“Soldier by trade – Gunner by profession” – that was always the way Noel O’Callaghan introduced himself when we met at the army barracks in Mullingar, County Westmeath or indeed the Custume Barracks in Athlone or the Connolly Barracks in Longford.
Noel was one of approximately 2000 hardy men and women from this region who have given most of their lives to the service of the State over the last 50 years – yet have been treated rather appallingly in every way. That includes all the way up to a very belated announcement this week of some sort of a decent package of measures aimed at trying to address the problematic manner in which we treat our loyal and hard-working Defence Forces in this country.
Noel has always been passionate about the cause – even since he left the service a number of years ago after Mullingar Barracks was closed down. My lasting memory of that historic day when the gates of Columb Barracks closed is of Noel standing up proudly with that unmistakable handlebars-style moustache in his sparkling uniform in the middle of a big army jeep coming out onto the road and saluting family and friends for the last time before the military moved lock, stock and barrel over to Athlone.
Some 183 personnel from Columb Barracks were moved to Custume Barracks, Athlone. Altogether, 170 military personnel and 13 civilian employees are attached to the 4th Field Artillery Regiment in Mullingar, and even though the regiment was always an element of the Athlone-based 4th Western Brigade, the move was supposed to allow for greater flexibility in the training and deployment of the entire Western Brigade.
Blow to economy
No jobs were lost due to the closure of the barracks on that day, but the reality is that the town of Mullingar lost out heavily in daily direct and indirect spending – the same way Longford and many others had before. Personnel from Mullingar were able to avail of free transport to Athlone and got compensation and change of station allowance, but the daily spend for food and supplies for the barracks was lost to the trade of the town – and so too much of the support network that goes with an army barracks.
This was a sad and shocking time for the men and women from Roscommon, Longford, Westmeath and all the neighbouring counties who saw their lives turned upside down. Further barracks’ across the country – including Cavan, Clonmel and Castlebar – closed along with Mullingar. The announcement prompted local Junior Minister Willie Penrose to resign the party whip and lose his cabinet seat. Willie was a man of great principle and had promised to fight to keep the Mullingar Barracks open from the day he was elected to office, so when he failed in that task, he did the honourable thing and resigned.
I remember meeting Rebecca O’Callaghan, daughter of Noel O’Callaghan, who was then the Regimental Sergeant Major in Columb Barracks, and due back from a tour of duty in the Lebanon at the time of the closure announcement. She was bitterly disappointed at the manner in which the news of the barracks’ closure was broken to both the soldiers and their families.
“We heard it here first…we had to ring Dad in the Lebanon to tell him,” she told me. “We know the decision won’t be reversed but we want to make some noise and to see if there is anything else we can do for the barracks”.
As if barracks’ closures weren’t enough of a negative, the way in which soldiers were treated in the following few years was even worse. Those serving in the lower ranks are not well paid at all and there has been a long and heated campaign to try and get some movement on this issue. That battle got a bit of a boost in the last few weeks when Eamon Ryan cast the dye and suggested that soldiers would be brought into Dublin Airport to try and help solve the chaos there. There was a backlash of sorts as most people asked the very fair question – why should the army members be asked to do the same job as others who were being paid a much higher pay scale?
Noel O’Callaghan was first out of the traps last week when the issue of a proper pay increase came up for discussion. “Unless pay, allowances, contracts, pensions and work time directive are addressed our Defence Forces have no chance of either retention or recruitment” he said – pointing out that while 374,000 euro had been spent on recruitment in one year, the result was 20% less recruitment than in the previous 12 months!
The Cabinet was under severe pressure to act. Earlier this week they agreed to increase Defence Forces’ spending to €1.5 billion by 2028. The hike in the budget will see allowances for the lowest ranks increase by €89 per week – or €5,000 per year – and the recommendation is that 2,000 more people should be added to the permanent Defence Forces. Defence Minster Simon Coveney claims that because we are 1,000 behind where we should be today, that effectively means adding an extra 3,000 people. That’s around a 35% increase.
The Minister asked the Government to prioritise money for military radar equipment, including primary radar – with a potential cost of €200 million – but people like Noel O’Callaghan still say it’s the pensions and contracts of the soldiers that require most attention – especially as inflation hits everyone.
The improvements announced this week involve defence spending of more than €8bn between now and the end of 2028 and would represent the largest investment in defence in the history of the State, but service allowances to all those at the rank of private, three-star and able seaman personnel are the key payments that will be awaited.
The target remains that an additional 2,000 personnel comprising both civil and military roles will also have to be recruited as part of the recommendation, but unless the bottom line on pay and allowances goes up, Noel O’Callaghan and his former colleagues say there will be no 2000 extra soldiers taken on.
The time for lip service to the army is over. Whenever this country is in trouble, it seems to me they are first to be called out. Whether it’s the snow, the storms, or the chaos at Dublin Airport, they are simply dragged away from their other duties and moved into the streets. I cannot think of any other profession in the public service who would agree to this.
Our part of the country has a proud record of service to the State through the Defence Forces. They work hard and long hours in conditions which are not only difficult but also dangerous, and it is high time their take-home pay recognised that.