The Government has defended excluding the Department of Defence from the terms of reference of the independent commission it established on the first review in a generation of the Defence Forces.
The Coalition has stood over the decision despite criticism from its backbenchers and from military representative bodies, with some military personnel describing it as bloated and out of touch with military matters.
Fianna Fáil Seanad leader Lisa Chambers said it was a "glaring omission" and warned Minister for Defence Simon Coveney would be "nobbling" the review from the outset without the buy-in of Defence Forces personnel.
But the Minister said the department had already been subject to a wide range of review and reform measures both internally and through the Civil Service reform and wider public service reform. He said next year it will undergo an organisational capability review.
On Tuesday the Cabinet approved setting up the commission, a commitment in the programme for government, and this is aimed at ensuring the Defence Forces are “fit for purpose”. It is expected to start a reform programme and create a strategy for beyond 2030.
The 15-member commission, chaired by former secretary general of the department of justice Aidan O’Driscoll, includes a wide range of national and international expertise along with retired senior military personnel, and will report within 12 months.
Ms Chambers condemned the Department of Defence omission, however, pointing to the department’s strategic role “and the input and control it has on all matters relating to our Defence Forces”.
She warned “we need to amend the terms of reference to include the Department of Defence so that we can get full buy in from all stakeholders. If we do not have the representative associations on board, it will not work.”
Kildare-based Fianna Fáil Senator Fiona O’Loughlin said in all discussions over the years with the Defence Forces’ representative bodies “it was always very clear that the Department was a big part of the part of the problem”.
Their complaints included the department being in charge of policy “and its control of the purse strings and its refusal to allow the military leadership the appropriate resources or ability to make decisions for the Defence Forces, which is wrong”, she said.
Mr Coveney has stressed the criticisms of the department “in no way accords with” his experience over an extended period of the “sustained commitment of officials to ensure the best outcomes”.
But Ms Chambers said his good personal experience “is beside the point”.
“There are members of the commission who have clear links to the Department of Defence,” Ms Chambers said “If there is an air or degree of suspicion around this process before it even gets started, we are nobbling ourselves before we even get going.”
When the issue was raised in the Seanad this week Minister of State Thomas Byrne acknowledged there would be differing views. "This kind of difference of view will always feature in every area of public policy," he said.
“The commission’s focus is targeted precisely on the issues identified in the programme for government for urgent but positive attention.”
He said there was an ongoing review of the department and this will continue in 2021,when the department will be subject to an organisational capability review and he hoped this might address some of the issues Ms Chambers highlighted.