Minister for Defence Simon Coveney overruled a recommendation from the head of the Defence Forces to recommission three senior officers who had applied to rejoin during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The three retired commandants' applications were rejected after civil servants in the Department of Defence said there were enough commandants in the military already, and because the applicants did not hold specialist roles during their previous service.
This is despite a Defence Forces assessment that there was a shortage of commandants, and that the former officers’ recommissioning would be of benefit.
At the start of the pandemic the Government launched a campaign to persuade former enlisted Defence Forces personnel to rejoin the military to fill skill gaps and aid in the Covid-19 response. It supplemented a campaign launched in 2019 asking former officers to rejoin.
The three former commandants, who had previously retired from the Defence Forces to pursue careers in the private sector, applied to rejoin after the pandemic arrived in Ireland.
They passed their interviews, medicals and security clearances, and were recommended for recommissioning by the Chief-of-Staff, Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett.
In a letter the Chief-of-Staff advised Mr Coveney the former officers, who had previously served in infantry roles, should be rehired. He made the recommendation based on an assessment that there were four commandant vacancies in the Infantry Corps and because four serving commandants were scheduled to retire in the near future.
“The appointment of these [officers] will increase the overall pool of experience in the [infantry] Corps. It will provide immediate operational cover allowing the newly commissioned [officers] to develop their professional competence,” Col Roy Sheerin of the HR Branch advised the Chief-of-Staff.
According to internal documents, Col Sheerin said rehiring the retired commandants would solve the current shortfall of officers at that rank, and provide a contingency pool “in the event of unanticipated retirements”.
Following Vice-Admiral Mellett’s recommendation to Mr Coveney, the former officers were told by the Defence Forces they could expect an offer of recommissioning.
However, the Department of Defence recommended to the Minister that they should not be recommissioned as the “thrust” of the scheme was to recommission specialist officers rather than line officers, such as those who had served in the Infantry Corps.
The department also said there were already sufficient numbers at commandant level.
Mr Coveney went with the department’s recommendation, and the tentative offers of recommissioning were withdrawn.
One of the former officers who applied for recommissioning, Ger O’Brien, was a 21-year veteran who had served six overseas tours before retiring in 2016.
He scored 68 out of 75 in the recommissioning interview process before being recommended, according to documents.
In September he received a letter saying he was being recommended by Vice-Admiral Mellett, and that an offer of recommissioning would follow. Two months later he received a message saying his application was unsuccessful.
Mr O’Brien said he signed up for recommissioning after hearing the Taoiseach address the Dáil at the start of the pandemic.
“I completely understood the manpower deficiencies in the Defence Forces and I, like many others, was going to be probably doing nothing for the next while,” Mr O’Brien said “So I was very much prepared to assist. And I missed the military life in some ways.”
Effort and expense
He questioned why officials went to the effort and expense of convening recommissioning boards, medicals and security clearances when there was no interest in bringing back infantry commandants.
In response to queries, the Department of Defence said it does not comment on individual cases.
A spokeswoman said the recommissioning of former officers was based on the Chief-of-Staff’s recommendation “and also consideration as to shortages that exist for particular skill sets within the [Permanent Defence Forces] having regard to the Defence Forces’ strength levels of commissioned officers in the relevant stream”.
It said senior officer vacancies were largely filled through promotion to allow for career progression for serving members.
Last month it was revealed the rehiring campaign had resulted in just 62 people across ranks coming back into the Defence Forces despite over 800 applications by former officers and enlisted personnel.