Though it’s a f/t #Defence Minister we really need, a new MoS would be useful now

I have written several times about the developing crisis in Irish Defence policy-making and the impact this is having on morale and retention in the Irish Defence Forces.  In this Broadsheet post from June 11th, 2019, I suggest how swapping ministers of state might help in the short-term to start the process of addressing this crisis.

Kehoe parade
MoS Defence Paul Kehoe (from Defence Forces Flick A/c)

It takes a rare political talent to make the Irish defence brief controversial, yet the hapless Paul Kehoe appears to have somehow managed it.

Stories of declining morale, chronic low pay, skills shortages and personnel retention problems fill the airwaves, and still the crisis worsens. Defence force strength which should today stand at 9,500 has been hovering perilously below 8,500 for months.

The 9,500 figure is itself misleading. The 2000 Defence White Paper set the number at 10,500. The reduction in 2009 to 9,500 was only intended as a temporary measure, yet it has entered the political psyche as some fixed upper limit.

While very little of the blame for these crises attach personally to Kehoe, realpolitik dictates that the time has come for him to move on. Kehoe must go.

Continue reading “Though it’s a f/t #Defence Minister we really need, a new MoS would be useful now”

Why @DefenceForces are a special case and deserve a far higher priority than govt is offering.

This column is from December 5th 2017, it was written following the protest outside the Dáil by Army wives and families


I want to look back at last week’s 24 hour protest outside Leinster House by the wives and partners of members of our Defence Forces and offer two additional perspectives, which may help illustrate why the Defence Forces are a special case and worthy of a far higher priority than this government is according them.

Before I get to those, it is worth noting why the protest was by the wives and partners. Under Defence Force regulations serving members of the Defence Forces may not make representations regarding any aspect of their employment, including pay and conditions, to third parties, including elected representatives.

Though this may seem a bit draconian, it does reflect the particular nature of their job. Soldiers cannot simply down tools, especially when those tools are often loaded, and go on strike – particularly when they are one of the key services we depend upon in emergency situations. But there is, or at least there should be a quid-pro-quo in this relationship.

Continue reading “Why @DefenceForces are a special case and deserve a far higher priority than govt is offering.”

A simple primer on Irish #Defence Policy

Here is another of my weekly Broadsheet columns. I am slowly catching up on reposting these columns here, I hope to have my site up to date over the coming week.

This one is from August 29th and offers a quick primer on understanding Irish Defence policy: 



Though you may not have noticed it – there was, over the last few weeks, an attempt to start a public debate on Irish Defence policy. While the Irish Examiner, in particular, did its level best to get it going, the discussion soon fizzled out.

The reason why the debate never really got going may be due to the fact that we tend to only discuss defence policy in public in response to some significant event or, more frequently, to some outlandish and unfounded claim.

On the rare occasions that we have any debate on defence in Ireland, they tend to be either end of the extreme ranging from claims that we are abandoning neutrality, a claim made continuously since the 1970s, to questions as to why we even have a Defence Force.

Though there is a real and clear public pride in our Defence Forces, both at home and abroad, there is also a surprising paucity of knowledge about Defence policy.

With this in mind, I want to use this week’s offering to put some basic facts about Irish Defence policy out there, in the vain hope that the next public debate on Defence may be based on fact and reality, not myth and assertion.

Let’s start with a few basics.

The Irish Defence Forces comprise the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service and should total 9,500 men and women. The current manpower figure as set out in a parliamentary reply to Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers, is just under 9100.

There are approximately 460 Irish troops currently serving overseas on a range of UN led and mandated peace-keeping and humanitarian missions. These include: 60 naval service personnel on the humanitarian search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean; about 210 troops on the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon and approx 140 troops serving in the UNDOF mission on the Golan Heights in Syria.

Though these numbers are way down from the average of 800 plus personnel serving overseas less than a decade ago, it still represents a sizeable Irish contribution to international peace and security, which in turn contributes to our own national security.

We spend about €900 million per year on Defence, though the vast bulk (over 70%) is accounted for by wages and pensions. When it comes to value for money the Defence Forces lead the way. The reform and modernisation programme undertaken between 2001 and 2010 make it a model of how public sector reform can be done right. Productivity was increased, numbers were reduced and the savings were invested in vastly improved equipment and training.

Now let’s turn to the policy side. First and foremost, Ireland is militarily neutral. While this is usually defined as not being a member of a military alliance, it also means that we decide for ourselves how much we spend on defence and – most importantly – how, where and when we deploy our troops overseas on humanitarian and peace-keeping/peace enforcement operations.

This is done via the “Triple-Lock” mechanism of UN mandate, Cabinet and Dáil approval. Triggering this triple lock is required before 12 or more Defence Force personnel are deployed overseas under arms. This enshrines not only our military neutrality but our commitment to multilateralism and the UN.

We use the phrase UN mandated, which means that a UN resolution is required. Nowadays many UN mandated missions are not UN led, i.e. “blue helmet”, but rather led by regional organisations – such as the EU, The African Union, NATO etc – on behalf of the UN. This was the case in the 2008 EUFor Chad  mission, which was commanded by an Irishman, Gen. Pat Nash.

I was in the Dept. of Defence during the Chad/Central African Republic mission, which was established to deal with the crisis created in the region on foot of the Darfur famine. I saw how the Triple Lock was implemented smoothly and speedily. UN resolution 1778 was passed at the end of Sept 2007, Cabinet Approval was given in October, unanimous Dáil approval by the end of November and by December an initial deployment of Army Rangers and support elements were on the ground in Eastern Chad establishing the Irish Camp.

Any difficulties in deployment were not due to the Irish or the Triple Lock but rather to the frustrating slowness of other EU countries, particularly the non-neutral ones, to respond especially when it came to offering air and medical support to the mission.

Nothing I saw at those defence meetings in Brussels led me to think that an EU Army was a realistic possibility, leaving aside the fact that we have a veto (EU requires unanimity on common defence) on it and that the Irish Constitution (Art 29.4.9) precludes Irish membership of a common defence.

Speaking of air support brings me back to the Irish Examiner article mentioned at the outset. From my perspective this appears to be based on the inaccurate, if not sensationalised misreading, of an already inaccurate report.

I say inaccurate as the original material suggests that is not Ireland which has asked the RAF to protect our airspace from terrorist threats, but rather that it is the British who have asked for Irish permission to fly into our air space in the event of terrorist air attacks heading for Britain.

When viewed this way the story is not quite as sensational, nor is it the slam dunk argument for Ireland rushing out and purchasing a fleet of F-16s.

I am not absolutely opposed to our buying a few F-16s – though if we are going to go into the fighter aircraft market why not opt for some newer F-35s?

I am sure the Air Corps would be overjoyed to have them, though I suspect the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure might baulk at the tripling or quadrupling of annual defence expenditure necessary to keep these fighters in the air 24/7, especially when we consider the real and actual threat assessments.

So, let us have a full debate on defence (and foreign) policy by all means, but let us ground it in fact and reality.


Shatter and @willieodealive were right: There is only one Óglaigh na hÉireann

Apologies for delay in posting this column which appeared in the Herald just before Christmas (on December 18th)


THE people of Belfast were forced to endure a trip back in time to the bad old days last Friday – courtesy of yet another dissident republican group.

In placing a bomb in one of the city’s busiest areas, this latest dissident collective showed a terrifying disregard for lives of the people in whose name they claim to fight.

Ironically, they attempted their vicious deed just two days before the 20th anniversary of the Downing Street Declaration, the landmark joint statement from the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds and British Prime Minister John Major that set the course for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Continue reading “Shatter and @willieodealive were right: There is only one Óglaigh na hÉireann”

Soldiers could lead the battle to reform public service

Irish troops serving the cause of peace internationally
Irish troops serving the cause of peace internationally

My column from tonight’s Evening Herald on how the reform and modernisation of the Defence Forces over the past year could prove a model for public sector reform


The first tentative step on the path to a possible Croke Park II deal was taken last week when Public Sector unions and management sat down together for preliminary talks.

While reaching any form of deal will pose difficulties for negotiators on both sides, the management side has a particularly difficult delicate balance to strike. Though their political masters in Cabinet may be signalling their support for a deal they also know that most Fine Gael back benchers would be just as happy if no deal was reached.

The public service is just one more issue that divides back-benchers from both parties, with many of FG’s newer intake of TD’s echoing the “small government” rhetoric heard from US Republicans and Tea-Partyers.

It is not an uncommon view in these difficult times. There are many siren voices around attacking the public service and portraying it as riding on the back of a shrinking private sector.

Sadly, the public service often leaves itself open to these onslaughts with daft examples of wasteful spending and bad work practises. But the danger lies when occasionally justified criticisms are distilled into a dogma.

Yes, the public service is in need of reform and modernisation, but the one dimensional demonizing of the entire public service we hear from some quarters will not help reform anything. Nor will the “everything is just fine as it is” defence we hear from various public sector unions.

Public service reform is possible without hyperbole or blood on the carpets. With the right management and leadership the public service is capable of reforming and modernising itself. I know, because I was there when it happened.

The reform and modernisation of the Defence Forces over the past decade and a half is a model of how it can be done right.

The 2009 Bórd Snip Nua report found that the Defence Forces were the only sector in the Public Service to reduce numbers during the Celtic Tiger.

While the numbers working in the Public Service had increased by 17% between 2001 and 2009, the numbers working in the defence organisation actually fell by 8%, going from 11,808 down to 10,895 a drop of 913.

The reduction in numbers in uniform was reflected in a reduction of numbers of civil servants in the Department. These payroll savings were invested in better equipment and improved training meaning that the Irish Defence Forces could do more with less.

The negotiations were tough, but both sides recognised that it was in their mutual interest. While soldiers and officers do not have Trade Unions, they do have strong representative organisations: PDFORRA and RACO and a parallel conciliation and arbitration process that conducts it business quietly and effectively,

Perhaps the absence of outside influences, speculation and running commentaries, helped create the conditions for agreement – but not nearly as strong leadership, both political and military.

We should now be finding ways of replicating this progressive model. Before coming into office the Taoiseach’s last big idea on the Defence Forces was that it should be running boot camps for young offenders.

Doubtless he has abandoned this nonsense having spent two years seeing them close up, but their handling of the last round of barrack closures suggests that he may not yet have realised just how the Defence Forces be a model for public service reform.


Are US Troops Qualified to Work on Peace Support or Policy Operations?

This was written for last Friday’s Evening Herald (January 13th) but, unluckily, did not make the cut.

What is it with some American troops? Why, even in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib and other scandals, do they still seem incapable of acting with restraint and showing even basic common decency?

The video, shown on the TV news last night, of a group of US Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban insurgents once again raises the issue of their suitability to serve on peace support operations outside theUSA.

It is not as if the guys involved were raw recruits or conscripts: these were Marines: the supposed cream of the American military. Their motto: “Semper Fidelis” means always faithful, presumably that includes fidelity to their own three core values: Honour, Courage Commitment.

The Marine Corps manual says of the first value: Honour: “Respect for others is essential. Marines are expected to act responsibly in a manner befitting the title they’ve earned.”

Clearly the actions of the four Marines who appeared on our screens last night fell well short of that. Indeed that dishonour extends beyond the men filmed to include those who gleefully recorded the sorry episode, probably for future broadcast at private gatherings stateside.

None of this can be excused by the stresses and strains of their task or the coarseness of their environment. It is an example of dehumanising of the enemy; of treating those who are fighting against as less than human.

This is not an attitude that can be tolerated. It is not in the Afgahnis interest and neither is it in theUS’s either.

While the Americans serve inAfghanistanas part of a UN mandated NATO coordinated mission, their presence has a greater and wider significance.

The noted American playwright and peace activist Eve Ensler put it best after her 2003 visit to the region: “Afghanistan is a test case,”  “We may never recover the trust of the Muslim world . . . if theU.S.does not deliver security, substantial aid, and reconstruction . . . [and] fulfil our promises.”

Those who support the mission in Afghanistan (and I include myself in that) can point to a number of positives it has already helped achieve: new motorways and buildings; 4 million children now attending school, including many for the first time; a growing economy, a new constitution, and the return of more than 2.5 million refugees.

The action of the Marines not only undermines these achievements, it seriously dents the already precarious support of the Afghan people for the mission’s continuing presence. Their despicable actions potentially put their comrades at greater risk.

This sorry dehumanising episode again raises serious questions about the institutional ability of American troops to serve on peace support or quasi policing operations in regions or communities with different cultures and traditions.

It is not something new. I recall a mid rankingUKofficer recounting his experience with American officers under his command on a multi-lateral mission in sub Saharan Africa. He told me that he had a tough time even getting them to take off their mirrored sunglasses when talking with locals.

He told me of his frustration in having to constantly tell the Americans that this was vital to build up trust with the locals. The local culture demanded that you be able to look into someone’s eyes when they spoke with you. You have to treat those you are there to protect as your equal, not as your inferior – and not as your enemy.

It is something that now comes instinctively to our troops serving overseas. Perhaps this is in part due to our sense memory of being a former colony. We can empathise with the plight of the local communities and the hardship they endure while retaining our impartiality and commitment to our mission.

It is something that can be taught. Significantly it is taught here at the UN Training School in the Curragh Camp. The UN School runs United Nations Military Observers and Staff Officers courses.

While the offending Marines will probably be drummed out of the army, perhaps their senior commanding officers might be sent to the Curragh for some basic lessons in how to get their people to start showing respect.

Barrack Closures a Mistake on All Fronts

This article appeared in the Irish Examiner on Thursday November 17th 2011

Resigning as a Minister is not something to be done lightly. You must weigh up the influence and input you are surrendering from having a seat at the table against the public acclamation you will receive. The applause and cheers will soon die down and you will be left standing on the outside while decisions get made without you.

Though he is not a household name, Willie Penrose is a smart man. While he may have the bearing and manner of a classic rural parish pump TD, he is a smart guy. An experienced and successful Barrister, Penrose knows what he is doing.

Gilmore knew that that the future of Columb Barracks in Mullingar was a red line issue for Penrose when he nominated him as a Super Junior – so why did he proceed with the appointment?

This government was only a few days in office when speculation started that they may close some more barracks. Further barrack closures have been a fixation with some senior civil servants and military figures in Defence.

Shortly after I entered the Department of Defence in October 2004 a senior official popped into my office to discuss the issue of “barrack consolidation”. This I came to learn was the euphemism for barrack closures.

There is a school of thought, among some in the Defence organisation, that we should have a much smaller number of super barracks – say three or four – located in the major cities, rather than the existing network of smaller posts across the State.

While this would potentially be a little more economic and efficient, this has to be weighed with the popular support and positive PR generated from having more locally organised and based units. It is a demonstrable fact that recruitment is strongest in those areas where there is a military post.

Even at the height of the Celtic Tiger for every general service recruit post advertised there were at least 5 applicants, while the Cadet competitions often saw 25 or 30 well qualified applicants for each vacancy.

Local barracks and locally based army units form strong bonds with local communities. Use of barracks facilities, especially sports grounds, is usually offered to local community groups, particularly youth groups. The local army unit is always on hand to help out in the classic “aid to the civil power” type exercises – flooding, ice clearance, bad weather etc.

While they are hard to measure on a civil servants excel spreadsheet, these strong local bonds are vitally important and should not be thrown away lightly.

The previous Minister, Michael Smith has closed six barracks back in 1998, though some of these properties had still not been disposed of almost six years later. Indeed it would take a further five or so years to deal with these.

The estimated year on year savings from these 1998 closures was estimated to be in the region of €3.5 – 4.5m. These were “economies of scale” saving from reduced security, heating, lighting and other savings.

If the current row over closing three or four barracks was just about that, I might be tempted to agree with it. But this is a mistake on all fronts.

Alan Shatter says that given the choice between saving buildings and retaining personnel, he opts for the latter. A noble intention: if only that was the choice before him.

It is not.

If the planned closures go ahead the Defence Forces can kiss good bye to seeing their numbers ever rise back above 10,500 again.

There are a number of reasons not to close these barracks.

Their closure will hurt the local economies in Mullingar, Clonmel and Cavan just as much as any factory closure. There is no point the Taoiseach giving out to Talk-Talk management for the inconsiderate handling of that closure while his own Minister is planning to do the same thing.

Where does the Minister propose to transfer the troops stationed in Mullingar, Clonmel and Cavan? Where is the spare capacity in the remaining barracks?

We are already aware from the last round of barrack closures that the remaining barracks were full and operating close to capacity.

To close these other barracks and to permanently move around 500 – 600 troops would require a considerable capital investment in additional facilities in Athlone, Finner andLimerick. This is not something that will appear overnight. Where does the Minister propose to get the cash to provide this additional capacity?

Colm McCarthy’s famous Bord Snip Nua report found that the Defence Forces were the only sector of the Public Service to reduce numbers during the height of the Celtic Tiger. His report suggested a number of further small reforms, including a reduction in the size of the force by a further 500 to 10,000. He recommended this be implemented over a two year period. It was achieved within a year, well ahead of the target date.

So what kind of signal do these further cuts – cuts that go beyond An Bord Snip Nua – send to others in the Public Service? This was a point that Brian Lenihan and Brian Cowen instinctively understood.

Here is a part of the public service that has downsized, modernised and reformed itself beyond expectations and yet it gets singled out again for cuts that neither make sense nor add up. These barrack closures appear, on the face of it, to be gratuitous.

The Defence Forces now do more with less. When it comes to real public sector reform the Defence Forces are a model of how it can be done right. These closures put that model at risk.

The investment in the Defence Forces made between 1997 and 2007 was a text book example of how to invest wisely and productively. Surplus property was sold and the proceeds invested in better training and equipment.

While the numbers working in the Public Service increased by 17% over the decade of the Celtic Tiger, the numbers working in the defence organisation actually fell by 8%.

This applied across all levels. The number of troops fell and so did the number of civil servants. Indeed Defence has a remarkably small civil service

The fact that the Minister does not get this point is compounded by the fact that he did not address the annual PDFORRA conference. That was a bad decision. It was his first opportunity to address the soldier’s representative organisation and he opted to send his Junior Minister while he and his Secretary General heading off to an international conference instead.

Willie Penrose’s resignation is about a lot more than just Mullingar Barracks; it is about a part time Defence Minister who fails to appreciate what he is doing, or is simply not bothered.

Acknowledging Army was bad for SF business

This is my recent article on Martin McGuinness & Sinn Féin’s “profit before principles” approach to Óglaigh na hÉireann/Defence Forces in the Evening Herald on Friday Sept 30th – see it online here

I LIKE Senator John Crown’s test for judging the presidential race: “The presidency … should be prize for best pupil, not the most improved pupil”

It is a valid point. Martin McGuinness is one of many people who have — at varying speeds — helped move this island to a more peaceful existence.

But his story comes in two parts. If he is to get the positive marks for the latter part, then he must also accept the negative ones for the earlier part — and these are considerable.

Many men and women had to pay a heavy and lasting price for the delay in McGuinness, and others, coming to the conclusion reached years before by such inspirational figures as John Hume, Seamus Mallon and Ivan Cooper.

Now his supporters moan at his past being dragged up and the savage killings of the likes of Frank Hegarty and Jerry McCabe being discussed as if the “constructive ambiguity” that was devised to bring Sinn Fein into the political process had become their birthright.

They claim that younger people are not interested in the past. I am not sure that is as true as they think, but even if we do accept that argument, the concerns about their candidate are not all based in the past.

Some stem from the fact that the past stretches forward to touch us today. Take, for instance, Sinn Fein’s attitude to the Irish Defence Forces.

This is an important issue. The Constitution states that supreme command of the defence forces is vested in the President (Article 13.4) and that all officers of the defence forces hold their commissions from the President (Art 13.5.2).

The ambiguous nature of Sinn Fein’s attitude to the Irish Defence Forces post Good Friday agreement was of interest to me when I was adviser to the Minister for Defence.

Though Martin McGuinness the presidential candidate now says he accepts that Oglaigh na hEireann is the Irish Defence Forces, back then the only time you heard the words Oglaigh na hEireann from him or from Gerry Adams, it was a reference to the Provos.

Martin’s volte face on this matter is welcome, though long overdue. He accepts that only the Defence Forces, as successors to the Irish Volunteers, are entitled to use the title: ‘Oglaigh na hEireann’.

Section 16 of the Defence Acts states: “It shall be lawful for the Government to raise, train, equip, arm and maintain Defence Forces to be called and known as Oglaigh na hEireann or (in English) the Defence Forces.”

Perhaps the reason McGuinness and Co found it hard to acknowledge the existence of the Defence Forces was that doing that might be bad for business.

The business in question was the Shinners own online shop. There they busily flogged items, including T-shirts, mouse-mats, bracelets, pendants and signet rings, bearing the title Oglaigh na hEireann, to grab every last euro and dollar they could.

On three occasions, the then Minister wrote to the Sinn Fein leadership, North and South, asking them to remove this material from sale.

The letters were acknowledged, but despite repeated attempts to engage with them, no substantive response was ever issued.

I checked their website again last weekend and was amazed to find that Sinn Fein was still making money from the sale of jewellery bearing the words Oglaigh na hEireann.

While some of the items complained about back in 2005 have been ‘disappeared’, a number are still there. The online description of one of those, a signet ring selling for €45, said: “The inscription reads: Oglaigh na hEireann — which is Irish for Irish Republican Army.”

This gombeen attitude to our heritage and to those who serve our nation is not very presidential. The fact that it still continues suggests that McGuinness’ move on accepting the Defence Forces may not be as deep as it seems.

Well, maybe not until all their back stock of trinkets have been flogged off — profits before principles.

Latest Herald column: First Anniversary of Dermot Earley’s Passing

This is my latest Evening Herald column: see here

Remembering Dermot Earley, a true Irish hero

By Derek Mooney
Saturday June 25 2011

IT IS a year since this country lost a man Enda Kenny described as iconic: Army Chief of Staff. Dermot Earley.

Far better people than me have given eloquent testimony to what an extraordinary man Dermot was. This can be readily verified by a visit to the excellent exhibition on his life and career at the GAA museum at Croke Park. On a purely personal level, what amazed me most about him was his capacity to command great authority while at the same time exhibiting a sense of humility.

He was strong and forceful, yet also gentle and relaxed. For almost six years, from 2004-2010, I worked down the corridor from him in the Parkgate HQ of the Defence Forces and Department of Defence.

Within a short space of time I witnessed his great personal skills, not least his ability to put people at ease. Both he and I were attending a social occasion organised by the soldiers’ representative body PDFORRA.

Through their involvement with the Euromil, the network of military representative bodies across Europe, PDFORRA had been supporting other groups seeking their own representation systems.

Attending the social function were three of four officers of a sister organisation not recognised by their own military authorities.

While I am 90pc sure I remember the country concerned, I won’t name it here. One of the PDFORRA senior officials asked me if I would mind meeting these guys. I said I had no problem and was introduced to them.

They were in civvies, as they were here on their own time.


Minutes later we were joined by Dermot, who arrived in the uniform of a Major General, as our Deputy Chief of Staff. He suggested we sit down at one of the tables and have a chat and a drink. The guys were not just impressed, they were visibly moved. Here was the second in command of our army not just meeting them, but sitting down and talking face to face when their own mid-ranking officers would not.

My other abiding memory was a a trip to the EUFOR HQ outside Paris. During a break, three or four of us, including Dermot, went outside to stretch our legs.

As we strolled we noticed a number of French soldiers on duty looking over at him from a distance. They could tell he was a senior general from his insignia, though it was clear they were unsure who he was, or where he was from.

He noticed this and chuckled as we saw them talk among themselves. At this point I piped up: “I think I know what they are saying.” “What’s that,” asked Dermot. “They are saying,” I replied, “you see yer man over there… he’s the greatest Irish footballer never to win an All-Ireland medal.” He looked at me sternly for about five seconds and then burst out laughing. He may have said something back at me, but I cannot quite recall just now. It is, however, the way I will remember him.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam dilis.

– Derek Mooney