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.

Kenny’s U-turn on Special Advisers

Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s defence of his U-turn on capping the pay of Special Advisers set me to thinking.

Merrion Street
Dept of An Taoiseach

When they came into office just eight months ago the Taoiseach started out well. He announced the withdrawal of ministerial cars and garda drivers from most Cabinet Ministers and was seen striding to work onfoot with no merc or beemer in sight.

He also said that he intended to take a similar approach to Special Advisers pay. The results there have been less impressive. Contrary to the declared intention to reduce the pay rates, it now emerges that almost 50% of them have been given exemptions and are now paid above the Principal Officer grade.

The Taoiseach defends this saying that Advisers are still paid less than previously.

Is that really so, Enda?

Back in October 2004 I was asked to become the Special Adviser to the newly appointed Defence Minister. It took me about five or six weeks to wind up my existing business and take on my duties as Special Adviser.

Within a few days of taking on the position I sat down with the Department’s HR manager. He talked me through the Departments requirements and regulations.

There were a number of forms to sign, covering a range of matters including security and related matters. I was required to produce the usual tax forms required of any new employee plus a Tax Clearance Certificate.

He then produced my contract of employment. We discussed some of the provisions while I leafed through the document. Then we both went quiet at the same time.

When it came to my pay rate the contract stated that I would be paid at the first point on the Assistant Principal (AP) grade. My understanding when I had accepted the post was that I would be paid at Principal Officer (PO) grade.

The difference between the first points on the AP and PO scales was in the region of €25k. The first point on the AP scale was in or around €57K as best as I can recall now.

I was a bit taken back by this and said as much to the HR manager. He explained that the default rate for my post in the department was AP grade unless I could show that my previous salary had been higher than that.

I relaxed as I knew I should clearly show that my annual income over the previous few years was in excess of the AP scale. It did take a few weeks to sort out but the paperwork was finalised as my first year’s pay was set at the first point on the PO scale.

I am not revealing anything new here. I am open about my salary as the then opposition used to ask parliamentary questions about my pay and expenses, and that of my colleagues across other Departments, at least twice a year. The replies were published regularly.

Indeed I recall opening an issue of the Sunday Independent as I was queuing to board a Ryanair flight to visit my parents in Spain and seeing one of those replies featuring my name, photo and pay rate there.  Worse still, I saw some people on the plane later holding copies of the Sindo and glaring at me.

Those replies usually pointed to the fact that there were fewer advisers in the post 1997 FF/PD Governments than there had been in the 94-97 FG/Lab/DL one. About 30% fewer: as far as I remember.

I make this point as the Taoiseach has sought to assert that paying 50% of their advisers at the first point on the PO scale is some big advance on the situation while I was there.

It is not.

The point on the scale is the same, though the scale has reduced. It was reduced by the last Government, not this one. As advisers we agreed to a 9% voluntary reduction in our pay in line with the voluntary cut in Ministerial pay, as well as the increased pension contributions and reductions in civil service pay rates across the board.

Like many things this Government is doing they may want people to think it is different – the reality is that it is the same.

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