Defence Forces under siege: 600 staff paint a grim picture

Survey of personnel reveals plummeting morale and increased stress across ranks

Members of the Defence Forces have described an organisation that is now in crisis, coping with poor pay, declining training standards and ever more people seeking to leave.

In an unprecedented piece of research, 600 serving personnel spoke anonymously in focus groups to researchers at the University of Limerick, commissioned by the Defence Forces.

The findings make for grim reading.

Living quarters for young recruits are sharply criticised, with one described as "Hotel Rwanda"

There is near unanimous agreement across all ranks and age profiles that the Defence Forces – made up of the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps – that all three arms are now at risk.


Some officers have told how they are kept awake at night by concerns about whether work carried out on aircraft in the Air Corps leaves them safe for flying because so many experienced personnel have left.

“There is going to be a huge safety issue in the Air Corps,” said one officer.

Others describe an accident rate and safety record they feel is now worse than international military.

Pay and conditions are now so poor that young people are quitting as quickly as they can after training: “The Defence Forces has been turned into a JobBridge,” one member said.

Others said Naval Service personnel on Mediterranean rescue missions return traumatised and applying to leave, while some chaplains said they have given up encouraging people to stay in the uniform.

Living quarters for young recruits are sharply criticised, with one described as “Hotel Rwanda”. One soldier said “the people from Apollo House [a building in Dublin occupied by homeless people for a time in 2016-2017] wouldn’t live in the conditions”.

Rates of pay

During their time with researchers, some senior officers questioned how those at the top of the Defence Forces can stand over pay rates that are so low that a quarter of personnel are entitled to social welfare.

In one area that will come as a concern, personnel describe how they and their colleagues almost routinely hide stress.

Instead of going to the medical services provided, they have sought credit union loans for private mental health treatment because they would suffer if the Defence Forces knew they had problems.

The testimony from the focus groups is called Workplace Climate in the Defence Forces Phase 2: Results of the Focus Group Research.

The work was commissioned by the Defence Forces and carried out between last November and January.

The Irish Times set out some of the key findings in reportage earlier this year, but the first-person testimony from the military personnel has not emerged before now.

The authors of the report – Dr Juliet Mac Mahon, Dr Sarah Mac Curtain and Claire Harnett from the University of Limerick – recommend better pay and advise senior officers to face up to the problems exposed by the research.

With pay at €21,000 for privates, those with families qualify for family income support, a reality that rankles badly with rank-and-file, particularly those who have served abroad.

A number of privates spoke of struggling to survive, often depending on their parents. Some of the quotes in the report include:

“People have to leave to survive.”

“I can’t get a mortgage. Some members are even on family income supplement. We would be better off on the dole as we would have no bills.”

“People are sleeping in cars. Two people in Athlone couldn’t afford to pay to stay in the barracks or commute home, so they stayed in their cars at the weekends.”

“I have to live with my parents along with my wife and kids.”

Noncommissioned officers confirmed the accuracy of the testimonies:

“We can’t help them . . . The only thing we can do is give them time off so they can save a day’s childcare,” said one.

“It’s shameful that our senior leaders . . . we cannot stand over 25 per cent of our people being on [family income support]. At some point someone has to say ‘This is unacceptable’,” said another.

“One person has been working full time for two years with the Navy. He is single and still has no money to buy a pair of runners,” said another.

Some Defence Forces chaplains said they were no longer encouraging personnel to stay on.

“Why would I encourage them to stay in the Army? . . . It’s now against my better instinct to try and get them to stay . . . €340 [per week] wouldn’t pay the bills,” said one.

Living and working conditions

Some barracks look good on the outside, but inside the reality is different, according to the survey.

Comments included:

“Two showers for 40 lads and it took four years of asking to get another two.”

A junior noncommissioned office said the accommodation in Rathmines barracks was called Hotel Rwanda.

“There is no hot water, the water isn’t on in urinals for some reason, no toilet roll, walls are crusted with damp. Yeah, I think they are going to do something – but it’s 10 years too late . . . We have been banging on for 10 years and living in squalor . . . and they can restore McKee officer mess . . . and they handed back millions at end of 2016.”

Air Corps personnel complain that some of their living quarters are a fire risk, while they also complain about the food on offer:

“[We] can’t afford to buy our own food as we pay €40 to eat here and can’t leave at lunch,” one said.

A colleague added: “Options were fried battered fish or rib steak in a white bun and chips.”

Female personnel who have been away on maternity leave were sometimes required to parade before commanding officers when they returned to work, which is seen as a form of punishment within the military.

Another woman who did four foreign tours of duty before she started a family said she had to leave the Defence Forces after 21 years because she had not been overseas in the years after she had had children.

The former junior noncommissioned officer said she needed to have done a foreign tour between her 18th and 21st year in order to be kept on after 21 years, but she could not do it because of childcare needs at home.

Many believe that personnel shortages are making life unsafe for those who stay behind.

“We are already seeing it in the Army – little accidents. There is going to be a big accident,” said one senior officer.

“It’s going to come and if it keeps on unravelling it will come. We fear a serious incident with a number of deaths . . . It could be overseas.”

Agreeing, another senior officer said growing training weaknesses may be exposed on an overseas mission, where the Defence Forces does its highest-risk work.

He said the absence of "middle management" from many units was having an impact on the standard of training of personnel who would soon be commanding men in places like Syria.

“We have got to the point in units where we are operating in such compromised environment that … we are going to have guys at commandant rank who are incapable of making a decision.”

One member of the Air Corps was already concerned safety had slipped considerably.

“In the Air Corps we have seen that with three or four fatal accidents,” he said.

“The reports are there. And in them you see that there are various contributory factors”, including on occasion “leadership or management at various levels not being there, or present”.

Two others said Air Corps ground crews are working too many hours. “That’s just not safe, and it’s not done outside of here,” said one airman.

Meanwhile, some Naval Service personnel fear that the Government’s decision to expand the State’s fleet will make a bad situation worse.

“We have eight ships, there is rumours of a ninth. We barely have enough to man the seven . . . What the hell is going on here?” questioned one senior officer.

Stress and trauma

The Naval Service’s Mediterranean rescue missions are leaving a toll: “They are coming back mentally scarred, coming back and being sent out to west coast for patrols and not getting much more than the dole,” said one junior noncommissioned officer.

“And we have to motivate those to stay – we can’t motivate ourselves!”

Another said: “At least 10 per cent coming back from the Med will apply for discharge.”

In a focus group with Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, personnel claimed women returning from maternity leave were being treated unfairly.

In one specific example, some women who took two extra months off were paraded on their return.

RACO, which represents commissioned officers, said 1,000 Defence Forces personnel were struggling to cope on a monthly basis.

“That’s a cause for concern … What are management going to do to take care of that? The US military has moved on in that regard [treatment of stress]. The Irish Defence Forces has not. There is no screening for mental health before coming in.”

A private agreed, saying people felt they could not admit to having any issues. “As soon as you say you feel stressed, you are gone: ‘Don’t ever give that man a rifle again’ – the trust is gone,” he said.

Anyone who sought help for stress would be medically downgraded and would never be upgraded again, meaning they would never return to full duties.

A junior officer concurred: “If you were in any other organisation you would go to your doctor, get time off, get better and come back – stress and depression are treated as a medical condition.

“You come in here and you are downgraded; your career is finished.”

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times