Commission on the Defence Forces: Irish Member Associations Highlight Major Challenges

Established in December 2020, the Commission on the Defence Forces (the Commission) is tasked with assessing both the immediate requirements of the Defence Forces, including the Reserve Forces, as well as the longer-term vision for beyond 2030. The Commission is open to public consultation, however, on 16 February 2021, EUROMIL’s Irish Member Associations, PDFORRA, RACO and RDFRA, appeared before the Commission. All three associations outlined the significant and detrimental challenges facing the Irish Defence Forces and that are contributing to its demise, leaving members feeling undervalued and ignored.


PDFORRA (Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association), the largest representative association for members of the Defence Forces, highlighted to the Commission, the enormous crisis in recruitment and retention of personnel that has resulted in reduced capacity delivery for the State.

PDFORRA has long held the belief that the failure of the Irish Defence Forces, to keep pace with legislative changes that enhance employment in the private sector, has acted as a driver for reduced recruitment and accelerated difficulties with retention. This recognition resulted in PDFORRA undertaking numerous legal actions to have the terms of the Working Time Directive applied to members of the Irish Defence Forces. These actions have all been successful and have resulted in the introduction of holiday pay, compensatory rest and compensation for all members of the Defence Forces for past breaches. However, additional amendments to work practices need to be introduced if we are to fully meet the terms of the Directive. Coupled with the foregoing are the issue of tenuous contracts for personnel who enlisted post- 1994 and salaries that need to reflect the nature of military service.

Further to the foregoing, PDFORRA raised the issues of career progression, application of human rights law and the failure of government to comply with the findings of the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) in the complaint  of  EUROMIL v. Ireland (112/2014). There is a proposal by government to introduce a Permanent Pay Review Body upon the completion of this Commissions work. PDFORRA contest that the introduction of such a measure would run contrary to the findings of the ECSR ruling and would impact on our associations ability to protect the pecuniary interests of our members.


RACO, the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, highlighted a number of similar issues, including: understaffing and inexperience amongst Commissioned officers; dangerously inadequate Government Defence funding; high levels of turnover; misrepresentation of operational strength on paper; and forced early retirement in the absence of supplementary pensions.

The issues highlighted in RACO’s submission to the Commission convey the continuous underfunding and lack of resources that are contributing to the Irish Defence Forces decline in resilience, and from their perspective, within the Commissioned Officer ranks. RACO suggested a number of legislative proposals to curb these issues, including amending the Defence Act so as to reflect the appointment having Operational Command and Control over the Defence Forces. The association compiled a summary document providing a more detailed overview of their submission that can be accessed here, as well as the terms of reference of the Commission, here.

While significant financial investment is highlighted as a necessity in improving the situation, the funding provided will need to be used appropriately in developing and enhancing capabilities, particularly as the landscape of Defence continues to rapidly develop in line with new technologies.


During its appearance before the Commission, RDFRA (Reserve Defence Force Representative Association) outlined a number of issues that reflect both PDFORRA and RACO’s concerns, as well as those specific to the nature of the Reserve Forces.

It was pointed out to the Commission that the Army Reserve currently has an effective strength of 1,463 personnel, or 38% of establishment. The Naval Service Reserve currently has an effective strength of 125 personnel, or 62% of current establishment. Since its formation in 1929, the Reserve Defence Force (RDF) has been reorganised seven times. In the main, this stemmed from an uncertainty over what the State actually wanted the RDF to do. The force is currently at the lowest strength-level in its history.

The latest reorganisations of 2005 and 2012 simply involved a re-structuring in line with the contemporary effective strength. Arguably, no more consideration was given to each RDF re-organisation than a simple contemporary-strength-equals-new-establishment conversion. This shows that, in recent decades, the RDF has been treated as no more than an afterthought or a distraction. To secure its future, the force requires a clear purpose and a meaningful place in the Irish defence infrastructure.

RDFRA outlined a number of actions to be taken to improve the situation. The RDF should first be repurposed from its current status as a strategic reserve to become an operational reserve, capable of being utilised operationally both domestically and overseas. A “Reinforcement Reserve” element for each branch of the service should be created and tasked with providing a surge capacity in the areas of organic Defence Forces skills, and to support operations both domestically and overseas – modularisation of training courses/blended learning is key to developing capability within this element of the RDF.

A “Specialist Reserve” element for each branch of the service should be created and tasked with providing specialist skills that are accredited externally to the Defence Forces, in an individual or group capacity, and to support operations both domestically and overseas. Flexibility and individual skills recognition are key to attracting high-calibre specialists to this element of the RDF.

Regarding the structure of the RDF, it was put forward that the future RDF should comprise Army, Naval and Air Corps branches of the service. The future RDF should be geographically dispersed throughout the Irish State, allowing the benefits of local recruit/local service to be harnessed, and improving Defence Forces visibility and presence throughout the State. Furthermore, the establishment of the future RDF in each region should be proportionally representative of each region’s population of military-service age.

RDFRA also outlined issues relating to staffing. Reinforcement Reserve elements – whose role will focus on providing surge capacity in organic Defence Forces skills – will require Mentoring staffs comprised of Permanent Defence Force (PDF) officers and NCOs. In the view of RDFRA, the focus of these Mentoring staffs must be on training and upskilling the Reinforcement Reserve in order to ensure that the Reinforcement Reserve is fully capable of delivering on its role, to ensure that it operates using the latest doctrine at all times, and to make the Reinforcement Reserve as self-sufficient as possible in all matters of administration and logistics.

Given the specialist qualifications and skillsets that members of the Specialist Reserve will possess, it will be unnecessary to establish Mentoring staffs for the Specialist Reserve. However, given that such personnel will be employed by the Defence Forces in their specialist capacities, Logistics and Administrative Support staffs – comprising officers and enlisted personnel of the PDF – should be established to support each Specialist Reserve element in these areas. Dedicated RDF Recruitment staffs – comprising PDF and RDF personnel – should be established at regional level (for the Reinforcement Reserve) and national level (for the Specialist Reserve) in order to handle all aspects of RDF recruitment.

In addition to the ‘bread and butter’ issues, RDFRA also drew attention to a number of other important issues in need of significant attention.

The PDF is 6.9% female. The RDF is 13.3% female. The current Army Reserve Potential Officers Course is 24% female. The part-time nature of Reserve service tends to make it more attractive to females because, by definition, the RDF has inherently flexible working practices – a positive matter that can be harnessed to far greater benefit.

As well as this, it was highlighted that the RDF requires a functional recruitment system that is implemented on a formally-structured basis, supported by PDF and RDF staffs, and properly resourced with appropriate oversight by higher headquarters. Recruitment must also be cognisant of the differing reasons why persons join the Reserve; some to have a fundamentally military experience that differs considerably from their civilian career, some to put their civilian qualifications to use in a military environment, and some to do both. That is why both the Reinforcement Reserve and Specialist Reserve elements need to exist.

Further to recruitment, the force needs a functional promotion system that rewards a commitment to personal upskilling and professional military education, rather than simply length-of-time served in current rank. Coupled with this, the need for career courses to be run on a structured, predictable cycle.

In order to convert the RDF into an operational reserve, capable of being utilised domestically and overseas, PDF unit commanders must be able to exert meaningful operational control over their respective reservists. This can only be achieved via the implementation of employment protection for reservists, along with associated employer engagement and supports. This would guarantee the availability of reservists when required, but also guarantee that reservists’ civilian employment would not be adversely affected if they were formally called upon.

A particular concern highlighted by RDFRA to the Commission was the current view towards the RDF – attempting to build an RDF of dedicated, part-time professionals on a sometimes-you-get-paid, sometimes-you-do-not model is thoroughly unsound. The introduction of fair and appropriate remuneration for service is vital, including appropriate pay rates, allowances, gratuities and tax credits, with no more unpaid service of any kind. With a new operational role for the RDF, there must be a significantly increased resource allocation – such as financial resources, training facilities, personal equipment, dedicated unit vehicles, etc. – in order to support this. The annual RDF budget is currently €2.15m per annum, or 0.28% of the 2020 Defence budget. It is simply impossible to run a meaningful Reserve force on a third of one percent of the budget.

In response to RDFRA’s submission, the Commission were extremely supportive. Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen (retd.) from Norway and Lieutenant-General Esa Pulkkinen from Finland were particularly supportive of the concept of a part-time professionalised RDF that was paid for all activities. The Commission were cognisant of the unique challenges facing the RDF, and accepted that it had not received the attention it clearly requires for many years. RDFRA emphasised that the RDF needs a meaningful operational role, and then – underpinned by legislation and regulations – to be properly structured, trained, resourced, paid and supported to deliver on that role. It is the Association’s view that this was accepted by the Commission and will be given the serious consideration it deserves.

EUROMIL continues to work closely with PDFORRA, RACO and RDFRA and supports their work towards building a more equal, just and well-resourced Defence Forces. If you wish to find out more information on the above, please contact You can also make contact with PDFORRA, RACO and RDFRA directly.

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