Opinion: Defence Commission cannot be allowed to fail

Security is the bedrock on which our society’s cultural, social and economic achievements are built, yet Ireland’s vulnerability is stark

‘Currently we have just over 8,100 fully trained personnel on our books, which is 85 per cent of our minimum designed strength, before we even look at the 600 personnel deployed overseas’. Picture: Rollingnews.ie

Facing into an uncertain post-Brexit future, in the throes of a devastating pandemic, just as we are about to assume our seat on the United Nations Security Council, Ireland has never had a greater need for a strong and resilient Defence Forces as part of our State’s security apparatus.

Paradoxically, the Defence Forces, and consequently Ireland’s security, has never been weaker. This security is the bedrock on which our society’s cultural, social and economic achievements are built.

Defence underpins Ireland’s security as well as the promotion of the State’s strategic interests in the international environment. A strong Defence Forces, as the State’s insurance policy, is vital for the continued inflow of foreign direct investment, essential for our small open economy. However, the threats are endless, and well documented.

Ireland is home to over 30 per cent of all EU data, and to the European headquarters of many of the world’s leading technology companies. The country’s economic success is closely tied up with its ability to provide a secure environment for these companies to operate. Our security is heavily dependent on our cyber resilience, and of growing alarm then is Ireland’s vulnerability in this regard.

Policing of our sea lanes and airspace is a mammoth task that must be tackled. Our difficulties in retaining highly skilled Army, Naval Service and Air Corps personnel due to inadequate remuneration and conditions of service has had a severe impact on our operational capability, which has left us vulnerable.

2020 was the year the Defence Forces recruitment and retention crisis should have been resolved. The conditions were perfect coming into the New Year; a healthy economy, a bespoke High Level Implementation Plan aptly titled “Strengthening Our Defence Forces” endorsed by central Government that was going to implement real change in the Defence Organisation and make the Defence Forces once again an employer of choice, and unanimity across the political spectrum that something had to be done, and quickly. Things could only get better – couldn’t they?

The Covid-19 pandemic hit every aspect of Irish society hard. The best laid plans were cast aside in the face of unprecedented economic uncertainty.

But we do not require 20/20 hindsight to see that there was always a strong possibility of negative consequences for a failure to progress required interventions in the rescue plan. A full year ago, RACO (Representative Association of Commissioned Officers) warned Defence Sector civil and military management that the clear intent to fold most reviews and recommendations into negotiations at the next public sector pay talks, whenever they might occur, may not serve the Defence Forces well.

Sadly, these warnings were not heeded. The unsatisfactory recent conduct of these pay negotiations was regrettably all too familiar. There was once again an absence of recognition of our restricted industrial relations status, and a failure to place a premium on the prohibition on industrial action. This outcome cannot have been lost on the civil and military management of the Defence Organisation, who have once more fallen foul of the “one size fits all” model of public sector policy.

But all is not lost. We have a new Minister in Simon Coveney and a new Secretary General of the Department of Defence in Jacqui McCrum, who have made welcome commitments to enhanced openness and transparency, and decisive action.

This is badly needed for an organisation suffering a crisis not only in retention and recruitment, but also of confidence and trust in the willingness of the State to go beyond mere words in recognising and compensating for the unique nature of military service. Expectations are unsurprisingly high for the recently announced Commission on the Defence Forces leading to a permanent Defence Forces pay review body; indeed, the stakes could not be any higher.

The Commission has reasonably broad and ambitious terms of reference and presents a wonderful opportunity to reform and modernise the way we approach defence in this country that must be grasped in an inclusive and holistic manner, which makes the omission of the civilian element of the Department of Defence from the Commission’s scope all the more puzzling.

It should have been seen not as a threat, but as an opportunity, one that has seemingly been missed. The exclusion of the civil element of the Department of Defence means that the Commission may be like ‘Hamlet without the Prince’: to ignore a key part of the Defence Organisation is simply bizarre. It is a chance to explore efficiencies and synergies; to tear down silos and inculcate cross cutting practices, but above all, to dispense with tired old norms, historical tensions, and pointless power struggles and instil a real unity of purpose for the benefit of the Defence Organisation and Irish society. The Defence Forces has an unhappy history of being reviewed in isolation, as the outcome of each review has generally resulted in cuts to military personnel numbers, and unforeseen consequences such as reduced morale and increased unsustainable turnover. I hope we do not come to regret it.

The Commission is a once in a generation opportunity to have a serious conversation about the range of threats facing the State, and where the Defence Organisation fits in to the mitigation of these threats. It should examine funding, governance, organisational structure, and our key roles, including how we use the Reserve. It has the scope to make a real difference to the organisation, and it cannot be allowed to fail.

We are trying desperately to replenish our strength, but until we significantly improve the “offer” then we will only ever be running to stand still. Our overseas service, the physical embodiment of Ireland’s foreign policy, must be bolstered by an adequate overseas establishment structure, and the same goes for our in-house training function. This would put an end to the misleading and dispiriting fallacy of counting untrained personnel in Defence Forces strength figures. Currently we have just over 8,100 fully trained personnel on our books, which is 85 per cent of our minimum designed strength, before we even look at the 600 personnel deployed overseas.

The Department of Defence has gathered together an impressive collection of experts under the stewardship of former Justice Secretary General Aidan O’Driscoll to review the Defence Forces, and we wish them well in their endeavours. We welcome the establishment of a permanent pay review body, “reflecting the unique nature of military service in the context of the public service” and look forward to seeing how this uniqueness will be recognised, particularly given that all recommendations by the Commission or the successor body and their implementation “must be consistent with national public sector wage policy”.

Finally, noting that “in arriving at its findings and recommendations for arrangements for the effective defence of the country, the Commission will have regard to the level of funding provided by Government for Defence”, it is earnestly hoped that this funding will be adequate to meet the demands generated by the expert’s recommendations, and these recommendations will not be constrained by the resources available.

Planning without resources is simply dreaming; we have a poor track record of policy implementation in the Defence Sector; from the White Paper on Defence to the High Level Implementation Plan. If this Commission is to have real credibility, and deliver tangible reform, then its recommendations must be fully resourced and accompanied by a strong implementation oversight body, to ensure that its good work is not allowed to wither on the vine. We cannot afford another false dawn.

Comdt Conor King is the general secretary of RACO (Representative Association of Commissioned Officers)