Call for action to end ‘wide malaise’ in State’s defence sector

TDs told Reserve Defence Forces members’ group feels ‘fobbed off’ by Department of Defence

A file image of members of the Permanent and Reserve Defence Forces taking part in a training exercise in the  Glen of Imaal in Co Wicklow.

A file image of members of the Permanent and Reserve Defence Forces taking part in a training exercise in the Glen of Imaal in Co Wicklow.

 

There is a “wide malaise” at present in the State’s defence sector and action is required in the interests of State security, the association representing members of the Reserve Defence Forces has said.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence on Thursday heard that considerable “damage” has been done to the Defence Forces, including the reserves, in recent years despite State security being of great importance as Brexit looms.

Many members of the Defence Forces are concerned that the organisation has been contracting in size for over a decade, with several barracks closed down. It has been unable to attract and retain highly skilled personnel and some members believe the organisation has been cutback to a point that its ability to discharge its obligation to protect State security has been undermined.

Neil Richardson, general secretary of the Reserve Defence Forces Representative Association (RDFRA), said a commission should examine defence matters in the same way An Garda Síochana was recently assessed.

The committee also heard a call to invite in senior Defence Forces leaders and the associations representing officers and non-commissioned members to hear their views on matter and how the “damage” already done could be repaired.

“Only by engaging with all stakeholders at this level can the damage done to both the permanent and reserve Defence Forces be repaired,” Mr Richardson said. “Such actions are vital to the long term growth and stability of the Defence Forces as a whole and also to the continued security of the State.”

‘Fobbed off’

While the Defence Forces had begun to react well to the concerns he was raising, Mr Richardson said the Department of Defence’s approach was less than satisfactory.

“When we ask a question it is essentially fobbed off, for lack of a better phrase,” he told Fianna Fáil TD Jack Chambers.

Mr Richardson said it is also vital that all of the resources within the Defence Forces, including reservists, be fully utilised.

He said the executive of the RDFRA included, among others, a medical consultant, a professor at Trinity College Dublin, a cyber security expert and a partner in a major law firm.

However, he said these skills were not being utilised at a time when they were badly needed and personnel were instead met with apathy and “perpetually training for training’s sake”.

“With Brexit approaching and a hard border scenario a distinct possibility, the defence landscape in Ireland for the immediate future is somewhat uncertain,” he said. “And so the Defence Forces needs to be able to rely on all available personnel and assets should they be required in any contingent scenario.”

Mr Richardson said that when RDFRA last appeared before the committee two years ago the Reserve Defence Forces had 2,049 members, some 50 per cent of the personnel it is supposed to have.

“We had 2,020 places to fill and we had taken in only 471 new recruits in the preceding four years,” he told the committee, adding that this was despite more than 10,000 people applying to join the reserve in that period.

Lost interest

Mr Richardson said the Defence Forces was unable to give the recruitment process the attention it required and would-be members lost interest as applications took years to progress.

The committee heard numbers in the reserve continued to fall and reached an all-time low of 1,653 in the first quarter of last year. Since then, Mr Richardson said, the Defence Forces had put a number of measures in place to address the slide and numbers had “risen slightly” to 1,840.

Mr Richardson said the Defence Forces Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, last year revived the office of the director with responsibility for the Reserve, which had previously been abolished.

New training courses established since then meant Reserve officers in the Army and Naval Service would now be available for leadership duties in the Reserve. Payments were also streamlined and there are efforts to improve the recruitment process.

However, he added: “Unfortunately, the Department of Defence’s attitude towards engagement with RDFRA has been somewhat more aloof”.

He said that two years ago the RDFRA had flagged a “critical need” to update the regulations that govern the general operation of the reserve forces. The reserve had been reorganised in 2013 and it was “beyond belief” that the regulations had not been updated since.

The RDFRA had made “consistent and repeated” efforts to be updated on the progress made and had offered its assistance in drawing up new regulations, he said. However, the department had repeatedly told it the updated regulations were “being worked on” but the RDFRA had been “prevented from seeing these drafts” and so were prohibited from having any input.

“This is an untenable position for the department to adopt,” Mr Richardson said,.

He also said RDFRA members were being paid 18 per cent less than members of the Permanent Defence Forces for to do some training courses. The disparity, and arrears due, needed to be resolved, he added.