Speech at the PDForra 31st Anniversary Dinner
Gleneagle Hotel, Killarney, 6th October, 2021
Oifigigh agus ionadaithe baill de PDFORRA. Lig dom ar an gcéad dul síos mo bhuíochas a glacadh libh as ucht bhur gcuireadh bheith libh ar an ócáid seo ar chríoch bhur gcomhdháil.
Officers and delegates of PDFORRA, I am delighted to join you all here this evening at the banquet of your annual conference. PDFORRA is an organisation that has, for 31 years, been a tireless advocate for the rights and welfare of our Defence Forces members. As I have just said in Irish I want to begin by thanking your Vice President Donogh Maguire for inviting me, in my capacity as Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces, to take part in this occasion, and all of you for the generous welcome you have extended to me this evening.
In that capacity as Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces I welcome the members of the Defence Forces having representation with regard to the decisions that affect them and their loved ones. The movements and organisations that have sought and given representation to workers have a long and indeed difficult history, one that required courage, one which has witnessed lengthy and often harsh struggles in pursuit of basic rights. Some of those struggles and confrontations have ended in devastating defeats, others in landmark victories. The Trade Union movement’s role in Irish society, too often downplayed in the dominant historiography, has been generous and broad reaching, extending back to being the most enlightened and far seeing part of our long fought battle for independence and outwards towards the right to dignity of citizenship in society as well as in the work force.
The right to be represented, to collective representation, is a basic right appropriate to all workers as is recognised in, among other places European law. At their very heart Unions, in their work of representation, are about the strengthening and deepening of democracy within our society, deriving their strength from their collectivity, from the great sense of solidarity they engender amongst those willing to work in unity for the achievement of better and fairer working conditions for their fellow citizens.
That is why Unions have sought peace, and avoidance of the loss of life that conflict brings. A century ago the Trade Union movement, North and South, were united in seeking to avoid unnecessary loss of life in both the War of Independence and the Civil War, a view delivered on their behalf in the Dáil by Tom Johnson of The Labour Party. It is the Trade Union movement, on an island basis and internationally, that has been most steadfast in opposing sectarianism.
Today, in Ireland, approximately 25 per cent of workers are members of a Trade Union. Forty years ago that figure was in excess of 62 percent. For many years now, the Trade Union movement has been fighting a difficult battle against the centrality of individualism lead by versions, some more extreme that others within our society, with its emphasis on the insatiable wants of the individual over the needs of the group. This has often be accompanied by an ill-informed resentment of the role of the State, its institutions and the public servants who work in them.
Being a ‘union person’ has always demanded courage. PDFORRA is, of course, no stranger to facing many challenges, indeed, it is rooted in a profound sense of determination. When the late John Lucey, along with Michael Martin and several other colleagues, originally decided to set up a representative association for members of the Defence Forces they not only encountered opposition and friction, but also the threat of dismissal itself from service, and even the threat of imprisonment, for failing to comply with rules of discipline.
Their unwavering commitment to the improvement of pay and conditions for their colleagues was then, and remains now, a clearly stated articulation of the right of Defence Forces personnel to have work conditions that respected human dignity, security and respect. It was also informed by a vision of the kind of humanity in our society that our policies and our efforts must constantly seek and nurture.
In their work to ensure that our military personnel would be allowed a voice John Lucey, Michael Martin and their colleagues were following in the footsteps of all workers in the past, and their families, who had marched, fought for and stood in solidarity with their colleagues, with their fellow citizens, and with people all over the world who have struggled against inequality and against so many forms of exclusion. They were also creating a critical moment in the history of the Defence Forces, responding as they were to a vital need.
When we remember that many members of the military were, at the time, living in substandard accommodation, working in poor conditions and trying to exist and support families on extremely meagre pay we cannot but conclude that a society was being defended that was failing to value the contribution and the strengthening and sustenance of security and national representation that our Defence Forces were offering to that society.
PDFORRA’s achievements have, across the three decades since its establishment been many, and you have much to reflect on with pride as you mark this thirty first anniversary. Today it is estimated that PDFORRA comprises some 6,500 members, who have benefitted from your committed and generous work, and you have progress to report.
As a party to the Conciliation and Arbitration Scheme for Members of the Defence Forces you play a key role in progressing important claims and proposals relating to pay and conditions of service. You have also been instrumental in ensuring the Scheme remains relevant and appropriate in what is an evolving workplace context.
Your engagement in Conciliation Council Meetings has ensured that several barriers to Defence Force Personnel receiving adequate allowances and recompense have now been removed. You have also played an important role as stakeholders in both consultations relating to the Defence Forces, and in wider public service discussions and negotiations, ensuring your members are fairly represented at the table and benefit from ensuing agreements.
While your achievements have been important ones, and the working and living conditions in which our Defence Forces now operate has been greatly enhanced we all know, however, that there still remains considerable work to be done.
While, as a nation we are aware of the enormous debt of gratitude we owe our Defence Forces for their service at home and abroad, I am deeply aware that gratitude, the expression of such well-earned, cannot and should not be perceived as an adequate substitute for the policies that in their implementation are recognising the expression of dignity, well-being and decent living conditions that are the right of all workers in any fair and inclusive society.
Neither, I am aware, does praise alone protect the livelihoods of our workers. It is only by closing the gap between words and action that we can honestly and ethically express our appreciation to those who offer so much in the service of the State.
It is a matter of the greatest concern that so many personnel are leaving, with better pay being cited as a primary reason for so many being unable to continue with their chosen career. The importance of your work and the positive impact which it has in this country and beyond our shores must be valued, recognised and supported. I am aware that progress has been made in this regard, with some restoration of allowances and pay increases in line with recommendations by the Public Service Pay Commission, and that is a welcome development.
In February 2015 I was asked by the Under Secretary and Executive Director of UN Women to be a Chairperson of the HeforShe campaign. May I, at this point, once again express my concern for the welfare of the women who so bravely told their stories of harassment, exclusion or bullying within the Defence Forces on the recent Women of Honour programme which so shocked citizens across the country. Not only were those stories greatly distressing to hear, they also served as a salutary reminder of how critical it is that we continue to remain alert to the challenges we face in the ongoing work of creating and maintaining workplaces that are moral and ethical in nature.
There can be no doubt that the degrading, discriminatory and sometimes violent treatment meted out to female members, or indeed any member, of the Defence Forces is shameful, besmirching not only the history of our Defence Forces, but the history of a nation that claims to be a democracy. Such actions too, become all the more heinous when rank is abused. We should be well aware now what horrific consequences can unfold when any member of a society or organisation seems to assert that they are holders of some superior rights or entitlements, such as would confer an immunity from the laws of the State. Strategies, and impunity or evasion, that allow any belittling and demeaning those who are of a different gender, religion or ethnic background than the prevailing majority have no place in any organisation in a Democracy. On such matters there should be no alternative process to the vindication of basic rights and State law, or any process that seeks to be superior to the law derived from the Constitution to which we should all adhere.
It is vitally important that our Defence Forces be inclusive places for men and women, work places which accord to each and every member the dignity and respect that defines a truly ethical workplace, and that enables them to have the confidence to know that their talents and contribution are recognised and that false barriers are not erected on the basis of any perceived differences. I know that this atmosphere is one that you, with others, seek.
While I welcome the fact that a review will now take place of the contents of the programme, I hope that the review can address all bullying, harassment, sexual harassment or discrimination within the Defence Forces.
This forthcoming review is a critical exercise and must be given priority if we are to respond appropriately to, not only those women who have so bravely shared their stories, but other women or men who have gained courage from the Women of Honour’s actions. They are stories that should remind us all to remain vigilant. We share a common obligation to value and uphold human dignity, freedom, equality and democracy in our workplaces and in our society.
As with all moments of crisis, the Coronavirus pandemic has presented us with opportunities as well as problems. It has been a catalyst in prompting the fundamental questions we are now asking about how we live our lives, and the core values on which we wish those lives to be based. Here in Ireland we have been questioning amongst other things, the way we work and the kinds of work we value. We have had the importance of caring presented to a society that might have been heavily individualised.
I have every confidence that our trade unions and staff representative associations will be at the forefront of efforts to shape this new world of work around human dignity and solidarity. They must be central to any debates, indeed must encourage such debate among their members and offer an inventive and creative voice to national discussions.
Yours, the collective organisations, are organisations which have fought tirelessly, across the decades, for the achievement of equality and respect for all those whom they represent. The tireless struggle against discrimination in the workplace and the key role those Unions have played in the establishment of a wide variety of employment rights legislation have greatly improved and enhanced our workplace environments. It is so very important that these achievements do not become undermined by any new or emerging divisive version of openness to extreme individualism that challenges collective welfare, that they be faced with facts and inclusive arguments.
We know, from our own and from international experience, that the decline of unionisation can lead to the gradual diminishing or erosion of hard won workers’ rights in so many places, so many sectors, often in the name of economic efficiency, or indeed of ‘flexibility’. It is now urgent that we reassess and re-emphasise what is meant by ‘decent work’, understanding it as a source of personal dignity and freedom, family stability, fulfilment in the community and democratic flourishing.
This will be an important conversation, to which I greatly hope PDFORRA will receive the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way, continuing the work of its founders as you enter your fourth decade of generous commitment to the rights and welfare of your members. Yours is a powerful voice and one I know you will use wisely as you continue to fight for, and achieve, the further benefits of solidarity yet to come.
In the coming debate on the future of work, the impact of technology, the green economy, the appropriate place of the Trade Union Movement is at the front of the debate. When workers witness that happening, they will realise that the coming decades will offer great opportunities for an active campaigning citizenship will all the benefits of solidarity and with a new moral focus on an economy and society with ecological responsibility.
Members, I am so proud of all those who serve at any level at home or abroad in our Defence Forces.
Beir bua is beannacht.