Simple steps could quickly stabilise Defence Forces crisis

Staffing crisis leaves Ireland militarily vulnerable and massively exposed

“Troops are not looking for any preferential treatment whatsoever, they are simply looking for parity with everyone else and for their Government to stop breaking the law.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

“Troops are not looking for any preferential treatment whatsoever, they are simply looking for parity with everyone else and for their Government to stop breaking the law.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Ireland’s Defence Forces are currently in the midst of an existential crisis that has significantly undermined critical State services. Almost a quarter of our naval ships are tied up indefinitely, unable to put to sea for want of crew. With this number set to rise, it will further weaken our defences against the smuggling of drugs, weapons and vulnerable people into this country, while simultaneously eroding our already meagre search-and-rescue capability.

In the past the Air Corps could have picked up some of this slack by increasing aerial surveillance of our seaborne approaches. With a full-blown staff-retention crisis of its own, however, the Air Corps cannot even meet its own commitments, let alone help out its sister service on the high seas.

Meanwhile, the Army’s cyber unit has been disbanded and its participation in the multi-agency National Cyber Security Centre, a critical piece of State infrastructure, has been withdrawn due to staff shortages.

In summary, the current situation is a case study in how not to run an organisation. Spending millions of euro on equipment, but not recognising that it is people who are the critical component in delivering capability. Militarily, the country is vulnerable and massively exposed.

Home-grown crisis

It’s not as if an international military recession has by chance arrived on our shores, however. This crisis is a completely unnecessary, home-grown, man-made disaster. Over the last 30 years military representative associations have been repeatedly denied specific rights to negotiate sectoral side-deals during national pay talks like everybody else. The cumulative effect has been devastating, with Defence Forces pay now a generation behind everyone else – and the gap is widening. Incredibly, the Department of Defence has the resources to tackle this crisis, but instead chooses to return millions of euro unspent every year.

The solution to the Defence Forces crisis is simple. Stop returning surplus revenue and instead use it to firstly stabilise, then definitively solve the problem. Two steps would stabilise the crisis within 24 hours.

Troops are not looking for any preferential treatment whatsoever, they are simply looking for parity with everyone else

Firstly, pay the national minimum wage for additional, rostered security-duty hours worked. Incredibly, troops are expected to work significant additional hours at night and at the weekend for €2 or €3 an hour before tax depending on the day of the week. No other employer in the State would get away with pulling a stunt like this. This is not a wage, it is an insult.

There are fears in Government that a soon to be announced package of pay improvements for the Defence Forces will not meet the expectations. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
"Over the last 30 years military representative associations have been repeatedly denied specific rights to negotiate sectoral side-deals during national pay talks like everybody else." File photograph: Alan Betson

All that military families are asking is that the Taoiseach, who is also Minister for Defence, holds himself to the same standard that he expects from every other employer. Troops are not looking for any preferential treatment whatsoever, they are simply looking for parity with everyone else and for their Government to stop breaking the law.

Secondly, sea-going patrol duty allowance for naval personnel must be increased or made tax-free – as it is for all other State employees working offshore to cover childcare and the additional costs of prolonged family separation while at sea.

Staff from the Marine Institute receive an additional €270 gross per day while at sea, personnel from the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority receive an additional €105 tax-free per day and officers from the Revenue Commissioners maritime section receive an additional €75 tax-free per day. At €49 before tax per day for Naval Service personnel is it any wonder they’re leaving in droves when their counterparts are earning four or five times more?

Engagement

Once stabilised the crisis can then be fully resolved by a number of measures.

First, the department must engage in good faith with representative associations on the core pay, technical pay and non-pay reviews as part of the Government action plan to tackle the crisis. (Highly unlikely.)

This is not an industrial relations issue per se, but one of national security

Second, an independent statutory pay review body for Defence Forces personnel must be established like the highly effective model in the UK.

Defence Forces on a UN interim force in Lebanon. Photograph: Defence Forces Press Office
Defence Forces on UN interim force in Lebanon. File photograph: Defence Forces Press Office

Third, given the ridiculous levels of micromanagement by civil servants into all areas of the Defence Forces, there is an urgent need for an independent commission on the future of defence like the recent commission on the future of policing.

Fourth, invest in military housing. As a result of the premature closure of more than half of Ireland’s military installations in the last 15 years there is no longer enough accommodation. The practice of troops sleeping in cars, offices or corridors is completely unacceptable. No other uniformed service in this country would be expected to put up with such a situation.

In conclusion, this is not an industrial relations issue per se, but one of national security. With Brexit only 82 days away our Defence Forces should be at the point of maximum strength, not at the point of historic weakness. The cynical exploitation of the commitment and patriotism of Defence Force families must end in order to stem this haemorrhage of experience and talent. Loyalty should be rewarded not punished.

Cathal Berry retired from the Defence forces in 2019. He is a former head of the Army Ranger wing and the military medical school

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