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‘The ship is turning. I have never been more optimistic than I am today,’ says second most senior Defence Forces officer

Defence Forces personnel chief and second most senior officer Major General Adrian Ó Murchú travels to Golan to rally the troops and promise better times ahead

Major General Adrian Ó Murchú seems to be a fan of Ian Drury, in particular the song Reasons to be Cheerful.

He picks the song as the theme for his address to the soldiers of the 68th Infantry Group, which is stationed with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) in Golan in Syria.

Ó Murchú is in the country this week to hear the troops’ complaints and hand out medals in advance of the Defence Forces’ withdrawal from Undof in April, bringing Ireland’s stint in Syria to an end after 10 years.

In his address to the 136 Irish soldiers sitting in the Irish unit’s canteen, Ó Murchú is delivering a message of hope for the beleaguered organisation.


“I didn’t come thousands of miles to tell you everything is rosy in the garden,” says the general, who is the second most senior officer in the Defence Forces and responsible for personnel issues.

“But the ship is turning. I have never been more optimistic than I am today.”

He has a lot of convincing to do.

The Defence Forces continues to bleed personnel to the private sector and recruitment is still lagging behind targets. It is down to 7,500 personnel – 2,000 below its establishment strength.

At the same time, it is attempting to deal with the fallout from the damning Independent Review Group report on the Women of Honour allegations, which found widespread bullying and abuse within the organisation.

The general is armed with evidence for his argument that things are about to improve for soldiers, many of whom, he admits, are performing two or three jobs due to manpower shortages.

First, the system of “medical apartheid” in the military is coming to an end, he says. Previously enlisted troops had to use the public healthcare system if they got injured, even if it happened on duty. Officers, on the other hand, enjoyed private medical care.

“That day is gone. We’ve been advocating for years for private healthcare for all ranks. We got that over the line last year,” he says.

More broadly, a fundamental restructuring of the military is taking place, starting with the replacement of the General Staff – the highest ranking officers – with a “Defence Forces Board”, which will include civilian experts along with senior officers.

Much of the focus of the restructuring is on creating more senior postings, which will mean more opportunities down the ranks. If someone is promoted to sergeant major, that creates a raft of promotion chances at the lower ranks as everyone moves up a role, he says.

In terms of equipment, he tells the troops the Army is to get replacements for the Mowag Armoured Personnel Carriers which are parked up the road from the Irish canteen. These vehicles are the backbone for the Irish Quick Reaction Force in Syria, which is responsible for responding when other peacekeepers are in trouble.

“Mowags are top of the game,” Ó Murchú says. But they are to be replaced with even more advanced vehicles featuring Level Four armour, which offers much better protection against attack.

These will be able to carry heavier weapons, effectively turning them into “infantry fighting vehicles”, he says.

Also on the way are armoured artillery units, which means if the Defence Forces are tasked with returning to African countries such as Chad or Mali, “we will have our own force protection with us. We’re talking about a very significant shift in gears,” he says.

The Defence Forces is to acquire a dedicated aircraft for troop transport as well as a new fleet of “bigger and better” super-medium helicopters.

New radios, combat uniforms and body armour are also on the way, as is a vast programme of infrastructure work, including modern gyms in military installations.

‘I want to say it again, so it’s absolutely clear, there is no place in the Defence Forces for predators or bullies of any kind’

—  Major General Adrian Ó Murchú

“Hands up here who pays for a gym membership at home?” the general asks the soldiers.

Many hands go up.

“To me, that’s a sin. We need you to be fit. We should have a world class gym in every barracks,” he says.

Spending on infrastructure has already increased massively, he says. In 2023, €50 million was spent, compared to an average of €15 million in previous years.

“Our accommodation just isn’t good enough for the 21st century. We are going to spend a fortune on that. If you are living in barracks, you will have a single room, en suite, with wifi.”

The most compelling evidence that the “ship is turning” is the money. The Government has committed to increasing defence spending by 50 per cent by 2028, which will allow the size of the organisation to grow to 11,500 and help “revitalise” the Reserve Defence Forces, Ó Murchú says.

Previous reorganisations have left the Defence Forces with less money, fewer barracks and weakened units, Ó Murchú acknowledges. They have left a “bad taste” in the mouth of soldiers.

“This reorg is different,” he says. “This is something not seen in our lifetime.”

The speech seems well received by the troops. The general is a “true believer” but he doesn’t really “do bulls***”, a few soldiers say afterwards.

However, evidence that the ship has not yet turned is hard to miss. In the next few weeks, the soldiers of the 68th will carry out the mammoth task of dismantling their base and returning 12 armoured cars to Ireland, along with 260,000 individual pieces of equipment.

Ireland is pulling out because it simply cannot spare enough men for Syria while also continuing to contribute to the Unifil mission in Lebanon and the newly revamped EU Battlegroup, which starts training this year. The general calls the withdrawal a “rationalisation”.

“For such a small force, we have a very high percentage of our force committed overseas at any one time,” he tells reporters after his speech. “We can’t do everything with the numbers we have.”

Ó Murchú adds there will still be opportunities for overseas service, including as part of a potentially expanded presence in Lebanon.

The other major problem for the Defence Forces is the fallout from the Independent Review Group report. On foot of the report, the Government has committed to setting up a judge-led statutory inquiry into sexual abuse and bullying in the military.

A summary of the tribunal’s terms of reference of the inquiry are pinned up on the wall of the 68th group’s recreation area, including a commitment from Chief of Staff Seán Clancy that the Defence Forces will support its work.

Ó Murchú is unequivocal about what needs to happen.

The report has been “heartbreaking for everyone who loves this uniform,” he tells the troops, while describing the measures being taken internally “to right that wrong”.

The need for tough training or discipline is no excuse for abuse, says Ó Murchú, who is a former member of the elite Army Ranger Wing.

“I want to say it again, so it’s absolutely clear, there is no place in the Defence Forces for predators or bullies of any kind,” he says.

What is the Undof mission and how long has Ireland been involved?

Irish peacekeepers have been serving with the United Nations Disengagement Force (Undof) on the border between Syria and Israel since 2013.

The purpose of the mission, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, is to supervise the truce agreed between the two countries following the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Undof troops patrol an “area of separation” between Israel and Syria to ensure neither side stations troops in the area. UN troops ensure military equipment on either side of no man’s land remains within agreed levels.

Within Undof, Irish troops serve as the mission’s “quick reaction force” (QRF) in case other peacekeepers come under attack. The Irish force must be able to deploy within 15 minutes of call-up. Using a fleet of armoured personnel carriers, the QRF can deploy across the entire area of operations in an emergency.

During its 10 years in Syria, the Defence Forces have been involved in several incidents, including the rescue in 2014 of Filipino peacekeepers held captive by the al-Qaeda-linked group Jabhat Al-Nusra.

In April, Irish involvement comes to an end. Troops are being withdrawn to free resources and allow the Defence Forces to participate in the revamped EU Battlegroup system.

The Irish force will hand over QRF duties to soldiers from Kazakhstan before packing up €23 million worth of equipment.

* Tomorrow: Conor Gallagher speaks to some of the 136 Irish soldiers about life and the risks at Undof’s mission in Golan in Syria before their withdrawal in April

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