Secretary General, Maurice Quinn, Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, President of RACO, Commandant Shane Keogh; General Secretary Commandant Conor King; Members of the National Executive; Delegates; Distinguished Guests; Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is indeed a great pleasure to attend and speak at your conference here in Killashee House Hotel today in the company of the Secretary General at the Department of Defence Maurice Quinn, Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, as well as members of the General Staff and representatives from the Department of Defence.
There have been significant developments in the Defence environment in recent months and I know that many of these developments have been discussed and debated at your conference.
Before I touch on some of those aspects, I want to begin by recognising the positive and constructive role the RACO leadership has played in recent times.
There has been a huge amount of engagement between RACO and the Department of Defence, particularly through the C&A scheme, on issues that impact our Army, Naval Service and Air Corps personnel.
I acknowledge that differing perspectives and constraints may sometimes preclude the various parties involved from achieving immediate agreement.
But I strongly believe that it is through constructive and respectful dialogue that we can achieve positive outcomes and results.
Just last Thursday, Commandants Keogh and King and Lieutenant Colonel Priestley met Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and I in my Department of Defence office in Newbridge.
The meeting provided an important opportunity, ahead of your conference, for parties to engage in frank and honest discussions.
From the perspective of An Taoiseach and I, the meeting gave us a chance to hear, first hand, RACO’s views around the issues that are of most concern to your members.
I will touch on a number of those issues during the course of my speech here today.
Delegates, as long as I hold the post of Minister, I will continue to engage positively and directly with recognised representative associations like RACO and PDFORRA.
For I know your overriding objective is to work constructively to improve conditions for your members, rather than shouting from the sidelines and trying to grab cheap headlines.
Before I touch on some of the concerns that have been raised at your conference, I want to recognise the vote that took place yesterday on the report of the Public Service Pay Commission (PSPC).
I very much welcome the fact that you have voted to accept the report’s recommendations, which will result in tangible and real benefits for your members, such as:
Importantly, the report is underpinned by a High Level Implementation Plan which sets out clear timelines and objectives for the delivery of both pay and non-pay measures.
The plan is overseen by the Department of An Taoiseach and, under my direction, work on this plan is being prioritised by Civil and Military Management.
I have always emphasised the value of civil and military working together that is why I instructed the Secretary General and Chief of Staff to set up the joint civil/military Programme Management Office to manage the implementation of the recommendations.
The plan includes a range of recommendations aimed at improving work-force planning, recruitment and conditions of service.
Importantly, it also provides for an examination of pay structures and the identification of further incentive measures, which will assist in developing a Defence position and priorities ahead of the next round of pay talks.
For my part as Minister, it was encouraging last week to receive a briefing from the joint civil/military Programme Management Office, who are project managing this work. When I visited and met the staff.
I know that this group has also provided briefings to RACO and I am keen to see this continue.
Delegates, the Public Service Pay Commission report and implementation plan are not a set of documents designed to merely sit on a shelf.
The measures and objectives set out will be implemented and RACO and PDFORRA will be consulted on matters within the scope of representation.
Importantly, this body of work sets out a clear pathway to inform a Defence position which will feed into the next round of Public Sector Pay talks, which are due to begin in 2020.
Delegates, 2019 has been another busy year and a year of significant change for the Defence Forces and indeed for the Defence Organisation as a whole.
My job as Minister is to lead the organisation – but I do so while listening closely to the concerns of the Department of Defence, Military Management and the representative associations.
Among the key objectives for Government is to reach a strength level of 9,500 Permanent Defence Force personnel as set out in the White Paper on Defence.
The process of reaching this figure of 9,500 personnel and maintaining the strength at this level presents many challenges, particularly during a period of economic buoyancy and record employment levels.
As Minister, I want to see no stone left unturned in working together to ensure we strengthen our Defence Forces and progress our shared goals.
The Public Service Pay Commission identified significant retention issues in the Permanent Defence Force and these challenges are being addressed under the Implementation Plan.
The Implementation Plan includes a commitment to initiate a review of current retention strategies taking into account the individual needs of each service.
I know that, amongst other initiatives, RACO are particularly interested in restoring fixed period promotion for Special Service Officers, which you see as an important retention measure.
This matter has been raised with me by your representatives, most recently when we met last week.
Although fixed period promotion is not specifically recommended by the Public Service Pay Commission, its consideration was included in the Government’s implementation plan.
As Minister, I am very much in favour of this proposal and can confirm today that I have agreed to its restoration.
This will be subject to the Department reaching agreement with RACO on the details of the revised scheme.
I would like to see engagement begin on this issue as soon as possible.
Turning to pension matters, which I know is of considerable interest to your members.
As you will appreciate, the design and structure of superannuation arrangements for Defence Force personnel has evolved in the overall context of public service pension reforms, especially the significant developments over the past two decades or more.
The various changes to pension scheme arrangements during that period all flowed from the State’s need to support the long-term sustainability of public service pensions into the future, while at the same time continuing to provide valuable pension benefits for its employees.
Pension costs have been increasing year on year across the public service.
The introduction of the Single Pension Scheme addressed the matter of increasing costs by achieving very substantial long-run savings of about one third of pension pay-out costs. It also delivers fair and reasonable pensions to members and ensures the continued fiscal sustainability of public service pension costs into the future. In this regard it is worth noting that there is an allocation of some €249 million for Defence Forces pension benefits in 2019.
The Pay Commission has considered the concerns expressed by RACO in relation to various aspects of pension scheme provisions for the Defence Forces.
Options to tackle barriers to extended participation in the Defence Forces, including the possibility of extending compulsory retirement ages and upper service limits for members of the Defence Forces, will be considered in the context of that high level implementation plan.
Delegates, I am aware that the issue of supplementary pensions is a matter which is of deep concern to your members.
Sometime ago, when I met your representatives, I stated that once we had navigated the Pay Commission process, I would facilitate further engagement between the Department of Defence, RACO and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on this matter, which you will appreciate also impacts on other uniformed services.
Following discussions I had last night with my colleague the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe TD, I can confirm that he has agreed to facilitate such a meeting for RACO with his Officials.
Turning to the issue of the Working Time Directive, which has been transposed into national legislation by way of the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997.
The Government has committed to amending the Organisation of Working Time Act and bringing the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána within the scope of its provisions.
The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is the lead government department in this regard.
The Department of Defence and the Defence Forces have undertaken significant work in examining the duties undertaken by the members of the Permanent Defence Force and how those duties can be arranged to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Working Time Directive.
Civil and military management are engaging with the Representative Associations on these matters.
At your association’s suggestion, the targeting of “quick wins” has already seen the introduction of changes which will benefit the members of the Defence Forces on an interim basis pending adoption of the legislative changes required.
I look forward to seeing continued positive engagement on this matter from both RACO and PDOFRRA.
Delegates, a huge amount of work has been undertaken to strengthen the Defence Forces and indeed the entire Defence Organisation in 2019.
From an overseas perspective, we have signed up to Status of Forces Agreements, securing extra legal protections for our personnel. For many years the absence of these agreements complicated training and deployments. I committed to addressing this matter and hope that these efforts will ensure legal certainty for our personnel and make it easier for the Defence Forces to engage with our international partners.
We have deployed the Army Ranger Wing in an operational role for the first time in 10 years to the UN-mandated MINUSMA mission.
We increased the number of personnel serving overseas, taking over a full battalion in UNIFIL on a short term basis.
Back at home, and of direct benefit to your members, this Government has passed legislative provisions that ensure the health benefits you receive as Officers are exempt from benefit-in-kind taxation and, when it comes to health insurance and Lifetime Community Ratings, ensuring that members of the Defence Forces are credited for their time in service. We have also continually invested in Defence Force infrastructure and major equipment platforms as well as increasing supports for our veterans.
But delegates, Government is not blind to the real challenges that we face, particularly in the areas of recruitment and retention.
There is no quick fix to these challenges and addressing them will take time. But I want to reassure you that I have heard the concerns around recruitment and retention that RACO has raised and, where possible, I have sought to include these in our strategies.
Having a detailed and ambitious implementation plan, with buy-in and cooperation from all the key stakeholders, is essential to strengthening our Defence Forces – one in which members are appropriately rewarded with attractive pay and conditions.
The longstanding desire of PDFORRA to associate with ICTU has received increased attention in recent weeks, particularly after ICTU’s decision to accept its application in principle. Indeed, although such a move would be a significant change in terms of our structures, it must be recognised, that across Europe and indeed the world, when it comes to militaries there are differing approaches to industrial relations, representation, collective bargaining, and the right to association and pay determination. You have your own presentation today on one aspect of the system in the UK.
However, I have always acknowledged that association with ICTU poses complex questions for the Defence organisation from a legal, operational and management perspective.
Indeed, I have received advice from the Chief of Staff, and I have heard the views of your association. I want to assure you that, as the ongoing process of engagement continues, the various perspectives on this matter will be carefully considered.
That process of engagement with ICTU arose as one element of the Barry Report, the other being the C&A scheme itself. The review of the C&A scheme was something that I prioritised on my appointment as Minister and it is my desire to see the recommendations for an updated C&A scheme being implemented.
I am pleased that the sub-group developing the terms of a revised scheme is nearing the completion of its work. There are some outstanding issues that still have to be worked through but I am confident that this can be progressed in a timely manner so that, when the new scheme is finalised and ready to go, we can proceed to appointing an independent chair.
Delegates, I hope I have touched on some of the key issues that are of interest to RACO and its members.
All of you continue to perform your roles with upmost professionalism and commitment.
I want to take this opportunity to thank you, for your continued leadership, flexibility and dedication.
Without this, the huge range of activities by the Defence Forces - both at home and overseas - would not be possible.
I would like to acknowledge your Association’s continued positive engagement through the industrial relations structures.
I wish you well for the remainder of your conference and I look forward to engaging with you at tonight’s Banquet and thank you for your invite.