Interview

Published on March 5th, 2014 | by admin

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Changing Of The Guard- Colonel Brian O’Keeffe

2014 WILL SEE THE FOUNDING GENERAL SECRETARY OF RACO, COLONEL BRIAN O’KEEFFE, RETIRE. HE HAS SERVED AS ASSOCIATION GENERAL SECRETARY SINCE 1991 AND HAS BEEN A MEMBER OF THE PERMANENT DEFENCE FORCES FOR 42 YEARS. HERE, IN A COMPREHENSIVE INTERVIEW, HE TALKS TO SIGNAL ABOUT HIS PERSONAL AND CORPORATE REFLECTIONS ON RACO’S SUCCESSES AND CHALLENGES AND WHY HE FEELS THE ASSOCIATION IS FIT TO FACE THE FUTURE UNDER NEW LEADERSHIP.

Having recently addressed the RACO BDC for the final time as General Secretary, could you give us a brief summary of the state of RACO today in terms of membership involvement, general morale and engagement amongst commissioned ranks with the Association and the impact that RACO has had in terms of securing best possible outcomes for its members?

I am satisfied that RACO is in an excellent state as I prepare to hand over to my successor, Comdt Earnan Naughton. Membership rates remain extremely high, as they have since our establishment. At any one time only 30-40 officers would be non-members. Despite the pay cuts and other hardships suffered by officers over the past five years we have not lost members. This is very encouraging and indicates that officers value the service provided by RACO and appreciate the importance of using the strength of the collective to protect our terms and conditions of service. Of course these, like those of all public servants, have been under sustained attack since the economy imploded in 2008.

Our elected representatives in each of the Brigades and Services and at Defence Forces Headquarters level are active and engaged and have the confidence to speak up for the officers they represent. In terms of age and rank they are very representative of the composition of the membership and what is very positive is the high number of junior officers, who are also by definition younger. Their involvement is I think vital for the future of the Association. In my view the high participation level amongst these ranks is a product of our decision in the mid-1990s to establish a dedicated committee representing officers of Lieutenant rank, with a full seat at the National Executive table.

This has made RACO very relevant to this group of younger officers. It also ensures that the Association does not lose touch with these men and women who are the future of both RACO and the Defence Forces. The last five years have been traumatic for officers, as they have been for the country as a whole. In addition to the pay cuts, increased taxes and charges and general uncertainty about the future that almost all our citizens have suffered, the Defence Forces, particularly the Army, have had major restructuring and reorganisation and barrack closures.

Many members of the Forces now find themselves facing a lifetime of commuting long distances to work and little if any possibility of a return to work in the area in which they have settled with their families. Of course all of this has had a negative impact on morale, but I am confident that it will recover, as it has in the past.

The association itself also “moved house” last year. We purchased our own new offices, here at Kingswood Road, Citywest, having been in State provided accommodation since we were established in 1990. For us this was a very important move, not only because it involved a significant investment of members’ funds, but also because it symbolises our independence and self-reliance as an organisation. It is tangible evidence that RACO is here to stay.

Finally, I am confident that the new professional staff team, Earnan and the Deputy General Secretary Designate Comdt Derek Priestley, have the capacity to continue to develop the Association to respond effectively to the many challenges that officers will face in the coming years.

Can you take us back to the genesis of RACO and your own personal recollections of your first exposure to representation and how you became involved? Also, provide a brief summary of your military career prior to RACO (overseas service etc).
I became involved in representation at the first elections in June 1990. At the time I was serving as a Company Commander in the 28th Infantry Battalion in Finner Camp, Co Donegal. When it was announced that representative associations were to be established I was approached by some colleagues and asked to put myself forward for election. I did so and was elected to the first RACO committee for the then Western Command.

In the first few months after the election I worked on some projects at the national level of the Association and I suppose that led to my being approached to put myself forward for the new position of General Secretary. There was an open competition amongst officers for the job. I was successful and took up the position in October 1991.

I had spent a total of 8 years with the 28th Battalion. Of course, during the 70’s and 80’s the operational focus of the Defence Forces was very much on internal security and Border operations. The Border units were very large – the 28th Battalion had three major posts and over 700 personnel at one point – and they were extremely busy. Before being posted to Finner Camp I had served for a number of years as an Administrative Officer with the FCA (RDF) in Mayo/Sligo, based in Castlebar and before that again I served with the 1st Battalion in Galway, the unit I had been commissioned to in 1973.

My overseas service consists of two trips with UNIFIL in Lebanon, both as second in command of the Company drawn from the Western Command. Before I came to RACO there had been very few overseas missions, so two trips would have been about normal for an officer of my rank and service.

The big change in this area happened in the 1990’s with the shift of focus of the Defence Forces and now, of course, peace support missions are a very large part of what the Army, in particular, does and officers can expect to serve overseas on multiple occasions during their careers. This has been a very positive development from the individual’s perspective but also for the Defence Forces as an organisation. On the training and academic front I had completed the normal military courses in areas such as Heavy Weapons, HR, Intelligence and Logistics, in addition to a B.Comm in NUIG as part of the Army’s USAC Scheme and an MBA which I undertook at my own expense, graduating in 1990, also from NUIG.

 
It is well documented that the early days of representation were turbulent, in terms of the very concept gaining traction and in terms of the survival of the Association. What were the key discussion and outcomes in those days that led to representation establishing itself within the DF, and were there any occasions when you considered the possibility that the concept would not work and would never be accepted?

 
Representation was not something that officers actively sought – the initial drive for it came from enlisted personnel and their spouses. In the late eighties the country was just coming out of severe recession – we had been described as the sick man of Europe back then too! In the Defence Forces we had a total embargo on promotion and recruitment and very poor pay, with many soldiers drawing social welfare support payments. That all sounds very familiar doesn’t it? Conditions were so bad at the time that soldiers’ spouses held public protests, demanded representation for members of the Forces and put forward candidates in three constituencies in a general election in 1989.

This influenced the outcome in at least one constituency and I think that caused a bit of a shock to the political system that prompted action. A month later the Government established the Commission on Remuneration and Conditions of Service in the Defence Forces (The Gleeson Commission) to carry out a root and branch review of the terms and conditions of military personnel. Before the Commission had reported, it was decided that there would be representation in the Defence Forces, with separate associations for officers and enlisted personnel. The Defence Act was amended in 1990 to provide for this and the first elections to both associations were held in June of that year. Many officers felt that the fact that representation was considered necessary signified a failure of the command structure to ensure that military personnel had adequate and appropriate terms and conditions.

Others considered it incompatible with military life. But once the Government decided that there would be representation the majority of officers understood that it was their duty to ensure that the decision was implemented fully and positively in both letter and spirit. Many, including myself, also decided that if there was going to be representation they wanted to be involved in shaping the form that it took and the way in which the new officers’ association would go about its business. I think that these are the reasons that from the outset RACO had such high membership rates. However, there certainly was not universal acceptance of representation within the Defence Forces – there was considerable resistance, particularly from the highest levels at the time, and the loyalty of those who were active in the Association was called into question. Some of us were told that we had “put ourselves beyond the Pale” by our involvement.

So, yes, they were very turbulent times. Within RACO we were very conscious that we had to win the confidence of both our members and the Official Side over time. We did this by showing that we were professional and responsible, that we had vision, that we could and would represent all the diverse elements of the Officer Corps without fear or favour and that there was no conflict between improving the lot of our members and the good of the Defence Forces. In essence – we had to prove that what was good for our members was good for the Defence Forces – and vice versa. I think that the fact we did achieve this is borne out both by our high membership rates and the positive relationships we now have with the authorities.  We were fortunate at the beginning in having The Gleeson Commission Report, which had been published in July 1990.

This Report had been accepted by Government and provided both the impetus and the initial agenda for the transformation process that has been ongoing in the Defence Forces ever since. But for us it meant that we had a clear initial agenda – to negotiate the implementation of the report’s many recommendations and to ensure that our members’ best interests were served in the implementation. The fact that the Report included recommendations covering all elements of our membership gave us the unity of purpose necessary for the development of an effective association. However, we certainly had concerns in the early years about the acceptance of representation by the higher echelons, of the military in particular.

However, we knew that resistance to the concept came principally from those who were in the most senior positions when it was introduced and perhaps saw it as a threat to their authority. We were confident that as long as we survived the first few years and proved the Association’s worth to our members eventually some of those very members would reach the top positions and would appreciate the value of representation and that this would result in what might be called the “mainstreaming” of representation within the Defence Forces. Of course that is exactly what happened, perhaps even more quickly than we expected, and we saw RACO’s first President, Lt Gen Dave Stapleton, appointed Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces in 1998. Now, of course, we have reached the situation where every currently serving General was a member of RACO in earlier ranks (Generals are precluded from membership under the terms of Defence Force Regulations) and both of the Deputy Chiefs of Staff and the Assistant Chief of Staff were elected representatives of the Association earlier in their careers.

From a personal perspective, how did you find the change from serving within the Army as an officer to becoming involved in representation? In terms of what that change represented for your career, from the aspects of both opportunity and risk, what are your memories of that time?
The change from being a Company Commander in the 28th Infantry Battalion in Finner Camp to General Secretary of RACO was massive on a number of fronts. From a domestic point of view it involved a move from Sligo, where we were living at the time, to Dublin. At that time commuting would not have been a viable option given the poor state of the roads back then and the time demands of the new job. So that was a major upheaval for the family, with change of homes, a new school for our daughter and so on. Of course domestic disruption is an integral part of military life, so we had been through it before. But it was more difficult for my family than for me, as I was totally engaged with getting to grips with my new job.

With respect to the job itself, the change was even greater. The Defence Forces is a hierarchical organisation and at that time was quite rigid and extremely bureaucratic. Very often the lines of communication within the organisation were confused with the lines of command, so the passing of information, up or down, was slow and followed a long path. There was little if any scope for officers, particularly those of junior and middle rank, to put forward ideas for organisational change and if they did they were filtered through the many layers of the chain of command before they got to the top.

The Defence Forces was not a questioning organisation so there had been a degree of stagnation in terms of development in areas such as HR. This led to considerable frustration amongst the many officers who wanted to see real change. RACO, on the other hand has a flat structure, more suited to the role that we play, and is far from bureaucratic. The most junior member of the Association can access the National Executive and the Professional Staff (General Secretary and Deputy General Secretary) directly. So the organisation gets to know about emerging issues quickly and can respond in a timely manner. Equally, we communicate information directly to members when it is appropriate, so that the member gets accurate information directly and quickly.

This approach also means that in conducting research or preparing our positions we can tap the considerable talent of the Officer Corps by dealing with the appropriate individuals directly, regardless of their rank or location. The organisation was designed to facilitate this approach and it is one that we have ensured has been central to the manner in which we have developed our modus operandi over the years. Another change for me, of course, was in the range and level of contacts we were dealing with, both internally and outside the Defence Forces. As a Company Commander my work contacts were generally limited to a couple of levels above in the Defence Forces, the personnel within the Unit, the Garda Siochána in the local Division and the local authorities. On joining the RACO team we immediately began to interface with people at very senior levels in the Military, Civil Servants from a number of Departments, journalists, trade unionists and, of course politicians, amongst others.

This was certainly a daunting experience for a relatively junior Commandant in his thirties. Within the membership we were also dealing with officers from all three Services, Army, Air Corps and Naval Service, the first time for me, and having to learn quickly about their particular issues and concerns. And of course, myself and my Deputy, Col Adrian Ryan who started at the same time, were dealing in an arena – that of industrial relations – that was alien to the Defence Forces and to us as officers. So, we moved onto a very steep learning curve.

They were very busy times, but also exciting. It was very rewarding to be able to have a direct hand in effecting much needed change in the Defence Forces. There was also a degree of nervousness about the future. Representation at that time was not exactly flavour of the month with the General Staff, so we were obviously concerned at what our involvement might mean for our careers.

RACO has been in existence throughout a period of almost constant change within the Defence Forces. Some of the key milestones include the ‘deafness’ issue, the 2000 White Paper on Defence, the continuing downsizing and reorganisation of the DF, benchmarking and, most recently, the financial crisis and subsequent, presumably related, reduction of a Brigade within the DF. Where has RACO made key contributions in terms of effecting how these changes and developments impacted on the Officer corps?

Yes the period since our establishment has seen a tremendous amount of change, not only in the Defence Forces, but in the wider world too. The Defence Forces of today is unrecognisable from the organisation that existed when we started in RACO in 1990. In terms of quality and standards the organisation and its members at all ranks can hold their own with any military in the world. I believe that RACO has played a part in creating and shaping that positive change. In respect of all of the changes in areas affecting officers terms and condition, from pay, to promotion systems, to the implementation of the reorganisations, RACO has played a central part.

In some cases our role has been to promote what we see as positive change, in others it has been to block or modify proposals form the official side that we consider not to be in the best interests of our members or the Defence Forces. Perhaps the greatest difference that RACO has made for officers is that it provides a means of ending mechanisms and processes through which their decisions regarding Association members’ terms and conditions may be held up to scrutiny by third parties and that makes for fairer decisions.

 
How would you categorise relations between RACO and the DoD/Government over the years, what were the particular low points? Also, where was genuine progress made through partnership?
Well at the outset I have to say that at this stage we have a professional, businesslike relationship with all elements of the “Official Side”, the Military Authorities, Department of Defence, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the political side, the Minister and his Government colleagues. Of course, as in any relationship, over the past twenty four years there have been ups and downs. It takes time for relationships to mature, but once we got over the initial difficulties in establishing ourselves and finding our space in the defence domain all parties found it easier to deal with the stresses in the relationship that arise from time to time. That doesn’t mean that everything has been plain sailing since the early days – far from it.

There have been particular low points and some extremely difficult situations. But I don’t want to rake over the old coals of particular issues or incidents– there’s nothing to be gained by that. However, I think that all parties learned valuable lessons as a result of our clashes along the way and that has contributed to the more mature relationship we have now. That doesn’t mean that we don’t still have major disagreements – we do. Indeed the constant attack on the terms and condition of our members over the past few years has created huge stresses in our relationships, particularly with the Department of Defence. It has been extremely difficult to see many of the gains we achieved for our members over the years being reversed as members of the Defence Forces, like many others, are asked to pay for the greed and inefficiency of others. Very often the flash point in recent times has been what we see as a growing tendency of the Department to attempt to bypass the established processes and impose change without consultation.

However, I’m confident that the systems in place are robust enough to ensure that all parties will eventually see the merit in using the established mechanisms and processes as they were intended. As I’ve said before, the major difficulty early on was in getting the higher echelons of the military system to accept representation. However, very quickly the Defence Forces adapted to the new reality and within a few short years representation became an integral part of the culture of the Organisation. I have to say that through my time with RACO it has never ceased to amaze me how adaptable the Defence Forces and its members are. Whatever new challenge or requirement for radical change is presented, the Organisation seems to just take it on board, make it part of itself and move on.

We have seen that time after time over the past two decades; whether it is major reorganisations, barrack closures, new HR systems, and the development of the expeditionary culture and so on. I’m not sure that any other organisation in the country, in either the public or private sectors, could have successfully managed such significant, fundamental and ongoing change as the Defence Forces have since 1990. As I have said on many occasions, the key to the success of the Organisation over this period has been the quality of its people, of all ranks. As regards partnership, I know that the popular view now is that the Social Partnership model we had in Ireland contributed significantly to the economic collapse.

However, what I can say is that within the Defence Forces, partnership worked and delivered real and significant benefits, both for the Organisation and for the members of the Forces. It is doubtful whether the major transformation of the Defence Forces could have been achieved so successfully if a top down directive approach had been adopted and if the associations and individual members of the Forces had not been brought into the process. For the associations and members, partnership was positive because it recognised our position as stakeholders. On the pay front the much criticised first benchmarking exercise under partnership was a positive experience for RACO, because it gave us a direct input into the determination of our members’ pay – the Defence Forces and Garda associations had been largely excluded from centralised pay bargaining prior to that because we are not affiliated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).

The fact that the outcome was positive for our members reflected the value of their jobs. For our part the members of the Defence Forces delivered real productivity and change in return for the Benchmarking increases, just as we have delivered on all of our commitments under the various pay programmes. A very real example of the progress made through partnership is the significant enhancement of the culture of the Defence Forces in the area of interpersonal relationships – bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. With the guidance of the Independent Monitoring Group – a high level partnership group of the Military, the Department of Defence, RACO and PDFORRA, chaired by Dr Eileen Doyle, the Defence Forces in partnership with the associations at every level have affected an extraordinary change in organisational culture.

Over a period of ten years we have moved from an organisation being held up to public condemnation as a result of reports of endemic unacceptable interpersonal behaviour to one that is now recognised as a model of best practice in this area.

 
The retirement of the founding General Secretary and Deputy General Secretary represent a defining moment for RACO, as the work of the Association passes to a new generation. What are your hopes for the Association, and indeed the Defence Forces, for the medium to long term future? What key challenges lie ahead for your successor?
Yes, both of us leaving in the same year presents a significant challenge to the Association and to our successors. It wasn’t planned that way, but that is the way it has turned out and we have to deal with it. A longer gap between the two retirements might have been preferable, but on the other hand a “clean sweep” allows the new men to get into action together from the start and to bond and grow together as a team. I have every confidence that they will prove to be a very effective partnership.

For the Association – I hope that it continues to be a true voice of all of the Officer Corps, that it continues to be professional and effective and that officers continue to support RACO as they have done in the past. As I said earlier, officers’ terms and conditions have been under sustained attack for some time and this is continuing. This places members under great pressure, both personally and professionally.

In these circumstances people can react in one of two ways. They can decide to pursue pure self-interest or they can work together in common cause. In establishing and developing RACO in the 1990s officers took the latter course and it has paid off. There is no doubt that even despite the difficulties of the past few years officers are far better off individually and collectively, personally and professionally, than we were when we set out on this road. Our terms and conditions are significantly better, even if under continuous attack. We are part of an organisation – the Defence Forces – that is truly world class and acknowledged as such and that we can be absolutely proud to be part of.

I don’t think that was the case in 1990. So I hope that members take the same choice in the face of the difficulties that they will no doubt face in the coming few years and continue to work through RACO, to improve both their own terms and conditions of service and the Defence Forces as an organisation. For the Defence Forces I also wish only the best. It is an organisation that I have been part of for 42 years – 44 if you count my two years as an underage member of the FCA – and that has given me great opportunities and a career that I have thoroughly enjoyed. Within the Defence Forces we have some of the most capable and most committed people in the public or private sectors.

I believe that the people of Ireland should be very proud of Óglaigh na hÉireann, the men and women who serve within it and the work that they do both at home and overseas. This is a very important year for the Defence Forces as the new White Paper on Defence is due to be published. I hope that this will be a statement of broad policy and stay out of the weeds of the organisation. I would like to see a re-statement of the roles of the Defence Forces that will enable and facilitate the organisation in adapting itself to the evolving external environment and building capabilities required to meet the challenges of the future. In particular I hope that the White Paper does not provide any licence for any further major restructuring of the Forces. Ongoing change is a normal part of organisational life.

But the transformational change of the order and scale that the Defence Forces has affected over the past 20 years or so is extraordinary. In that period we have seen 8 major strategic reorganisations of the Forces with associated headcount reductions of 28%. This reduction in payroll has provided the bulk of the funding for the essential re-equipping of the Defence Forces. We have also seen 16 major installations close and fundamental change and enhancement of the systems and processes across all functional areas. I think that an organisation that has been involved in change of that order over a prolonged period needs a period of consolidation – time to take a breath – in order to ensure optimum effectiveness. It is my hope and expectation that the White Paper will facilitate this.

Although we are not in the business of analysing decisions made in the past, do you ever give thought to how your career would have developed had you stayed within the Army in a conventional sense? Remembering when you were commissioned as an Officer, did you have different aspirations as to how your career with the Defence Forces would develop over the years? Do you have any regrets?
Of course I had different aspirations when I was first commissioned. I’m sure we all have when we embark on our careers. But those aspirations are set in the context of the world as we know it at the time. However the world changes and our aspirations evolve over time and perhaps take different directions. I don’t allow myself to dwell on ‘what if’s’ or ‘if only’s’. Life is too short for regrets about your career.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Defence Forces. I have had the privilege of working with some of the finest people in the country and of being able to make a contribution to the development of the Defence Forces from the organisation in crisis described in the Gleeson Report in 1990, into the world-class organisation that it is today. I think the thing that matters most as you come to retirement is that throughout your career you did your best and that you made some positive difference to your Organisation and to the lives of the people within it. I know that I did my best – I hope I made a positive difference.




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