The ‘cold war’ between the Irish military and the civilians in charge of them

The Civil Service and the Defence Forces have been fighting since the 1920s

This week Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, who also doubles up as Minister for Defence, received an anonymous letter from someone who signed off as "A tired, fed-up and worn-out soldier".

“The soldiers of the [Defence Forces] are finished with lip service, they are finished with holding their breath, they have seen and heard all the empty promises before. It’s time for change. It’s time for respect to be shown by the Government and civil servants to the troops,” the sender wrote.

The soldier sums up a frustration felt by many of his colleagues with what they see as a Department of Defence which insists on micro-managing the military while refusing to give it the resources to do its job.

The frustration is not just with the civil servants. Some of the anger of the military community is also aimed at the Defence Force’s top brass who, they feel, are insufficiently forceful in fighting back against department overreach.


However, the frustrations do not all go one way, though the military are more prone to low-level grumbling. Civil servants say they have tried to manage the expectations of the Defence Forces for years, a tough task in a neutral country without a strong military tradition.

“The department are always blamed. It’s never the other side’s fault,” said a former senior official.

“The Defence Forces sees everything through the prism of ‘the department isn’t giving us enough money’. But the department doesn’t control what money it gets,” said a retired senior civil servant.

Here, the Department of Defence has a problem, since critics are able to point out that the department has actually handed significant sums of money to the exchequer every year – €130 million since 2013 – having failed to spend it.

The relationship between the two bodies has become increasingly toxic in recent years, as the Defence Forces continues to lose personnel due to pay and conditions while the civil servants only grow in number.

Sources describe a situation where Chief of Staff Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett has little official power to manage the various branches of his organisation and where even the most minor decision has to be approved by a civil servant.

“We’re talking about a situation where if I wanted to send a military vehicle to a local fair, I would have to get sign-off from someone in the department,” said one former senior officer.

The unusual nature of the command structure also means that if the minister of the day does not like the answer they get from their chief of staff, they can bypass him and directly instruct more junior commanders.

Even the most minor operational or purchasing decisions must be signed off on by a civil servant. One senior Naval officer told a Workplace Climate Survey carried out by the University of Limerick in 2017 that if he wanted to dock his ship in port "we have to get permission from Naval operations who have to get permission from the Department of Defence – for reasons unknown to us!"

Captains were now almost afraid to make decisions at sea, he said.

This sentiment was expressed throughout all ranks. “We mean nothing to our bosses and the Government,” a private told researchers. A chaplain added: “In the last seven years, I have seen the DOD taking over the power.”

Others believe the department plays one part of the military off against the other over budgets. Officials might tell senior officers that if the Naval Service gets money for a new ship, there will not be money for the Army to get new personnel carriers, one source claimed.

This, it is argued, leads to a lack of clarity of purpose in major decisions. One example cited is the purchase of four PC-12 aircraft last year at a cost of almost €40 million to replace the ancient Cessna fleet.

Unsuitable for parachute jumps

While these modern planes are capable of much, they are not suitable for many of the roles valued by the Air Corps, such as maritime patrols or providing "top cover" for search and rescue missions. The Army Ranger Wing does not like them, because they are unsuitable for parachute jumps.

The Covid-19 crisis has provided plenty of work for the new PC-12s because they are being used to transport test samples to Germany and they have taken small numbers of troops home from UN missions. However, some in the Defence Forces wonder what they will be good for after Covid.

The mistrust extends even to personal interactions. In the Department of Defence headquarters in Newbridge, which also houses the Defence Forces, general staff, civil servants and soldiers do not share offices, or even sit at the same lunch table. "They keep very, very separate," a civilian source said.

The relationship between Vice-Admiral Mellett and the recently retired secretary general Maurice Quinn was described as particularly toxic. "They would be roaring at each other across the room," said one source.

“The military do not understand how the civil service works. I have seen officers who have been amazing critical thinkers when it comes to military matters but utterly clueless in dealing with political matters,” a former officer said.

It is not unusual for a healthy tension to exist between civil servants and military management. But in many countries, efforts are made to keep this tension to a minimum.

In the UK, for example, officers will serve on secondment in civil service roles and civil servants routinely undertake leadership courses run by the military. It is also common in many countries for retired military personnel to take up jobs on the civil service side.

‘Coercive control’

Little of this happens in Ireland. Although several current senior civil servants are ex-military, none work in the Department of Defence.

“People don’t appreciate it from the outside looking in just how dysfunctional [the relationship] is,” said one source.

"Dysfunction is the perfect word for it," said Cathal Berry, a former Army ranger wing commander-turned-Independent TD. "It's one of the reasons I left the Defence Forces, to highlight it." He goes as far as comparing the relationship to one of "coercive control", referring to a domestic violence law which was introduced in 2019 criminalising controlling or coercive behaviour in a relationship.

“You have two partners. One has all the money, one has nothing. And you have one person asking for €50 to buy groceries to feed the kids and the other person says no, you’re getting €10.”

Another ex-officer said the relationship could be boiled down to differing worldviews. “The military, by its nature, has no problem with risk. The department is highly risk-averse. It’s a clash of cultures.”

In response to queries and a request for interviews, a departmental spokeswoman rejected the view that the relationship was dysfunctional.

“Colleagues [both civil and military] at all levels work together on a variety of issues across the defence organisation [the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces], in a cohesive, effective way to deliver the agreed strategy and outcomes for the State,” she said.

“In any organisation there are often differences of opinions which can and are worked out in a healthy professional manner. Relationships are positive and reflect how any organisation operates where there is challenge and dialogue.”

Several recent incidents have highlighted the poor relations between the two bodies. The most high profile was probably the controversy in 2019 around the withdrawing of two of the Naval Service’s nine ships because there were not enough sailors to man them.

Cmdr Mick Malone told sailors the Naval Service had to "cut its cloth to measure" until it could address the manpower shortage, a sentiment which caused annoyance in the Department of Defence.

Shortly afterwards, then minister of state for defence Paul Kehoe publicly contradicted Cmdr Malone and claimed the ships were being tied up for routine maintenance. Almost two years later, both ships remain tied up, along with two more which are currently undergoing refits and repairs.

Military officials and civil servants clashed again in May of last year, when the Defence Forces sought to extract two officers from a UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo due to the worsening security situation there.

Military management wanted to use the Air Corps' Learjet to fly the officers home. The department questioned the ability of the airplane to undertake such a long journey and said it had "proved almost impossible" to get the Defence Forces to consider other options, according to internal documents obtained by journalist Ken Foxe. Officials questioned the ability of the Learjet to complete an eight-leg journey and believed the operation would cost twice what the Defence Forces claimed.

Officials also accused the military of being “fixated” on the return of the officers’ weapons. They said this issue appeared to have “diluted the priority on extracting the two officers”.

In response, Vice-Admiral Mellett said: “It is unfortunate that after planning for a month there still is no clarity on a timeline associated with the use of the Learjet.”

The most recent public controversy revolves around an article by Lieut (now Captain) Brian Clarke in the Defence Forces Review, an academic journal published in association with Dublin City University (DCU) last December.

In sober, academic language Cpt Clarke posited that the department had significantly more control over the Defence Forces than civil servants in other small, neutral states. While in Ireland the chief of staff had "no legal command" of the Defence Forces, aside from day-to-day management, in countries such as Finland "direct operational command of the whole Finnish Defence Forces is in the hands of chief of staff and his general staff, with administrative affairs being the concern of the department of defence".

The relationship between the two organisations was “toxic” in the eyes of some, Cpt Clarke’s article said.

Internal correspondence released to this newspaper shows department officials were angry with the article and its subsequent media coverage. In particular, they questioned Cpt Clarke's assertion that the Department of Defence had one civil servant for every 23 members of the Defence Forces compared with a ratio in Sweden of one-to-162 and in Finland of one-to-254.

Assistant secretary general at the Department of Defence, Ciarán Murphy, emailed the Review's editor, Lieut Cdr Paul Hegarty, asking if anyone "actually checks" the figures quoted in the article and if a correction should be issued by the Review. The Defence Forces stood over the article. It is understood it does not plan to issue a correction.

However, following communications from the department, the chief of staff ordered the opening of an investigation into the publication of the Review which is still ongoing (the department has said it did not order the investigation).

Unusually large number

The controversy over the article continues to rumble on. Senator Gerard Craughwell asked the Oireachtas Research Service, an independent body, to examine the ratio of civil servants to soldiers in other countries. Its research resulted in numbers slightly different from Cpt Clarke's but supported the main thrust of his argument; Ireland has an unusually large number of civil servants compared with military personnel.

A Department of Defence source said this week Cpt Clarke was not comparing like-with-like in his analysis but conceded the point that in recent years the Defence Forces had shrank while the number of department officials had only increased.

Many on the military side were also angered that a senior civil servant would bring his complaints directly to the mid-ranking officer who edited the Review rather than going through the chain of command.

“It shows the attitude of the department to military structures and practices,” said one serving officer. Mr Berry called it “highly unusual” and compared it to an assistant secretary general in the Department of Justice directly contacting a Garda Supt over an issue. “There should be an apology,” the TD said.

The controversy also brought to the fore some frustration with Vice-Admiral Mellett. Many in the military would like to see him take a tougher stance in his dealings with the department, including in defence of Cpt Clarke’s article.

“Mellett will be on the telly talking about gender diversity and solar panels. That’s all well and good and it might be good for the organisation’s image but if you’re sitting there watching the organisation collapse around you, that’s worth f**k all,” one former officer said.

In the view of some officers, the Defence Forces has not had a chief of staff willing to stand up to the department since the late Lieut General Dave Stapleton, who, in 1998, walked into the office of Michael Smith, threw his Sam Browne belt on the table and threatened to resign if the minister went through with plans for further manpower cuts.

Others are more willing to defend Mellett. “You have to pick your battles. There’s no point threatening to quit if you don’t actually hold any cards,” said one senior officer. “A lot of the animosity towards him is simply that he is a Naval man,” said another.

Sources on the military and civil side point out that much of this discontent is not new. “The two organisations have been fighting since the 1920s,” said one officer.

However, in recent decades, the department’s control over the military has increased. Shortly after the foundation of the State, a Council of Defence was set up comprising the minister and the three most senior military officers, with the department’s secretary general acting as secretary. Its structure allowed equal access to the minister for military and civilian management, and provided a forum to hash out problems as they arose.

By the 1980s the council had largely fallen into disuse and most communication between military and minister was being funnelled through civil servants. In the view of many in the military, this barrier has grown only higher since.

There are some signs of improvement, however, particularly since a Commission on Defence is to carry out the most comprehensive review of the Defence Forces for years. Their work has only started and they are currently “being briefed within an inch” of their lives by the various sides.

Another, when asked if they were optimistic about the outcome, said: “Optimistic for who? For soldiers’ pay? For [the Department of Public Expenditure] finances or the DoD? Because, I can tell you this, we’re not going to be able to please everyone.”

Many in the military have also welcomed some small but significant moves by the department on funding, and pay restoration. Plans to make greater use of the Reserve Defence Forces, which is particularly understaffed, have also been welcomed.

This good feeling will be tempered by the news that the re-enlistment campaign introduced to shore up Defence Forces numbers during the pandemic has shown dismal results. Of the 744 former officers and enlisted soldiers who applied, only 62 have so far been accepted back in.

‘Breath of fresh air’

Nevertheless, Mr Berry is optimistic about the future relationship, particularly given the appointment of Jacqui McCrum as secretary general last year. He called her an “outsider” and a “breath of fresh air”. With a few exceptions, his problem is with the “culture” of the department rather than its people.

“She has hit the ground running and her and Mellett seem to have a genuine professional respect for each other,” said one source.

The military representative associations have also sounded positive notes in recent months. There is frustration the Commission on Defence is not examining the role of the department but it is understood the commission this week set up a subgroup which will partly examine this issue. “Everyone is keeping their powder dry while they wait to see what the commission will do. If it doesn’t deliver some serious reform, things could deteriorate rapidly again,” one officer said.

It is a point echoed by the “worn-out soldier” who wrote to the Minister this week: “The Government and the DoD will have a very small window to save the DF,” he wrote.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times