If there is one area of public spending nobody seems to care about, it is arguably the most important and the least ideological. We can argue until the cows come home on the merits, the costs and benefits of State intervention in education, housing, and health, but only the most ardent of ideologues would believe in the market-led provision of Defence or National Security.
In the Westphalian model of Nation-States, security lies solely with the legitimate Government of a territory. We need only look to Iraq and the massacres perpetrated by private contractors there to know that the application of force needs to lie solely with an accountable Government.
And yet, this fundamental and basic role of the State is ignored, underfunded and abused, and has been since our State’s very inception. With a budget smaller than almost any other major piece of state spending, it is rivalled only by ‘Business, Enterprise and Innovation,’ and has a 50% smaller budget than ‘Children and Youth Affairs.’ Defence comes in at a measly €1 billion.
This Government has not even seen fit to give it a full time Ministerial position, instead lumping it together with the Dept. of An Taoiseach and relegating all the duties and functions to a Minister of State with Responsibility for Defence, Mr. Paul Kehoe. It is one of the most fundamental areas that a any state has responsibility for, and yet this Government does not even think it worthy of a Cabinet position.
This disrespect is not just contained within the halls of Leinster House, and it is not only leadership issues which are causing the retention crisis. This irresponsible approach to Defence is absolutely evident at all levels of government. The chronic underfunding of the Reserve Defence Forces has led to its effective collapse as a body, both in the Army and Air Corps but in the Navy most specifically.
Horror stories of soldiers living in barracks with black mould, in conditions not fit for human habitation are rife. All while the Department transfers millions to cover for the HSE overspend. Our soldiers are paid a pittance of overtime, with some of them making only €20 extra for an entire night shift.
The Army’s strength was set at 9500 but languishes around 9000 because of poor recruitment practices, poorer funding, an incapacity to retain current members, and the illustrious and well-paid alternative of instead working in a McDonald’s or Tesco.
The Defence Forces cannot properly unionise, nor can it carry out strikes, and whilst the same prohibitions exist on the Gardaí, one cannot credibly believe that the threat of a ‘Green Flu’ would persuade Government, if four deaths in a helicopter crash in 2017 due to inadequate staffing levels in the Air Corps could not.
What are we to do then? Allow our soldiers to suffer and rely on friends and family to campaign for them? Are we to abolish the entire military, as those on the far left would be keen to do? Should we dedicate the entire Defence Budget to the HSE? (It would be entirely spent within 3 weeks).
“Who are we going to fight?” is a common question, a rhetorical trick. But it misses the point of a military entirely. The military is not an instrument for use in immediate wars, it is an insurance policy. Would anyone try and arrange fire insurance only at the moment our house is burning down, or would that be too little, too late?
“We support more spending in principle, but not right now,” is a similar refrain, but the answer should be the question of: “If not now, then when?”
By the time you need a military, it is too late to begin building the instruments we need to protect ourselves. During The Emergency, the State decided it was the right time to acquire aircraft… only to find nobody capable of providing them. Similarly, in the Troubles when it seemed possible that the State may be required to intervene in an independent six-county Statelet, the Army was asked to design plans to intervene. The Government was told that any intervention could only draw upon 2500 of the State’s 12,000 men at arms, and those men would need to be sent by private bus hire into the North.
The State has failed members of the Defence Forces, and continues to fail them, but as a public we should not be complicit in this crime. We need to drastically overhaul our approach to national security, despite the opposition of those on the fringes of society. We need more funding, we need better equipment, we need more men, and most important we need to stop mistreating our current soldiers.
We must allow the 10,000 to 15,000 who apply to join the Defence Forces every recruitment cycle a chance to dedicate themselves to what they believe to be their calling – the defence of the Nation. We must open recruitment procedures, and strengthen the RDF as well as the PDF.
It is imperative that our youth be involved too. For the betterment of their physical and mental robustness, to combat the crisis of anxiety and fear that paralyses young men and women by giving them something they can believe in, something they can rely upon. Something that gives them rights, responsibilities, and make them feel a valued part of the community. A member of a Nation that cherishes all its children.
We should follow what other countries of similar size do (Finland, Norway, Austria, Denmark, and soon again, Sweden) and introduce a system of National Service for all those willing and able to do so. We should reward their fidelity to the Nation by trusting them to be responsible, supporting them in continuing to third level education, or going directly into the workforce.
If we do so, we will be able to more confidently assert ourselves in the global security sphere. Perhaps even aligning with like-minded nations seeking to protect the status quo. But to do any of this, we must first prioritise the men and women serving in the Defence Forces of this country, and that will require that we stop ignoring this major issue.
Good luck getting anyone in this provincial backwater to take defence seriously.