The Irish Times view on the Defence Forces: a stinging critique

A credible response is needed to the problems of falling numbers and declining morale

Comments by the former head of the Army Ranger Wing, retired Comdt Cathal Berry, about the Defence Forces will have made uncomfortable reading for the Government. He said Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe had reduced "a highly effective and proud organisation to an utterly demoralised outfit" and he described the decision of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to deny the defence portfolio a place at the Cabinet table and to appoint himself as Minister for Defence as "disastrous".

Berry claimed senior officials in the Department were functioning as the de facto Minister. Those officials, he said, were controlling micromanagers with no experience of military service yet they did not consult with Defence Forces leadership.

Berry led the elite Ranger Wing in Chad in 2008 and has since qualified as a doctor. He took an unpaid career break to study at the Royal College of Surgeons, funding himself through medical training and then rejoining the Defence Forces to lead the Military Medical School. Against that impressive background of public service, his criticisms cannot be brushed off easily as those of a disgruntled former soldier. He says enlisted personnel, not officers like himself, are leaving because their service has impoverished them and they cannot afford to continue with it. Berry retired earlier this month so he would be free to highlight his concerns. Serving personnel, he points out, are not permitted to speak out.

Remuneration aside, the organisation's full strength has dropped to 8,500 despite Government policy to maintain it at 9,500, with more in training. The work of the Defence Forces is not as visible to the general public as that of the Garda Síochána, for instance, but it has a proud tradition of United Nations peacekeeping service, a mainstay of Irish foreign policy.


It also researches and assesses the security threat to the State, including the increasingly complex risk of cyber security attack. In the event of a terrorist incident with hostage taking, the Army Ranger Wing would be called in to respond. Likewise, the Defence Forces would be the primary agency to respond in the event of a chemical or biological attack. Its personnel also make safe explosive devices planted by gangland criminals. When Brexit occurs – assuming it will – Defence Forces personnel will likely be required for Border security, even if only as a precautionary measure.

In the face of complex challenges, falling numbers, declining morale and more lucrative employment prospects in civilian life, a credible response is required to the issues identified by Berry. He described Minister of State Kehoe cuttingly as “an empty suit” and “not up to the job”. Can Kehoe and the Government step forward, halt the decline and prove him wrong?