By Willie O’Dea TD – Minister for Defence 2004 – 2010
Last Wednesday the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces was published. It is an excellent piece of work. The Commission members have done the State a great service by avoiding the temptation to take the easy road and declare that all is well.
What they have done instead is to prove their independence by testing the outer boundaries of their terms of reference while acknowledging the past decade of political and institutional neglect of defence.
There can be no doubt that Defence has been politically abandoned for over a decade. The negligence goes to the very top of the last two governments. The role-call of the four cabinet level defence ministers since 2011 includes two Taoisigh and two political heavyweights.
Though they had a single junior minister who shared the portfolio, we forget that both Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar served a total, between them, of four years as part-time Defence minister and Taoiseach. Alan Shatter had three years in the part-time roll, while Justice Minister. The current minister had two stints as part-time Defence minister, from 2014 to 2016 while he was Minister for Agriculture, and again now, while holding the Foreign Affairs brief.
Regrettably, it was during Minister Coveney’s first watch that the greatest damage was inflicted. His 2015 Defence White Paper made the temporary Bord Snip Nua cut from 10,500 to 9500, permanent. This effectively turned back the clock on a modernisation of the defence forces that had started with 2000 Defence White Paper.
Reading the Commission on the Defence Forces, as a former Minister for Defence, I am struck by the welcome use of a word not often heard in connection with defence issues over the past decade: “ambition.”
The Commission talks of three clear options, which it terms: Levels of Ambition. Those three ambition levels could be summarised as:
Level 1 – keep going as you are going and end up with Óglaigh na hÉireann that is the Irish equivalent of the Papal Swiss Guard. This is neither viable nor sensible.
Level 2 – recognise that there has been a lost decade and that Defence now needs an increase in current funding and investment to (i) just undo the damage caused by neglect and (ii) return defence force modernisation to the path originally charted in the 2000 White Paper.
Level 3 – develop and grow a Defence Force that can independently deliver effective on-island defence, which is proportionate to the threats we face, be they cyber, terrestrial, or on or under the sea, while continuing its vital role in UN mandated peacekeeping.
So accepting that Level 1 is not an option – and it clearly isn’t – you have Levels of Ambition 2 and 3. As a former minister I see delivering speedily on the Level of Ambition 2 as being the right course of action, while considering how many of the Level of Ambition 3 recommendations should form the basis of a 2023 Defence White Paper.
The current Minister does not need five months to prepare his response. Nothing in the Commission report can be a surprise to either him or his officials.
While the public commentary has, unsurprisingly, focused on big ticket items like fighter aircraft, the real meat of the Commission’s recommendations are on structural and system reforms that will go a long way to tackle the twin problems of poor morale and personnel retention.
The Commission makes recommendations to tackle issues that I am disappointed, but unsurprised, to learn have not been addressed since I was Minister. It proposes a regeneration plan for the Reserve, which is critical. It also proposes regular Potential Officer Courses, what we previously called “commissioning of the ranks.”
These enable experienced NCOs to train to join the commissioned ranks. I announced such a programme back in 2006 and made it an issue of “how often” rather than “whether” to hold these competitions. It seems that progress was also lost in the lost decade.
Being Minister for Defence is not complex. It requires two talents. The first is the ability to recognise the expertise of those around you and apply political common sense to the advice offered. The civil and military and personnel can identify and assess the potential external threats facing our country, both now and into the future, and advise on the responses needed.
The second talent the Minister requires is to have the political nous and heft to recognise and neutralise the political threat the Defence establishment faces internally… from the Department of Finance.
Despite the other high offices they have held, we have not had a Minister with these talents for over a decade. Until we do, or until we have a Taoiseach and Finance Minister who together grasp the seriousness of the issue, then I fear that the sensible and considered work of the Commission may have been in vain.
First published in the Sunday Independent 13/02/2022