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Irish Defence Forces

'Ludicrous': Govt departments at loggerheads as date for forced retirement of sergeants looms

The rule means that Sergeants who have joined on post-1994 contracts must resign when they reach the age of 50.

LAST UPDATE | 26 Oct 2022

EXPERIENCED SERGEANTS IN the Irish Defence Forces will be forced to retire prematurely after December but Government departments who could solve the problem cannot reach agreement.

As The Journal has previously reported, the military is in the grip of a staffing retention crisis.

It has now emerged that a measure to increase the fitness of serving members in the 1990s could make that worse. 

The rule means that Sergeants who have joined on post-1994 contracts must resign when they reach the age of 50.

This problem was an issue at more junior ranks and there was some agreement to solve it but Sergeant ranks are now facing mandatory retirement.

Sergeants are the senior Non-Commissioned Officer rank in the military – their role is to lead teams and implement orders by officers. They are also heavily involved in training new recruits.

The senior NCOs facing mandatory retirement in December due to the age rule are understood to be in leadership roles across the army, Air Corps and Naval Service. 

The Journal has learned that a desperate effort has been underway by PDFORRA and RACO along with senior command ranks of the Defence Forces advocating to prevent the loss of the sergeants. 

While PDFORRA call the move “ludicrous” and that it “does not make sense” RACO said that the loss of people of such high calibre will undermine the Defence Forces.


Sources have said that Minister Simon Coveney and the Department of Defence (DOD) have been advocating for a change but that Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) has been stalling on permitting the solution. 

There have been previous tensions between the DPER and DOD in regard to funding the Commission on the Defence Forces (CODF) action plan.

A source, with knowledge of the current situation, has said one proposed fix is to retire the sergeants and then rehire them under 2013 agreed contracts.

One source described such a measure as “a disaster” and said it is a non-runner given that it will see the senior enlisted leaders take a massive reduction in conditions of employment.

Despite the Government measures to solve the problems in the Defence Forces, the retention crisis has not been solved and is getting worse, according to PDFORRA.

This year, so far, the Defence Forces are on track to reach a net staffing loss of in excess of 300, which was the last high set in 2019.

More than 325 personnel have paid to leave this year with 145 recruits purchasing their discharge and 180 other ranks also choosing to purchase their discharge from the Defence Forces.

Costs associated with purchasing discharge can range from €50 to many thousands of euro for trained technicians.

Total staff losses for the year from 1 Sept 2021- 1 Sept 2022 were 960 with some of these being administrative discharges for the purposes of re-enlistment. Recruitment only reached 553, with 123 of these being discharged in recruits, given a net loss of in excess of 300, despite announcements from the Commission on the Future of the Defence Forces.

Mark Keane, President of PDFORRA, has said the current situation does not “make sense” and called on urgent action. 

He said solving the post-94 contract issue for Privates and Corporals was welcome but strongly criticised that senior NCO ranks have not yet “received security on their contract terms”.

“Presently, the Defence Forces are over 1,500 personnel short of their
establishment levels, and in the area of Sergeants, we have over 400 vacancies
from an establishment of 1330. This is utterly unsustainable.

“Presently, we have a significantly high number of vacancies at Sergeant and equivalent level across the Defence Forces, these vacancies are, in part, due to pay and conditions issues. Primary among the conditions issues is the matter of security of tenure for Sergeants and Senior NCO’s.

“Discharging personnel of Sergeant rank at 50 and SNCO’s at 55 years does not make sense. These personnel are both physically and medically fit and have to undergo fitness and medical examinations on a yearly basis, which ensures their ability to perform their duties,” he said. 

Keane also said that PDFORRA’s repeated requests for clarity on extending Sergeant ranks beyond 50 had not been addressed by Government.

“It is ludicrous to suggest that we will get an additional 400 personnel into the Defence Forces this year – as announced in the Budget, when we continue to treat personnel with such utter contempt.

“PDFORRA are calling on Government to recognise the failed HR policies of the past, rectify contract terms for those in service and illustrate some degree of humility to those who have served you loyally,” he added. 

A spokesperson for the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers said that Government must do more to prevent the loss of critical experience. 

“RACO and our members fully support PDFORRA’s efforts to gain some certainty for their members and their families.

“With the extraordinarily high level of Sergeant vacancies throughout the organisation, it is unconscionable to think that relatively young, fit but highly qualified and experienced NCOs could be forced to retire at the age of 50.

“The Defence Forces cannot afford to lose people of this calibre, and cannot safely sustain further erosion of the middle management function, either from the enlisted or commissioned ranks.

“RACO is experiencing similar delays in the review of mandatory retirement ages of our members. We hope that these critical retention issues will be resolved without further delay,” he said. 

Measure to improve fitness

The DOD, in a statement, said that the origins of the problem came from a time when soldiers were unfit.   

The spokesperson said that such was the problem with fitness levels in the 1990s that there had been heavy criticism in a series of independent reviews.

The statement said that a range of policies were introduced to ensure an appropriate age profile and levels of fitness.

The Department said that this included fixed term contracts for enlisted personnel and lower mandatory retirement ages for personnel recruited to the Permanent Defence Force after 1 January 1994.

The Department’s response to our request for comment said that nothing can be done about the situation until there is agreement with the DPER.

“To compensate for the fact that members of the Defence Forces are required to retire at an age which is considerably lower than in other employments, there are arrangements in place for accelerated pension provisions, where pension and gratuity may be payable on retirement at age 50.

“Any proposals to amend the length of service or mandatory retirement ages of members of the Defence Forces requires Department of Public Expenditure and Reform consideration from a costs and pensions perspective.

“There has been extensive discussions on this matter between officials in the Department of Defence and officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

A determination on this particular matter will be made in the coming weeks,” the spokesperson added. 

A statement from DPER said that they were working on a solution that could see the sergeants’ service extended for two years.

“Officials in DPER are currently working closely with the Department of Defence on requests for an extension to mandatory retirement ages across ranks in the Permanent Defence Forces under current pay and pension terms.

“While the review is ongoing, an interim measure is being considered by the Departments in respect of post-1994 appointed Sergeants who are nearing mandatory retirement age, involving a two-year service extension under their current terms. A determination on this particular matter will be made in the coming weeks,” a spokesperson said. 

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