Defence Forces specialists are being “poached” by the private sector, Tánaiste Micheál Martin has said.
Mr Martin has also insisted that if Cathal Brugha barracks in Dublin is to be developed for housing, a “state of the art” alternative must first be developed for the Defence Forces. The future of the barracks was at the centre of a political tug-of-war last year after Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said he felt it should be developed as housing.
Speaking at the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs and Defence committee on Tuesday, Mr Martin also said the rate of recruitment into the reserve Defence Forces was “not good enough”, and said he was “worried” about the current level of recruitment into the forces, as well as significant retention challenges.
He said he had spoken with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform regarding accelerating measures to retain people in the Defence Forces, telling Sinn Féin’s Sorca Clarke: “That is urgent work, given the situation we are in”.
He argued that the current pay and conditions for starting members were attractive.
He said the starting pay in the Defence Forces compares “very favourably” with the rest of the public service with the starting pay of €36,419 of a three-star private or the naval service equivalent. For an officer without a degree, he said, pay started at €40,316 and for graduates, it was €45,496 - “they compare favourably with the average graduate entry salary across all sectors of the economy”.
“We’ve got to analyse where young people are today, what attracts them, what will ensure their sustainability in the service,” he said, acknowledging that “we have a bit of work to do yet”.
The strength of the Defence Forces has been criticised in recent weeks after it emerged it has fallen below 8,000 for the first time in decades - some 1,500 members short of its establishment strength of 9,500.
He told Sinn Féin’s John Brady that there were difficulties with retaining people with specialist skills who are “effectively being poached or sought after by the private sector”.
Mr Martin said there had been no government decision taken on the future of Cathal Brugha barracks, which Green Party minister Eamon Ryan has said he wants to develop as housing. A feasability study on the relocation is in the process of being commissioned, he said, and it will take around six months to complete.
“We have to protect the Defence Forces... the only possible quid pro quo would be the creation of a modern, bespoke, state of the art facility for the Defence Forces,” he said, which would take place before any development of Cathal Brugha barracks.
“The bottom line is nothing will happen to Cathal Brugha barracks until there’s an alternative barracks in place,” he said.
Mr Martin is appearing before the Oireachtas committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence on Tuesday afternoon, as part of the revised estimates process.
He said that the government had last year agreed to increase defence spending to €1.5 billion by 2028 - in line with the mid-level of the options set out in the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces. This year, spending on the Defence Forces (including army pensions) will rise by €93 million to €1.21 billion, an increase of eight per cent, the Tánaiste told the Committee.
Of this, €79 million is for the defence budget of €915 million, with salaries and allowances accounting for €564 million once the costs of the new ‘Building Momentum’ public pay deal are accounted for.
Pay funding in previous years was allocated for a Defence Force strength of 9,500 serving soldiers, sailors and air corps personnel, Mr Martin told the Committee, adding that when pay savings arose, they were used to address spending pressures elsewhere in the Defence Forces.
This has been redrafted this year, however, with pay findings based on the existing size of the Defence Forces, plus an anticipated net increase of 400 people.
Under the revised estimates process, Mr Martin is seeking a non-pay current allocation of €175 million - an increase of €25 million on 2022. He told the committee this is to provide “mainly for expenditure on on-going and essential Defence Forces standing and operational costs such as utilities, fuel, catering, maintenance, information technology and training”.
Alongside this, he is seeking an increase of €35 million in capital funding, bringing the total allocation to €176 million - a 25 per cent increase on 2022. He said this is to fund the acquisition, renewal and upgrade of military infrastructure and associated IT.
He said spending would allow the Defence Forces to meet government commitments on overseas peace missions, where 556 personnel were serving at the start of the year across seven different missions. He reiterated his sympathies to the family and colleagues of Privae Seán Rooney, killed last December while serving with the 121st Infantry Battalion in Lebanon.
The Tánaiste said a number of separate inquiries into the killing are underway and that “we owe it to Private Rooney, his colleagues and their families and indeed to all Defence Forces members to establish the truth”.
Regarding a recent government decision for the Defence Forces to participate in a German-led Battlegroup in 2024/2025, he said the Defence Forces’ contribution would be 174 troops.
He said he will be considering the Independent Review Group’s report, which was commissioned following revelations from the Women of Honour group in the Defence Forces, which he said has “examined many issues relating to bullying, harassment, discrimination and sexual misconduct” and the “workplace culture” in the Defence Forces.
“Every member of the Defence Forces has a right to undertake their role in a work environment which promotes dignity and equality for all, and I can assure I will be considering this report in full in consultation with the Attorney General and I will bring the Report to Government for its consideration and subsequent publication”.