This column first appeared on Broadsheet on Monday February 28th
I start this week’s column, picking up from where I left off last week, by looking at the future prospects of the Russian Ambassador to Ireland, Yury Filatov.
Last Monday I suggested that he be sent home. I was not the first to say it. The call has echoed across most of Leinster House. At the end of last week we heard individual Labour and Fine Gael demand his expulsion. Inside Fianna Fáil, Jim O’Callaghan TD led a coordinated call by the party’s backbench TDs, MEPs, and Senators for the Ambassador to be expelled.
Sinn Féin also read the public mood and, to its credit, did a 180-degree-turn on its decades’ long stance of rarely criticising Putin or Russia by issuing a strong statement calling for both the “…expulsion of Russian Ambassador and tougher sanctions.”
This column first appeared on Broadsheet on Monday, January 31st with the much snappier title: Indefensible. In it, I explain how a decade of political neglect of both defence policy and the Defence Forces is coming back to haunt the government. Sadly, the comments of An Taoiseach and of Ministers Coveney and Ryan point to them having beither the ideas or the political will to undo the damage of thar decade of neglect.
After a decade of defence issues being pushed so far down the political agenda that you’d need a bathysphere and a decompression chamber to even spot them, they came roaring back up that agenda this week. With a vengeance.
Each day brought a new story. It started with the concern over the build up of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border and the not unconnected tumult over Russia’s plans to mount naval exercises in Ireland’s exclusive economic zone.
It then continued with the policy-making-on-the-hoof announcement by Taoiseach Micheál Martin and the Communications Minister Eamon Ryan that they plan to come up a plan to close Cathal Brugha barracks and use it for housing.
This article first appeared on Broadsheet dot i e on February 22nd and considers the political dimension to the reported breakdown in relationships between senior management in the Department of Defence and the Irish Defence Forces. I establish that the problem has nothing to do with personalities, but rather the structural relations between the two leaderships and the perception that the Department of Defence is not championing the cause of the Defence Forces within government, most particularly with the Department of Finance. But that is impossible to do without a committed minister at cabinetwith political clout. A minister who puts Defence first, not second.
A few months after I started working as the special adviser in the Department of Defence, Gerry Hickey, the late and much missed programme manager to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, phoned me to check on some departmental facts and figures for the annual Programme for Government review.
“…and roughly how many civil servants work in the Department of Defence”, he enquired.
“From what I can tell… about half of them”, I acerbically responded.
There was an exasperated silence at the other end of the line. Not for the first time my knack for being smart-assed at the wrong moment was backfiring.
“What was that?” he asked.
Luckily, I had the number to hand as there had been a parliamentary question on that topic a week or two before. From memory there were about 380 individual civil servants, but as some were on job sharing schemes this was roughly equal to 360 whole-time equivalents.
My wise-guy answer was unnecessarily facetious. Almost all the department officials I encountered during in my time in defence were hard-working and professional. This is across the department, not just those on the policy side, who I encountered most frequently, but also the junior and mid-ranking officials who made the defence establishment work efficiently, such as those in the pay and pensions branches.
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.
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.
Broadsheet 129 – They won’t have a winner some day
“Beyond the Fringe” was a 1960s British comedy revue that was seminal to the rise of British satire… well, according to Wikipedia, it was.
Even if you never heard of the show, you will know its cast. They were: Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennet
The revue had lengthy sell-out runs in London’s West End and Broadway and introduced several classical comedy sketches. One in particular has been coming to mind over the past few weeks.
It opens with a group of obsessive devotees gathering at the top of a mountain. They are counting down to midnight and, they believe, the end of the world. Their shaman tells them of what is to befall the world and assures them that they will be safe. Meanwhile the individual followers sheepishly wonder about mundane things like who brought the tinned food… and the tin opener.
The countdown nears its climax. 3… 2… 1. [Spoiler Alert] There is silence. Nothing happens. Unperturbed, the shaman concedes “this wasn’t quite the conflagration I’d been banking on… same time tomorrow lads, we must have a winner one day”.
And so it is with Sinn Féin, Ming, Daly et al. With the same fixated zeal as the lads on the mountain they are once again predicting the end of neutrality. Mercifully, it is not nighty, though their incantations do seem to come around with a regularity curiously attuned to the electoral cycle.