This article will discuss the decline of the Irish military over the last number of years which are either due to a lacklustre attitude from the military hierarchy to drive home the issue of funding. Though the larger culprits reside within the Department of Defence, Department of Finance and subsequent Irish governments. There have been numerous damaging articles published about the Irish Defence Forces in my few years of taking an interest into the organisation, as one could hardly escape the endless flow of reports from the Irish Times, Examiner, Irish Independent and the Journal on the decline of the Irish military. Today I will try to list some of the most scathing issues around the Defence Forces.
I would wager that a decent amount of men and some women in the Republic of Ireland have pondered the idea of enlisting into the Irish Defence Forces at some point in time during their early livelihoods. However there is always something in the way of these soldiering aspirations whether it is from new economic and educational opportunities, to familial influences which may discourage the notion; but the worst distraction to our aspiring soldiers lies across the celtic sea within her majesty’s service. Many of our finest men and women continue to accept the Queen’s shilling because they offer more opportunities and better benefits from free dental care, travel discounts, and store discounts alongside an organisation whose processing rate is not hindered by annual competitions or harsher age restrictions.
Furthermore, Britain is fully committed to its international commitments through its adequate funding and recruitment in contrast to our overstretched forces.
Less soldiers and sailors in the Defense Forces will mean lower chances to further career development alongside overworked hours. An overstretched Defence Force will also hinder our internal capabilities and international reputation and this will soon be tested as Russian navy vessels prepare to mount a missile test 240 km south west off Ireland’s coast in Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone which is under our Navy’s jurisdiction.
The former impediments to some degree are out of the control of the Irish government however, there is a lot of opportunity to expand and to help entice young men and women of Ireland into military service providing there exists the political will and ambition to achieve such a goal of revitalisation.
Nevertheless it is of my opinion that the track record thus far by the political establishment in Ireland since the 1970s and 1990s has seen a decline of personnel numbers, robust equipment, facilities and military ceremony. Where today we live in the former’s shadow which had so much potential and vigour. From French CM-170 jet aircraft to propeller planes and the British Comet A34 tank to armoured fighting vehicles, these are just snippets of the Defence Forces developing decline with its versatility and operational strength.
These latter issues can be raised in another article, but the focus now shall concern pay and conditions. There have been a number of military facility closures by the Irish state over the last two decades with an economic aim to sell these bases and direct the funding from their sale back into the Irish Defence Forces.
Yet, to me this only speaks of an appeasement to a decline stemming from the states neglect towards the Defence Forces and its infrastructure which is needed to carry out their duties without having to fear logistical and facility restraints.
Where one would hope the Irish Defence Forces would mark the anniversary of many a past sacrifice on this island, they are now left to mark their slow decline. The sale or squandering of developed military assets to private enterprises will not solve the root of the problem, that being personnel retention, pay and base conditions in Ireland. Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2011 “confirmed that four provincial military barracks facilities are to close”, in addition he also stated that “the previous government had closed ten barracks while in office.”
In light of these events, post a 2008 financial crisis it may be argued that these closures of some military facilities were an obvious target for austerity budgeting as a result of an incompetant Fianna Fáil government and banking sector.
However, are 15 barracks a justifiable amount considering we are further limiting our potential recruitment and processing capacity where the Irish military for years has seen its numbers steadily decline despite an anomaly increase for a year during the later stages of the troubled era before continuing to plummet down once more. This lack of processing capacity will only economically hinder future ambitions to resuscitate the Defence Forces if the state is ever to move beyond its stifling annual recruitment windows.
Moreover, despite some economic improvement since the austerity measures pre covid, the military has continued to suffer with many unmanned naval ships as of 2021 coupled with a retention issue of skilled servicemen across the military despite concerns over foreign military intrusions into Irish waters and airspace thus we lack the capabilities to deter these basic transgressions.
According to Sarah Walshe of the ‘Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces’ organisation, the military’s personnel between 2016 and 2018 dropped by “2,890 with all ranks having left, representing an exodus of approximately 30% of the Defence Forces’ overall strength.” Furthermore the organisation PDFORRA representing enlisted personnel said that both officers and their lower ranked counterparts have been paying the Irish state sums of money up to €40,000 to abandon their military service, where in 2018 alone “170 Defence Forces personnel ” had paid to leave.
The World Bank chart below illustrates the decline of military personnel in the Defence Forces by nearly half of its operational strength since 1997 where it stood near 13,000 where today it rests at 8,650 between the Army, Navy and Air Corps. The Reserve Defence Forces (RDF) stood at 1,778 as of 2018 despite TD Jack Chambers being more concerned of the gender breakdown when asking both the Taoiseach and Minister of Defence to make statements on the matter rather than lambasting them of the destitute numbers which comprise the reserves and that of its haphazard organisation across the 26 counties.
Nevertheless in 1988, the National Army Spouses Association (NASA) has similarly been at war with the Irish government to pay proper wages to their partners in the Defences forces, with many women exclaiming that their husbands are working as much as 80 hours a week, but taking home as little as £112 or €266.19 by 2020 standards.
These RTE archives show how historic these issues have been rooted in the debate around the financing of the Defence Forces. Using the World Bank for tracking Ireland’s military expenditure from 1960 to 1995 Ireland remained above 1% of GDP expenditure, since then it has continued to steadily decline to 0.287% despite military incursions and public protests. However this decline is a global trend but when looking towards a similarly populated country like the land locked country of Switzerland with no navy they continue to widen the gap on military spending despite having less areas to internally patrol or have noticeable and aggressive international incursions within their borders as they are entirely surrounded by large NATO countries.
Using GDP statistics from the World Bank we are the fifth least country in the world to spend on their military despite our many international commitments under the United Nations and our participation in the EU’s PESCO battlegroup.
Moving on from this exodus, has the Irish states redirecting of capital ‘strengthened the nation’ as advertised by the Defence Forces recruiting campaigns; because the unravelling situation seems to cry a weakening of the nation. It is the families of our Irish soldiers which continue to see the neglect towards military pay and conditions who pour out onto the streets of the capital; they seek political change from our complacent politicians and civil servants who lack any idealist motivation to help release the Defences Forces from their decrepit mouldy bases, insufficient salaries, and underwhelming capabilities. One need only compare the enlisted salaries of Óglaigh na hÉireann to the An Garda Siochana to see the large discrepancies.
Ireland’s detached political establishment will not falter at receiving photo opportunities with the Defence Forces or use them for political events. They remain uninterested in becoming a useful political force of reckoning towards fixing these stagnant issues which never seem to improve as they rely on British intervention to secure Ireland’s borders; this “undermines our neutrality” says former Army Ranger Wing member Dr. Cathal Berry, a T.D within Dail Eireann. His voice like many others is ignored or dismissed with unproportionate concerns usually around a lack of money or screams of excessive spending. As was the case when T.D Cathal Berry expressed the need for long-range second-hand heavy lift aircraft for the Irish Air Corps due to the international embarrassment when the Defence Forces have to utilise private air companies or foriegn military hitchhikes into our overseas deployments. This happened during a recent deployment of the frustrated ARW into Afghanistan in 2021 when helping 33 Afghan refugees escape due to their Irish citizenship from the collapse of the Anglo-American war in the middle east. The Department of Defence under Minister Simon Coveney had failed to secure long-range heavy lift aircraft despite offers from a private company called the Seraph Aviation Group, months before the deployment.
How can Ireland expect to fulfil its role in providing a competent peacekeeping force on the global stage worthy of international acclaim if countless governments have failed to maintain the Irish Defence forces capabilities and quality of life. The Curragh military camp in Ireland is one of our most well known military installations where it “provides education for Irish and visiting international military personnel,” says former serviceman and senator Gerard Craughwell; this military college is supposed to be a centre of Irish military excellence. Yet like a lot of infrastructure handed down by the British Empire in Ireland much of it has gone into disrepair or has been demolished for modern architectural eyesores.
The Curragh camp is the embodiment of the Irish Defence forces decline, with senator Craughwell stating “it’s little wonder that Defence Forces personnel faced with such conditions are voting with their feet and quitting the country’s military.” This lack of adequate conditions is not only reserved to army personnel as the navy in 2019 had also raised complaints over naval seamen preferring to sleep on their ships instead of the 200 year old land accommodation at Haulbowline Naval base in Cork. In 2017 the base had also erupted into flames due to a roof from a derelict military building. If this does not speak of a bad omen concerning the state of the Irish Defence Forces then I do not know what will. During the month of december in 2021 a burglar had also managed to run rife aboard a docked naval vessel and stole whatever they could find from a bottle of whisky, dirty laundry and medals and so not only do the Defence Forces have to fear the neglect brought upon them by the political establishment, they also have to be mindful of laundry robbing thieves inside a derelict naval base. And let us not speak of falling helicopter doors from the Irish Air Corps to food budgeting which is below the daily cost of an Irish prisoner at the likes of Arbour Hill prison.
Below are some of the conditions in Cathal Brugha barracks and the Curragh camp:
I could continue to discuss at length the issues around the current situation that our Defence Forces finds itself in due to a lack of competence, foresight and care on part of our political establishment. To think that some civil servants and politicians will have the audacity to wave towards our Defence Forces during the annual boozed affair of the St. Patricks Day parade with their families yet they stand aloof to the neglect of our servicemembers. Day in day out the Defence Forces strive to maintain Ireland’s international obligations and reputation as a peacekeeping force but also as an aid to internal stability and safety in Ireland with having limited resources. We have let the Irish state spit into the face of the hard work and dedication that is provided by our military on a whims notice everyday, as they sit in a crusty environment filled with failed promises and capabilities. The former Chief of staff Mark Mellett during his outgoing discussions said that the Irish Department of Finance and the Defence Forces have always had tension, with the “simple reality being that the Defence Forces is seen as a cost centre, that it consumes resources that may well be allocated better elsewhere.”
I do not want to be completely doom and gloom as there may be light at the end of the tunnel with regard to providing better foundations for the future growth of Óglaigh na hÉireann. Currently there is an independent advisory report set to be released soon by the Irish Department of Defence which will look into multiple areas of improvement. The report is being written by foriegn military officials and security experts from notable Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Denmark, and Finland. However RACO, the organisation representing Irish military officers, are “fearful that the report will fail to address problems with staffing in the military.”
In conclusion time will only tell if these recommendations are listened to and followed up on in the next coming years by our political establishment, but it will be of vital importance if our military is to have a future in defending our country and its interests.