‘Don’t worry Mammy, we can have dinner when Daddy gets paid’
Partners and supporters of Defence Forces take to the streets in protest over low pay
Wives and Partners of Defence Forces, a group set up to highlight the relatives’ poor pay and working conditions, march to the Dáil. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times
Martina Atkinson sends money and food parcels to her 33-year-old son in Navan, Co Meath. He has 15 years’ service in the Army but struggles to make ends meet.
“He is on his own. He has no children. He would say to me, ‘I don’t know how people with families cope because I’m finding I’m struggling’,” she said, standing the cold on a Dublin street on Thursday afternoon.
Atkinson, who lives in Cavan, was one of a group of partners and supporters of Defence Forces members who took to the streets with Wives and Partners of Defence Forces (WPDF), a group set up to highlight the relatives’ poor pay and working conditions.
The group, formed a year ago, protests on behalf of the members because they can’t. Their pay is so low that one in five members rely on social welfare payments to cover food and living costs.
Shelley Cotter, spokeswoman for the group, lists off a litany of hardship cases as about 100 veterans of Irish UN peacekeeping missions stand next to a memorial on Merrion Square.
Defence Forces members sleep in cars, she said, because they cannot afford petrol to get to and from work. Mothers make up games for children the night before payday to encourage them to eat cereal because they have no hot food. One cash-strapped member with severe depression chooses food for her children over her medication.
“It is not just one-off cases; we are hearing this constantly,” said Cotter. “This is 100 per cent and we are hearing it from four corners, the same story, different people telling us. We can’t walk away from it.”
After laying wreaths honouring Defence Forces members who died in service – a tradition during the month of November – the group of WPDF demonstrators and veterans marched to Leinster House for the start of a 24-hour vigil.
One protester, James Mooney, said he served seven years as a skilled IT technician in the Air Corps but tripled his salary in the private sector when he left in 2003. “It didn’t make sense for me to stay; I had no long-term career prospects there,” he said.
The Department of Defence said the PDFORRA, the representative body for the Defence Forces, is still considering the latest public sector pay agreement and members received pay hikes under the Lansdowne Road Agreement. The Public Sector Pay Commission is also assessing their pay levels.
Defence Forces members, however, want their duty and sea-going allowance fully restored, from €20 to €75 for a 24-hour period, as this used to tide them over at the end of every month.
After nine years in the army, a member’s pay will rise from €27,000 to €37,000, about the same as the average industrial wage compared with about €46,000 for a member of An Garda Síochána.
Outside Leinster House, Sarah Walshe, a founder of WPDF, tells veterans that Defence Forces members are the lowest-paid public sector workers. She tells them the story of five-year-old Molly whose father is a soldier and who had told her mother: “Don’t worry Mammy, we can have dinner when Daddy gets paid.”
It is just “one of the horror stories of hardships” that these families live through, she said.
“Some have gone without,” she said. “Some are hungry and yet their mother and father wears a State uniform on their back and works damn hard in circumstances and conditions no civilian would ever have to endure.”