We cannot let effectiveness of our Defence Forces slip

Irish Army is vital peacekeeper and will bolster State in event of cyber or Brexit chaos

June 23rd, 2018: Under the commentary of US president John F Kennedy's 1963 Dáil speech, the Irish Defence Forces celebrate their 60th anniversary in a video tribute. Video: Irish Defence Forces

 

No one joins the military to get rich but neither do they join to qualify for family income support. Our military is haemorrhaging qualified personnel at an alarming rate resulting in the Defence Forces being barely fit for purpose. There are many similarities with the crisis within An Garda Síochána during the past decade when ministers for justice and Garda management consistently downplayed the obvious. It was only when Bob Olsen took over the Garda Inspectorate and published two excellent reports in 2014 and 2015 the denials stopped and the government took action. We need the same for the military.

Military commanders are in a difficult position. The chief of staff is responsible for the military effectiveness of the Defence Forces; an impossible task when he is constantly undermined by Department of Defence officials who hold decision powers over him. It should be expected that the department and the military would work closely together. Recent comments that their relationships are challenging underplays that they are near toxic. This is the result of taoisigh Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar failing to appoint a full-time minister for defence.

Some day you will be on the Border. Will you be able to make the decision the taoiseach wants you to make?

Command and authority are granted to officers from those above. The title leader, however, can only be granted by those who follow. Leadership and loyalty are closely related. Loyalty is a two-way process and one should not expect loyalty if it is not given. There are military regulations stipulating what members may say in public – this applies to the commanders themselves. Therefore, commanders are stuck with the requirement to demonstrate leadership to their soldiers while simultaneously remaining on “political message”. These are competing loyalties making military command extremely difficult.

Fit state

For military personnel there is no option to threaten strike or a blue flu; and rightly so. Their only viable protest option is to leave the service; all ranks have done that in droves in recent years. It is now questionable if the Defence Forces is in a fit state of readiness. But does anybody care?

Defence Forces authorities are partly to blame for this. It’s as if they are afraid the debate might question the necessity to actually maintain military forces, especially an army. It could be answered that nobody asked that question during the Troubles when soldiers stood long, cold nights on the Border, without overtime, often in very dangerous circumstances. This allowed civilian commerce to continue peacefully elsewhere in the Republic, ignorant of what was going on “up there”. Dan Harvey’s 2018 book Soldiering Against Subversion is an introduction to how politicians through neglect of the military in the 1960s/1970s came close to losing this state to undemocratic forces. Unfortunately, politicians do not learn lessons.

The Defence Forces cannot recruit new personnel quickly enough to replace those who are opting out. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The Irish soldier has been the perfect peacekeeper, an exemplar to other forces simultaneously being a perfect servant to Irish governments’ foreign policy. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the term “strategic corporal” came into common international usage but it was not a new term to the Irish military. It implies that though a low military ranker may be operating at the tactical level, their actions may have strategic implications. During our 1974 Cadet School training, average age 18-19, we learned that a lot was expected from Irish soldiers in dangerous situations. It was often briefed to us, “Some day you will be on the Border. Will you be able to make the decision the taoiseach wants you to make?” Throughout the Troubles our military never disappointed.

The greatest threat facing this State is a cyber-attack. It could occur at any time for any reason

“Peacekeeping is not a job for soldiers, but only soldiers can do it.” Former UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld’s famous “paradox” implies that a typical soldier is not naturally a good peacekeeper. The Irish soldier, however, has been the perfect peacekeeper, an exemplar to other forces simultaneously being a perfect servant to Irish governments’ foreign policy.

Taxpayer value

Nobody should argue against taxpayers getting value for their money. Following the Belfast Agreement and the 2008 financial crash, it would have been difficult to argue against cuts to the military. However, the 2013 reorganisation of the Defence Forces was department-driven and extremely flawed. This combined with the promotion system for non-commissioned officers (NCOs) introduced around the same time has done tremendous damage to military cohesion. It is as if the Government wants to maintain a Defence Forces but does not care how effective it is. This does not serve taxpayers well.

The 2015 defence White Paper was a missed opportunity to utilise Defence Forces strengths. For example, the greatest threat facing this State is a cyber-attack. It could occur at any time for any reason. Attacks on banks, electricity, gas, water, food and fuel supplies could close down normal living for days if not weeks, resulting in shortages and extreme violence.

The Swiss have not been to war for 500 years, but they still take defence seriously

Instead of the military being tasked with the cyber defence of the State, the Government set up a new body in the Department of Communications. Contrast that with how Israel created a very successful symbiotic relationship between its military cyber Unit 8200 and its civilian industry.

New recruits: Ollie O’Connor of the Organisation of National Ex-Service Personnel said when they joined up, they were young fit men and women. ‘They didn’t put up their hands to become homeless veterans.’ Photograph Nick Bradshaw
"For military personnel there is no option to threaten strike or a blue flu; and rightly so. Their only viable protest option is to leave the service." File photograph Nick Bradshaw

The Swiss have not been to war for 500 years, but they still take defence seriously. Government neglect of the Irish military is not new. Dangerous situations, for example from cyber elements or Brexit, can arise unexpectedly as they did in 1969. Let’s not get caught out again; next time we may not get off so lightly.

Michael C Murphy Lieut Col (retired) is former deputy director of military intelligence with the Irish Defence Forces

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