Earlier this week, An Taoiseach Micheál Martin, accompanied by ministers Simon Coveney and Eamon Ryan headed to McKee barracks, beside the Phoenix Park, to launch the overdue and long anticipated government’s action plan response to the Report of the Commission on the Defence Forces, entitled: “Building for the future – change from within.”
It is a good document. It commits the government to moving the State’s level of defence capability to Level of Ambition 2 (LOA) over a period of six years between now and 2028. In terms of cash and people, this means growing the annual Defence budget to €1.5 billion by 2028 (in 2022 prices) plus expanding the defence establishment by 2,000 personnel (civil and military).
Assuming it does hit its targets this represents, as the Taoiseach and the two Ministers said: “the largest increase in Defence funding in the history of the State.”
As one of the very many folks who bemoaned the wilful political neglect of defence over the past decade, I was genuinely pleased to see this significant shift in direction and approach. But my instinct is to hold off on the partying.
Now, I know the Bible tells us that “we should make merry and be glad” when the prodigal child returns and that we should go and “kill for him the fatted calf” and permit Coveney and Varadkar some measure self-congratulations, but doesn’t the parable start with returning prodigal showing some measure of remorse and contrition?
I wasn’t seeing any of that last week.
Indeed, to belabour the parable beyond all endurance, lo, what we saw instead was the righteous older brother… let’s call him Martin… metaphorically laud and embrace the prodigal Simon, as if nothing had ever happened and that they had been together and as one.
It may make for good parables, but it makes for lousy politics – a point to which I will return at the end.
Though the increased investment is welcome, much of it will be go on undoing the damage caused by that decade of neglect and under investment. The evidence for this lies in the Commission’s considered definition of LOA2:
Building on current capability to address specific priority gaps in our ability to deal with an assault on Irish sovereignty and to serve in higher intensity Peace Support Operations.
It is about plugging gaps in our defence capability that successive governments (and sadly that includes the first two years of this one) since 2012 have allowed to develop and fester.
The recruitment of 2000 extra personnel (both civil and military) is a good example of such a gap. While 2000 extra men and women looks like a sizeable increase, that’s because the Government sets its own 2015 White Paper on Defence as the starting point.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this epoch-making document – and that possibly includes the Fine Gael, Labour and Independent senior and junior ministers who served in government since then – this was the Defence White Paper prepared during Minister Simon Coveney’s previous stint in defence, the one in which he officially cut the Defence Forces strength from 10,500 to 9,500.
With that move, Coveney made permanent the 2009 temporary reduction of 1,000 military personnel under the Bord Snip Nua measures to tackle the economic collapse. It is worth recalling that at the time of the 2015 White Paper’s launch the real time strength of the Defence Forces was 9050, and that the force strength has dropped even lower at various points since.
I am not trying to deny that the planned increase is welcome, merely to put it into the proper context. By 2028, assuming all targets are met, we can expect to see a Defence Forces with fewer than 1000 more personnel in uniform than it had in 2002. Whether this is 400, 500, or 600 extra is impossible to say (the increase is to include both military and civilian).
Progress? Yes. But, perhaps Fine Gael should put the self-congratulations on hold until we get beyond a point we had previously reached two decades ago?
I don’t propose to delve further in the government’s specific proposals today, except to voice some concerns about its plans on cyber-security. While the government appears to have accepted most of the Commission’s recommendations on enhancing the Defence Forces capabilities on cyber defence, it seems reluctant to commit itself on:
Increased civil-military engagement across Government on the development of appropriate structures and processes for countering hybrid warfare, learning from current international experience.
This is the most important of Commission’s suite of recommendations on building cyber defence capacity. It is the one that could bring the Defence Forces from being responsible for their own cyber-security alone to giving them a key role in national cyber-defence, yet despite six months of consideration the Minister and Department has marked it for “Further Evaluation.” That is concerning.
But as with all government pronouncements, we cannot ignore the politics of the McKee barracks policy launch, especially as it happened between two polls that brought more bad news for the government parties.
It also came after a no confidence motion which saw the government win by a convincing, if not flattering, margin. But government backbenchers would be wise not to read too much into it and to remember that Sinn Féin’s motion was not about making trouble for them, but about starting to pile pressure on to those independent TDs who from time-to-time back the government in Dáil votes.
It was step one in Sinn Féin’s to start targeting independent seats now so they become winnable by the Shinners the next time around. Paint all independents as just crypto Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael-ers propping up this government, the Shinner strategists believe, and they can take those seats in 2023 or 2024.
It’s not a mad strategy, but it’s a flawed one as it assumes that the independents haven’t already noticed the sniper at work red laser dots that have started to appear on their foreheads. They have. The current cohort of independents are a much wilier bunch that the Shinner back-room folks may realise, a point calmly made by Deputy Marian Harkin during Tuesday’s debate when she told Mary Lou McDonald:
…I do not appreciate being told by the leader of Sinn Féin about standing with people. Her words show disrespect for my mandate, all Independent Deputies and the people who elected us.
But, back to good parables and lousy politics.
For me the outing to McKee summed up much of Fianna Fáil’s problems in government, problems which my good friend Gerry Howlin superbly explained in his latest Irish Times analysis piece.
As he stood in McKee, the Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil was both happy to aid Fine Gael in a shameless white washing of its appalling record on national defence, and content to ignore the reality that his party had not only called out Fine Gael for almost a decade but had offered proposals in-line with was now being announcing.
This, An Taoiseach tells his dwindling number of parliamentary party loyalists, is the price that must be paid to hold this coalition together. Perhaps it is when it comes to issues that voters do not see as of critical importance, but can you be as blasé when it comes to housing, health and the cost of living.
I don’t think so. And it would appear that at least thirty of Mr Martin’s parliamentary colleagues would agree (note that the current Fianna Fáil parliamentary party has just 56 members).
This is not to say that every one of those 30 Oireachtas members want to see Martin immediately gone as leader and Taoiseach, but it a sign that they are hearing the same thing from their constituents as the people told the most recent Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks poll, namely, that they don’t feel that Fianna Fáil (or Fine Gael) “stand up for people like me” (25%) and that the government is “failing to tackle housing and healthcare (43%).
As An Taoiseach heads to the land of the rising sun on the next leg of his least consequential statesman global tour, his thirty Fianna Fáil Oireachtas colleagues have finally grasped what 25% of their fellow members knew when they opposed the Programme for Government and rejected this government construct.
Those of us who voted against this deal saw that the 2020 election result was as momentous and politics shifting as the 1918, 1932, 1989 or 2011 elections, and required a response that showed the voters that their call for change was heard.
In 2020 voters demanded a change of policy on housing and healthcare, but they do not see this government, dominated by Varadkar’s style of Fine Gael, delivering that change.
If things within this government, but especially within Fianna Fáil, do not change soon and at the necessary scale, then the next time out the voters won’t be demanding “change”, they’ll just be demanding “Sinn Féin.”
Sinn Féin in government would be a change, but not every change is always for the better.