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'We have no future' - wives of defence forces march today over their spouses' working conditions

Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces (WPDF) is set to march on the Department of Defence in Newbridge, Co Kildare, this afternoon.

File Photo A day of action that has been organised by Wives & Partners of the Defence Forces (WPDF) who are campaigning for better pay and conditions for military personnel Source: Sam Boal

A PROTEST GROUP representing the wives and partners of members of Ireland’s Defence Forces will this afternoon hold a march on the headquarters of the Department of Defence in Co Kildare.

The Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces (WPDF) will march from St Conleth’s Church in Newbridge to the Department from 2pm.

The group, which was set up in November of last year by three such wives of current members, is marching to highlight issues with their spouses’ pay and conditions among other things.

At present, the group claims that many Defence Forces members are effectively working for less than the minimum wage, and have no method of recourse vie traditional industrial relations channels in Ireland.

“We just felt it needed to be brought to the fore,” Shelley Cotter, spokeswoman with the WPDF, told TheJournal.ie. “It’s been a proud secret for too long.”

Cotter, a naval services wife, had been protesting on her own regarding her husband’s conditions for some time before coming across her fellow Defence Forces spouses Judith Wharton and Lorraine O’Hare and forming WPDF.

“I’m actually overwhelmed with the feedback from the Defence Forces family,” she says. The movement has hit upon a common cause that has united thousands, WPDF claims.

We are not contracted, we can speak about this in a way our husbands and family can’t. We’ve been very forthright. We’re apolitical.

Cotter says that along with the support garnered for the group along the way, stories of familial hardship from members have also come to light, including that of Sandra, the wife of a member of the Defence Forces of 14 years standing and mother of three children, a woman who claims she sometimes has to feed her children porridge for dinner because they can afford nothing else.

WPDF1 Source: Facebook

“Sometimes, when I’m at home thinking about what I can cook for my family with about €6 in my purse I wonder if my family would be better off without me. I am tired. I cry so much because I feel I’ve let them all down. We can’t survive on €527 per week. Once the rent, food, petrol, electricity and gas are paid there is absolutely nothing left,” she says.

Sometimes I pretend to my neighbour that I forgot to get milk just so she doesn’t know I’m where I am in life. Nowhere & hopeless.
My husband is a lovely, committed man but a broken man. He had an extra job doing deliveries but because of the uncertainty of his hours in the army he just couldn’t commit to it and his boss didn’t like the fact that he couldn’t do some nights or weekends due to the unexpected things that soldiers have to do.
We have no future. We will never own our own house, we will never be able to afford a holiday, we will never be able to afford to send our children to college. These used to be priorities for us but now all we want is to be able to put food on our kitchen table every night.

‘Stories flooding in’

Cotter says that Sandra’s story is a very typical one. “They’re flooding in at the moment. I had a woman this week telling me that she has two nappies in her house and no idea where she’s going to find the money to buy what’s needed,” she says.

WPDF has four main points of protest, and while pay and conditions are at the top of the list, that aspect of things is far from the only bone of contention. The four points are:

  • Pay and conditions within the Defence Forces
  • The fight for the right of Defence Forces members to take workplace disputes to the Workplace Relations Commission / Labour Court
  • The ending and exposure of the practice of Forces members taking Lariam, an anti-Malaria drug which the group claims has chronic side effects (Cotter describes it as a ‘nightmare in a pill’), while serving overseas
  • The elimination of so-called post-94 contracts – those that could see a member since 1994 having to leave the Defence Forces after 21 years should a certain level of rank or achievement not be attained

But if workplace conditions are so poor in the forces, why is there such a heavy uptake for the job?

“That’s the thing. The Defence Forces is bleeding staff,” says Cotter. “There’s a disconnect between what people understand and the reality of the situation. The Department of Defence likes to brag about its recruitment drives, but most new recruits have no idea of what their starting wage is like.”

The problem isn’t recruitment, it’s retention. They get them in, but then they have to train them, and they have to keep them, and the reality is that isn’t possible with things how they are.

TheJournal.ie queried the Department of Defence regarding WPDF’s concerns. A spokesperson acknowledged that the group had recently met with Minister Paul Kehoe and that “the matters under discussion are being progressed by the Minister and his Department”.

Regarding pay in the Defence Forces, they said that “rates of remuneration and conditions of employment in the Irish Defence Forces have traditionally been set by reference to relative levels of pay across the various parts of the Irish public sector”.

In terms of the issue of Lariam-usage, the spokesperson said: “The position with regard to the use of Lariam in the Defence Forces has been outlined to the (WPDF’s) representatives.”

Access to the workplace relations services does not seem likely at present to be granted (“the Department remains satisfied with the present arrangements in place for the Defence Forces”), while the issue of post-1994 contracts (which exist so as “to ensure that operational capability and effectiveness are not compromised in any way”) is currently being analysed pending the implementation of a legal adjudication.

5 soldiers_90510040 Minister for Defence Paul Kehoe Source: Press Military

One thing seems certain however  -  now that it’s established WPDF has no intention of giving up.

Shelley Cotter says she “couldn’t say” how many people are likely to be on today’s march.

“Two weeks ago, I would have said 20 or 30. Today I couldn’t tell you. We’ve even got a bus leaving from Cork,” she says.

We’re all just so heartened to see the takeup in this. And we’re going nowhere. This has been a hidden secret for too long.

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