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Defence Forces Chief: 'Some great people are making the choice to leave the organisation'

Mark Mellett said he believes the organisation’s challenges will get worse before they get better.

Image: RollingNews.ie

THE CHIEF OF Staff of the Defence Forces has said the current recruitment and retention crisis in the organisation is likely to get worse before it gets better and he believes the unique nature of his staff’s work should be considered in pay negotiations.

Speaking at the biennial conference of Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (Raco) in Naas, Co Kildare today, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett expressed concern about the recruitment crisis.

The Permanent Defence Forces has a designated strength of 9,500 but currently there are only 8,653 personnel. There have been 558 discharges in 2019.

“Some great people are making the choice to leave the organisation and the level and trend in the churn is a matter of concern for me,” he said.

Mellett also said be believes the unique nature of the work his personnel do should be recognised in future pay negotiations.

“It is our job to go into danger when others are running away, it is our job to put our lives on the line, it is our job to be prepared to use lethal force. The evidence is there, our members have died in service, we have stood up to violent extremists, we have rescued hostages, we have saved thousands from death and we have seen hundreds of people die and recovered many bodies.

We do not have a union, we will never withdraw labour and we are subject to military law. We are indeed unique. These differentiators must influence the character and the shape of future core pay negotiations.

He welcomed the decision by the association yesterday to accept proposals for a €10 million package of allowances. Mellett said he has long held the view that when the unconditional nature of service is considered, “you can never pay our personnel too much, but you can pay them too little”.

Despite his acknowledgement of the difficulties the Defence Forces has retaining staff, Mellett told reporters at the conference that he was opposed to affiliation of representative associations with the Irish Congress of Trade unions (ICTU).

ICTU recently agreed in principle to accept the representative body for enlisted members of the Defence Forces, PDFORRA, into its membership subject to negotiation with the government. PDFORRA has said it is not pursuing the right to strike, but want to play a full role in pay negotiations.

“The government needs to be confident at all stages that when it needs the Defence Forces, there’s going to be no ambiguity with regards to delivery of defence, delivery of security services and other government services. And that’s the way it is and that has been the way it has been since the foundation of the State. So it’s at our peril do we jeopardise that institutional arrangement,” he said.

In his speech to delegates at the conference today, he also said any diminution of the unconditional availability of the Defence Forces services for the government has potential implications for State security.

‘Cutting our cloth’

Raco president Shane Keogh today warned of the impact of operating with reduced numbers.

“Shops are unable to go to sea, aircraft are not flying and unit are operating below strength across the board,” he said.

“Tasking, beyond what our current resources can contend with, has a direct impact on the wellbeing of the Defence Forces at large. It is not a case of cutting our cloth to measure – there is no more cloth to cut.”

Earlier the conference heard of the strain on the organisation caused by gaps in senior roles. In his speech to Raco members, Minister of State with responsibility for defence Paul Kehoe confirmed he has agreed to the restoration of automatic promotions after a fixed period for specialist officers.

Kehoe said his department’s plan, which was made on foot of recommendations from Independent Public Service Pay Commission, does address the recruitment and retention challenges. He said he wanted to get back to the “magic number” of 9,500, but declined to put a timeframe on that goal.

The junior minister also said there have been a number of meetings in relation to the two naval vessels that are currently out of commission due to personnel shortages. However he could not say when the ships may return to service. 

He told Raco members today that the government is “not blind to the real challenges” but said there is “no quick fix”.

“Having a detailed and ambitious implementation plan, with buy-in and cooperation from all the key stakeholders, is essential to strengthening our Defence Forces – one in which members are appropriately rewarded with attractive pay and conditions.”

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