Talks are currently underway on a possible Programme of Government, which, for the next four and a half years, will set down the new Government’s approach on how the nation’s issues are to be addressed.
Among these issues is the ongoing crisis in DF (Defence Force’s) staffing levels, now in its fourth year.
In the formation of any government, reference needs to be made to the election promises made by the parties during the election campaign.
Unfortunately, the media coverage on defence during the General Election was virtually non-existent.
The voter had, as a result, to rely mainly on party manifestos to figure out his/her party’s position on defence issues.
Having read the defence paragraphs of six party manifestos, comfortably, in less than an hour, the overall impression was that most of them were put together in an afternoon, without serious military analysis or input.
One party has no defence paragraph at all, and another’s paragraph is so small that it only serves to highlight how little they know, or care, about defence.
The FG Manifesto defence paragraphs represent a continuity of FG policy in Government, with its strong points and limitations.
The FF Manifesto is the most detailed and far reaching. It clearly had input from senior staff trained and experienced military expertise.
The common denominator in all manifestos was the commitment to address the retention in service crisis in the DF.
The main problem was agreed, that is, the poor pay and conditions of service of personnel. However, none of the manifestos stated a date by which the DF will recover its strength.
The first requirement of the Talks should be to affirm the commitment to restoring staff levels and to set down a date by which this is to be achieved.
This is crucial as, until the DF reaches its authorised strength of trained personnel, the gap in military capabilities will continue and duty rosters will overburden the dwindling number of remaining personnel.
Naval Service ships will remain tied up in port, Air Corps aircraft remain grounded and Army units’ operational capabilities will continue to be eroded.
The FG Manifesto reminds us that their party, in Government, was implementing income adjustments to address this issue but fell short of acknowledging that the remuneration was far too small to resolve the problem, even in the lifetime of the next Government.
Nevertheless, the outgoing Government’s decision to allow former members to return for short term contracts, to boost DF strengths for the Covid-19 emergency, is welcome.
The outgoing Government made its decision based on the recommendations of the PSPC (Public Service Pay Commission).
None of the manifestos commented on why the PSPC would consider that three euros per day, taxable, would persuade anyone to remain in, or return to, the DF.
In doing so, the PSPC has discredited itself totally from being an impartial arbiter on DF pay and conditions.
This is implicitly acknowledged in the FF Manifesto calling for an independent Pay Review, similar to the UK’s Armed Forces Pay Review Body.
Implementing this recommendation should be the second step in the Talks.
The third step is to reverse the cuts made in the disastrous 2012 DF re-organisation. In this reorganisation, the Army dropped from three to two brigades.
Coupled with a proposed overall increase of 1000 extra personnel, to bring the Permanent DF up to 10,500, reactivating the third brigade would restore, by a third, the number of specialists lost in 2012.
It could possibly lead to reopening of some of the barracks closed during the recession. Military barracks in Mullingar and Longford come to mind.
The fourth step would be to bring the Reserve Army back to its full strength of 4000.
The proposal to resurrect the third brigade would require the Reserve to recover its strength, as all three brigades are integrated Regular/Reserve.
The fifth recommendation is that the Talks should support the manifestos’ call for a Commission to examine all aspects of defence.
Such a Commission would complement rather than replace the White Paper on Defence now halfway through its ten-year term.
The sixth step should be to recommend that Defence be restored to full cabinet minister status. Defence should be one of the senior fifteen, where it has been in most governments since Independence.
Of necessity, the Minister for Defence will have to have an additional portfolio, but it should be of lessor ranking, possibly Marine.
Defence needs a real morale boost. Why not appoint the best qualified T.D. in the House, Ex-Army Ranger, Dr Cathal Berry as Minister for Defence?
The 25,000 to 30,000 members of the Defence Community, (the serving and former DF Members, and their families) will await the outcome of the Programme for Government talks with great interest.