When the new Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney TD, returns to the Department he left four years ago, he will be shocked to see the extent to which the Defence Forces (DF) has fallen into decline.
In his absence, DF strengths have been in freefall, Naval Service ships are tied up in ports for want of crews, Air Corps aircraft grounded, and the Army’s operational capabilities are at an all-time low.
Morale too, is low, in a crisis caused by the disastrous 2012 DF reorganisation and by ongoing inadequate pay and conditions.
Many DF personnel had looked to the Programme for Government to give an immediate impetus to addressing their problems.
Unfortunately for them, the Programme for Government ignores the current staffing crisis in the DF and the urgency required in its resolution.
The Programme for Government’s objectives are medium and long-term, not short-term. As a result, it offers no immediate proposals to deal with the current macro-problem of retention in service.
Instead, only after the proposed Commission (see below) completes its work, at the end of 2021, will a permanent pay review be established.
Moreover, recommendations “must be consistent with national public sector wage policy”.
This is the nub of the problem.
All previous pay reviews have failed because they were not independent of the national public service wage process.
Only an Independent Pay Review Body will do, perhaps similar to that set up in Britain.
The justification is the uniqueness of military service which sets them apart from their civilian counterparts.
Fortunately, the incoming Government’s hands are not tied completely to the Programme.
They can, and will be obligated, to address problems that arise in the short-term. The starting position should be to revisit the pay and conditions recommendations made by the representative associations.
A year ago, the Government made similar remuneration adjustments for the Gardai of €50m, but only €10m for the DF.
Had an additional €25m been made available for DF remuneration at that time, its impact would have been felt by now.
However, the main defence-related proposal of the Programme for Government, to set up an Independent Commission, is welcome.
On this there will be widespread agreement by all those concerned about national defence in general, and the state of the DF, in particular.
Nevertheless, the incoming Minister will need to widen the scope of review by the Commission.
In the first instance, it should be clarified that aspects of national defence policy which impact on the DF, should be included.
A partial review will omit factors which will undermine the Commission’s credibility in the long run.
Accepting the context of no change in our policy of military neutrality, the Commission needs to examine what capabilities will be needed to meet our national defence requirements.
A review will show that, like our neighbouring countries, we will have to increase the defence budget very substantially to give the DF the required capabilities.
Because of the costs involved there has been a traditional resistance to having the necessary studies undertaken. Could a Commission be allowed the scope to, at least, study this area?
As regards the composition of the Commission, it is strange that expertise from former, or indeed serving, Irish military, seems to be excluded.
It is inconceivable that a Commission, let’s say on Education, would exclude Irish members of the teaching profession, from serving on such a body.
The overall proposals of the Programme have identified many areas that require study. Still, there are sizeable gaps considering it is supposed to run for the next four and a half years.
The consternation among Air Corps and Naval Service personnel at their services being omitted completely from the document, can only be imagined.
Using the Commission to further delay the return to full strength, of the DF, both Regular and Reserve components, has raised the suspicion that the outgoing Government’s real agenda was to keep the DF strength at a depressed level for at least a further two years.
By that time, how many more of our best and brightest will have left?
The fact that the Troika leadership has accepted these proposals, as adequate to address DF problems over the next four and a half years, is disquieting.
However, changes should be possible in the Programme if all three parties agree, so there are grounds to hope that this incoming Government may support the DF before it is too late.
By a curious coincidence, the centre of political gravity has shifted from Dublin to Cork. Not just to Cork, but to Cork South Central.
Reportedly, the political ozone level has risen there, to such a level, that canny entrepreneurs are seriously considering bottling it, and selling it in the English Market.
Hopefully, Cork South Central’s Three Amigos, of the Green-Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael Coalition, will not stand idly by, and see our DF decline any further.