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'If we don't pay our Defence Forces a decent wage, we will lose talented, educated young people'

Young Fine Gael wants its senior party colleagues to change conditions for soldiers being paid ‘the lowest average wage in the public sector’.

A training exercise at the Glen of Imaal in Co Wicklow earlier this week.
A training exercise at the Glen of Imaal in Co Wicklow earlier this week.
Image: Defences Forces

WHEN MOST PEOPLE think of poor pay in the public service or bad working conditions, few would think of the Defence Forces (DF). But a full-blown crisis is occurring in the DF, brought on by poor pay and working conditions.

In 2016, the DF commissioned a report by academics from the University of Limerick to examine working conditions in the Force. The findings of the ‘Workplace Climate in the Defence Forces’ report—published last year—do not make for happy reading. The report, based largely on focus group research of DF personnel, highlights a host of the serious problems brought on almost exclusively by poor pay and working conditions. 

Now, more than a year on, working conditions in the Defence Forces remain poor and more personnel are leaving the force than ever. In the last three years, 2,890 personnel of all ranks have left, representing an exodus of approximately 30% of the Defence Forces’ overall strength. Of these departures, a massive 77% were so-called ‘early retirements’, where personnel leave before the scheduled end of their service for personal reasons.

Added to these shocking figures is the human side to the crisis. A number of DF personnel currently receive family income supplement, with many more stories of soldiers’ families receiving St Vincent de Paul food vouchers.

Loss of personnel

Loss of personnel has meant the relocation of other members nationwide to fill in the gaps these departures leave in other units. Their petrol costs are often not covered, and barracks are frequently unable to offer overnight accommodation, leading to things like the appearance of army tents in Phoenix Park during the recent Papal Visit, when 3,000 members of the Force were on hand to assist where they were needed.

It is in this context that Young Fine Gael has launched ‘Pay Our Troops’, a campaign which calls on Fine Gael to use its position as the main party of Government to have the Department of Defence restore DF pay levels for all personnel to what they were before the 2008 crash. In calling for this restoration, we recognise the efforts that the Government has made already.

The ‘Public Service Stability Agreement’ provides a 5.75% increase for all personnel, introduced gradually until October 2020. It also provides an additional 1% rise for those earning up to €30,000 in January 2019, and another 0.5% rise for those earning up to €32,000 in January 2020.

Pay is so low in the first place

However, given that this increase is a percentage of current pay rates, it will have little impact for members of the DF as their pay is so low in the first place.

For example, a DF recruit in training earns just €14,188 a year, while a starting private earns just €27,310 a year including all allowances. This then increases at a very moderate rate to €33,785 after six years’ service. Full restoration would mean an increase of roughly double what is provided for in the public service pay deal.

These measures, while moving in the right direction, fail to acknowledge the full extent of the problem, which is that talented, educated young people are simply not accepting such low pay levels. Neither are they waiting around for small, incremental increases when the country is at almost full employment.

They cannot go on strike

We recently spoke with retired Regt Sgt Major Noel O’Callaghan, formerly of the 2nd  Artillery Regiment based in Athlone. Noel, who has 43 years’ service in the DF, told us that he has “never seen conditions so bad.” What really angers soldiers like Noel is the lack of respect for members of the Defence Forces. The DF rightly cannot go on strike or form unions. However, this democratic principle cannot be abused to pay soldiers the lowest average wage in the public sector.

This crisis is undermining Ireland’s defence capabilities just at a time when they need to be enhanced. Ireland needs to make a bigger contribution to European defence and security by taking part in the EU’s new defence initiatives such as PESCO, which the Government has rightly committed Ireland to. We also need to improve our capabilities to respond to and prevent terrorist attacks. None of this will be possible if we do not even pay our troops a living wage. 

But most importantly, and beyond pay, the DF community is seriously concerned that if the poor pay issue is not addressed soon, a service member or members may lose their lives as a result. As a result of the exodus of experienced members, remaining members fear the possibility of an accident on a Naval Service ship due to under manning, or on a live fire training exercise due to a lack of experienced leaders, or on the sorts of overseas missions for which the Irish Defence Forces are so renowned.

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For Young Fine Gael, the simple fact of the matter is that it is not just for people who put their lives on the line for Ireland to not even been paid a living wage. This is a situation which cannot be tolerated any longer and the upcoming budget represents a great opportunity for Fine Gael and its Government partners to end this crisis.

A moral contract exists between the state and its Defence Forces. This is that the Defence Forces will complete any tasks allocated to it by the state without question, and in return the state will look after DF personnel and their families.

That contract has now been broken by the state. It’s time the Government and Fine Gael, which traditionally receives large support from the DF community, addressed this problem. It’s time for full pay restoration for the Defence Forces.

We are encouraging all members of the public to sign our petition online on our Young Fine Gael Facebook and Twitter pages or at our recruitment stands in all university freshers’ fairs this month. Members of the public are also invited to join the ‘Parade for Respect and Loyalty’ from the Military Memorial Merrion Square to Leinster House at 11.45am on Wednesday, 19 September, organised by Regt Sgt Major Noel O’Callaghan.

Eoin Scarlett studies History at Trinity College Dublin and is Dublin Regional Organiser for Young Fine Gael.


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