Protests about pay and conditions in the Defence Forces took place on Thursday outside a number of barracks in Ireland.
The protests were organised by a new organisation, the Wives and Partners of Defence Forces – Ireland (WPDF), which says the families of many lower paid members of the Defence Forces – over 20 per cent it is claimed – are so financially stretched that they are using social welfare financial supports to make ends meet.
The protests included gatherings outside Sarsfield Barracks in Limerick, Finner Camp in Donegal, Custume Barracks in Athlone, and Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin, as well as at other military installations.
Each protest involved up to 20 wives, partners, children, relatives and retired Defence Force personnel holding posters, chatting to passersby and the media, and responding to hoots of apparent support from Defence Force personnel driving in and out of the barracks.
Amy Walsh (29) who comes from a family with strong Defence Force connections going back to her grandparents and has "six or seven" cousins in the Army now, stood outside Cathal Brugha Barracks in support of her first cousin Carl, who is based at the Rathmines facility.
“He’s five years in the Army and, as far as I’m aware, he gets €480 a week, I’m not sure if that is before or after tax,” she said. “His wife gets Fis [Family Income Support], and that’s €100 and something.
“ She’s in a council house and pays rent of €100 and there’s €20 left and she’s always saying to me ‘the diesel in and out to [the barracks], that’s another €150. The shopping – there’s another 100 quid.’ I know €480 seems like good pay, but 24-hour duties are not 24 hours; they’re 28 hours and no sleep.”
Sleeping in cars
She said some soldiers were so strapped they were “sleeping in cars outside the barracks because they’re not able to take the money from their wage to pay the barracks to live there. It doesn’t make sense at all.”
Fellow protester Sharon Dunne (47) was there for her husband, Peter, who is in the Air Corps, and son Ross, a two-star Army private currently on a course in Dundalk for promotion to three-star private.
“I feel strongly that our men are suffering with poor pay,” she said. “For a 24-hour duty shift, they get an extra €20 only . . . The lads are coming in and training, but they’re leaving because they can’t afford to stay in the Army.”
Ms Dunne said that to supplement her family’s income, her husband, and some of his colleagues, took evening jobs “delivering curries”.
Also supporting the cause and sporting his service medals was retired Army corporal Alan Whelan from Clondalkin, who served overseas in Kosovo, Bosnia and elsewhere and whose son, Keith (31), is a communications corporal training for a posting to Lebanon, having done two missions to Chad.
“He’d be hitting about €400,” Mr Whelan said of his son’s pay. “But the real life situation is that I have to help my son with his mortgage on a regular basis, not like now and again, regularly.
“It’s demeaning for a man who is defending his country to go to his father and mother and say look, listen, I’ve a spot of bother, can you help?”
Some of the protesters felt that PDforra, the representative body for enlisted personnel across the three branches of the Defence Forces – Army, Air Corps and Naval Service – were not speaking up sufficiently about low pay and restoration of pay cuts, cut by some 12 per cent in 2009 and 2010.
At Finner Camp, spokeswoman Frances-Anne Gallagher said the body had become a “yes” outfit for management.
She said: “They are supposed to be a representative body but they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. Now that the wives and partners are on the streets, we hope PDforra will pull up their socks.”
Gerry Rooney, general secretary of PDforra, rejected that but praised the protest as "generally a good thing" which he hoped might help lead to "members of the Defence Forces getting the right to protest".
He accepted that the junior ranks in the Defence Forces were low paid “but they’re comparable to clerical officers in the civil service and local authorities”.
Defence Force pay scales were cut, like all others in the public sector, by about 12 per cent after 2009 and, while there has been some restoration under the Haddington Road Agreement, PDforra is hopeful of further restoration in pay talks set to start before the summer.
At present, basic pay for a private starts at €352 a week and rises after eight years’ service, and including an incremental military service allowance of €115 a week, to a total package of €670 a week.
The WPDF website contains numerous stories of financial hardship, written anonymously.
“My husband, he is in the army the past 15 years,” writes one wife. “We have four young kids and we have to rely on family income supplement to survive as what he gets paid does not cover us. We struggle every week, once the bills are paid we are left with nothing, we never go out anywhere for fear of being in debt. No person who volunteers to serve their country should be allowed to have wages so poor that they need social welfare support.”
Military personnel on six months’ overseas duties with the United Nations are paid a special extra allowance that can amount to more than €10,000 – money that can mostly be saved and go towards a house deposit.
One woman expressed disappointment that, after serving three months in the Mediterranean rescuing refugees, her partner’s extra allowance was not as expected.
“The money was reduced claiming that it was not an armed mission so they were not entitled to the extra pay. My partner shared many stories that were frightening and extremely dangerous to the crew. What they had to see happen before their eyes is going to haunt them for a very long time. I’m disgusted how our heroes are being treated and how the partners who waited at home have to pick up the pieces when they see their hero can’t sleep because of the flashbacks.”
At Cathal Brugha Barracks yesterday, the partners and supporters hoped their action would concentrate minds higher up the line.
“Just sit down and reflect,” is Amy Walsh’s message to politicians and senior officers, “what would they think is a fair wage for a fair day’s work. Realistically, they know what’s going on; they’re well aware of this. We just want them to sit back and have a look and pay these people what’s enough. Social welfare’s not an option any more.
“We just want [the soldiers] to know that they’re supported and that we recognise that they do need money to rear their families. Guys in there are doing serious work and it’s not being recognised.”