Published on January 22nd, 2015 | by admin0
‘I Have Always Made It Clear That Defence Policy Is A Critical Aspect Of Government Policy’
Minister for Defence, Mr Simon Coveney TD, speaks exclusively to SIGNAL about his role as Minister and his priorities for his term in office. He also talks about what the upcoming White Paper should achieve, addresses the debate on the UNDOF mission on the Golan Heights and talks about existing industrial relations mechanisms and how they affect members of the Defence Forces.
What is your perception of the Defence portfolio and the challenges therein that you have formed since taking office?
The Defence portfolio is one that I actively sought and it was a great honour for me to be appointed, in addition to my other ministerial responsibilities, as Minister for Defence earlier this year. Your readers will be aware that my father Hugh, for a brief period in the mid 1990’s, also held the Defence portfolio and he always spoke with great warmth for, and admiration of, the Defence Forces. This is something I can now more easily understand having seen at first hand the loyalty and professionalism of all Defence Force personnel, as they deliver on a daily basis, a broad range of outputs both at home and overseas.
While the Defence Forces contribution to international peacekeeping, explosives disposals or contingent supports to the civil authority, such as during the severe weather events, are very much understood and seen for their full worth by the general public, much of the work of the Defence Forces remains unseen and unheralded. It would be true to say that prior to my own appointment as Minister for Defence, that I would not have been fully aware of the sheer range and scope of day to day essential operations, or indeed all of the locations of the overseas missions throughout the world in which Defence Forces personnel are currently serving.
The challenge for me as Minister, within the remainder of the term of this Government, will be to ensure that the Defence Forces retain the capabilities to fulfill all those assigned roles at home and overseas; to continue to replace or upgrade the necessary equipment so that our personnel can effectively carry out those roles. I will also seek to ensure we maintain our excellent international reputation in peace support operations and most crucially, the preparation of a new White Paper on Defence which will shape and underpin Defence provision for the next decade in order to ensure that Ireland continues to have effective capabilities to deal with the range of defence roles required by Government and having regard to potential challenges to our security as may emerge in the future.
Many in the Defence sector believe that the portfolio should be the sole remit of a Minister, as opposed to the format of recent years and the present, where it is shared with another major portfolio. What assurances can you give those with such concerns that the Defence portfolio will be treated with the priority it deserves?
Since my appointment as Minister for Defence earlier this year I have had the opportunity to meet with some of your members face-to-face. I have assured them personally of my commitment to my portfolio as Minister for Defence and my understanding of the importance of having a strong voice at the Cabinet table to ensure the essential capabilities of the Defence Forces within the resource envelope available. Again, I would like to take the opportunity to assure your readers of my commitment to the Defence Forces and wider Organisation.
From the outset I have always made it clear that Defence policy is a critical aspect of Government policy, and as I stated earlier in the context of the challenges and priorities for the remainder of the term of office of this Government, my immediate priorities will be to ensure that the Defence Forces continue to retain the capabilities to fulfill all roles assigned by Government, both at home and overseas, and that the new White Paper fully addresses the Defence response to future security challenges in a comprehensive way.
Since you have taken office, there has been much discussion relating to the Defence Forces deployment on the Golan Heights. With a new rotation recently deployed to the UNDOF mission, how satisfied are you that the Defence Forces can continue to make an effective contribution as the military backbone of the mission?
The participation of Ireland’s Defence Forces in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) mission in the Golan Heights clearly demonstrates the contribution Ireland makes to international peace and security. This mission has indeed proven to be very challenging and has, once again shown that the Defence Forces have the capacity and experience to respond to the changing nature of peace support operations.
I am satisfied that the operations conducted by the Defence Forces on this mission are within the range anticipated by their role. Since I discussed the UNDOF mission with the UN, there has been a fundamental realignment of the mission with a view to minimising unacceptable risks to the peacekeepers, who continue to implement the mission mandate.
The Irish contribution to UNDOF is an important element of the Force which plays a vital role in ensuring stability on the Golan Heights and in the region. As with all missions, the situation in the UNDOF area of operations will be kept under ongoing review in the Department of Defence in consultation with the United Nations.
Ireland’s foreign policy is enshrined by our commitment to the UN, EU & NATO PfP which obliges the State to ensure a credible Force capable of delivering a diverse range of security tasks. How do you as the Minister envisage these relationships shaping the future with respect to foreign policy?
Ireland has a long record of participation in UN mandated International peacekeeping, monitoring and observer missions and the policy is to continue with involvement in international missions in the cause of world peace. A central tenet of Irish foreign policy is support for the multilateral system of collective security represented by the United Nations.
In recent times regional organisations, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union (EU), have been tasked with peacekeeping under United Nation mandate(s). The mandating of regional and international organisations to lead UN authorised missions is one of the most significant changes in relation to UN efforts at maintaining international peace and security.
Ireland has contributed to EU-led, NATO-led and UN-led missions and will continue to do so. However, these organisations will not shape our future security and Defence policy. We will shape our own policy and participate in these organisations and their missions in a manner which is consistent with that policy in advancing our strategic interests, our values and our principles.
Ireland’s commitment to conflict prevention and international peace and security are key elements of our foreign policy. Through our participation in such missions we can exert a strong and positive influence over European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy, which is an integral element of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. In addition, deepening our participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace will play a central role in ensuring that the Defence Forces have the necessary capabilities to participate in modern, demanding peacekeeping operations and are interoperable with other professional military forces.
With recent massive drug seizures by the Naval Service and Air Corps, is this a particular area in which you would like to see further, and enhanced, international cooperation?
The success of the recent drug interdiction operation involving the yacht Makayabella was brought about through very effective cooperation and coordination amongst all of the key players, both domestically and internationally. Here at home, the Customs Service of the Revenue Commissioners has primary responsibility for the prevention of drug smuggling and the responsibility for crime prevention rests primarily with An Garda Síochana. However, in the maritime domain, the Naval Service and the Air Corps play a vital role in supporting these authorities using the unique capabilities that they possess.
The Joint Task Force on Drug Interdiction, which consists of members of An Garda Siochana, the Customs Service and the Naval Service is committed to the international initiative, the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre for Narcotics (MAOC N), which involves seven EU member states: France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Portugal and the UK. The Centre provides a forum for cross border maritime cooperation which has proven extremely effective in combatting illegal drug trafficking and it played a significant role in the recent drug seizure. I acknowledge the value of this multi-national approach to this type of criminal activity and, as active members of the Joint Task Force, the Defence Forces will continue to play its part in the work of MAOC N.
In the aftermath of the recently delivered budget, you stated that the necessary resourcing will be in place for defence for the next ten years and that “Changes and reforms in recent years have allowed the Defence Forces to continue to fulfill all roles assigned by Government?” Do you believe that the current allocation for Defence is relative to GDP and can it continue to sustain and effective and credible military force?
My priority as Minister for Defence is to ensure that the Defence
Forces retain the capabilities to deliver all roles assigned by
Government, both at home and overseas. The economic climate and the budgetary situation will continue to dictate the level of funding available.
The Government’s commitment to the Defence Forces is evident from the decision to stabilise the strength ceiling of the Permanent Defence Force (PDF) at 9,500 personnel. This revised strength ceiling has allowed for continued recruitment to the PDF even though a moratorium on recruitment to the public service has been in place.
The acquisition of new equipment for the Army, Air Corps, Naval Service and Reserve Defence Force will continue to be kept under review at a senior level in the Department and the Defence Forces. The ship replacement programme has of necessity been a key priority over recent years. Decisions in relation to new equipment and equipment upgrades will continue to be made on a strictly prioritised basis in accordance with operational priorities with a view to maintaining the capability of the Defence Forces.
The new White Paper on Defence will set out the Defence policy framework for the next ten years. Within that framework, key issues including future operational requirements, capability implications and funding will be considered The Defence Organisation has a proud track record of flexibility and reform. This has been a critical factor in the maintenance of a broad range of capabilities within the reduced resource envelope, and this has ensured that the Defence Forces can continue to deliver the required operational outputs.
How has the reduction of a Brigade impacted on Defence Forces operations and activities?
I am satisfied that the recent reorganisation of the Defence Forces has improved operational capabilities within the available resource envelope. This remains a key focus for the future.
The three Brigade structure, which was introduced in the 1990s, was designed for a PDF strength of 11,500 personnel. Given the fact that the sustainable strength ceiling was 9,500 personnel, many of the units within the three Brigade structure were under-strength to such an extent, that the retention of the three Brigade structure was no longer viable or fit for purpose. The reorganisation was designed to maximise the operational capacity of the Defence Forces. The consolidation of understrength units into a smaller number of full strength units, the streamlining of associated headquarters and the re-deployment of personnel from administrative and support
Ireland has contributed to EU-led, NATO-led and UN-led missions and will continue to do so. However, these organisations will not shape our future security and Defence policy
functions to operational units has maintained the operational capacity of the Defence Forces to the greatest extent possible within available resources. The detailed proposals on the reorganisation were brought forward by the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General of the Department of Defence and were accepted in full by the former Minister for Defence.
What are the priorities for the Department on what the next White Paper should deliver on behalf of the State? Are you happy with how the Green Paper Public Engagement was conducted and are you satisfied that the DF is being adequately resourced considering the high cost of modern Defence Equipment required to adequately deliver the complex and diverse range of assigned roles on land /sea and air?
The new White Paper has the objective of setting the policy framework for Defence for the next decade. This is a critical aspect of Government policy and I am determined to ensure that the new White Paper fully addresses the defence response to current and future defence and security challenges in a comprehensive manner.
I believe the White Paper process provides an opportunity to examine critically future demands and consider how we might best meet associated operational requirements. I am conscious that many of the day to day services delivered by Defence are cross-cutting in nature and I want to ensure that Defence resources and expertise are leveraged to maximum effect for the benefit of the State. In this context, there are opportunities to consider new and innovative approaches to the delivery of a range of important services.
Unlike the previous White Paper, which was not preceded by a Green Paper, the present White Paper has had the benefit of a wide-ranging consultative process. The Green Paper was, in effect, a discussion document and set out a range of policy focused questions and initiated a broad and comprehensive public consultation process. As part of this consultation process, a number of people who made written submissions, including military representative associations, were invited to meet with civil and military staff of the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces. I know that RACO availed of this opportunity and I thank you for your contribution.
There has been close collaboration between civil and military personnel throughout the White Paper process. Working groups comprising civil and military representatives from the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces were established to consider likely future operational demands and the types of defence capabilities required to meet these demands. The joint work has been overseen by Civil-Military Steering Committee. The SMC has received regular updates on progress and issues arising.
An initial draft of the new White Paper on Defence is due to be submitted to me before the end of the year. When completed, a draft will be fully considered by Government in due course.
In 2008 the DF had the capability and capacity to both lead the EUFOR Tchad Mission while also deploying operational units to Kosovo and Bosnia. During this period the resource envelope was some 29% greater than the current allocation. Are you confident that current defence resourcing adequately supports a force that has the same capacity and capability as it had in 2008/2009 or has the Government has been forced to reduce capability as a consequence of economic circumstances?
Following the economic downturn, the strength of the Permanent Defence Force (PDF) had been allowed to decline. When this Government took office in 2011, our stated intention was to restore financial stability and return the economy to growth. The Government took the decision to stabilise the strength ceiling of the PDF at 9,500 personnel. The past few years have presented significant challenges and difficult decisions had to be made. However, we are beginning to see signs of a sustainable recovery.
Clearly the current resource envelope is less than that in place prior to the economic downturn. The actions which have been taken in the intervening period such as barrack closures, re-organisation of structures and equipment prioritisation have placed a premium on maintaining the operational capacity of the PDF to the greatest extent possible. This process has mitigated the impact of resource reductions on overarching capability and I believe that it reflects very positively on the members of the Defence Forces who are at the coalface of the reform agenda.
The Government places high importance on the valuable work being done by the Defence Forces including when serving on peacekeeping missions throughout the world. Operational requirements continue to be met from within the totality of the Defence Forces and units can be deployed throughout the State or Overseas as required. The current deployments to Lebanon, UNDOF, EUTM-Mali, ISAF, EUFOR-Bosnia Herzegovina, KFORK-osovo, demonstrate the continued capacity of the Permanent Defence Force to undertake high-end peace support operations and to make a significant contribution in capacity building.
The additional costs of deploying to an EU led mission like Chad are significant. The previous deployment to Chad was underpinned by additional funding specifically allocated for that purpose, rather than from within the then prevailing resource envelope.
While we have had to reduce the extent of our participation in overseas operations due to the reduced resources available to Defence, we have continued to maintain and invest in Defence Forces capabilities. In addition, relative to other EU Member States, our contribution to international peacekeeping remain significant, notwithstanding the reduction in resources.
Other Representative Associations from the security sector have expressed their dissatisfaction with Departmental industrial relations mechanisms, using the European Court to secure greater rights and freedoms of representation. How do you view industrial relations in the greater Security and Defence Sector and will the Department’s engagement with industrial relation in the Defence Sector change in the context of recent European Court judgements?
There have been a number of recent judgements by the European Court of Human Rights in respect of the military, I am thinking particularly of the Matelly v. France and ADEFDROMIL v. France cases, and also the recent case in respect of An Garda Siochána which was brought to the European Committeeon Social Rights by the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI). As some of your readers may know, in the AGSI case the Committee found that Ireland was not in compliance with elements of the European Social Charter, specifically, in respect of affiliation to ICTU, and the right to strike of members of the police. It is my understanding that the position of the Gardai and the application of the normal industrial relations machinery to them is currently being considered as part of the Review of the Garda Siochána, being conducted under the terms of the Haddington Road Agreement, and you will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to comment further in respect of that particular sector.
However, in terms of the industrial relations machinery in the Defence Forces, the policy position is that the taking of any form of industrial action is irreconcilable with military service. In circumstances where the Defence Forces could be called upon to aid the civil authority in the case of serious industrial relations conflicts, as has happened in the past, the potential for serious difficulties could arise if the Representative Associations were affiliated to ICTU, as a clear conflict of objects and policy arise.
In order to compensate for the prohibition of affiliation to ICTU, mechanisms have been put in place, through the Defence Forces Conciliation & Arbitration Scheme to provide the Representative Associations with structures and processes to enable negotiations to take place on behalf of their members. Since 1993, there have been significant developments and improvements in the pay and conditions of military personnel. RACO and indeed PDFORRA have been to the fore in advancing the interests of their members in this regard, bringing them in line generally with the pay and conditions available in other public service employments.
In addition, a framework exists which facilitates the Associations engaging with the official side in talks parallel to those taking place between ICTU and the official side at National level. This parallel process was successfully operated in respect of the most recent rounds of discussions, facilitated by the Labour Relations Commission, on an extension to the ‘Public Service Agreement 2010 – 2014’ which concluded in the Haddington Road Agreement.
While I am satisfied with the present arrangements in place and have no current plans to make any changes in the Defence sector, my Officials and I will continue to carefully watch developments in the other sectors.
How are the issues raised by a radical restructure being managed in terms of the convergence issues (personnel movement/displacement etc) relative to the greater provisions facilitated by the Public Appointments Service Redeployment Capacity to manage these issues across the Public Service?
As I mentioned earlier, the priority for Government in recent years has been to ensure that the Defence Forces can continue to meet all operational requirements within a reduced resource envelope and within a stabilised strength of 9,500 serving personnel. This has entailed a number of significant measures including the rationalisation of four military barracks, and the recent reorganisation of the Defence Forces, both Permanent and Reserve.
The Government has recognised that the reorganisation from a three to a two brigade structure has placed demands on the members of the Defence Forces and their families. The men and women of the Defence Forces have over the years risen admirably to the challenge of change and modernisation and are seen as a role model for change and transformation within the public service. Their response to the reorganisation of the Defence Forces has been no exception.
While the priority was to maintain the Defence Forces operational requirements within the reorganisation implementation process, every effort was made to minimise disturbance of personnel including re-skilling and retraining. While Officers are no strangers to redeployment and movement in accordance with their terms of service, undoubtedly it was necessary to mandatorily move other personnel whose units were being disbanded or relocated and who could not be
accommodated in their location. This could not be avoided given the scale of the reorganisation that was required due to our fiscal situation.
The Government is very much aware that the reorganisation and the requirement to rationalise barracks in recent years has not been painless for some serving personnel and their families. Serving members of the Defence Forces, both officers and enlisted personnel, were required to make decisions under the reorganisation which they would not otherwise make or in different times have had to consider. In the wider public service context other reforms to annual leave and sick leave arrangements, promotions and recruitment within establishment numbers, and reduction in remuneration for public servants are necessary in order to allow the Government to reduce the public service pay and pensions bill. However, this is the consequence and reality of the public service today and of the other reforms and other necessary measures that have been taking place across the public service in light of our fiscal constraints.