The Government is reaping the harvest it sowed when it ignored a crisis in the Defence Forces caused by falling numbers, declining morale and poor pay and conditions. The Air Corps has been forced to scale back the emergency helicopter service it provides to the Health Service Executive by one day a week because of a pilot shortage. Two large Naval vessels, out of a total of nine, remain tied up in harbour while Army numbers continue to fall.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe have attempted to put the best possible face on an unacceptable situation. Both have emphasised that the partial gap in Air Corps emergency cover, until next February, will be filled by a unit from the Emergency Aeromedical Service in Cork. In the meantime, additional Air Corps personnel will be trained and progress made on the introduction of a special retention bonus for pilots.
For so long as funding for these vital services remains inadequate, unanticipated risks and threats are certain to develop
This has all the elements of a sticking plaster solution. Following an increase in allowances for all branches of the Defence Forces earlier this year, poor basic pay remains a burning issue. As pilots continue to transfer to the private sector, a special retention bonus may not stop that flow. In any case, what about some equal treatment for Army and Naval personnel whose morale remains at rock bottom?
The Government’s woes were compounded at the weekend by an announcement from the Irish Coast Guard that, because of concerns about the effectiveness of a particular type of life jacket, volunteer in-shore rescue boats had been withdrawn from 23 of its 44 stations. The Taoiseach rushed to reassure the public that marine safety would be backed up by the Navy, the RNLI and community services. No suggestion had been made that official penny-pinching was involved. The manufacturer of the lifejackets re-tests hundreds of them annually and, on return, one had not functioned properly. A detailed investigation is now under way.
Earlier this year, the Public Services Pay Commission was invited by Government to examine Defence Force grievances. It looked at various allowances, rather than basic pay, and recommended an increase in allowances for all personnel, along with a loyalty bonus for Air Corps pilots. The estimated cost came to €10.1 million, amounting to a 1 per cent increase in basic pay. The offer was reluctantly accepted. Defence Forces personnel are not permitted to take strike action or participate in pay bargaining.
Safety at sea, on land and in the air is a vital consideration. For so long as funding for these vital services remains inadequate, unanticipated risks and threats are certain to develop. Instead of treating the Defence Forces as the Cinderella of the public service, the Government should bring them in from the cold.