Members of Defence Forces deserve 'exemplary' pay and conditions, says President Michael D Higgins
President Michael D Higgins has said it is "not too much" to expect that men and women serving in the Defence Forces should have "an income and prospects" to provide for themselves and their families.
“I have heard and read with anxiety of the distress that is being experienced by some of those who are giving their all to serve the State,” he said.
The President was speaking at the Defence Force Values Awards at Áras an Uachtaráin this evening.
Seven members of the Defence Forces, serving and retired, were selected for the awards for embodying the essential values of moral courage, respect, integrity, physical courage, selflessness and loyalty.
‣ Corporal Caitriona Lacey from Athlone, Co Westmeath;
‣ Navy Engineering Officer Ryan O’Driscoll from Rush, Co Dublin;
‣ Gunner David Stack from Cobh, Co Cork;
‣ Corporal David McCormack from Galway;
‣ Private Thomas Carew from Ferrybank, Waterford;
‣Sergeant PJ McCabe, Co Kildare;
‣ and Regimental Sergeant Major John Murray from Newbridge, Co Kildare.
A special award was given to Charlie Watson (15) from Swords, Co Dublin, who has cerebral palsy and who has a great interest in the work of the Defence Forces. He will be attending the transition year work experience in the Curragh Camp during November 2019.
Speaking at the ceremony, President Higgins said the awards gave him an opportunity to personally honour and acknowledge the integral role that Óglaigh na hÉireann occupies in Irish society.
“It is something that I have always been aware of,” he said.
The recipients of the awards had all displayed a “magnanimous resolve and steadfast commitment to uphold the central values of the Defence Forces”, said the President.
Mr Higgins said it was "no secret" that changes in conditions for serving men and women had brought its own challenges.
“These are challenges that should be addressed with sensitivity,” he said.
“Those providing such a vital service as those in our Defence Forces must be real partners in interpreting and responding to such changes.
“Should this not happen, there is a real danger of a gap opening up between our expressed appreciation of their work and the circumstances we deliver for its practice,” he said.
Many people were "understandably concerned", he said, about the ability to attract and retain people of the highest calibre in the Defence Forces.
“It is not too much, I would suggest, to expect that serving men and women should have conditions including an income and prospects that are sufficient to provide for themselves and their families.
“Indeed, as they are the employees of the State, such conditions should be exemplary for other parts of the society and economy,” he said.
Meanwhile, President Higgins paid tribute to the families of serving members, pointing out that while it is a worthy role, it is also a perilous one.
“Recognising the anxiety that this can evoke with their families and friends must be responded to in the quality of our response in terms of living conditions,” said the President.
Receiving the overall award for embodying the Defence Forces Values was Sgt Major John Murray from Newbridge, Co Kildare.
Over his career, he has completed 16 tours of duty, including in countries such as Somalia, Chad and Syria.
He said he was humbled to be nominated for the award, but felt "calm" because he felt he was doing it for other people and not for himself.
In his long career in the Defence Forces, he admitted there had been many sacrifices - chiefly the time he was forced to spend away from his wife Mary and daughter Elaine.
When Elaine was four years old, he recalled how he had returned home, tanned, from a tour in Lebanon only for her to say: “I don’t know him - he’s all chocolatey.”
“I had to work on rebuilding her trust to win her back,” he said.
The memory of spending time in small villages in Lebanon was something he also treasures, however.
“It’s like Kerry - the door would be open and you’d be sitting down with them,” he said.
He returned to Lebanon last April and met families who still remembered him.
The Sgt Major believes that this is an area in which the UN has taken a backwards step because peace-keeping troops are now confined to segregated camps, creating an “us and them” attitude.
“With the way things went the UN became a target as well - the referee became a victim,” he said.
In the past, a Sgt Major in the army would have got things done by “shouting,” he said. “Now, however, you earn the respect not demand it and that’s a much better way of doing things,” he said.