Taoiseach acknowledges ‘stinging criticism’ about state of Defence Forces
Varadkar says personnel not discriminated against but tied to public sector pay deal
Defence Forces on a UN interim force in Lebanon. Photograph: Defence Forces Press Office
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has rejected claims by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin that Defence Forces personnel are discriminated against “because of the uniform they wear” but insisted they were tied into the public sector pay agreement.
Mr Martin said the Government needed to “stop the codology of burying your head in the sand”.
He made the discrimination claim in the wake of unprecedented criticism of the Department of Defence and its policies by a former commander of the Army Ranger Wing Comdt Cathal Berry who said the Defence Forces were being “dismantled and demoralised”, with more personnel leaving than being recruited.
Mr Martin said Comdt Berry spoke about the humiliation and suffocation of the Defence Forces.
The Fianna Fáil leader asked the Taoiseach “do you feel ashamed of the manner in which you and your Government and Minister (of State Paul) Kehoe have demoralised the Defence Forces”.
Mr Varadkar, who is Minister for Defence, acknowledged that it was a “stinging criticism and sometimes Government needs to hear criticism and take it on board.
“I am very aware of the anger of Defence Force families,” he said but he insisted that “it isn’t the case that members are discriminated against because of their uniform. They’re tied into the public sector pay agreement.”
He said all public sector pay would be restored to pre-crash levels by October next year and said that even a 2 per cent pay increase across the public sector would cost €400 million a year. He said at the same time Fianna Fáil had been asking where the money was going to come from to pay for the national children’s hospital and the national broadband plan.
Mr Varadkar agreed there was a retention crisis and that while recruitment was going well, he accepted that more personnel were leaving that joining. Latest figures show that 731 personnel left last yer when 621 joined.
During leaders’ questions in the Dáil, Mr Martin questioned if the Taoiseach understood how deep the issues were for the Defence Forces and described the current situation as dangerous to democracy.
“Our army withstood subversion within the State for over 30 years” and bravely served overseas on international missions.
Mr Martin added that Comdt Berry, who was subsequently head of the medical unit, said many of those he spoke to spoke of “the sense that they were discriminated not over colour or creed, but over the uniform that they wear”.
He said that the Government needed to “stop the codology of burying your head in the sand”. The Cork South-Central TD said many personnel believed that the report of the Public Sector Pay Commission. which looked at the pay and conditions of Defence Forces personnel, was held over until after the local elections.
The Government had been alerted “again and again”. He pointed to Naval vessels not being able to move out of port because of lack of personnel and of sailors sleeping on board off-duty because they could not afford rents being charged.
Mr Varadkar said an extra €50 million was being invested in the Defence Forces for new equipment and improved barracks, and pay. He said suggestions were made that “money is being handed back but it’s not”.
He said the Defence Forces were covered by the public sector pay agreement and the pay commission had been asked to review its work.
“We’re serious about responding to the retention difficulties in our Defence Forces,” he said.