Sean O’Riordan: Country will be left paying the price if Defence Forces don’t get their dues

Sean O’Riordan: Country will be left paying the price if Defence Forces don’t get their dues
LÉ George Bernard Shaw passing the ESB generating Station and oil storage tanks in Aghada as she heads out of the harbour on patrol in Crosshaven, Co Cork, in November. Picture; David Creedon / Anzenberger

Drugs are flowing into the country as our borders can’t be properly patrolled. It is one of the myriad ways we are suffering due to the under-resourced Defence Forces, writes Defence Correspondent Sean O’Riordan

The Defence Forces have often been described as the Swiss army knife of government, because they were so highly trained and capable of turning their hand to anything, especially in an emergency.

However, successive governments have so ignored them that many of the knife’s arms have either broken off or are rusting away.

This crisis is everybody’s business, because it affects the public in so many ways.

People may say we don’t need an army, naval service, or air corps because we are not a warring nation. Old enemies are now friends and it doesn’t look like anybody’s going to invade us anytime soon.

We wouldn’t want to be at war with fewer than 8,600 trained men and women (minimum strength agreed by all political parties should be around 1,000 more and some experts estimate it should be 10,500).

The Defence Forces, the insurance policy for the State, is in danger of being downgraded from comprehensive to third-party status.

Ireland has the lowest percentage of GDP (gross domestic product) spend of any EU state on defence. At 0.3%, we are even lower than Luxembourg (0.4%) and Malta at (0.6%.) By contrast, Estonia is at 2.4% and it’s 2.1% in Greece.

This low spending, especially on personnel, has directly led to the manpower crisis.

Currently, the naval service has a third of its fleet out of action and the air corps is haemorrhaging vital technicians who keep our aircraft flying.

Ireland’s foreign direct investment-focused economy is based on a secure, stable nation where civil society flourishes.

Therefore, Ireland needs a military that can defend Ireland against the modern threats of hybrid warfare, industrial espionage, international terrorism, and cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure, while securing our maritime and air resources.

So, what do the Defence Forces do for the ordinary people? Well, for starters, the naval service is tasked with protecting our maritime resources, such as oil, gas, and fish.

On top of that it has a vital role in intercepting drug shipments.

As Independent TD and former Irish Army officer Cathal Berry recently put it, “the country is awash with drugs” and 99% of them come into this island via the sea.

ABANDON SHIP

International drug dealers watch the media. They know the naval service is overstretched, manpower-wise and with a third of its ships out of operation.

There is no doubt they have their own spies based in Ireland who will monitor the movement of ships in and out of the naval base at Haulbowline Island in Cork harbour.

Huge drug shipments have been intercepted by the naval service before. The last big one was in 2018 when its personnel seized 500kg of cocaine from a yacht.

In 2008, during Operation Seabight, the navy seized €750m worth of cocaine off the coast of Cork — the largest in the State’s history.

Berry said where there are drugs, there come guns and murders between rival gangland factions.

On top of that there is the misery experienced by addicts, which not only takes a massive toll on them but also their families.

So, less Naval Service patrols are likely to lead to more drug importation and more misery all round.

The cost to the State from this is far more than it would be to properly resource the naval service and, indeed, the gardaí.

Also, the naval service is involved in many search/rescue and recovery operations every year. A vital part of that component is the naval diving section.

“It has a current strength of six out of an establishment (minimum acknowledged level) of 27, and has had to pull in divers from other units to conduct operations,” said Commandant Conor King, general secretary of Raco (the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers).

He said there were fears the tying up of a further ship could be imminent, “given the safety concerns due to the lack of suitably qualified and experienced personnel”.

When LÉ Roisin comes out of a mid-life refit, LÉ Niamh is due in for a similar maintenance, so there will be no net gain.

As the retention crisis continues to bite, military management may be faced with having to mothball another vessel and the ageing LÉ Ciara would seem the most likely one to be tied up.

Despite many warnings in recent years, numbers continue to drop in the naval service with a net loss of over 50 personnel in 2019, despite a recruitment drive.

“Raco has constantly warned that the failure to retain suitably qualified and experienced personnel as a result of inferior conditions of service is having a detrimental impact on the morale, welfare and safety of our personnel, and it is clear that they are voting with their feet,” said Comdt King.

“It is apparent now that this failure is beginning to impact on operations, which can only have a significant consequence for our ability to carry out our key roles as laid out by government.”

Berry said millions of euro had been spent on providing the saval service with new ships, which was all very well, but there was no point purchasing such equipment when you don’t have the trained people to operate it.

And the reason they’re abandoned ship is simple — they’re not being properly paid.

FLYING LOW

Irish Aer Corps Westland Augusta helicopter lifts off from Bishopstown GAA pitch after transferring a patient to an emergency ambulance for transfer to CUH. Picture: Larry Cummins
Irish Aer Corps Westland Augusta helicopter lifts off from Bishopstown GAA pitch after transferring a patient to an emergency ambulance for transfer to CUH. Picture: Larry Cummins

The air corps also plays a vital role in aerial surveillance of suspicious vessels, be they suspected of carrying drugs or fishing illegally.

However, as one naval officer pointed out, planes and drones can do surveillance, “but you still need somebody to board a ship and that’s where the navy comes in.”

The air corps also operates the emergency aeromedical service (EAS) helicopter, based in Athlone, which has kept many a critically ill person alive.

However, last November, due to a chronic shortage of trained pilots, the air corps was forced to reduce the number of hours it could operate the service.

It confirmed that, as a result, it would be unable to man the helicopter for four days per month up until the start of March.

Defence Forces sources said it was planned to accelerate pilot training to ensure there are more personnel qualified to fly the helicopter.

But this presumes that the current exodus of experienced air corps pilots will cease to allow this increase in capacity. With the pilots being refused basic allowances for flying these dangerous missions, more retirements due to frustration and better employment prospects elsewhere are surely imminent.

The Defence Forces press office training of new personnel is progressing in line with expectations.

In a statement it said:

“The (EAS) matter is under continuous review, with a view to the service resuming in March.”

The air corps also provides maintenance and the pilots to fly the Garda air support unit.

Three officers and 22 enlisted personnel left the air corps between July 4 and November 20, 2019. Of the 22 enlisted staff who left, 13 were highly trained technicians.

Meanwhile, there’s a shortage of army bomb-disposal officers, who are stretched to their limit trying to deal with call-outs from An Garda Síochána to make safe improvised explosive devices, which are commonly used in criminal feuds.

Despite their depleted numbers, the Defence Forces continue to carry out a huge amount of operations.

Last year, the army conducted nearly 200 operations in support of the gardaí. These included bomb-disposal call-outs, prisoner escorts, cash escorts, and search operations.

A further 2,614 personnel were deployed on security operations for the visits of US president Donald Trump and US vice-president Mike Pence, receiving a fraction of the pay that their Garda colleagues were given for those operations.

The naval service carried out 780 boarding operations and detained 12 vessels for alleged infringements of fishing regulations.

Meanwhile, its diving section was deployed for 26 operations, including four separate search-and-recovery operations.

The air corps conducted in excess of 130 maritime surveillance-patrol flights and completed 233 life-saving EAS missions, supporting the HSE in providing a medical service for seriously ill patients in isolated rural communities.

Its crews provided 32 inter-hospital air-ambulance service supports to the HSE in response to time-critical medical emergencies, of which 20 required patient delivery to Britain or mainland Europe.

THE THIN GREEN LINE

When there’s a national emergency, such as severe snow or flooding, who gets called out to deal with the clean-up? The Defence Forces.

If there’s an ambulance strike, who steps into the breach? If the prison officers take industrial action, who takes over the security in the jails? The Defence Forces, of course.

Add to that their commitment to overseas peacekeeping missions, flying the flag abroad on our behalf.

The Defence Forces have the longest unbroken record of overseas service with the United Nations of any country in the world since first deploying to a UN mission in 1958.

They are Ireland’s largest and most visible physical manifestation of foreign policy. An auxiliary diplomatic corps, so to speak.

On average around 600 troops are required at any one time to fulfil overseas operations, whether under the auspices of the UN or the EU.

The bulk of the troops are on UN missions in Lebanon and Syria. In addition, there are troops in Mali, including members of the elite army ranger wing.

Defence Forces personnel are also present, in lesser numbers, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Western Sahara, Kosovo, and on the Golan Heights.

Staff officers are also serving at UN and EU headquarters in New York and Brussels.

The thin green line is stretched, very stretched.

BRAIN DRAIN

Dr Cathal Berry is now an independent TD. He is also a former second-in-command of the Irish Army Ranger Wing.
Dr Cathal Berry is now an independent TD. He is also a former second-in-command of the Irish Army Ranger Wing.

Berry said the crux of the matter is retention, rather than recruitment.

Raco, and its sister organisation PDforra, which represents enlisted personnel, have repeatedly said there is no way the Defence Forces can recruit their way out of the current crisis.

“Around €15m is spent on recruitment annually.

“We should reduce that by half and use the money to pay the people we have. They are fit and able and they want to stay, but their pay is so abysmal they are walking out to other jobs,” said Berry.

He pointed out that the training of recruits is putting massive pressure on trainers and instructors, “who are burning themselves out”.

Trying to replace experienced people with the inexperienced is a recipe for disaster.

It can take years to train some people properly and Raco has warned that the “brain drain” is going to lead to accidents and the possibility of people getting killed.

A climate survey on the Defence Forces, conducted by University of Limerick researchers, identified the dysfunctional cycle of turnover that was leading to a lack of mentoring and supervision, impacting on morale and work/life balance, damaging governance, and increasing risk.

PAYING TIME

Indeed, the Public Service Pay Commission conducted its own research and came to the conclusion that “the Defence Forces is at a critical juncture”.

It said that “without immediate and substantial intervention in respect of pay, allowances, and pension entitlements, the organisation may, within a short time, face major difficulties in maintaining its personnel and carrying out its mandate”.

The fact the commission made no recommendations on pay or pension entitlements clearly shows its inadequacy in halting the retention crisis affecting the Defence Forces.

Its chief of Staff, vice-admiral Mark Mellett, DSM (distinguished service medal), has gone on record numerous times as saying that pay is the number one issue in his organisation, and that, in a healthy organisation, it should be number three or four.

Vice-admiral Mellett also recently went on record as stating that “retention is one of our biggest risks at the moment”.

Last year, the Defence Forces inducted 600 recruits, but it lost a record 850 personnel.

While some had reached retirement age, the vast majority chose to leave before they had to, in order to pursue better paid jobs in the private sector.

So determined were they to get out some even paid up to €20,000 for their discharge.

Service personnel who have acquired technical training from the Defence Forces are required to pay a ‘penalty’ if they leave before fulfilling a certain number of years of a contract.

Meanwhile, gaps can’t be plugged effectively because the Reserve Defence Forces has also been run down.

The minimum strength of the Reserves is supposed to be 4,069, but it is currently under 2,000 — and they are even more poorly paid than the regulars.

Earlier this year Paul Kehoe, the junior minister with responsibility for defence, announced that he had approved increasing their remuneration for training days.

Experts have warned that the absence of any meaningful employment protection legislation for the Reserves to protect the employee and their parent organisation means the Reserve Defence Forces can never be properly utilised.

SKILL SHORTAGES

PDforra, which represents 6,800 enlisted personnel, has consistently warned that skilled technicians are leaving in droves, across all arms of the Defence Forces.

One electrician section within the naval service is only operating at 5% of its designated manpower strength.

While the government failed to provide any pay increases to the Defence Forces (the lowest-paid of all public servants) in the Public Service Pay Commission review last year, it did provide them with a €10m increase in allowances. But this only brought them back to the rates they were at prior to the recession.

Leo Varadkar, now the acting taoiseach, promised at the time to look at possible increases for highly qualified technicians and commissioned a special report on the matter.

Both Defence Forces representative associations were informed that the report on this review would be published on October 4 last year.

On Friday, January 31, Varadkar told the Irish Examiner he hoped to publish it before the general election on February 8.

That promise, from the man who is in fact the senior defence minister, didn’t materialise either.

To add insult to injury, troops have been waiting for allowances they should have been paid months ago while serving in the Lebanon.

As some of them say “You can’t eat medals.” They’ve families to feed, clothe, and try and keep a roof over the heads.

A survey carried out by Raco revealed that 79% of officers who had joined up from 2013 onwards were saying they planned to quit the military before the age of retirement, due to inadequate pension provisions compared to the wider public service, which fail to compensate for forced early retirement.

The majority said they felt they had no long-term future in the Defence Forces.

Many private companies are actively headhunting experienced military personnel for their punctuality, reliability, technical, and managerial skills and loyalty.

The government knows the loyalty of the men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann. They will not strike under any circumstances.

But the patience of soldiers, sailors, and aircrews is now running very thin and they believe they’re being taken advantage of because of this loyalty.

Many aren’t holding their breath for pay increases and are getting out. It is a form of permanent industrial action, from which there is no return.

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