Sunday 22 September 2019

Joe Ryan: 'Slaughter some of the sacred cows to build a force for the future'

Real reform is needed in the Defence Forces before it can convince the public that a significant pay rise is justified, writes Joe Ryan

Measuring up: Defence Forces on ceremonial duties. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Measuring up: Defence Forces on ceremonial duties. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Defence Forces (DF) advocates have entered into a battle with Government for the hearts and minds of public opinion in their attempt to secure better pay and conditions.

However, in this battle the DF is out-gunned and ill-prepared. In the midst of the housing and health crises, hampered by the inability to strike and no recognised industrial relations mechanism, DF advocates have been unable to present a compelling argument - one that the general public can understand and get behind at any rate.

I have yet to hear in any interview the question "what do the Defence Forces actually do" being coherently answered to the satisfaction of the average taxpayer. The fact the question is continuously asked should tell you everything you need to know. Without even stepping on to the field, Government will win this battle. The DF needs to change its battle plan, absorb some criticism and be prepared to make some radical changes if they hope to succeed.

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The simple fact is the DF is not fit for purpose. There is a conflict between the stated roles of the DF - as per the White Paper on Defence 2015 - and the standard military structures, mindset and culture pursued by senior DF management. Other than the first stated role to defend the State against armed aggression, which is an unlikely scenario, the next 11 roles are a mish-mash of service level agreements and memorandums of understanding with terms like "will contribute to" or "will participate in". No organisation should have such an ill-defined, unclear and imprecise mission statement.

Mainly, department representatives with a smattering of senior officers, exhibiting all the hallmarks of institutional cognitive dissonance, wrote the paper. (Senior officers know the current 1970s military structure is not suitable for the current taskings but persist with an out-dated ineffective model because "that is the way we have always done it". For example the project to purchase a €200m general purpose ship at a time half the Naval Service's ships are tied up due to a lack of sailors.)

I read an opinion piece by Cathal Berry, the retired former head of the Army Ranger Wing, suggesting, in his conclusion, "this is not an industrial relations issue, but one of national security". I have to agree, but more important is his suggestion "there needs to be an independent commission on the future of defence like the recent commission on the future of policing".

This should be at the forefront of DF demands. It is by this mechanism progress can be made. If the DF can restructure and get a true mission statement meeting Ireland's requirements in the 21st century, it will be easier to garner public and political support for appropriate pay and conditions.

However, senior DF management must be serious about structural and role transformation; they must be prepared to look in the mirror and accept they have participated in bringing the organisation to the sad condition it is now in by not anticipating and driving the necessary organisational change required.

The DF needs to speak up and take its rightful place as an integral element of the State. Since fighting to establish the State, the DF has been emasculated by government and civil servants. An Garda Siochana is in charge of national security, a civil servant chairs the National Security Committee, the DF is unable to contribute to the National Cyber Defence Centre, and in the latest invention by Government, another civil servant manages the National Security Analyses Centre which reports to the other civil servant chairing the National Security Committee. The DF is not even allowed to supply security to protect its own commander, the president, when travelling abroad, a role reserved for An Garda Siochana.

If a commission on the future of defence is to be embarked on, we must ensure the terms of reference are inclusive of all other elements of the State the DF contributes to. We need vertical and horizontal alignment between all State security, defence and enforcement agencies rather than the current silos and pigeon-holes.

Why do we have a Naval Service and a coast guard? Why do we have an Air Corps and a coast guard? Why is fishery protection totally reliant on the Air Corps and Naval Service with no acknowledgement of same? Why, when we have a drugs haul, is there Naval Service, Garda and Customs standing in the picture? Why do we have a cyber defence centre with no DF staff and, indeed, not even managed by the DF? Why are trained gardai (with powers) doing standard security duties?

Would we not be better off establishing a permanent "aid to the civil power" battalion to absorb "non power" police duties and get more police on the streets? And why is An Garda Siochana still responsible for national security when no other police force/security apparatus in the developed world has such a structure?

We need to think outside the box and start combining national defence and enforcement agencies into a structure which suits Ireland's modern requirements. The DF already contributes to, or participates in, all these activities but are in charge of none, gets recognition for none and is over-stretched and improperly structured to do any effectively.

We need to redefine what our DF is, with less input by the department and more insight from forward-thinking creative minds.

We would have to nominate some sacred cows for slaughter but we could end up with a modern defence force, properly resourced and paid, contributing in a meaningful way to Irish society across multiple roles - an organisation that is appreciated and has a sense of purpose.

We must restructure to meet our own national requirements first and then contribute to international peace-keeping with the resources and structures that service our own needs first and foremost.

Imagine if Government was bold enough to actually make a change - a real change.

Joe Ryan is an expert in the area of national security structures and organisational change management. He has worked for several foreign governments and was a member of the Army Ranger Wing for 13 years.

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