ADDRESS BY THE MINISTER FOR DEFENCE,
MR. MICHAEL SMITH, T.D.,
TO THE 9th. ANNUAL DELEGATE CONFERENCE OF THE REPRESENTATIVE ASSOCIATION OF COMMISSIONED OFFICERS
Mr. President, General Secretary, Secretary General of the Department of Defence, Chief of Staff, fellow guests and assembled delegates, I would like to thank the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers for inviting me to address your Association's ninth Annual Delegate Conference here in Nenagh today. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years before arriving at the Promised Land, but it took your Association only nine years to discover Tipperary - well done! Last year, at your Conference in Kilkenny, you displayed the Liam McCarthy Cup which the Kilkenny Hurlers had won earlier that year. I'm not sure if this was intended to put me off my stride during my address. In any event, isn't it funny how things can turn around in the course of 12 months? I'm delighted to remind you that the cup is once again back in its natural home of Tipperary. As a proud son of Tipperary, I am delighted to welcome you all to the North Riding of the Premier County!
This is the fourth occasion on which I have attended your conference as Minister for Defence. While my term as Minister still has some time to run, this is also the last occasion on which I will have an opportunity to address you before the General Election. I hope that you will forgive me if I take a few moments to reflect over my term as Minister for Defence, an office that has been the most challenging and most satisfying of my political career.
Some of the most significant changes in the history of the Defence Forces have taken place in recent years. You are all aware of this, for many of these changes have impacted on your working lives, furthermore, you are the people who have ensured that the change process has proceeded successfully. Without the commitment and management skills of the officers of the Defence Forces the necessary organisational changes could never have been achieved. For this, I thank you all and urge you to keep up the good work - we have travelled far, but there is still more to be done.
The situation in the Defence Forces in 1997 was very different than that which prevails today. At that time, for a variety of reasons, there was widespread disquiet at every level of the Forces. The high level of public respect and esteem achieved by the Defence Forces through their years of dedicated service at home and overseas was being eroded. The organisation was struggling within its budget and there were fears that the cost of deafness claims would cause irreparable damage to the Defence Forces. In short, the entire organisation, Army, Naval Service and Air Corps was in deep trouble. Only hard decisions could save the Defence Forces and swift and radical action was called for. So I grasped the nettle and took those unpopular decisions in the long term interest of the Defence Forces.
These decisions were not taken lightly. I knew that many genuine and deeply committed people would initially have profound reservations. I could of course have avoided taking these decisions and stayed in the comfort zone. However, had I done so, I would have been in neglect of my duty as Minister, and the Defence Forces would have suffered very serious consequences. Perhaps now, when everyone can see the massive investment in equipment and building programmes that is taking place throughout the Defence Forces, they can appreciate the long-term benefits that those decisions ultimately brought about. Whether right or wrong, all of the hard decisions were taken in the sincere belief that they would be in the best long-term interests of the Defence Forces.
I sometimes get the impression that some members of the Defence Forces believe that they are the only public body that have undergone radical change in the recent past. In fact every State and Semi-state organisation has undergone substantial and, not infrequently, painful change over the past two decades, indeed some have not survived the process, or have survived only in a radically changed shape. What made the change process different in the Defence Forces, of course, was that it took place in a very short time, and that it contrasted so strongly with the inertia and stagnation that had prevailed for much of the previous thirty years. In looking at the extent of change it is important to distinguish between the removal of inefficiencies on the one hand and the introduction of genuine improvements in productivity on the other. I am sure that you will all agree that one of the benefits of the change process has been the elimination of inefficiencies thereby freeing up personnel for military activity.
As Minister for Defence I was responsible for bringing forward the first-ever White Paper on Defence. Here too, there were choices to be made - the issues could have been ducked again and I could have produced a document which looked good but said nothing, or a document setting out a list of aspirations which could never realistically be achieved. Alternatively, I could steer the White Paper process in a way which would ensure that it identified and tackled the real issues. I chose that option and decided that the key issue to be addressed was the rebalancing of resources. I knew that the proceeds from the sale of property alone would be insufficient to meet equipment and other needs identified by the Price Waterhouse reviews of the Army, the Air Corps and Naval Service and by the military authorities. We had to tackle the pay/ non-pay balance if we were to have any hope of securing the investment funds needed. In doing this I insisted, however, that the reduction in overall numbers should not impair the effectiveness of the force and would be contingent on the resulting payroll savings being reinvested in new equipment and infrastructure. And that, in the end, was the decision the Government took.
I believe that time has vindicated that decision. When the White Paper was published, the PDF strength was 10,900 and falling. With the impact of continuing economic growth on recruitment and retention, we were never going to be able to maintain that number, let alone sustain a strength of 11,500. So, even if the White Paper had left the authorised strength at 11,500, we could never have achieved that number in practice. However, had we left the authorised strength at 11,500 we would have lost out on an investment fund of at least £200m and would not have achieved the higher effectiveness of a more focused force.
The policy of continuous recruitment to the Defence Forces which I introduced has proved very successful. The Action Programme for the Millennium set the target of recruiting 1,500 personnel over 4 years. This target has been exceeded, with over 3,000 personnel including 400 females entering the Defence Forces in that period. However, the retention of personnel in the dynamic job market brought about by our strong economy has proved problematic and, notwithstanding the Chief of Staff's and my own ongoing efforts to increase recruitment, we will be doing well to hold the number serving at the new authorised strength of 10,500. We must continue to try to attract large numbers of personnel to ensure replacement for those leaving. We must project the message that a career in the Permanent Defence Force is challenging, fulfilling, rewarding and worthwhile. To assist the recruitment effort, I am calling on each and every member of your Association to join me in taking every opportunity to project a positive image of the Defence Forces and of military life.
I am conscious that the shortage of junior officers in the Defence Forces is causing some difficulties. I believe that this matter requires a creative and innovative response. Among the initiatives that must be examined in this context are graduate recruitment, short service commissions and a more active programme of commissioning from the ranks. I am sure that these will be addressed in the Personnel Development Plan which the Chief of Staff is preparing for my consideration.
The 2001 Cadet Competition was advertised last January. A total of 732 applications were received and 64 successful Cadets, including 8 females enlisted in the Cadet School in October 2001. This number is made up of 50 Army cadets, 1 Army Equitation School cadet, 7 Air Corps cadets and 6 Naval Service cadets.
In addition, Direct Entry Competitions for the appointment of Watchkeeping and Marine Engineer Officers in the Naval Service, Army Engineer and Aeronautical Engineer Officers and Medical Officers have to date resulted in a total of 11 Officer appointments being made. Offers of appointment have recently been made to an additional 7 successful applicants and their responses are awaited.
Your association has referred to the need for the Defence Forces to retain highly trained and experienced captains and commandants. I fully agree that this is essential - indeed that very point was made in the official side's submission to the Benchmarking Body. However, to attribute the loss of key officers only to a lack of challenge and lack of reward in their military careers is not to present the full picture. There are many other contributory factors - and the two that immediately come to my mind are the lack of opportunity for rapid career advancement for the most able young officers and the attractive lump sum and pension arrangements available for departing officers. Of course in recent years there have been great opportunities in the burgeoning private sector for such well qualified and highly motivated personnel.
I stated at last year's ADC, and I remain convinced today, that the Gleeson Commission's recommendation that a mechanism be developed under which officers of exceptional ability might expect to reach the rank of Lieutenant Colonel while still in their thirties would help to reduce the loss to the private sector of experienced officers with skills that are in demand.
While 2002 has seen a total of 137 Officer promotions, I believe that a merit-based promotion scheme that will enable the best and brightest young officers to progress swiftly up the ranks is absolutely essential, and it is my sincere hope that your association will work with the official side to devise a scheme that meets this objective. The planned review next year of the 1997 promotion agreement will provide an opportunity to address these issues.
As a first step towards addressing the age issue I have accepted a proposal from the Chief of Staff to review the 5 year service requirement for promotion from Lieutenant to Captain. Subject to the usual conditions and the over-riding need of the Defence Forces, this initiative should result in further promotions before the end of the year.
I now want to turn to the investment programme. In the three year period to 1997, investment on equipment for the Defence Forces was £95m. In the period since I was appointed Minister, almost £180m has been invested on equipment for the Defence Forces and a £250m. investment programme including over £100m. for building projects has been put in place. This year alone, the provision is about £107m. There has been a major "frontloading" of the investment as we have been able to commit much of this money in advance of all of the savings being achieved. We are seeing the fruits of that investment throughout the Defence Forces. The equipment programme is wide ranging and covers the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service.
I recently announced my plan to acquire an additional twenty Mowag Armoured Personnel Carriers to complement the forty which are in the course of delivery. The second new vessel for the Naval Service, the LE Niamh, was commissioned in Cork last September. The tender competition for the supply of medium lift helicopters for the Air Corps is at an advanced stage and a decision can be expected shortly. Major construction and refurbishment programmes, which will be funded mainly by the proceeds of sales of barracks, are now underway. The objective is to provide modern office and accommodation facilities for personnel in military installations.
Of course, equipment and infrastructure are just part of the picture. I believe firmly in the White Paper vision that the Defence Forces should have the best possible organisation and the best possible personnel development plans. And I believe strongly that the Defence Forces should continue to offer rewarding and challenging careers to its people. I know that the Chief of Staff will shortly be bringing forward detailed proposals on organisation structure and manpower planning for my consideration. I promise to be as positive as possible in my response. I will also, of course, ensure that consultations on the implementation of these plans take place with your association.
We have always been fortunate in the calibre, professionalism and dedication of the men and women in our Defence Forces, some of whom have given their lives in the cause of peace at home and overseas. As I speak, I am very aware too that many of your colleagues are working in very difficult circumstances in places as far away as East Timor and with SFOR and KFOR. As you know, I have visited our people in these and other places and have some first- hand knowledge of the difficult conditions being faced and the first class job being done. A large part of our success is, I believe, a tribute to the resources and skill which the Defence Forces have traditionally put into the professional development of its people. You are all proof of the success of that system. You have had the benefits of comprehensive training, followed by a wealth of experience at home and abroad.
After 23 years of exemplary service in the cause of peace, our Defence Forces are pulling out of South Lebanon as the UNIFIL mission comes to a close. During that mission, 45 of our soldiers, including 2 of your officer colleagues, lost their lives - we will never forget their heroism and the ultimate price that they paid.
However, even as the UNIFIL mission draws to a close the preparations for a new overseas mission are under way. As you know, in July the Government authorised the despatch of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for service with the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). The proposed Irish contingent will comprise a Guard and Administration Company of between 150 to 200 all ranks. The contingent, which will be based in Asmara, Eritrea, should be fully operational on or about 11 December next.
The position regarding the on-island situation continues to be as set out in the White Paper. As I have told the Dáil in response to questions, no change in the role of providing aid to the civil authorities is envisaged - although the events of 11 September are a shocking reminder of the need for constant vigilance. Indeed that commitment to the civil power had to be stepped up earlier this year because of the Foot and Mouth crisis and once again, I am pleased to say, the Defence Forces responded magnificently.
Turning to the international scene, suffice it to say that we remain committed to our policy of military neutrality and to the UN. We see no conflict at all between this position and our participation in the European Security and Defence Policy, our commitment to the Headline Goal, and PfP. We have a lot of expertise and a lot to offer and I believe that we have the resources needed to make a significant contribution in the cause of international peace.
With a relatively small Defence Forces in comparison to other EU member states, Ireland's commitment of up to 850 members to the Headline Goal from within our existing commitment of 850 personnel to UNSAS must be seen as significant. However, this is not just about numbers. I am convinced that we can make a major qualitative contribution but to do this we will need to be able to retain our very best people and deploy them in the best possible way.
I would now like to bring you up to date with the position regarding the Defence Forces Ombudsman. Earlier this year I obtained Government approval to draft an Ombudsman Bill and the Heads of Bill have been referred to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to the Government. I will publish the draft Bill in the coming weeks and I expect that it will be enacted by the Oireachtas before Easter 2002. In establishing this office I have been at pains to ensure that a credible grievance system which is fair to all members of the Defence Forces is provided, while at the same time safeguarding the operational flexibility of the Defence Forces. I would like to acknowledge the positive approach taken by your association on this issue.
I was very concerned at the recent reports in the media concerning occurrences of bullying and sexual harassment in the Defence Forces. Not only is such conduct simply unacceptable, but such unfavourable reports do great damage to the image of the Defence Forces as a potential career option. The Chief of Staff has already addressed this issue in some detail, so let me simply welcome the establishment of his Board to examine this matter. I was delighted to nominate Ms. Eileen Doyle, a highly qualified and experienced consultant, to this Board. The message must go out across the Defence Forces that all forms of bullying and harrassment will not be tolerated and I urge everyone here to give the fullest support to the Chief of Staff's Board in carrying out its important work.
Next I'd like to say a few words about the Benchmarking process. The Benchmarking Body has just completed its research in the public service including the Defence Force. This involved the completion by selected personnel of job evaluation questionnaires with follow up interviews being carried out in some cases. The research in the private sector is currently underway. Last month, the Body commenced the oral hearing phase of its programme. The oral hearings give individual groups, including your association the opportunity to make their case to the Body. Your association and the Official Side will be making oral presentations to the Body in three weeks time. The oral hearings will continue until mid-December when work on the final report will begin. The Body will publish its report by end June 2002. It has been agreed between the parties to the PPF that one-quarter of any increases recommended by the PSBB will be implemented with retrospective effect from 1 December 2001. The payment of the balance will be negotiated between the parties. These negotiations will commence immediately following receipt of the Benchmarking Body's report.
The Benchmarking Body's report will be a very important and significant document in pay determination in the public service. It will be the first comprehensive, independent report to compare the jobs in the private sector and the public service. No doubt it will have a lasting influence on public service pay into the future. The Body and its secretariat is drawn from various areas and fully reflect the fact that this is an independent and impartial body. I would urge all participants to carefully examine the report when it emerges next year. The outcome of the Benchmarking process will see Defence Forces pay set to reflect the relationship of work performed in the Defence Forces with that of other sectors of the public service and indeed across the private sector. No doubt the Body's recommendations will be a major item on next year's ADC agenda!
As you know we are mid-way through the life of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. The second phase increase - a 5½% increase in pay - took place last month. In recognition of the altered inflationary outlook, an additional once-off lump sum payment of 1% of basic pay will be paid next April. The final phase increase of 4% of basic pay will be paid in October 2002. These increases mean that your members will receive pay increases under the PPF amounting to almost 22%. In addition there were substantial personal tax reductions in the last Budget. These improvements highlight the benefits which can be achieved by working within the PPF framework. Earlier this year, agreement was reached with your association on a package of 8 small claims with a total annual value of almost £170,000.
Discussions are continuing with both Defence Forces Representative Associations with regard to the introduction of Partnership structures in the Defence Forces. These discussions are at an advanced stage and it is my intention to set up a Defence Forces National Partnership Steering Committee as soon as these discussions are completed.
So, summing up, I believe that we now face a very different situation than we faced in 1997. We have bitten the bullet, tackled the problems and made the necessary hard decisions. We have done a great deal to restore the standing and credibility of the Defence Forces. We have adapted to the evolving national and international security situation, we have a strategic blueprint for the next ten years in the White Paper while the Benchmarking exercise is addressing pay issues. As I have said, I know that your Association was unhappy with some of my decisions at the time, but committed Ministers must sometimes take unpopular decisions. Time has moved on and I believe that those decisions will help to develop the first class Defence Forces that all of us wish to see. We are now seeing the payback for the hard work of recent years and with your continued support such a force is no longer an aspiration but an achievable reality. In short, we have a future and that future is bright. President, delegates, realisation of the opportunity for the Defence Forces to develop from strength to strength rests with your members - the officers - the core management of the Force. The future is in your own hands.
I would like to wish you every success with your deliberations and hope that you will enjoy the rest of this Conference.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh.