Defence Forces struggling to find volunteers for peacekeeping missions

Troop retention crisis continues to impact organisation despite increased UN, EU commitments

The Defence Forces is increasingly struggling to find enough volunteers to go on overseas peacekeeping missions, as the troop retention crisis continues to impact the organisation.

Irish commitments to UN and EU peacekeeping operations have been increasing in recent years, even as the Defence Force’s manpower has continued to decline.

Last year, more than 24 per cent of Irish Army personnel were on overseas duty or in pre-deployment training, a proportion higher than any other military in the western world. In 2015, the figure was just 15 per cent.

Seven per cent of the Defence Forces are overseas at any one time. By comparison 1.5 per cent of New Zealand’ military, which is roughly the same size as Ireland’s, is overseas at any one time.

Meanwhile, the deployable strength of the Army has declined by 17 per cent since 2015 to its current level of 6,555 troops.

The manpower shortage is now manifesting itself in increasing number of soldiers being ordered to go on peacekeeping duty instead of volunteering.

Overseas duty has traditionally been popular among Irish soldiers. As well as offering a level of challenge and excitement, soldiers on peacekeeping duties receive extra pay allowances during the usual six-month tour.

However, according to military sources, the number of deployments each soldier must go on during their career has been increasing, which is impacting the ability of units to maintain operations domestically.

According to figures obtained by The Irish Times following a Freedom of Information request, 23 officers lodged appeals after being “mandatorily selected” for overseas duty in 2020.

Sixteen officers successfully appealed the decision and the remaining seven were forced to go. In 2018, just one officer was forced to go following mandatory selection.

‘Serious implications’

“The ongoing and unresolved retention crisis has resulted in a significant impact on the frequency with which our personnel are required to travel,” a representative for the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (Raco) said.

“DF personnel are proud of their overseas service, and generally enjoy it despite the associated inherent risk and danger, and the strain it can place on family life.

However, shortages of specialists and mid-ranking officers have seen increasing use of mandatory selection, it said.

Raco said this can have “serious implications for morale, family life and ultimately retention.”

Figures for the number of enlisted personnel who were mandatory selected were not available. However, according to PDforra, the representative organisation for enlisted personnel, there is “anecdotal evidence” that the numbers have also been increasing.

PDforra general secretary Gerard Guinan said his organisation is aware of a recent instance of personnel from the Ordnance Corps, which handles bomb disposal tasks, being mandatory selected for overseas service.

This left one member in an “impossible situation” and he was effectively required to leave the Defence Forces, Mr Guinan said.

A Defence Forces spokesman said the “vast majority” of overseas are filled voluntarily but from “time to time: there is a requirement for mandatory selection.”

Minister for Defence Simon Coveney, who departed on a visit to Irish troops in Lebanon on Sunday, said his focus is on restoring the Defence Forces to its establishment strength of 9,500 and not cutting back on overseas commitments.

Mr Coveney also said the future focus of Irish peacekeeping efforts are likely to be in Africa. The Defence Forces currently contributes small numbers of troops to several missions on the continent, including in Mali where a base used by an Irish Army Ranger Wing unit was attacked by a car bomb in late June. No Irish personnel were injured.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times