Caption: Stephen Barnes /

At A Crossroads: The Unsustainable Degradation of Óglaigh na hÉireann

In 1913, some of Ireland’s founding fathers as it were, The O’Rahilly, Pádraig Pearse & Eoin MacNeill amongst others, came together to predicate the Irish Volunteers. The impetus for this founding was due to the militarisation of Unionism, in the form of the 100,000 strong Ulster Volunteer Force. Sadly, the Irish Defence Forces are in decline due to decades of mismanagement and mistreatment by their own Commanders-In-Chief. Only posterity will tell whether this decline will continue until it’s inevitable end, or whether our Defence Forces’ call for aid is answered.

In recent weeks, we have seen the Commission on the Defence Forces publish their damning report into the plight of our men and women in uniform. The report was comprehensive in both its inquiry and its condemnation. Our Defence Forces have waned to such a point that their incapacity leaves the state with no ‘credible protection.’ To put it bluntly, our military cannot fulfil its primary function: the defence of the Irish state and its people. This fault is in no way attributable to the thousands of men and women in our military ranks, in fact the Commission’s report recognises that the greatest asset of our Defence Forces are our servicemen and women. Instead, fault lies at the ministerial and governmental level charged with leadership of our military – leadership lacking, if not totally absent, in recent times.

Ireland is an outlier in terms of our Defence spending, as highlighted by the Commission report. In 2017, our Defence spending amounted to little over €900 million per annum – 77% of which went on pay and pensions. In 2022, our spending will have risen to €1.1 billion – 73% of which be spent on pay and pensions. For context, the Health Budget for 2022 will be €22.5 billion, the Housing Budget amounting to nearly €6 billion, over €9 billion on education, and more than €23 billion on social protection. In our names, the Irish government will spend €111,346,648,000+ to remedy and support society. Defence spending makes up less than 1% of that spending. When broken down further, 0.2% of our annual spending goes towards our defensive infrastructure – if even. That calculation is merely the % not spent on pay and pensions.

To put it plainly, our Defence Forces are the chosen department of neglect by the Irish government. The Ministerial Portfolio attached to Defence, is often more ceremonial and consists of daily praise and deployment of Irish peacekeepers – whilst covering up their shoddy treatment upon their arrival home.

The Irish Ranger Wing were deployed to Kabul to rescue 36 people from the clutches of the Taliban, whilst Defence Force Servicemen are forced to sleep in their cars at home because they cannot afford rent on their current salary.

Our Naval Service has to routinely postpone seagoing missions due to lack of manpower, whilst those that do deploy do so with the bare minimum crew. Indeed, most of the time, we have only five available ships at any given time but do not have the requisite number of qualified personnel to man them properly. Manpower is so lacking that one family emergency is enough to ground an entire mission.

The paragon of this mistreatment is a more historical one, that of the Heroes of Jadotville. 158 troops of the Irish army faced down 3,000 mercenaries in the Congo, in such a spirited manner that the tactics utilised by Cmdt Pat Quinlan are studied in military colleges the world over. Upon returning home, their gallantry was derided as they were advised not to mention their Jadotville deployment for their own benefit. 61 years later, only Cmdt Quinlan was awarded a posthumous distinguished service medal. His 33 recommendations of his men for such medals have been ignored. In 2017 a plaque and ‘special medal’ were unveiled to honour them. This was a military feat of bravery recognised by bastions of military education, but these brave men were treated like a dirty little secret to be swept under the rug upon their return home.

Only 5 available Naval Ships, with not enough men to man them. 1,100+ or 12% of positions in the Defence Forces currently vacant. 8 High Level Implementation Plan projects are behind schedule. The Technical Pay Agreement concluded in July 2019 has still not been implemented. 70-85% of servicemen and women think or desire to leave. 4,000 men and women have left our ranks since 2016. 30 patrol days lost in 2020 due to personnel issues. UN Peacekeepers taxed at the higher rate on their UN payments. Anaemic wages. Appalling barrack conditions. The list goes on.

The Commission has laid before us three options: (1) continue this path to ruin until its inevitable end; (2) enhance capability with bolstered naval capacity, aircraft capacity, cyber defences, and acquisition of radar systems; (3) Ireland end its outlier status, and increase its budget and capacity threefold to be in line with congruent capabilities of other EU states. The very fate of Óglaigh na hÉireann is at stake.

As an imperative, the government must address defence force pay and pensions. Seeing 4,000 people leave our armed ranks in little over five years, when the Defence Forces has only over 8,500 active personnel is unsustainably high rate of turnover. The ripple effect of this is that every disgruntled veteran who leaves the defence forces and who feels rightly disgruntled by their mistreatment, will affect how hundreds of others perceive the defence forces as a career option. This will affect recruitment and the ability of our military forces to attract people from all walks of life to serve. Overhaul defence force pay and pensions so that a lifelong career in the defence forces is viable, and that we start to create generations of career soldiers who have dedicated their lives to protecting our country.

After securing and satisfying our personnel, then our attention must turn to the role of the Minister for Defence and centring that role around one fundamental question: is the Minister securing the safety of the realm? For example, why is cybersecurity not the competency of the Minister for Defence, as opposed to a responsibility for the Minister for the Environment, Climate & Communications. If anything typifies the farcical nature of our defence strategy, it is that the same Minister charged with overseeing recycling is also charged with preventing Russian hackers from shutting down our health service. Only by setting a Defence Minister against that fundamental question can we appraise performance and ensure accountability. Applying that question retrospectively, only underscores the need to apply it prospectively.

As the war in Ukraine continues this subject has taken on an additional salience. Let us only hope that the horrific events in Ukraine, remind government of the founding mission and purpose of our Defence Forces tracing back all the way to 1913: to protect the Ireland from her enemies.

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