Déardaoin, 10 Bealtaine 2018Thursday, 10 May 2018Chuaigh an Leas-Cheann Comhairle i gceannas ar 10.30 a.m.Paidir.Prayer.
Visit of Saudi Arabian Delegation

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: On my own behalf and on behalf of the Members, I offer a céad míle fáilte, a most sincere welcome, to a parliamentary delegation from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, led by Dr. Ahmed Al-Issa, the Minister of Education. You are all very welcome to Dáil Éireann. I hope you find your visit useful and to our mutual benefit. Céad míle fáilte romhaibh.

Ceisteanna - Questions
Priority Questions
Defence Forces Reorganisation

1. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if the 2012 restructuring of the Defence Forces will be reviewed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 20687/18 asked on 10 May 2018)

Deputy Jack Chambers: I echo the Leas-Cheann Comhairle’s welcome to the delegation.

My question is to ask the Minister of State at the Department of Defence if he will review the 2012 restructuring of the Defence Forces and if he will make a statement on the matter. As the Minister of State knows, we had the first southern brigade headquarters in Cork, the second eastern headquarters in Dublin and the fourth western headquarters in Athlone. That consolidation was done on the basis of claimed efficiencies about which one would have to be sceptical, to say the least, given the marginal difference it has made. Can the Minister of State outline the rationale and make a statement on it?

Minister of State at the Department of Defence (Deputy Paul Kehoe): I thank Deputy Jack Chambers for his question. As part of the reorganisation of the Defence Forces in 2012, a decision was taken to consolidate the three under-strength Army brigades into two full strength brigades. The decision was taken because it was clear that the previous three-brigade structure was no longer viable, particularly when compared to international norms. Key aspects of the reorganisation included the consolidation of under-strength units into a smaller number of full units, a reduction in the number of headquarters and the associated redeployment of personnel from administrative and support functions into operational units.

As I have outlined in the past, there are no plans to review the reorganisation of the Defence Forces. The White Paper on Defence, published since then in September 2015, resulted from a comprehensive examination of defence requirements over a ten year planning horizon and it specifically provides for the retention of the structures introduced in 2012.

I am satisfied that following the reorganisation there has been an improvement in the deployability and sustainability of the Defence Forces, both at home and overseas, and it is also clear that any return to previously outdated structures would cause a range of unnecessary inefficiencies, including a return of under-strength units.

Deputy Jack Chambers: As the Minister of State knows, the 2012 restructuring continues to generate controversy. In all the meetings I have had with many people working in the Defence Forces and with the representative bodies, it has been a constant theme and there is a unanimous belief that it has been a mistake. Take for example, the people who might be in Finner Camp, who have to pick up their arms in Athlone, go to Dublin, carry out a 24 hour duty, return to a particular barracks and go home. They are working over 40 hours. We are breaching the working time directive. We are also breaching their rights and we are undermining the strength and spread of our force across the country, particularly with Brexit and other matters.

The Minister of State said the decision was taken because the structure was outdated. I respectfully disagree in that it does not mirror changes in other countries. In fact, it replicates a Cromwellian approach to many parts of this country in that it was decided to have a headquarters in Dublin and Cork and have staff from all across the north west focused on Dublin and Cork thus undermining the strength of our forces there. The Minister of State should reflect on the strength of feeling within the Defence Forces on this decision and try to bring forward a change in this regard.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: I do not agree with what Deputy Jack Chambers said. The reorganisation in 2012 was not just done by the political leaders but it was done in full consultation with and on the basis of the recommendations of the then Chief of Staff and senior military management. As I stated in my reply, what we were dealing with at the time was a large number of under-strength units in barracks and we felt we were not getting the full benefits out of the soldiers at the time. When I say “we”, I mean the military management at the time. It was felt it was important to consolidate and bring all these units up to full strength to the point at which they could carry out their full capacity in training and so forth. There were good reasons for the reorganisation at the time.

Deputy Jack Chambers: The consolidation was an attempt to get the full capacity out of those in the Defence Forces. However, it has cut many people to the bone. They have hardship and significant travel times, which undermine their ability to be at home with their families. The 2015 University of Limerick report highlighted these outcomes and feelings within the Defence Forces. Instead of cutting them to the bone and making them work with reduced allowances, the Minister of State should have looked at organisational capacity across the country. It is a constant theme. I accept there was a lack of strength in different barracks. That was due to the lack of a retention policy within the Defence Forces. Instead of consolidation and the reduction of numbers, the Minister of State should seek to increase the White Paper target beyond the 9,500 complement, which is a target he cannot meet anyway.

It should not have been about cutting people to the bone or undermining their lives. It also should not have led to neglecting the security of the State across a large spread of the country. We have lost, for example, corporate knowledge at the Border and elsewhere. It is important that the Minister of State reviews that in the context of increasing numbers in the future to ensure increased strength across the country.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: There are more Defence Forces personnel on the west coast than there were previously. Like every other defence organisation, the Defence Forces had to go through change. Any of our European neighbours’ defence forces went through reorganisation over the years. The reason is because the roles of our Defence Forces and armies in the European Union have evolved and changed over the years. The threats we face today are totally different from those we faced five, ten, 15 or 20 years ago. One has to change with the threats one faces. The threats we now face are cyber and hybrid warfare.

One cannot get stuck in a rut and leave the organisation as it was. There are different roles expected of the Defence Forces today than there were ten, 15 or 20 years ago. We had to change and that was one of the reasons for the reorganisation. The 2015 White Paper on Defence, published by the previous Minister, the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, set out clearly what we expect from the Defence Forces. If we were to reintroduce the 4th Western Brigade, it would introduce another layer of middle management. That is not needed. We are well able to manage with the two brigade structure we currently have in place.

Naval Service Operations

2. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if Naval Service vessels, as part of Operation Sophia (details supplied), have observed or have been prevented by the Libyan Coast Guard from going to the aid of migrants in distress in international waters in view of the fact that it has threatened, shot at persons at sea and in the sea contrary to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. (Question 20510/18 asked on 10 May 2018)

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: This question relates to the role of the Naval Service in Operation Sophia when it changed from Operation Pontus. Is the Navy contributing to an ongoing immigration problem and abuse of human rights, particularly in detention centres in Libya?

(Deputy Paul Kehoe): The EU Common Security and Defence Policy operation EUNAVFOR MED, Operation Sophia, was launched in June 2015. It is part of the EU’s broader action to provide a comprehensive response to the global migration and refugee crisis, as well as encouraging a democratic, stable and prosperous Libya. It specifically seeks to counter human trafficking and smuggling in the southern central Mediterranean by taking action against the criminal networks and disrupting the smugglers business model. The mission is also providing capacity building and training to the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy while contributing to the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions 2240 and 2292. These resolutions also authorise the interception of vessels suspected of being used for illicit activities and impose an arms embargo on Libya in an effort to prevent the flow of illicit arms and related material into that country.

Training being provided to the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard as part of Operation Sophia aims to improve the security of Libyan territorial waters; to enhance the capability of the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard in law enforcement at sea; and to improve their ability to perform search-and-rescue activities to save lives in Libyan territorial waters. Libyan Coast Guard training is a positive move towards capacity building by the EU mission. It is the fastest way to deliver effects in reducing irregular migrant flows and intercepting smuggler activity inside territorial waters.

In July 2017, Government and Dáil approval was secured for the deployment of a Naval Service vessel as part of Operation Sophia. The participation by LÉ Niamh in Operation Sophia represented the first involvement by the Naval Service in a multilateral security operation under a UN mandate. In the course of an 11-week deployment in the Mediterranean, the LÉ Niamh rescued 613 migrants, assisting with a further 107 migrant rescues.

In addition to search-and-rescue operations, the Irish vessel also undertook activities in support of the core task of the mission including gathering information on oil smuggling, patrols focusing on countering illegal arms trafficking, operations to intercept smugglers and people traffickers and monitoring the effectiveness of the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard activity from a stand-off distance. In February 2018, the Government approved a further Naval Service contribution to Operation Sophia and two naval vessels will deploy for approximately 30 weeks from mid-April to end-November.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Defence Forces have confirmed that Irish naval vessels have not observed or been prevented by the Libyan Coast Guard from going to the aid of migrants in distress in international waters.

The core task of contributing to disrupting the smugglers’ business model involves identifying potential smugglers when on search-and-rescue operations and handing them over to the Italian authorities when disembarking the rescued persons. Irish Naval Service ships have not intercepted smugglers but have identified them when they are rescued and have handed them over to the Italian authorities. All rescued migrants are embarked in Italian ports.

Operation Sophia has so far contributed to the apprehension of 130 suspected smugglers and traffickers, removed approximately 520 boats from criminal organisations availability, contributed to almost 290 safety of life at sea events  and rescued over 42,400 migrants.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: As the Minister of State will know, there have been reports of migrant boats being shot at by the Libyan Coast Guard. Will he outline if any vessel involved in Operation Sophia, in particular Irish Naval Service vessels, were present when the Libyan Coast Guard acted in a manner that was aggressive towards migrants in international waters or shot at or above the heads of migrants in unseaworthy vessels? Will the Minister of State confirm no migrants were taken back to Libya by Operation Sophia vessels? I know from a previous answer that Irish Naval Service vessels do not engage in that practice. However, do they transfer them to other countries’ naval vessels which then forward them to or return them to the Libyan Coast Guard which then puts them in inhumane detention centres and adds them to the slave trade, which is now growing in Libya itself?

Deputy Paul Kehoe: I am not aware of any vessels being shot at by the Libyan Coast Guard.

Any migrants picked up by any of the participating countries in Operation Sophia are brought to Italian ports. What could happen on occasion is that a vessel might pick up 300 migrants while an Irish Naval Service vessel could pick up 50 migrants. Instead of the two vessels going to the Italian port, we would transfer the smaller number of migrants to other vessel. At all times, they are brought to Italian ports. Navies participating in Operation Sophia are not allowed into Libyan territorial waters.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: The Minister of State referred to the other duties of those participating in Operation Sophia. Apart from intercepting people smugglers and migrants trying to head towards Europe, is there any success in capturing those involved in people smuggling, or preventing weapons and oil smuggling in that part of the Mediterranean in which the LÉ Samuel Beckett is currently operating?

Deputy Paul Kehoe: As I outlined in my original reply, there are other facets to Operation Sophia in which members of the Irish Naval Service participate. As I stated at the committee meeting last week, I intend to visit the headquarters of Operation Sophia within the next month or two, when I will get a full update on our involvement and the involvement of other participants in Operation Sophia. Ireland is very much in communication with the operation headquarters and we have people based in the headquarters itself. We will continue to participate fully in Operation Sophia. I am not able to give the Deputy the exact details on how we have assisted with regard to oil smuggling off the top of my head. If I have specific numbers I will come back to the Deputy on it. As I said at the committee meeting last week, after I visit the headquarters of Operation Sophia and meet the mission leader I will have no issue in going back to the committee and giving it a fully detailed brief.

Defence Forces Strength

3. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the reason the personnel strength of the Defence Forces was lower at the end of February 2018 than at the end of February 2017; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 20688/18 asked on 10 May 2018)

Deputy Jack Chambers: What are the reasons the personnel strength of the Defence Forces was lower at the end of February 2018 than at the end of February 2017? Will the Minister of State make a statement on the matter? As he knows, the Defence Forces face a full-blown retention crisis. Despite attempts to enhance recruitment we are haemorrhaging massive numbers. Why does the Minister of State believe that despite the recruitment campaign he is trying to promote, almost the same number of people are in the Defence Forces this year as were there last year? What is he doing to address the serious systemic retention issue we have?

Deputy Paul Kehoe: I am advised by the military authorities that the strength of the Permanent Defence Force, as at 28 February 2018, was 9,057 whole-time equivalent personnel and on 28 February 2017, it was 9,070 whole-time equivalent personnel. The overall difference in strength between February 2017 and February 2018 is a reduction of 13 personnel. Variations in strength figures are not an unusual occurrence and, particularly in the short term, are influenced by factors relating to timings of recruit intake and how this coincides with normal retirement patterns.

Given the unique and demanding nature of military life, there is understandably a relatively high level of turnover among Defence Forces personnel. This is not new and the Permanent Defence Force has always had a level of turnover that far exceeds other areas of the public service. An analysis of data going back over a number of years shows the overall numbers departing the Permanent Defence Force in recent years are broadly consistent with the long-term trend, with some exceptions. It should be noted that within these figures, on average approximately 22% of general service recruits do not complete their induction training.

The White Paper on Defence recognises that continuous recruitment is the lifeblood of the Defence Forces, providing young, motivated and enthusiastic personnel to replenish military formations for operational deployments. To achieve this, there is significant ongoing targeted recruitment to ensure the Permanent Defence Force can deliver all operational outputs required by the Government both at home and overseas. The recruitment plan proposed by the Defence Forces envisages almost 800 new entrants being inducted across all services and competition streams in 2018.

I continue to be aware of factors that can influence the retention of existing members of the Defence Forces and I remain dedicated to ensuring that the terms and conditions of service, while remaining appropriate to the needs of the organisation, are as favourable as they can be.

The pay of the Defence Forces is increasing in accordance with public sector pay agreements. The pay of a newly-qualified three star private has increased by 25% in the past 12 months and at €27,257 is very favourable when compared with entry rates across the public service. The starting rates for newly qualified officers is €35,000 and for new graduate officers is in excess of €40,000. These amounts are inclusive of military service allowance. This compares favourably with the average starting pay for graduates across other sectors of employment.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

As I have previously outlined, there are shortages of certain specialists in the Defence Forces. These include pilots, engineers and certain technicians. As the Deputy will be aware, under my direction the Department brought the issue of recruitment and retention of specialists to the attention of the Public Service Pay Commission. My Department has forwarded an initial tranche of information to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Further data and information regarding the defence sector will be forwarded to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the coming weeks as the collation of data and information is completed.

With the support of the Chief of Staff and within the resources available, the Government is committed to retaining the capacity of the Defence Forces to operate effectively across all roles and to undertake the tasks laid down by Government both at home and overseas.

Deputy Jack Chambers: I am surprised the Minister of State mentioned there are normal retirement patterns and that they match that long-term trend. There was a massive recruitment campaign last year of 860 personnel, but there are fewer personnel this year than there were last year. Clearly this does not match any long-term trend. Look at the figures. A total of 30% of members of the organisation have left the Defence Forces in the past five years. If this is a long-term trend it does not match the recruitment we have seen in recent years. Clearly we have a retention crisis. We have fewer people applying for recruitment compared with previous years, despite there still being demand. People are leaving en masse. They are cut to the bone and their allowances have not been restored. As far as they are concerned, they are the last in the queue when it comes to priority in public pay and they are fed up. Their morale is at an all-time low.

To hear a departmental line that this is just a normal pattern and matches the long-term trend means officials are not listening to the Chief of Staff, who has said there are serious difficulties with retention and pay in his submission as part of the public pay process, which has been reflected on in recent times. There needs to be a discussion between the Chief of Staff and officials in the Department in order that the Minister of State does not give information to this Parliament on long-term trends when one third of the organisation has left the Defence Forces in the past five years. It does not add up.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: The Deputy tabled a parliamentary question earlier this week on retirements from 2002 to 2017. In 2002, 732 personnel departed the Defence Forces and in 2017, 707 did so. If one goes through the intervening years the numbers included 579, 543, 649 and, in 2013, 445. At the height of the recession fewer people left the Defence Forces. Going back over the years when we had the so-called boom, equally as many members left the Defence Forces. The Deputy got this information in the reply to a parliamentary question this week.

I do not agree with the Deputy there is a full-blown retention crisis. Absolutely we have a retention issue and I recognise this. I spelled it out last week at the committee. The submission made to the pay commission was a joint submission, including from the Department. Defence military management or the Chief of Staff did not submit any papers to the pay commission. Any papers going to the pay commission are joint papers from the Department and military management.

Deputy Jack Chambers: At the committee meeting last week, the Minister of State said he has written to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform regarding what he says is a retention issue. Writing to somebody with whom he sits at Cabinet is not an adequate political response to what is an issue, as the Minister of State has admitted himself. There needs to be an escalation with regard to the serious pay and conditions problem that exists in the Defence Forces. The Minister of State is missing his own threshold and target in the White Paper, which he outlined. He did not match it this year and he will not match it next year.

Despite increased recruitment, we still have haemorrhaging in our Defence Forces and morale is at an all-time low. We are losing corporate knowledge and experience because people are trying to leave because of the lack of hope about pay and conditions. It is not sufficient simply to write to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. There needs to be a greater pathway of hope for the restoration of pay and allowances and a proper policy on retention, rather than giving answers to this Parliament quoting various patterns and trends. It is clear to everyone who has any knowledge of the Defence Forces that they have a problem with retention and recruitment and people trying to leave en masse. It is important that the Minister of State has policies to address this problem and that his officials take it seriously.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: It was the Deputy, in his original supplementary question, who raised patterns and trends. I was only replying to him on patterns and trends. He took what he wanted out of the figures.

11 o’clock

We have an issue. I will not call it a full-blown crisis. The Deputy is in opposition and I understand that he has to raise it but I do not agree with him. I am not sure if he read the recent headline in the national newspapers, which stated that ten hopefuls are applying for every post advertised in the Defence Forces. We have recruited the largest cadet classes ever over the past two years and there will be another large intake this year. I was delighted to attend the training college in the Curragh last week to welcome the recruits who were commissioned from the ranks. This is the first time in ten years that there will be people in training who were commissioned from the ranks.

I have written to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. I am sure if the Deputy checks the record for the years during which his party was in power, he will find that Ministers wrote to fellow Ministers regarding various issues. I wanted to put on the record that we have an issue in this regard, which I want addressed, and I am happy that the Minister acknowledged my correspondence by recognising the comments of the Public Service Pay Commission on shortages.

Permanent Structured Co-operation

4. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if he will address concerns that Ireland’s neutrality is being compromised by participation in Permanent Structured Co-Operation, PESCO; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 19811/18 asked on 10 May 2018)

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Will the Minister of State address serious concerns that Ireland’s neutrality is being compromised by participation in PESCO? People are genuinely concerned, including the families of Defence Forces personnel.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: Permanent Structured Co-operation has no implications for Ireland’s policy of military neutrality.

The establishment of PESCO represents a further development in EU co-operation in support of international peace and security under the Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP. Under PESCO, member states will come together in different groups to develop and make available additional capabilities and enablers for peacekeeping and crisis management operations.

Within the EU, it is accepted that defence and security is a national competence and that any decisions require unanimity. Ireland continues to have a strong and equal voice on defence issues within the EU institutions. The European treaties require that the EU respects the specific and different policies of member states in the area of security and defence and that has not been changed or compromised by our participation in PESCO. The participation criteria expressly stipulate that PESCO will be undertaken in full compliance with the Treaty on European Union and the associated protocols and will respect the member states’ constitutional provisions.  It is also important to note that participation in each project is on an “opt in” basis and is, therefore, entirely voluntary. In addition, the triple lock mechanism comprising a United Nations, UN, mandate and Government and Dáil approval, which governs the deployment of the Defence Forces on international peace support and crisis management operations, remains unaffected by our participation in PESCO.

PESCO was comprehensively debated in the context of the Lisbon treaty which was approved by the people when they voted in October 2009. PESCO was specifically referenced in the Lisbon treaty protocol, and in Ireland’s national declaration, to address the concerns of the people. The legislation setting down Ireland’s approval process for PESCO was published in advance of that vote and enacted in November 2009. The Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 requires Government and Dáil approval for participation in PESCO, both of which were secured before Ireland notified its intention to participate in PESCO.

While we choose to remain neutral, this is not out of any lack of interest in issues underpinning conflicts or any isolationist stance. Ireland’s approach to international relations is founded on full and active engagement in the international community in support of international peace and security and the rule of law. We follow, and will continue to follow, this policy approach - militarily neutral but fully engaged – because, as committed members of the UN, we subscribe fully to the principles set out in the UN charter.

It is also worth noting that three other neutral EU member states - Finland, Sweden and Austria - have also joined PESCO.