Thursday 19 September 2019

Dorcha Lee: 'Veterans are a lone voice speaking up for our struggling Defence Forces heroes'

Military personnel: There is now an emerging sense of community between those serving, their families and veterans. Photo: Collins
Military personnel: There is now an emerging sense of community between those serving, their families and veterans. Photo: Collins

Dorcha Lee

There are two conflicting images of the Defence Forces currently being presented to the Irish public. On the one hand, there are the scenes of joy at Dublin Airport when personnel returning from overseas missions are greeted by their families. Tanned, fit and immaculately turned out, they underline the professionalism of our troops. They remind us that our country continues to play an important role in preserving world peace.

The other image is much darker. It is of military families trying to survive on poor pay and conditions, unable to afford rent or pay for a mortgage, struggling desperately to provide for their children.

When the Defence Forces Chief of Staff, Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett, publicly admits his number-one priority is the pay and conditions of serving personnel, it is time to pay attention. Some would say it is not his responsibility to comment on pay and conditions, but they would be wrong.

The stress and anxiety experienced by military personnel due to poor pay and conditions is a threat to the operational efficiency of the organisation, which happens to be the Chief of Staff's main responsibility. While he denies there is a crisis in the Defence Forces, falling strengths, due to adverse pay and conditions, must be having a negative impact on operational capabilities. The Defence Forces appear to be sliding down into an all-too-familiar vicious circle. The less personnel available for duty, the more duties are piled on those remaining.

There are also reported tensions in the Department of Defence (DoD) between the senior military, the secretariat and the Minister of State for Defence on the pay and conditions issue.

The recent revelation that there have been "robust" exchanges between the parties comes as no surprise. This commentator is more than bemused at the news, having spent a total of 10 years as a senior staff officer encaged in the corridors of the DoD. Robust exchanges often occurred, but what is new, this time, is that the parties involved are prepared to admit it publicly. Perhaps this is a sign of a new and more open approach.

The reality is that since time immemorial, DoD civil servants and military staff officers have often been institutionally pitted against each other. Of course, many issues are resolved amiably and good working relationships abound within the department, but there are also intense 'battles for turf'. However, in the DoD, the pen is always mightier than the sword.

Unable to strike or protest in public, the serving military have no leverage on public opinion, and rightly so. However, without the backing of public opinion there is little pressure on the Government to prioritise the Defence Forces.

The annual conference of the largest association of serving military personnel, PDForra, is well over, and the one short opportunity to communicate serving personnel's concerns on pay and conditions to the Irish public has passed for another year. Moreover, political criticism has been neatly deflected, with statements of financial improvements already announced or in the pipeline. Unfortunately, the arguments for serious reform in Defence Forces pay and conditions have been weakened by the exaggerated number of personnel reported to be in receipt of family income supplement.

Blaming the DoD is not the answer. The buck stops with the Government. The Government must have noted a new and important constituency has decided not to stand idly by. Under the leadership of former regimental sergeant major Noel O'Callaghan, a large parade of veterans took place through Dublin in September backed by many family members of serving personnel. The ex-members were not marching for themselves, but for their serving comrades.

The presence of ex-military in such a demonstration is an extraordinary event. Is this the start of a new militancy among the most reluctant militants in our society? Never before, in such a way, did Irish military veterans throw down the gauntlet of protest at the feet of our elected representatives. Even that most discreet veterans' association, Arco (Association of Retired Commissioned Officers), has issued a statement on the issue. There is now an emerging sense of community between the serving military, their families and the veterans.

The veterans were also marching to save the Defence Forces from a never-ending decline that ultimately will weaken the security of this State. As the consequences of the crippling 2012 Defence Forces re-organisation have now come home to roost, the Government must act and fulfil the commitments it made in the White Paper on Defence 2015.

One signal of good intention by the Government would be to reopen Columb Barracks in Mullingar. Its closure was one barracks too many, and an unnecessary hardship on those personnel uprooted from their homes.

The serving Irish military cannot strike. It cannot speak out. It seems the time has come for the old grey heads of the retired military to step up and carry the flag for them. As the old refrain goes: "Old soldiers never die, they only fade away."

Dorcha Lee is a retired Army colonel and a commentator on defence issues

Irish Independent

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