- 21 Nov 17
A UL study has highlighted serious issues within the Irish Defence Forces. But the reality may be a whole lot worse. Hot Press spoke to a former member who expresses major concerns, ranging from pay and welfare to security, resources and dangerous equipment. Report Michael Lanigan.
Ireland's armed forces are in a mess - and it could get worse. That is the inescapable conclusion from a major study, commissioned by the Irish Defence Forces, and carried out recently by the University of Limerick. That the establishment themselves are acknowledging that there is a problem can be seen in two ways: (a) it is a good thing that they have taken the first steps towards addressing the shortcomings in the Army, Navy and Air Corps; or (b) the Irish Defence Forces were well aware of how damning the report would be and it was commissioned in order to twist the Government's arm into substantially increasing the budget for the IDF.
However, Hot Press can confirm that there is huge disquiet on the ground within the defence forces. Whatever its political motivation, the report is not wrong in reaching a damning conclusion about what is seen as chronic underfunding, exacerbating poor conditions.
A total of 600 service personnel were interviewed for the Limerick study, by Dr Juliet MacMahon and Dr Sarah MacCurtain. Of these 27% expressed dissatisfaction around issues like pay and commuting. Further criticism was levelled in relation to safety, training standards and accommodation. The study was carried out against a background where a rising number of IDF personnel have been quitting - people with considerable experience and recent recruits among them.
Tellingly, the study did not reach out to those who have departed. One former member of both the Navy and Air Corps, who served between 2006 and early 2017, agreed to speak to Hot Press. Echoing many of the concerns published in the UL paper, Life In The Military: Nationwide Study of the Irish Defence Forces, our source cited inadequate pay as his main reason for departing. But he was also frustrated by the number of hazards that he believed might result from the ongoing drain in skilled personnel.
"When I joined, it was a great wage for someone single," he said. "We got an allowance of €56 to go to sea before tax. But for someone with a wife and kids, it isn't possible to live off that. My first pay packet as a recruit was €410. Someone joining now is getting around €250, and during training, he or she is paying €40 for substandard meals and €17 for substandard accommodation."
The first significant pay-cuts came following the financial crash.
"We started having competitions when you'd get the pay slip: how much was cut off this week? I was happy to take cuts at first, because someday down the line, we might have got them back. As time went by, though, I was specialising in areas that required more qualifications, which could give me an extra €100 per week. But once you got the actual qualifications, pay was cut again. When I left, I was earning €580 a week after tax for something you earned €750 for in 2006.
"In the Air Corps, I would be in from 8am to 6pm, making decisions that I could go to prison for. What is the point in taking that risk, when I was being paid the same as the man with a leaf blower, who could take two half-days a week? It isn't worth it. Because of that, we lost our commanding officer to Aer Lingus, our training officer to Skyguide and five controllers to the Irish Aviation Authority.
"By the time myself and another fella left, there were eleven new staff being trained in and thrown into highly complex situations. There is going to be a serious incident soon, because of this. I am sure of that."
What sort of incident?
Our source cited the Rescue 116 crash, 17km off Blacksod Bay in Mayo on March 14, 2017, as a product of underfunding. While the failure to register the height of Blackrock on the helicopters computer system was a major cause, and others are likely to emerge during the course of the investigation that is currently underway, our source goes back further.
"It happened because the chopper that crashed was not provided with top cover on the night by the Air Corps," he claimed. "It didn't provide cover, because the unit was closed after 6pm. The whole service was pulled back to an 8 to 6 Air Force. So Rescue 116 was sent out."
This view will doubtless be dismissed by the authorities, on the basis that the the service had been limited months previously, following a detailed risk assessment, which led to the conclusion that the full service could not be maintained on current staffing levels.
"This cut-back in the service happened," the source accepts, "because they said that they didn't have the staff. But in my view, they could have maintained a 24/7 calling operation if they wanted. The Swiss have a 9 to 5 service Air Force, but they actually have proper facilities for this. Not here."
As a consequence of the cutbacks, the turn-over rate in the Forces has accelerated, prompting three recruitment campaigns during 2017 alone. Over the past five years, 641 new recruits have quit out of a total 2,490. In 2017, 77 officers left, a slight increase on the 72 in 2016. Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe insists that the turn-over rate is not problematic. Our source disagreed strongly.
"There are no problems filling space," he told Hot Press, "but the Navy turn-over rate is severe. When it comes to defence spending, it looks good to say they can recruit, but it isn't said that 600 recruits will be gone in a few years. It's possible that this is a deliberate policy, to push short-term contracts and make conditions bad enough, so that the churn rate would then deliver lower pay. That happened, and you could argue that this is why new ships can be paid for - like the LE George Bernard Shaw, which was allocated €67m in the recent budget."
He elaborated then on his own experience working on-board LE Ciara.
"It had a staff of 39. The maximum is 44. For a solid month, we did four hours on and eight off, and during the eight you were assigned specific duties. You were never actually off. The six hours given to sleep were on a roster. The seamen branch got four on, four off for a month, with four hours sleep every twenty-four hours, but some would be cleaning during that period.
"Out in the North Atlantic, it was eating shit and paying for it, because you get an extra €17 a day. It's cruel. It's why people leave. You become a ghost, and yet, you're making life-or-death decisions, often handling a weapon, when on deck for 12 hours unboarding suspicious vessels. It's ridiculous.
"They end up having to minimise crew," he added. "What is the least number of people we can operate these ships with? It shouldn't be like that. We should look at what type of work a ship requires, and go from there."
Our source goes on to raise the case of Seamus Eoin Gray, a 24-year-old Naval service member who was tried in 2010 for conspiracy to aid people unknown to import cocaine, and for possession of the drug, along with counterfeit hair straighteners. In the end, Gray admitted to disclosing information about the movement of State ships at sea, and was jailed for three months and dismissed.
"The stuff these guys are privy to, especially in the Navy or Air control, even just with cash in-transit is crazy," our source resumes. "If you have this information you are invaluable. There aren't any debriefs either when you leave, so people head out with great information.
"The security in the Defence Forces is terrible. My impression is that most barracks, you could just walk in and give them a wave like you're meant to be there. We used to call it the 'magic thumbs up'. They'd open the gates for you and you are walking into an area where there's a building that houses weapons, anti-aircraft missiles, RPGs."
He cited one specific army barracks, which he says "is not really fortified" despite the proximity of its armoury to the entrance.
Despite our history of armed insurrection the staff on guard during the evening and night-time shifts would be "vastly outnumbered" were "a van with twelve guys" to make an attempt at breaching the vicinity.
Other sources have expressed their own uncertainties to Hot Press over whether Ireland's military would be capable of responding to renewed paramilitary activity in the vicinity of the border with Northern Ireland. With recent PSNI reports warning of increased co-operation between dissident groups, alongside the development of a pressure plate bomb by the New IRA, the possibility of a hard border has been classed as the next major threat to the Defence Forces.
Former Irish Army Captain, Tom Clonan, has spoken publicly about the issue: "We could slip back into violence very quickly," he said, adding that it was "laughable" to assume the Defence Forces could maintain security in its current condition.
"In my view, upper management has failed these really good guys," our source maintains. "There is a good middle management doing their job right, but inevitably they leave. This is no job for life. The pay's just not good enough. You're gonna see an accident happen soon. Maybe it will be at sea or maybe in the Air Corps.
"People laugh at us and say we're not real army, just playing toy soldiers," he concludes. "We have no fighter jets, no air cover as we saw with Rescue 116. Civil helicopters are painted green because it's cheap. There are no armoured helicopters so we can't be sent overseas. It is hard to see where it is all going."
• This article has been updated. Reference to the accident which took place on the Galway-Mayo border in 2009 has been removed. We wish to clarify that the Air Corps cadet David Jevens, who tragically lost his life in the incident, was not flying the Air Corps PC9 at the time of the crash, an impression that had been wrongly created in the original article. It is important to note that no blame of any kind whatsoever attached to David Jevens. We apologise to his family for any upset or distress caused.
Read the Department of Defence's response to our questions here.
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