The Government has been accused of “playing chicken” with soldiers’ lives after it emerged it has yet to resolve dozens of compensation claims which could potentially cost the State millions of euro — six months after a commitment in the High Court to do so.
Independent senator and ex-soldier Ger Craughwell has demanded an investigation into the delay after accusing the “rogue” Department of Defence of deliberately flouting EU safety laws while hard-hit soldiers are living in near poverty.
Under existing EU law, public and State workers cannot be forced to work more than 48 hours a week except in extreme circumstances due to safety and health problems directly linked to excessive working regimes.
Although the long-standing European Working Time Directive (EWTD) rule initially did not apply to the armed forces, a key European Court of Justice (ECJ) case taken by German soldiers in the late 1990s saw the exemption lifted for their Germany’s military.
The knock-on effect of the ruling, which cost Germany €375m in extra payments to soldiers and naval personnel per year, was backed up by a later 2010 ECJ ruling which said Ireland could not continue to ignore the rule for its Defence Forces.
However, despite the verdict, no tangible action has been taken by the Department of Defence, forcing the representative group for the Defence Forces, PDForra, to lodge a High Court test case in June seeking substantial damages for one of its members.
During the case, the State accepted the long-standing EWTD rules had been broken, settled for an undisclosed five-figure sum, paid the €200,000 legal costs, and committed to review the situation immediately.
However, six months on, no action has been taken, with PDForra’s general secretary Gerard Guinan revealing at the group’s annual conference last month it is lodging 35 more cases, the first of which will be heard on March 12 next year, in an effort to force the Government’s hand.
Noting a recent Defence Forces survey which found some soldiers, including bomb disposal experts, are working up to 70 hours a week in clear breach of EU law, Mr Craughwell said the issue must be immediately examined by the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
Mr Craughwell said “scandalous” situation is unacceptable, particularly as some soldiers are already being forced to live in near poverty due to their salaries.
“The question isn’t the rights or wrongs of the case, that case has already been adjudicated by the courts. The Government has been aware of this for some time, so why they would seek to defend the indefensible is beyond me.
“I’ve asked the PAC to look at this because this is either a rogue department, taking it on itself to defend the indefensible, or the Cabinet has discussed this and decided to throw money after an indefensible case,” he said.
“They’re playing chicken with soldiers’ lives. This is the department saying we have the money, we have the power, we can defend all of these cases, and we can deal with them one at a time.
“If they were to implement the Working Time Directive, they don’t have the manpower to fulfil the requirements, and they know it.”
The Department of Defence was asked by this paper to clarify if it will continue to defend itself against the imminent cases in light of Mr Craughwell’s concerns.
In a statement, a department spokesperson said: “There is a total of 18 cases taken by current and former members of the Defence Forces relating to the application of the Working Time Directive pending in the High Court.
“A hearing date has been set for March 12, 2019, in respect of three of these cases. One further case was settled earlier this year by consent. Given that matters are the subject of ongoing litigation, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”