Coveney says new commission will expose Defence Forces ‘vulnerabilities’

Staff issues mean Defence Forces ‘overcommitted’ overseas, conference hears

Raco president Comdt Luke Foley said conditions were becoming so intolerable, with heavy workloads and very short notice of new postings, that many officers planned to leave the Defence Forces in the years ahead. Photograph:  Nick Bradshaw

Raco president Comdt Luke Foley said conditions were becoming so intolerable, with heavy workloads and very short notice of new postings, that many officers planned to leave the Defence Forces in the years ahead. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

A new Government-appointed commission would expose “vulnerabilities” within the Republic’s defence capabilities, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney has said.

He also told a gathering of Defence Forces officers that the new Commission on the Future of the Defence Forces would force Irish society to reflect and would also explore the defence capabilities required in the face of new threats.

“It is actually going to focus on the real questions; capacity, resources, how Ireland compares to other countries. And it’s going to expose vulnerabilities in the context of capacity and non-capacity in certain areas and link that to demands of Government,” he said.

Mr Coveney was speaking on Tuesday at the biennial delegate conference of the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (Raco) on Naas, Co Kildare.

The commission is examining the Defence Forces and Ireland’s defence needs in the context of staffing, capabilities and structure. It is also examining the changing nature of threats to Ireland, including cyber, and is chaired by Aidan O’Driscoll, who previously served as secretary general in the Department of Justice.

Defence Forces Chief of Staff Leut Gen Seán Clancy told delegates the revelations of sexual assault and gender-based harassment and bullying exposed in the recent RTE ‘Women of Honour’ documentary were “abhorrent”.

“I would urge and encourage all members of Óglaigh na hÉireann to call out any inappropriate behaviour and to have the moral courage and confidence to report these issues,” he said, adding what had emerged was “distressing and unacceptable”.

The leaders of Raco told the conference personnel shortages meant the Defence Forces was now “overcommitted” on overseas missions. The workload and conditions due to personnel shortages had become so acute the forces were about to enter into a “generation resignation” era as overburdened personnel were opting to resign or retire early.

Raco general secretary, Comdt Conor King, told Mr Coveney that in 2016, University of Limerick researchers identified a “dysfunctional cycle of turnover” in the Defence Forces as its strength diminished. This had “led to an ever-decreasing pool of suitably qualified and experienced personnel”. That was was a “grave risk” for the military, whose “stock in trade” was the “profession of arms and the management and execution of lethal force”.

However, in the five years to the end of 2020 and since the UL researchers’ findings were made, some 3,679 personnel had left the Defence Forces but just 3,116 had been recruited. A “crippling” process of recruitment had been ongoing for years but the numbers in the Defence Forces were still falling. It was now time to improve conditions for those already serving in the hope it would retain more experienced and skilled personnel.

Raco president Comdt Luke Foley said conditions were becoming so intolerable, with heavy workloads and very short notice of new postings, that many officers planned to leave the forces in the years ahead.

“I strongly believe that if we do not address these issues now, we will see a large number of our middle management leave the organisation in the coming years, our own generation resignation,” he said.

Mr Coveney said he accepted the strength of the Defence Forces was more than 1,000 personnel lower than its establishment of 9,500. However, while adding such large numbers of personnel in the years ahead would be a big challenge, he believed the Commission on the Defence Forces recommendations would prove very valuable.

He noted the discussions within Raco on the issue of affiliation with Ictu and said he had an “open mind on this issue”. However, any new arrangement “has to work in the context of the unique services the Defence Forces provides to the State and also the unique career and choice that is involved for people who take an oath to the State” to serve within the Defence Forces.”