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Monday 2 October 2023 Dublin: 13°C
Opinion Defence Forces personnel are the lowest paid workers in the public service
Oglaigh na h’Eireann is reaching a tipping point, a point of no return, in terms of recruitment, retention and falling numbers, writes Tom Clonan.

THIS WEEK HAS seen Ireland’s national discourse focus on ethics and moral probity in Irish public life. 

Fine Gael TD, Maria Bailey’s political future hangs in the balance as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar appoints a Senior Counsel to investigate her recent legal proceedings against the Dean Hotel in Dublin, following a fall from a swing on the premises.

The case raises serious questions, not just about Ireland’s ‘compensation culture,’ but also a pervasive ‘moral legalism’ that exists in many Irish institutions.

Simply put, in many areas of Irish public life, both in the public and private sector, ‘legal advice’ is often invoked as a defence for making decisions that are at best morally questionable and at worst, ethically indefensible.

In recent years, Irish citizens have endured a relentless series of scandals, a seemingly endless list from banking to health to policing to homelessness and so on – that seem part of an unending loop of intellectual and ethical failure in Irish institutions. 

As we rapidly approach the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the state, many citizens may struggle to find an example of a truly ethical organisation within Irish society – one with a culture based on public service, integrity and moral courage.

But there is one organisation which can truly stand over its record and that is Oglaigh na hEireann – the Irish Defence Forces. 

100 years of loyal service

Ireland’s armed forces, Army, Naval Service and Air Corps have given almost 100 years of unblemished, loyal public service to the state, both at home and abroad. 

Irish soldiers have given their lives in the service of peace, protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable citizens, in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. 

The men and women of our Naval Service have saved thousands of lives in the Mediterranean, rescuing people from certain death. 

Our pilots and air-crew have given decades of selfless service, often putting themselves at risk, performing search and rescue operations in Atlantic storm force conditions off the west coast. 

But our Defence Forces are in deep crisis.  Oglaigh na h’Eireann is reaching a tipping point, a point of no return, in terms of recruitment, retention and falling numbers. 

This existential crisis within the Defence Forces has been signalled to the government for many years now. 

Independent studies carried out by the University of Limerick 2015 and 2017, along with other independent reports, have presented a comprehensive picture of an organisation that is in deep decline. 

The Defence Forces have reached the point where they are unable to service their mission to protect the state of Ireland, its territorial waters and airspace. 

This abject state of affairs is a direct consequence of the cuts imposed on defence spending in Ireland. 

Neither the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who is Minister for Defence nor Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe, seems to understand the key role of our defence forces. 

Currently, the Irish Naval Service is tasked with patrolling 220 million maritime acres of sea and ocean – over 12 times the land mass of Ireland and 15% of Europe’s fisheries. 

The navy carries out thousands of physically challenging boardings and detentions in rough seas, year in, year out.  The Navy has intercepted some of the largest drug shipments in EU waters and is a vital component in Ireland’s emerging war on organised crime and drug gangs. 

The Air Corps fly the air ambulances and save hundreds of lives annually. 

Our Army personnel serve in Syria, the Golan Heights and in Lebanon – with thousands of Irish families enduring the absence of a father or mother for prolonged periods of overseas service. 

At home, Irish military personnel have provided crucial support to the civil authorities in the increasingly frequent weather events, from severe storms and flooding to heavy snow – that have battered the country in recent years. 

Wages and retention

Despite putting themselves in harm’s way in the course of their duties – Irish military personnel, are the lowest paid workers in the public service, according to the CSO. 

A whopping 85% of Irish military personnel earn less than the average industrial wage.

Ireland has the lowest defence spend in the EU as a per cent of GDP when it comes to military pay as well as allowances and equipment. 

As a consequence, turnover within the organisation has reached a critical point. Currently, there is an annual discharge rate of approximately 8.9% per annum. Internationally, the maximum acceptable turnover rate for the military is 5%.

Soldiers, sailors and aircrew are leaving the defence forces in their droves.  

Those quitting the organisation are often highly qualified, and almost irreplaceable, personnel, including IT specialists, aircraft and vehicle technicians, engineering and ordnance staff, pilots and medical personnel. 

Currently, there are only 7,700 personnel available for military duties across our army, naval service and air corps, that is despite a government commitment to maintain a minimum strength of 9,500.

These low numbers mean that Irish soldiers are required to do many more 24-hour security duties than should be the case. Sailors are rostered for punishing sea duties and patrol schedules that are poorly paid and inconsistent with family life – or indeed any normal life.

Within the navy, the discharge turnover is a massive 14% per annum – the equivalent of four ship’s complements annually. 

Even if the Department of Defence were to recruit an extra 750 recruits per annum that would not be enough to stem the tide of discharges and retirements within the organisation. 

Pay reform

The Public Service Pay Commission is due to report to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar next week to propose solutions to the current recruitment and retention crisis within the Defence Forces. 

In material leaked from the Commission’s deliberations, it is believed that a 10% increase in Military Service Allowance (MSA) will be recommended to the government. 

This recommendation from the Department of Defence would represent a pay increase of less than 1% for the average soldier.  This would represent an immoral and indefensible breach of the social contract that underpins military service in a democratic society – an unequivocal kick in the teeth to our sailors, soldiers and aircrew.

The Taoiseach has the bank holiday weekend to consider this situation and to ponder the unprecedented and highly publicised criticisms, by retired senior officers such as Commandant Cathal Berry, of the indefensible neglect and decline of the Defence Forces by his government.

I think he should ponder the ethical question – how do leaders discern between what is truly right and just and what is unethical and intrinsically wrong. 

He should do the right thing and increase the pay and allowances of all Defence Forces personnel to the point where they are earning at least a living wage. 

As organised crime intensifies, with rising levels of homicide by firearm, along with the possibility of a resurgence in dissident terrorism as we approach Brexit – Ireland is facing a perfect storm with regard to security and defence. 

Taoiseach Varadkar could do himself, his government and the people of Ireland an immense service by exceeding the recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission and making a real investment in our one of our oldest, most loyal and ethical of institutions.     

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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