile, retention problems mean 37 per cent of officers have less than five years’ experience.

“We are now told that we are to strive for 11,500. But how? Unless we prioritise retention over this obsession with recruitment it will never happen. It’s time to value the people who we already have in the organisation,” he said in his speech to the Minister.

The can-do approach of the Defence Forces has arguably served the organisation poorly, RACO President Commandant Martin Ryan said. He said the only way to improve the situation is for officers to firmly say they are unable to take on new tasks.

Cmdt Ryan said his own unit is at 27 per cent strength. This has a serious impact on the safety and wellbeing of members, he said.

One of the major concerns raised at the conference as a lack of medical officers in the Defence Forces which resulted in one recent overseas mission deploying without a doctor.

Mr Coveney conceded much has to be done to address retention, especially at the rank of captain but he pointed out that the officer corps overall is actually above establishment strength.

The Minister said the Defence Forces have previously been tasked by the State with temporary roles which have become permanent. “We need to review that and we are.”

The man hours it takes to guard Portlaoise Prison is similar to a medium size overseas mission, he said.

He said as part of the restructuring process, the Defence Forces should be able to take on new, more complex peacekeeping missions by the end of the decade. This will involve reducing existing overseas missions, he said.

Defence Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sean Clancy said significant progress has been made in reviewing Defence Forces ATCP tasks which “should result in reducing the burden on unit strengths and capacity.”

He told RACO members Ireland will contribute a mechanised company, numbering 138 troops, to the new EU Battlegroup structures starting from 2025. It is also offering ten officers and noncommissioned officers to the force headquarters Strasbourg, France.

Separately Ireland will commit three military personnel to the EU military training mission for Ukraine in Strausberg Germany, he said. These will be in addition to plans to send demining and bomb disposal experts to the mission.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times