"I'm not leaving because I hate the Army. I'm leaving because I love it. I can't just sit back anymore and watch the Defence Forces being completely dismantled and demoralised before my eyes.
“As a uniformed officer you’re not permitted to engage with the media, but as a private citizen nobody can gag or muzzle me now. The public and the Dáil need to know what’s going on here.”
So begins the story of now retired Army Comdt Cathal Berry. The 41-year-old married father-of-two, originally from Ballyduff Upper, Co Waterford, retired three weeks ago some 23 years after joining as a teenage Cadet.
During that period he served in Kosovo and spent six years in the elite Army Range Wing. He led the unit in Chad in 2008 and later took a five-year self-funded career break and qualified as a doctor.
Berry then went back to the Defence Forces as an officer and was appointed head of the Military Medical School in The Curragh, Co Kildare.
In recent years he and his staff there have met all personnel leaving the Defence Forces.
These exit medical consultations, he says, left him uniquely placed to assess why so many personnel were leaving and their mental state as they leave.
“You have these big, blocky guys built like a house coming in to us crying their eyes out. They want to stay but they just can’t afford to stay – particularly those with dependents,” he said.
The story of one recent recruit, who was of mixed ethnicity, persuaded him to leave the Defence Forces so he could speak out. The recruit in question had been in the Army 12 weeks but was in line for the “best soldier award” in his 40-strong platoon, about half of which left during training.
He said being in the Defence Forces was the first time in his life he ever felt discriminated against; not for the colour of his skin, but for the colour of his uniform
However, he came to Berry as part of the process of leaving the Army.
“Because he was a high-performer, I’m thinking he must be off to join somebody like Google or Facebook,” explained Berry.
“But it turns out he got his old job back working in a meat factory; twice the pay for half the hours.
“He said being in the Defence Forces was the first time in his life he ever felt discriminated against; not for the colour of his skin, but for the colour of his uniform.
“That conversation was the tipping point for me because what he said was so true. No other uniformed service in this country would put up with this type of financial abuse. And no other employer would get away with treating their employees like this.”
While former minister for defence Alan Shatter had taken a strong lead and asserted himself over senior Department of Defence officials, Berry said current Minster of State for Defence Paul Kehoe was not the same forceful presence.
“As a result of the political vacuum in the Department of Defence, these senior officials wield disproportionate power and are the real source of the current problems in the Defence Forces. They are completely unaccountable.”
Berry did not believe any Department of Defence staff had severed in the Defence Forces, adding there was now a culture of deliberately excluding military personnel from any consultations when polices were being drawn up.
He believed senior personnel at the department wanted to control the Defence Forces to the extent that even press releases issued by it had to be approved by the department, at times having been “heavily edited”.
The statements were then issued as official documents purporting to come from the Defence Forces. Berry believed this “micromanagement” and the “suppression, distortion and ghost-writing of official State correspondence” flew in the face of democratic norms.
In his view it warranted investigation by the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence Parliamentary oversight committee.
He cited the recent example of the gorse fires in Donegal on Easter Monday as “an example of the level of micromanagement” the department engaged in.
While “a cup of water is enough to extinguish a fire in the first minute”, the Defence Forces were duty-bound to wait for departmental sanction to fly a helicopter to tackle the blaze; a decision that took four hours.
However, when there was public criticism about the delay, it was the Defence Forces at the centre of it.
"This was only in response to a gorse fire; imagine if it was in response to gunfire? It would be like the surgeon on call on Easter Monday morning in Letterkenny General Hospital having to request explicit permission from the Minister for Health to remove someone's appendix."
Berry said some 84 per cent of Defence Forces personnel earned less than the average annual earnings of full-time employees in Ireland of €45,000.
Because the working time directive did not apply to the Defence Forces and because numbers in the forces were now so low, personnel were being deployed on duties that lasted several days at a time. They were being paid meagre expenses that did not cover the costs of even travelling to those duties; some €23 before tax for the helicopter crew recently deployed in Donegal, for example, and they had to drive to get there.
Berry said the Department of Defence had repeated the imminent Public Sector Pay Commission’s report would increase remuneration, thus helping to overcome the number of personnel leaving early over remuneration.
UN Security Council
However, he pointed out leaks of what the report contained suggested a pay restoration for Defence Forces personnel of €350 per year.
“That’s less than a euro a day, before tax. There will be another 1,000 personnel gone by year-end,” he said.
“And that comes with the self-evident consequences for the manning of aircraft, naval ships and overseas missions. You can forget about an Irish seat on the United Nations Security Council if that is the case.”
In reply to a series of queries from The Irish Times, the Department of Defence said the Public Service Pay Commission had conducted “a comprehensive examination and analysis of underlying difficulties of recruitment and retention in the defence sector”. Its report is imminent.
The Public Service Pay Agreements, which encompass the members of the Defence Forces, also provided for the phased restoration of pay.
The reply disputed Cathal Berry’s account of the response to the recent Donegal fire. The department said the military was not the primary agency in fighting fires. It added the Air Corps moved immediately to respond to a request for assistance when it came; originating with the relevant chief fire officer. Other questions, including those relating to Kehoe’s and the department’s performance, were not responded to.