New Perspectives on Old Story
Delighted to have launched my book about the evolution of civil-military relations in Ireland
This was my keynote address to the annual delegate conference:
Delighted to have launched my book about the evolution of civil-military relations in Ireland
This was my keynote address to the annual delegate conference:
PDFORRA 25 years on
When Professor Huntington suggested the main parameters for the scholarly study of Civil-Military Relations in the 1950s, he never attributed enlisted personnel of playing any significant role in the conduct or shape of the special relationship between armed military bodies and unarmed civilian governments. His contention was that enlisted personnel had no role to play in the delicate balance between those who possess the capacity to use lethal weapons and those with the moral and civic imperative to authorise the dispensation of State violence. Were he here today, he would see a statutory contradiction to his theoretical framework which only considered the professionalism of the commissioned ranks as being relevant in his proposed new field of study.
The 25-year-old story of PDFORRA contributes enormously to the study of civil military relations and adds several new layers to the collective knowledge of an area of international academic interest.
So in this context, what exactly happened in the late 1980s that led to the signing of the Irish Defence Force Regulation S6 which provided for the introduction of an unknown element in the heretofore study of civil-military relations twenty five years ago?
There were four phases to the process that introduced the right of association to Ireland. These were, the establishment of NASA, The Gleeson Commission, the mobilisation of soldiers including the lobbying of the body politic and the constitutional High Court case. Interestingly the Glesson Commission, set up to examine the pay and conditions in the Defence Forces had little or no impact at all.
The National Army Spouses Association, established in 1988, was born out of the frustration that families felt from the impact that diminishing rates of pay and allowances had on soldier’s domestic circumstances. At that time, it was unthinkable that serving members of the Defence Forces would publicly raise concerns or articulate grievances outside of the confines of the rigid internal ‘chain of command’. So their wives and partners mobilised all over Ireland to raise awareness and create public discourse about what they saw as wilful neglect of the government in relation to the pay and conditions of their husbands.
The establishment of NASA brought together women from all over Ireland who would gain the meritorious distinction of fighting for the rights of their men. In places like Dublin, Kildare, Ballyshannon, Athlone, Mullingar and elsewhere they met and discussed the conditions and remuneration of soldiers and sought ways in which to apply pressure in pursuit of a better deal.
Protest marches were arranged, press conferences were delivered, military events were picketed and members of the Oireachtas were lobbied in an ever widening campaign by the women to highlight their grievances and the grievances of their families about what saw as the neglect of their loved ones who were, after all, serving the State. If their only aim was to bring the problems being suffered by the husbands in the army to the attention of the public, they did a fantastic job. However their efforts went a whole lot further than that because more importantly what they achieved was to bring the question of army pay and allowance onto a level where it became a matter of daily debate and discussion at the highest level of government and in the upper and lower houses of parliament. It was truly remarkable how a subject that had rarely seen the light of day was now a topic of regular debate in newspapers, radio, television and in the lofty hall of influence and power around Kildare street. It became evident to the women in their deliberations over time that the one crucial difference between serving soldiers and other uniformed services like the Gardai, the prison officers and fire brigade, was that the latter groups all had either unions or representative associations to articulate and negotiate better terms of pay and conditions. They began to suggest that soldiers should have their own representative body. This suggestion was treated with utter derision by both the government and the military authorities at the time. Some of the responses of opposition were memorable for sheer colour and outrage. It was impossible it was stated, it would be mutiny, there would be blood on the streets, there would be people with guns trying to negotiate, it would inconsistent with the ethos of the defence forces, it would completely undermine the exercise of command and discipline. These and other wild dark predictions indicated the sort of opposition that those seeking the right of association would encounter. In many instances it made soldiers fearful of even discussing the aim of have a representative body. Nevertheless, there were a small cloister of soldiers who did begin to discuss the issue.
Despite the fact that their own fledgling constitution stated that activities were to be strictly non-political, NASA decided that they would run a number of candidates in the general election of 1989. While none of the candidates who ran in areas carefully chosen because the high concentration of military voters, were elected, the unseating a sitting TD in the Longford Westmeath constituency brought the whole matter into a new politically sensitive arena after the 5000 votes attributed to June Kiernan of NASA seemed to have been won at a direct cost to previous votes won by Abbot.
Samuel Finer in his seminal research on the worlds civil military relations and his book ‘Man on Horseback’ wonders how soldiers immerse into political systems. He need have looked no further than Dublin. From quiet conversations and restrained frustration among soldiers of the Eastern command a subtle movement gently rippled through the enlisted ranks of serving personnel. They began to discuss the efforts of the women in NASA and concluded that they themselves needed to do something about their pay and conditions. Among the early research undertaken was the decision to look at other representative associations constitutions and rules. If a soldier’s representative body was to be formed there would need to be a specific unambiguous set of governing rules and regulations. Another very important initiative was to consider the legality or at least the legal possibility of soldiers having a representative body of their own. Following legal advice on the matter it was discovered that article 40.6.3 of the constitution definitively provided the right of association on all citizens of the State. All citizens shall have not may have. And while the article went on to state that such a right could be subject to regulation in the interest of public security, it did not say it could be prohibited. This gave much hope to the early pioneers of military representation and would shape their first letters to the Minister for Defence about forming an association they were planning to call PDFORRA. Having met secretly for months in private homes and secluded meeting rooms. Soldiers of the Eastern command compiled an early draft constitution that sought to provide a system of representation within the bounds of the military chain of command. In fact all of these early efforts were channelled in such a way as to ensure that no regulation or law was breached. This also governed the manner in which soldiers communicated their desire to form an association to the Minister, it was done in traditional military fashion through all the various level of command. A letter that could be copied, signed and sent individually to the Minister was circulated and became the vehicle by which each individual soldier sought the right to form an organisation under his or her own signature. This was crucial if they were not to be accused of mutiny. That is not to say that many were accused of it but no formal charges were ever justified as a result of these ‘individual. letters. Although thousands of these letters were sent by soldiers throughout 1989, no one single meaningful response was ever received other than an acknowledgement.
Serving soldiers of the Eastern command brought the message of representation all over the country to others where copies of the letter were circulated. As the movement spread across the country so too did the desire to form an association. Many gatherings of soldiers took place in parish and GAA halls where soldiers sometimes met in fear of discovery. On one occasion in Cork a journalist was discovered to have come into the hall at which point she was immediately requested to leave. Eventually these meetings selected 2 representatives from all six of the then command areas who met in Prussia St. in Dublin without any reference to their commanding officers or superiors. It was 26th August 1989 and on that day the 2 members from each command were elected onto a national panel that would represent the early ‘ad hoc’ national executive. This new committee purported to represent the entire country and members of the original Eastern command founding group stayed on in an advisory capacity for a time after.
The Gleeson Commission
Following on from the non-seat winning efforts of the NASA candidates a new chastened minority government was formed only after agonising and protracted efforts by Charles Haughey to cobble together a coalition. They immediately decided they would tackle what had become known as the ‘army crisis’ for once and for all. Bold pronouncements were made in July 1989 about an ‘independent commission’ to be established and representative structures that would be put in place. The inference and the effect was to convince a confused public and a certain segment of the Defence Forces, that all issues would be tackled in a fair and judicial way. There was no reference in the new plans to any requests or initiatives that had been sought by the ad hoc group. An eminent senior counsel, Dermot Gleeson was appointed as the chairman. If there were expectations that the commission would deal fairly or otherwise with the issue of a representative body that soldiers had been seeking for some time they were to be disappointed.
The commission refused to deal with the issue on the basis that the government were already committed to establishing representative structures in the Defence Forces. In this regard the Minister for Defence had instructed the Chief of Staff look into the matter and come up with an arrangement that would be consistent with the ‘ethos’ of the force within the military chain of command. It became evident very early on that the Chief had no intention of consulting with the ordinary enlisted personnel of the Defence Forces. The teams that had been set up to make submissions to the Gleeson commission complained bitterly about the lack of consultation. The Chief pressed on and proposed an internal system of representation that differed little from the existing redress of wrongs system. When the draft was complete it was circulated among the forces with a caustic note that membership of any other organisation would be ‘unnecessary and divisive’. This immediately implicated those who had formed the fledgling Permanent Defence Forces Other Ranks Representative Association (PDFORRA) of being divisive.
Although the commission had decided they would not make any recommendations on the matter of representation they did inadvertently provide an opportunity for the ad hoc group to advance their cause. Firstly any citizen, group, individual or body was entitled to make a case to the commission. In responding to the setting up of the commission, the army had decided that the views of the military would be gathered, distilled and presented to them by three working teams. In what was an unusual step in military life at the time, soldiers were allowed to select their own ‘team members’ to represent the views of their commands. Not surprisingly the Army insisted that the teams be formed on the basis of rank and so a private’s team, a NCOs team and an officers teamed were created with a person from each of the commands. Army HQ also provided a team of 3 staff officers who were there reputedly to ‘assist’ the teams. Certainly among the NCO team it was felt that these were ‘plants’ with instruction to shape and influence the submissions. The NCOs team although chosen on the basis of rank were all PDFORRA members and were anxious to submit their proposal about representation to the commission. The army had other ideas. At a briefing of the teams in GHQ Dublin the NCOs team sought clarification from the General Staff as to whether they could make a case to Gleeson on the matter of a representative association. They were told they could not do so as the priority should be about pay. Later when the team met Mr Gleeson they asked him were their submission confined only to remuneration matters. He said he wanted to hear everything that everybody had to say. This opened the way for the team to formerly submit a case to an independent commission of the establishment of a representative body. The NCO team then turned to their so called staff officer team and told them they required all the names addresses and contact details of every military representative association in Europe. They had to comply. Contact was subsequently made with the European Organisation of Military Associations EUROMIL
Despite the electoral success of NASA, despite the pronouncements by the government of their plans to solve all problems, despite the suggestion that there would be representative structures for enlisted personnel, there was no recognition or engagement of the ad hoc PDFORRA. So on 11th November 1989 in a small office not far from here in Cobh, the ad hoc national executive compiled their first press release announcing to the media and the world that their association has been formed under article 40 6 3 of the Irish constitution. The government, the General Staff and the Gleeson Commission all ignored this event and no engagement or communication took place. There was no acknowledgement of the right of soldiers to have an association, no responses to the thousands of letters that had been sent from individuals to the Minister through the chain of command.
PDFORRA however continued to meet, to speak to and to lobby the body politic, raising awareness about the plight of soldiers and their diminishing pay and conditions. Crucially they also articulated the view that a constitutional right of association existed. Despite their efforts nothing happened except the Chief putting together his structure. The Chief’s white book as it became known was designed to ensure that any organisation would remain internal, would have no independent means of finance and crucially would have no access to the media, expected to suffer silently when claims and aspirations remained unfulfilled. As 1989 came to a close, the government began to initiate legislation to bring into legal force the chief of staff’s structure, it was unwanted and rightly deemed inadequate by serving members of the forces.
In February of 1990 myself and Richard Dillon were at a Euromil conference in Denmark, it became evident that the government were fast-tracking their legislation to implement the chiefs structure. Something had to happen, if not the association the soldiers had formed themselves would be sidelined and or made illegal. This would mean that the Chief’s structure, so much like the the internal ‘redress of wrongs type system’ was going to be enshrined in law forever. PDFORRA witself would become illegal. The only recourse left now was a constitutional challenge. As PRO secretary I gave a radio interview on morning Ireland from Denmark. I spoke about a desire to have the original PDFORRA recognised and to allow soldiers the right of association. On my return the commanding officer advised me that I was to be charged under article 27 of DFR A7 for speaking to the press.
This was a day that was probably going to be inevitable because despite all that had been done, despite all the good intentions of the women of NASA and the mobilisation of privates and NCOs in every corner of the country who were often operating under the threat of being charged or discharged, it all would have been to no avail if the chiefs structure was brought in.
The High Court case was not something that we wanted. We had discovered that a collective action could not be taken by all of us. It had to be a case of an individual. That individual would then be subject to all costs if the case was lost plus the costs of the State. It was a scary time….
In any event I sought an injunction from the High Court. The case: the prohibition on speaking to the media was in breach of the constitutional right for all citizens to have the democratic right of association.
The judge granted an interim injunction. This meant firstly that I could not be charged until a case could be heard but more importantly a Judge and a court was now going to decide on the matter of the right of association, not the Chief or even the Minister for Defence. It was now set to be a matter on which the High Court would decide. The next step was an interlocutory injunction; this would protect me from being charged for the duration of the lengthy constitutional court case. But the Judge would only grant it if I agreed to remain silent. If I did that the legislation would be pushed through the Dail and we would be done. I wouopld not agree and the Judge did not grant the protection of the interlocutory injunction. The country was outraged. Ordinary people, newspaper editors, county and local councillors from around the country vented their anger that in this day and age there was an attempt to suppress free speech.
The government contacted us for the very first time and sought a meeting. The ad Hoc National Executive assembled After 11 hours of negotiations directly with two government TDs we reached agreement. That agreement was that if we discontinued my High Court case then the legislation that was being pushed through the Dail would now be used to legitimise OUR organisation, our structures, our independence finance. They also had to agree to pay all court expenses. Finally and most importantly the Chief of Staff’s structures were to be abandoned. We all signed this agreement and began immediately a year of protracted negotiations that agonisingly went through every detail of military service and the way in which we would operate. Thankfully DFR S came to be signed 25 years ago this year and so began the legal existence of what up to that point had been a dream.