Neglected | 

Former minister Willie O'Dea warns we must increase spend on our Defence Forces

'There has been too much neglect for too long, and too many skilled personnel have been allowed leave amid disillusion about being undervalued, poorly paid and generally neglected'

Willie O’Dea said it was wrong that there hasn’t been a dedicated defence minister for more than a decade

John Downing 

Former Fianna Fáil defence minister Willie O'Dea has demanded an urgent increase in Ireland's spending on protecting the country and its off-shore waters and airspace.

Mr O'Dea, in charge of the Defence Department from 2004-2010 and rated highly by Defence Forces members, said Ireland's defences had become "a total Cinderella among government priorities without a cabinet minister of its own for over a decade".

The minister responsible, Simon Coveney, responded to a report on defence issues by saying a new debate must be opened about priorities.

Mr Coveney also strongly defended his handling of the row over Russian naval manoeuvres, which were due to begin off the coast of his Cork bailiwick today.

And he further defended his handling of the case of Irish businessman Richard O'Halloran, detained in China for almost three years.

Mr O'Dea's critical  comments came as Russia was due to begin naval exercises off the coast of Cork - and a new internal study revealed the Irish Defence Forces openly concede they cannot provide any kind of meaningful air and sea surveillance.

"Defence issues have not had a voice at the cabinet table since March 2011," Mr O'Dea said.

"It speaks for itself and is very worrying in an era of new-style attacks such as cyber warfare and other atypical attacks."

The Limerick TD said the minister responsible for defence, Mr Coveney, is primarily responsible for the Foreign Affairs Department. Given that heavy responsibility, he could not be expected to devote much time to defence matters.

"There has been too much neglect for too long, and too many skilled personnel have been allowed leave amid disillusion about being undervalued, poorly paid and generally neglected," he said.

"We need continuity, which means proper pay and decent conditions for people who are badly needed for all our safety," Mr O'Dea added.

He said he disagreed with suggestions that a soon-to-be-published report by the Commission on the Defence Forces included a reduction in Irish peacekeeping missions.

"These are an Irish success story which have enhanced the nation's reputation across the globe," Mr O'Dea said.

But the Limerick TD said that other indications from the commission, carried in a Sunday Independent report yesterday, needed serious and urgent consideration.

"For example, we can never be expected to match Russian defence capabilities. But we must become capable of monitoring what they are up to in our airspace and the waters off our shores," Mr O'Dea said.

He said that there was a need to expand the Defence Forces.

Mr Coveney said he hoped the Commission report will be brought to Government within the next two weeks, allowing a full debate on the future of the Defence Forces and their current ability to defend Ireland.

Separately, Mr Coveney has defended his approach in securing a deal to release Irish businessman Mr O'Halloran from China after nearly three years detention, described by some as "corporate kidnapping".

He said his only objective was to get Mr O'Halloran home to his family.

He insisted Mr O'Halloran's release was a "victory for diplomacy".

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