Minister says no to cut in Defence Forces

 

The Minister for Defence has rejected attempts by the Minister for Finance to reduce the strength of the Defence Forces as part of a fresh round of Government cutbacks.

The Minister for Finance, Mr McCreevy, has asked all Government departments to identify posts which would remain unfilled as part of a drive to cut the numbers employed in the public service by 5,000.

However, the Minister for Defence, Mr Smith, has refused to authorise a reduction in the Defence Forces and has asked for a small increase in staff in advance of Ireland's hosting of the European Union presidency.

Opposition politicians have suggested that the length of time it has taken to identify the location of the reductions, announced in last December's Budget, is due to resistance from Government departments already struggling to cope with tighter spending limits.

In a letter obtained by The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act, Mr Smith wrote to Mr McCreevy in January this year outlining his opposition to any plan to further reduce the numbers in the Defence Forces.

"It must also be borne in mind that the strength of the permanent Defence Forces had been reduced from about 13,000 to 11,500 in the period 1996-1998. In these circumstances, I consider that there is no scope at this stage for a further reduction in the authorised strength," he wrote on January 21st, 2003.

Department of Finance officials are reviewing the response of all Departments and State agencies to the appeal for reductions and the Minister will put his cost-cutting proposals to Government shortly.

Mr McCreevy has defended the move by arguing that a 5,000 decrease is not substantial in the context of an increase of 50,000 over the last five years.

The Minister has also sought to deflect criticism by insisting there will be no reductions among frontline personnel such as gardaí, nurses and doctors.

He has said the reduction in numbers should be distributed across all grades and levels in the public service in order to avoid "grade drift", which would see the cuts focused in more junior grades. "I remain of the view that the reduction can be achieved through natural wastage and I will seek to avoid or minimise the effect on frontline staff providing a service to the public and to ensure that essential services to the public will not be affected by the reduction," he told the Dáil in recent weeks.

Mr McCreevy's correspondence to Government departments says the identification of positions which will not be filled is up to public sector managers in conjunction with their chief executive, and sometimes a Minister.

Mr Smith's letter says he has not received a response from the Minister for Finance about additional staff needed to host the EU presidency.