Defence Forces vulnerable at moment of biggest State security risk

Number in forces now 8,390, 1,110 below minimum committed to by Government

“I would have loved to have stayed in the Army but I just couldn’t afford to,” said one former soldier who opted out last year.

"It was really all I ever wanted to do when I was in school. But as I got a bit older I also wanted to have a decent life and I didn't feel I could do that in the Defence Forces.

“It was fine when I was single. But being called on to duty at short notice and working a huge number of extra hours for almost no extra pay just wasn’t something I could keep doing.”

Increasingly, more and more members are coming to the same conclusion. With Brexit looming and the security and policing risks it brings, the Defence Forces is in crisis.


It can’t recruit new personnel quickly enough to replace those who are opting out.

Government commitment

In the White Paper on defence published in 2015, the Government set out its plans for the sector for the following decade. A central commitment was to maintain the Defence Forces at a minimum of 9,500 members, excluding those who had just joined and were undergoing training.

In August 2017, exactly two years after the White Paper was published, it emerged numbers in the Defence Forces had fallen below 9,000 for the first time since the organisation was increased in size four decades ago when the Troubles necessitated more troops.

There were at that time 8,990 personnel in the Defence Forces with an additional 385 in training.

And now just 18 months on, the number has fallen further to 8,390 – some 1,110 below the minimum committed to by the Government in 2015 – with an additional 531 in training.

The Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association (PDFORRA), which represents soldiers, sailors and aircrew, pointed out that the working-time directive does not apply to the Defence Forces. That means its members can be placed on call and drafted in to work, often for a number of days during searches for missing persons and other unpredictable work, and receive an allowance of little over €20 per day for that extra work.

General secretary of PDFORRA Gerard Guinan said a number of allowances paid in the Defence Forces needed to be increased and if they were this would not cause knock-on claims elsewhere in the public sector as they are specific to military workers.

But it would increase remuneration and help retain personnel in the Defence Forces. With numbers continuing to fall despite concerted recruitment campaigns in recent years, he said retention rather than recruitment was the key to arresting the declining strength of the Defence Forces and building it up again.

The Department of Defence said the Public Service Pay Commission was currently examining the retention issue in the Defence Forces. And when it reported in summer, Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe would examine its recommendations, the department said.

The Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (Raco), which represents officers across the Defence Forces, pointed out that despite a very concerted campaign to recruit additional personnel in 2017, for example, there had been a net increase of just three personnel across the entire Defence Forces.

Raco general secretary Comdt Conor King said the Defence Forces was the lowest-paid part of the public sector. He added that rates of pay and allowances for non-commissioned personnel were so low they had badly damaged the Defence Forces and resulted in the retention crisis.

That has led to a “chronic manning level shortage across all ranks” and “decreased mentoring, supervision, morale and well-being”.

With fewer personnel there were more tasks to be performed by those who remained, leading to “increased stress, burnout and risk” of accidents and other mishaps.

A number of serving and former Defence Forces sources pointed to Britain’s imminent exit from the European Union and the continued threat from Islamist extremism and domestic threats such as dissident republicans as evidence of an uncertain security climate in the months and years ahead.

And they believe allowing the Defence Forces to become so depleted is a very significant strategic error on the part of the Government.

“To an extent we need to be a bit lucky now with Brexit and hope the border stays calm because we won’t have the personnel if things lift off,” said one.

Multitude of threats

A number of sources said they did not believe the current Government, specifically Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, understood the seriousness and multitude of threats to State security.

One man who definitely does understand state security, and how quickly a security climate can change, is Michael C Murphy, a former lieutenant colonel.

He joined the Defence Forces in 1972 and says he remembers it took about four or five years for the Republic to establish a stable security presence in the Border region after the Troubles began in 1969.

“The government was caught on the hop, we had no personnel [based] north of Dublin,” he said of the Defence Forces.

And he believed it may be much easier than many in Government believe to be caught out again, especially with numbers so low in the Defence Forces and with so many barracks close to the Border having been sold.

“The Government has said they are not going to put up any border posts, but they might be forced to do it by the EU and those posts would be on the Republic side of the Border,” he said.

“That would lead to riots. How well is the Defence Forces prepared, with the numbers low now, to deal with a situation like that? And if someone starts shooting, we will have to man the Border.”

Mr Murphy said the security situation can degrade incrementally, with a series of unexpected events leading from one to another. He believed Ireland had perhaps forgotten that now that the Troubles have been over for two decades.

“I spent 13 years based in the Border region and many of the people there are what you might call ‘Border people’ and they don’t like any outside interference or outside presence.

“While there will be no cause to resort to violence, there are a number of individuals who are only seeking an excuse to do so,” he said.

Facing into such uncertainty and with trouble along the Border a possibility, he believed the depleted strength of the Defence Forces was of real concern.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times