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Irish Defence Forces
RACO conference

'Existential crisis' in Defence as officers' group declare recruitment target unachievable

The Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (RACO) are in Naas, Co Kildare for their annual conference.

LAST UPDATE | 29 Nov 2022

A GROUP REPRESENTING military officers has said that the Defence Forces is in an “existential crisis” and warned that the recruitment target of 11,000 cannot be met. 

The Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (RACO) are in Naas, Co Kildare for their annual conference. 

Lieutenant Colonel Conor King, RACO General Secretary, told delegates, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney and Chief of Staff Lt General Sean Clancy that a focus on recruitment is causing more problems for retaining staff. 

In his speech King launched a stinging attack on the Department of Defence and said that the situation has got much worse in the last twelve months. 

“It is no exaggeration to say that, barring certain issues that have evolved, the key concerns of Defence Forces commissioned officers have been left to fester for yet another year.

“I hope that your Departmental officials will brief you on the motions that have been debated here today – you will recognise every single one of them,” he said. 

On retention King said that the issue of retention has a secondary effect on the Defence Forces – the problem that the volume of trainees coming through is causing a worsening crisis.

“The issue of inadequate manning levels or gapping in operational units of the Defence Forces was highlighted in every RACO conference since 2015, and the fact that not only has this risk not been mitigated by credible retention initiatives but has in fact deteriorated is of serious concern.

“The RACO National Executive and professional staff are wholly satisfied that we have raised these issues on behalf of our members with you Minister, with our departmental colleagues both civil and military, and with members of the government through Oireachtas committees.

“We can only come to the sad conclusion now that what we see as an existential crisis for many reasons…does not register on the list of priorities at the cabinet table. And that is not our fault, but it is our problem,” he added. 

King said that from January 2016 to January 2021 the Defence Forces inducted 3,116 personnel while losing 3,679 – he said at that time there 8,573 personnel in the military.

He explained that this was 41% of the average strength for those 5 years, and a net loss of 563.

King said since then there has been “a scarcely believable” further net loss of 500 personnel, and now the Defence Forces has a strength of 8,074 people. This figure includes more than 320 of those in full time induction training which means they are not operational.

He said this means that there are actually 7,752, or at a percentage strength of 81%. 

King explained that the drop in numbers will continue due to the continued increase in stresses from low numbers.

President of RACO Commandant Martin Ryan also backed his colleague’s view and said that the retention crisis is being compounded by the focus on recruitment. 

“At the heart of this problem is an inadequate establishment that is driving up workload, driving down job satisfaction, and impacting retention,” he said. 

IMG_2956 Minister for Defence Simon Coveney, DOD General Secretary Jacqui McCrum and Lt Gen Sean CLancy at the RACO conference. Niall O'Connor / The Journal Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal


Coveney deviated from his speech script during his address to the conference and appealed to RACO to work with him as the Department works through the change programme. 

“We will work to try to deliver on the issues that you’re prioritising but I’d like the cooperation and the partnership to be deeper than that.

“We have an extraordinary amount of work to do over a relatively short period of time, we are looking to add 40% to the numbers of the Defence Forces over a six year period, we’re looking to add about 3000 people to the reserve as well, in that period.

“That’s more than 6000 people joining the defence family in six years net increase. And given the trends of recent years, which has been moving in the wrong direction, you realise what a mountain that is.

“And we all have to start generating a narrative that is positive in terms of what is happening within the defense forces, in order to attract a new generation of young person who wants to be part of that transformation and change and ambition into the future,” he said.

Lt Gen Clancy told the conference that there is an ongoing problem in the Defence Forces and repeated a previous call for RACO members to work on changing a toxic culture in the organisation.

He said this view is backed up with a survey of members which identified a problem around “unacceptable and unethical behaviours”.

“Unfortunately, I am now more convinced than ever that many of the distressing and unacceptable service experiences that have been experienced by your members are not merely confined to history.

“Instead they point to the lived and current experience of too many of our personnel.

“Once again, I am calling on every member of the Defence Forces to be proactive in preventing any type of unacceptable behaviour that is not in keeping with our standards, procedures or, most importantly, our ethos and values,” he said. 

Clancy also said that Irish Defence Forces would expand their involvement in the European Battlegroup and that two officers and one enlisted member would serve in a training mission of Ukrainian soldiers.

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