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File photo, members of the Irish Defences forces during a training exercise in the Glen of Imaal in County Wicklow. Defences Forces

'Give our defence forces a living wage' Why I'm marching on the Dáil today

Dr Tom Clonan outlines his reasons for protesting at Leinster House today.

TODAY AT 11.45 am, retired members of the Defence Forces will march on Leinster House to protest the appalling pay and working conditions that have plunged our armed forces into crisis. 

The march, attended by serving and retired soldiers along with the wives and partners of soldiers, is almost without precedent in the history of the State.  The crisis within our Defence Forces is also unprecedented.  As a retired army officer, I will march today to highlight the irreparable damage that is being done to one of the Republic’s most valuable institutions.

The Defence Forces, or Oglaigh na hEireann is a unique institution within our Republic.  The men and women of our armed forces, unlike other workers within the state, willingly accept unlimited personal liability to Irish society when they enlist. 

In harm’s way

They are the only workers who place themselves voluntarily in harm’s way in order to express their citizenship and loyalty to the Irish Republic – at home and abroad. 

Many have paid the ultimate price and have sacrificed their lives for peace and security both within Ireland on operational duties and on peacekeeping missions in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.  No Irish soldier does this for personal gain.  No Irish soldier is motivated by monetary reward. 

In an era of individualism and self-actualisation through materialism, consumption and greed, our young soldiers are unique in that they are motivated solely by a desire to help others, to save lives and give expression to Irish-ness and Irish global citizenship in some of the most difficult and hostile environments in the world.

As I write, sailors in the Irish Naval Service are pulling men, women and children from the cold waters of the Mediterranean off the coast of North Africa.  The national broadcaster has filmed Irish sailors giving CPR and mouth to mouth resuscitation to refugees in extremis, saving lives, giving selflessly and tirelessly of themselves. 

Irish soldiers are operating in some of the most hostile environments in the world.  As I write, Irish troops are patrolling in Syria along the Golan Heights.  We have hundreds of Irish men and women supporting peace in neighbouring Lebanon and throughout the Middle East and Africa including a difficult mission in Mali. 

I know from personal experience that the presence of Irish troops in such conflict zones cannot stop all of the slaughter that we have become so familiar with on our news-feeds, but our presence in those countries certainly saves thousands of lives. 

I also know only too well that those Irish soldiers who return from such missions pay a high personal price for their experience of conflict, particularly in their witnessing of the killing and wounding of innocent civilians, especially women and children.  This untold story, this relatively unknown dimension to Irish military service as depicted in our public discourse, is all too familiar to the families of our returning veterans.

Our Air Corps personnel are currently flying vital air ambulance missions, helping to save the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens.  In addition, our Air Corps personnel are flying close-support aero medical missions as our helicopter squadrons assist the HSE at road traffic accidents and other critical casualty incidents.

Our soldiers, sailors and aircrew have made, and continue to make an enormous contribution to the state.  When our Taoisigh and Ministers for Foreign Affairs address foreign parliaments and the United Nations General Assembly, they stand on the shoulders of giants. 

International reputation

Over the last fifty years of United Nations service, Oglaigh na hEireann have given Ireland much of its international status and standing as an independent, sovereign state engaged in active citizenship throughout the world.  Irish soldiers, through their blood, sweat and tears have made an inestimable and invaluable contribution to the reputation and relevance of Ireland internationally.

This loyalty and service has been wholly disrespected by government in recent times.  According to the Central Statistics Office, Irish military personnel are the least well paid group within the public and civil service.  They also endure miserable working terms and conditions.  Many are on family income supplement and most cannot hope to buy a home or feed and educate their children on a military salary.

64-hour working week 

This has contributed to a crisis of recruitment and retention with all operational units severely under-staffed.  As a direct consequence of this under-staffing, typically, as a minimum, soldiers, sailors and aircrew conduct two 24-hour security duties in each week along with a further 16 hours of routine duties.  This means that during the normal working week, Irish Defence Forces personnel work an average 64-hour week.  This commitment increases dramatically when soldiers are engaged on essential training exercises or in aid to the civil power operations during security and other emergencies.

These extended working hours play havoc with family life. Such working hours also mean that our defence forces personnel cannot participate meaningfully in their communities, in sporting and other cultural activities as has always been the case in the past.  In terms of numbers and vital skill sets, the organisation is hollowing out. 

Despite recent increases in recruitment, the numbers of new recruits is not replacing the large numbers leaving for better pay and conditions and work/life balance. This has led to a critical skills shortage in vital areas.  For example, within the Air Corps, pilots are leaving in unprecedented numbers, as are other technical grades and support staff.  One consequence of this is that our helicopter aero-medical service can only operate during daylight hours.  The Irish public are denied this vital service on a 24 hour basis due to shortages of key personnel in air traffic control, support staff and pilot roster.  

The Defence Forces are also losing other specialist skills such as explosive ordnance disposal, or experts in improvised explosive devices, along with a plethora of other core skill sets essential to our armed forces.  In short, Oglaigh na hEireann, due to neglect and disrespect on the part of successive Irish governments is on the point of losing the core corporate knowledge, culture and investment to continue.  The Defence Forces are at breaking point.  Sadly, the social contract and value consensus that underpins the loyalty and service of Irish soldiers has been reneged upon by some within our current political class. 

None of the sharp-suited, heavily spin doctored members of our current cabinet have ever placed themselves willingly in mortal danger, heard a shot fired in anger or witnessed the slaughter of innocents in a conflict zone.  None of them have responded to the well-flagged crisis within our Defence Forces.  A starting point would be to give our soldiers and their families, a decent living wage in order to afford them the dignity and status consistent with their loyalty to the state and the enormous contribution they make to Irish society at home and abroad.

That is why I, like hundreds of others, am marching today.  Please support us to support our brothers and sisters in uniform.  As the state is confronted by increasing risks to security and peace, both internally and externally, the capability and capacity of our defence forces to respond is in a state of unprecedented decline.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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