Imagine, if you will, a promising young army recruit. A shining example of soldiery who is so enthusiastic and so thoroughly professional in his training that he’s up for the ‘Best Soldier Award’ in his 40-strong platoon.
This bright new hope, however, tells his superior that he’s decided to leave the army after just three months to return to his former job in a meat factory.
The reason? Pay.
Because in the meat factory, he’d get twice the salary for half the hours.
If nothing else, this chilling anecdote is the major, screaming, reason for the government to wake up, acknowledge the intolerable and disgraceful level of pay which is destroying our Defence Forces — and do something about it.
It’s a national disgrace that soldiers and sailors are being forced to sleep in cars and on board their ships because their pay is so low, and conditions in the Defence Forces are so bad, they have nowhere to go and can’t afford private rental accommodation.
The first, most urgent, thing we have to do, is pay them properly.
The next thing we need to do is appoint a dedicated senior Minister for Defence ( the Taoiseach is playing this role on top of running the country) to ensure that pay and conditions never again fall below par.
The lack of a senior minister, means, if I understand Comdt Cathal Berry correctly, that civil servants are wielding “disproportionate power” and are at the root of the massive pay and staff retention problems which are clearly crippling the Defence Forces.
Cathal Berry resigned after 23 years’ service in the Defence Forces, including six years as deputy head of the Army Ranger Wing (ARW), so that he could speak up on behalf of his men. Because, it seems, there’s nobody senior enough at the Cabinet table to do anything about the situation — the junior minister Paul Kehoe hasn’t tackled it since he was appointed back in 2011.
In fact, Berry has said that he has “presided over the demise of the Defence Forces”.
And the civil servants don’t seem to care.
So the pay, not to put too fine a point on it, is beyond lousy; it’s offensively low for the work they’re expected to do.
Figures quoted show that 84% of personnel earn less than the average annual earnings of full-time employees in Ireland (€45,000). And the conditions they are expected to endure are appalling — Comdt Berry was quoted recently as saying that it was still common for soldiers to sleep in their cars because of a lack of accommodation at bases. He said he had personally witnessed this several weeks ago at a barracks in Galway.
PDFORRA, the association which represents enlisted personnel in the Defence Forces, has said it is very concerned about the effects this is having on them.
And of course, during the week we also heard about sailors sleeping on board ships during their time off, because they can’t afford the soaring rents either — and, surprise, surprise, there’s not enough proper accommodation for them at the naval base in Cork.
Berry said many of them and their families were “living in abject poverty”.
But of course they’re not allowed to complain publicly about it — serving soldiers are not allowed to speak out and, as Berry has observed, this “gagging” suited Department of Defence mandarins.
So, in another part of this insane Through-the-Looking-Glass-style scenario, the Department of Defence handed back nearly €100 million to the Exchequer in the past five years!
Yes, that’s €100 million that it, em, apparently didn’t need (because, eh, they weren’t paying the soldiers or the sailors, properly).
Why wasn’t a review carried out into why the Department of Defence was inexplicably swimming in so much surplus cash when most other government departments are either deeply in the red or need every cent they can get?
The civil servants in question — who are presumably not being forced to sleep in cars or on ships because they can’t afford decent accommodation — were, one can also presume, on the receiving end of big kudos from the Exchequer for their apparent thrift in “managing” the departmental budget.
If you heard this was going on in North Korea, or in Communist Russia you mightn’t be surprised. But in Ireland?
Comdt Berry has also revealed that because the working time directive does not apply to the Defence Forces and because numbers in the forces are now so low (given that it’s haemorrhaging people) defence forces personnel are being deployed on duties that last several days at a time — and are being paid utterly miserly expenses that don’t cover the costs of even travelling to those duties.
No surprise, then, to hear that the poor rates of pay and allowances for enlisted personnel were driving them out of the Defence Forces — and apparently at the rate of some 9% every year.
Figures show that numbers in the Defences Forces have dropped below 8,500, which is around 1,000 fewer than the figure the government committed to maintaining.
And as if all of that wasn’t enough, he has also warned that there’s a culture of deliberately excluding military personnel from any consultations regarding policy.
So not only do you have a regime that is keeping Defence Forces personnel in poverty, you also have people who have never been in the Defence Forces, creating the policies.
Root and branch changes are needed.
It’s to be hoped that the Public Service Pay Commission, which has examined the issue of recruitment and retention in the defence sector in its report — now with Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe TD — will ensure that appropriately large pay rises are on the way to Defence Forces personnel as part of the forthcoming public service pay restoration.