THE IRISH DEFENCE FORCES
In the century following its independence, Ireland has not experienced any military invasion nor has the nation been involved in any foreign wars. Hence when matters of defence and security arise, public discourses are generally framed around issues of European integration, cooperation, and neutrality. And due to its apparent lack of any international role in matters of military conflict, the Irish Defence Forces have been perceived as being a largely non-political institution — even despite continued participation in UN peacekeeping operations since the end of World War II.
More than that, however, the day-to-day lives of soldiers and the hardships they face within this ‘apolitical’ role are generally unknown. This is due to a variety of reasons, but the central factor creating this deficit in public knowledge stems from a series of legislative measures that have rendered soldiers voiceless in the press, public, and near-all government apparatuses.
LIMITED RIGHTS AND RESOURCES
While those serving in the Irish military and navy share in common with their fellow citizens many of the basic rights upon which the state was founded, theirs have been severely restricted by a combination of legislative regulations and employment policies. These include, but are not limited, to the Defence Acts, the Official Secrets Act, and ‘oaths of fealty’ taken upon entry into the Defence Forces. Taken together, these conditions have prohibited enlisted personnel from membership or engagement in political parties and activities.
In effect, soldiers, sailors, and aircrew are not allowed to contact the press to voice their concerns on governmental policy decisions pertaining to their pay, benefits, working conditions, or matters pertaining to their health and safety. They are not allowed access to labour courts, and can be arrested for protesting, partaking in a strike, or engaging in any form of industrial action. As a result, the working environment cultivated by the institutions of the Irish state and military has been one of censorship and silence.
In the 1980s, public support for the Irish Defence Forces began to grow, and changes were made to overseas deployment policies. But due to a myriad of bad policy decisions by the state, and a general economic downturn worldwide, the Irish economy went through a period of high unemployment and mass emigration for much of the decade. Enlisted personnel and their families could not escape the serious financial difficulties wrought on by the recession.
And while taking on more serious risks than their government security counterparts in the Gardaí and prisons, soldiers’ incomes were disproportionately lower. The restrictions on their ability to raise these issues, however, barred Army personnel from doing anything about it. As a result, many military families were forced into social welfare benefit schemes as pay and working conditions for service men and women drastically declined.
Towards the end of the decade, these problems became unbearable. Yet while supporting the need for change, enlisted personnel could not articulate their concerns publicly. As a result, military wives began to mobilise on behalf of their husbands across the country, and formed together The National Army Spouse’s Association or NASA. These women were formidable. They campaigned for an increase in pay and betterment of work conditions through protest, lobbying, and speaking to the press — that is, despite opposition from the Defence Forces and government officials, sometimes in the form of threats and bullying. In their determination, NASA brought their march to Parliament and eventually influenced the outcome of at least one political race using their own candidate.
Inspired by NASA’s successes, enlisted personnel began to step forward as well. By November 1989, through the efforts of a group of NCOs, the ad hoc Permanent Defence Forces Other Ranks Representative Association (PDFORRA) was established. Within a year, an amendment to the Defence Act was passed, and soldiers were granted the right to representation. And since its establishment, PDFORRA has secured a number of pay agreements on local and national levels, and has participated in international associations such as EUROMIL to advance various efforts in regards to matters such as UN peacekeeping.
However, PDFORRA is not a trade union. The legislative measures barring enlisted personnel from such representation remains in place. Thus despite any advancements made in recent decades, members are still not allowed to take industrial action, and are severely limited in their negotiating capacities. In fact, Defence Forces Representative associations in Ireland are not allowed to join umbrella groups such as the ICTU (Irish Congress of Trace Unions), which means that they are left in the dark about all national negotiations taking place ‘on their behalf’. As a result, PDFORRA has become a shell of the organisation that was promised, which does not have the capacity to properly represent its members — largely because it has been prohibited from doing so.
A LONG WAY TO GO
To date, our country’s soldiers, sailors, and aircrew have been subjected to a steady stream of cuts to income, allowances, and variety of adverse budgetary measures. In recent years, the Defence Forces have been reduced from 3 to 2 brigades, leaving a large number of enlisted personnel being shifted around the country at great personal cost. Entire families have lost homes due to repossession, and borrowing money or working multiple jobs has become a necessity for many as the Defence Forces do not allow options for overtime. A study conducted in 2013 found that over 20% of service men and women are in receipt of Family Income Support.
New recruits since 2013 are earning less than €300 per week. Servicemen and women tasked to work 24-hour duties — oftentimes with little notice and sometimes multiple times per week — have seen their compensation for these shifts cut by more than 50% from €40/day to €20/day, without any additional payments for weekends or bank holidays.
“16% of soldiers reported that they regularly feel stressed. It’s really worrying when one in seven of a group has access to weapons.”
WPDF aims to continue the fight NASA started. We demand the right to labour unionisation for our servicemen and women, immediate pay restorations, and universal health coverage for enlisted personnel and their families. For so many across the country, the conditions under which enlisted personnel are currently living is generally unknown. While we at WPDF are resolute in our commitment to justice in the name of our soldiers, sailors, and aircrew, we need your help to change the policy and minds of our government. If you believe, as we do, that the men and women who serve this country deserve recognition and fair pay, we would appreciate your support. Please write or call your TD and tell them to pass legislation on the right to labour unionisation within the Irish Defence Forces. Or stay up to date on upcoming demonstrations and initiatives across the country.