My dad served in the Irish Defence Forces for some thirty seven years during which he served three tours of duty in the Congo; one of the earliest Irish overseas missions.
In 1960 they landed in Lagos in bull's wool uniform and the heavy black boots, didn't have much then but their small arms weapons and very little armour, but they had their Irish spirit and the ability to get on with everything and everyone no matter the environment. I am proud of my father's service back then, I am proud that I grew up in the married quarters of a military barracks (Stephen’s Barracks in Kilkenny), as I am proud of our Defence Forces today, with almost 700 personnel overseas today in 13 missions, in 12 countries and on one sea.
The COVID emergency has only highlighted their role here today in Ireland in contingency response, they never fail to front up when asked with their many capabilities including engineering, logistics, transport, cyber and communications, medical, air and maritime, in any emergency, and this is the core of my few words today. While the core role of the Defence Forces is the defence of the state, its citizens and interests, including our economy, we must never forget their role in national resilience and emergency management.
The Irish Defence Forces has become internationally respected as an impartial peacekeeping force, a force for good in fragile states and in places of conflict.
The Commission Report highlights a need to invest in military capability to bolster Ireland’s security and while I watched with interest the debate on both sides of the house regarding military spend, I was struck by the lack of consideration of the greatest threat to global security; climate change and biodiversity loss.
In April of last year, Minister O Brien and I travelled to Killarney National Park following a devasting fire there that destroyed species rich habitat, contaminated the water, destabilised carbon rich soils and released CO2 into the atmosphere. We were grateful to the Irish Air Corps for their support in controlling the fire, it took a huge effort to bring it under control. But while the Killarney fire was raging, there were also multiple fires taking place in various locations across the country and there simply wasn’t sufficient state or private air cover to deal with them.
Over the past decade, we have witnessed record temperatures, record winter temperatures, increased frequency of extreme weather and flooding events; all evidence pointing towards a changing climate.
Later this year our department will lead on legislating for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to protect biodiversity and habitats around our coasts.
Our climate preparedness should include the consideration of the multi-purpose use of our Defence Forces, our Navy and Air Corps towards enhanced protection for communities in the face of extreme weather events, wildfires, flooding, in protecting the biodiversity of our territorial waters and coastal communities in the face of rising sea levels.
From my perspective, every piece of equipment that we buy as a state should be dual purpose; every troop carrying helicopter can be used for fire fighting, and helping communities; consider a strategic air lift capability, to lift our troops to major missions, the same aircraft can support DFAT in disaster relief and humanitarian support and in emergency evacuation (Afghanistan last year), and the HSE! Our Navy has a huge role to play in the future, on our coastlines and in our seas, not just in defending the state against a military threat or criminality, but in protecting, managing and monitoring our environment, our ecology, and our economy. Our Army needs Field Hospitals, emergency bridging, flood relief capabilities. Our Civil Defence needs to be resourced. Every government department and agency should be consulted in defence and in particular in providing national resilience and contingency capabilities, and we really do need to broaden our horizons beyond our land borders and into our seas and our airspace!
Our Navy has performed heroics in the Mediterranean Sea in rescuing migrants, many of whom are fleeing the impacts, direct or indirect of climate change. These humanitarian missions will need to continue and our Navy needs to be adequately equipped to carry out this vital work safely and effectively. This work is referenced in terms of strengthening capabilities towards deeper engagement in international peace and humanitarian missions.
I welcome reference in the report to the revitalisation of the Reserve Defence Forces. Again I would like to see a role for the RDF in our collective actions on climate and biodiversity.
The review of the Aid to Civil Power (Section 4.3) states that ATCP and ATCA should be subject to regular review for continued relevance and priority. Section 4.6 dealing with Aid to Civil Authorities outlines the need for a whole of government needs analysis to highlight trends and predict needs. Section 6.2 on Capability Development Planning advocates the creation of a civil-military structure to embed capability development. These recommendations point toward a way forward in integrating this reform process within the Defence Forces with the wider needs of the state and the state’s assets, namely our land and water and the important ecosystem services that they provide.
While issues of pay and conditions are outside of the scope of this report; like others I am of the view that in order to build capacity within our defence forces and to attract young men and women who might be considering this as a career option; it is vital that it is an attractive career option. I welcome the recommendations regarding gender equality and diversity in the report.
The Commission Report outlines current threat and risk environment within the context of the Defence Forces designated roles. It states ‘Versatility, flexibility, and resiliency will be required to adapt to change and to react, learn and recover from predicted and unpredicted threats and risks. Moreover it places a high value on the ability to collaborate across service branches, government agencies, societal sectors, and/or national borders’.
Minister, I can think of no more important sphere for such collaboration than in our battle to offset the worst impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss. In this context I fully support you in your work to raise the capability of our defence forces and propose that all future planning should include the defence forces collaborative role in protecting people, land, sea and all of our natural resources.