Reserve Defence Force in ‘precarious’ state and may disappear, TDs told

Head of representative association says membership at 37% ‘of what it should be’

Minister for Defence Simon Coveney told the Dáil in June that Defence Forces reservists would, for the first time, be allowed to serve on overseas missions where there is a shortage of particular skills and expertise. Photograph:  Defence Forces Press Office

Minister for Defence Simon Coveney told the Dáil in June that Defence Forces reservists would, for the first time, be allowed to serve on overseas missions where there is a shortage of particular skills and expertise. Photograph: Defence Forces Press Office

 

The Reserve Defence Force is at its weakest level ever and in its current “precarious” state it may effectively disappear, the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence has heard.

Neil Richardson, general secretary of the Reserve Defence Force Representative Association, said the reserve currently had only 1,530 members and was at 37 per cent “of what it should be”.

He added that there had been an annual net loss of members each year since 2015 and “only a trickle of resources being sent our way”.

Mr Richardson said the future of the reserve force would be decided in the months ahead, adding that decisions in the near future around recruitment and resourcing would be looked backed on, either way, as a key turning point.

“In the coming months one of two things will happen,” he said. “The Reserve Defence Force will either wither away to nothing and finally cease to exist. Or it will be given a meaningful, modern purpose and become a fully integrated, utilised and utilisable element of the Defence Forces, thereby becoming a rejuvenated vibrant force again.”

Pinning hopes

He told the committee that members of the reserve force were “pinning their final hopes” on the Commission on the Defence Forces’ final report.

That commission is reviewing the role of the reserves, including the issue of deploying reservists with special skill sets on overseas missions.

Minister for Defence Simon Coveney told the Dáil in June that reservists would, for the first time, be allowed to serve on overseas missions where there is a shortage of particular skills and expertise.

Mr Richardson told the committee this was a positive development and pointed to a proud history of the reserve force, saying during the Emergency period in the 1940s reservists had stood “shoulder to shoulder” with members of the Permanent Defence Forces. He said reservists did so again “along the Border during The Troubles”.

However, he said none of the recommendations for the reserve force contained in the 2015 White Paper on Defence had been implemented, leading to concerns a similar scenario may arise with the recommendations of the Commission on the Defence Forces.

Budget

The committee also heard the reserve force’s budget was €2.15 million annually, which had not changed since 2014, and was less than a third of 1 per cent of total defence spending in the State.

Committee chairman Charlie Flanagan TD said Mr Richardson had given “a pretty stark assessment of the current state of the reserve”.

He “looked forward” to the publication of the report of the commission later this year, adding his committee would have a role on ensuring implementation of the report’s recommendations.

Sinn Féin TD Sorca Clarke said she “quite sadly” agreed with Mr Richardson when he said the poor resourcing of the reserve was only enough for it to “subsist”. It was clear that the level of funding at present did not provide any “meaningful hope for the future”, he said.

Mr Richardson said the State’s defence demands, domestically and internationally, would “only grow in the years ahead” due to Brexit, “evolving responsibilities” within the EU and Ireland’s commitment to international humanitarian missions.

Deficiencies

While it was imperative the current “deficiencies” within the Permanent Defence Forces being prioritised, there was also “significant scope” to utilise the reserve force to meet some defence-related challenges in the years ahead.

“The Permanent Defence Forces establishment is 9,500 personnel but as of June, 2021, the force was only 8,570 with 500 of these being new personnel in training,” he said, adding this shortfall had resulted in “skills shortages in key areas”.

Mr Richardson said that while reservists were not trying to take remuneration or career opportunities away from those with full-time careers in the military, if support was required for the Permanent Defence Forces reservists should be permitted to step up and offer themselves.

It was clear, he said, that a “concerted effort” should be made to grow the reserve so it could assist in overcoming the skills shortages in the Permanent Defence Forces and create a capacity allowing it to “meaningfully surge” if events necessitated it.