The European Committee of Social Rights has upheld the entitlement of the Irish armed forces to better collective bargaining and negotiating rights.

However, the committee found that the Government is entitled to restrict the right of military personnel to strike.

PDFORRA, which represents soldiers, sailors and aircrew of the Permanent Defence Force, launched a complaint against the government under Articles 5 and 6 of the European Social Charter in 2014.

The challenge was on the grounds that Defence Force representative associations did not possess proper trade union rights.

It cited the fact that it did not have the right to strike, take part in collective bargaining over pay, take collective action or to affiliate to join umbrella organisations like the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

They argued that this meant they could not attend the national negotiations that ICTU conducts on salaries in the public sector.

They also argued that no pressing justification could be invoked for such a restriction, nor was it proportionate to any aim of public safety or public interest.

However, the government pointed to the unique nature of the military and its role in maintaining national security and public order.

It also argued that the restriction imposed under Irish law was permissible under the European Social Charter.

It argued that strike action was inconsistent with the role of the Defence Force - while the first stated objective of ICTU included the right to strike - and said there was a clear conflict between strike action and military discipline.

The Committee found that restrictions may not go as far as to suppress entirely the right to organise, such as the blanket prohibition on professional associations of a trade union nature of the affiliation of such associations to national federations/confederations.

It said it had not been established why matters like issues of public safety and national security cannot be discussed in the course of national negotiations by the government and military representative associations, if they were members of an umbrella organisation like ICTU.

The Committee found that a complete ban on affiliation was neither necessary nor proportionate, particularly as it deprived the representative associations of an effective means of negotiating conditions of employment on behalf of their members, in so far as ICTU possesses significant bargaining power in national negotiations.

It held that the mere hearing of a party on a predetermined outcome would not satisfy the requirements of the European charter - as they needed the possibility of influencing the outcome - especially where trade union rights had been restricted.

The Committee said it could not conclude that the military representative associations are meaningfully consulted over pay during discussions on public service agreements.

On the right to strike, the Committee noted that most Council of Europe states (apart from Austria and Sweden) prohibit their armed forces from striking.

It said there was a justification for the imposition of the absolute prohibition on the right to strike, which was proportionate to a legitimate aim.

PDFORRA President Mark Keane said the findings vindicated the numerous requests submitted by the association to various ministers for defence seeking to affiliate to ICTU.

He noted that the Government had fought them every step of the way on the complaint, adding that members of the Defence Forces cannot be side-lined during pay talks.

 A review of the current Defence Forces Conciliation and Arbitration Scheme was announced by the Minister with Responsibility for Defence, Paul Kehoe, at the PDFORRA conference in October 2017.

The Department of Defence has welcomed the conclusion that the prohibition on the right to strike for members of the Defence Forces is not a violation of the European Social Charter. 

In a statement, the Department also said the issues raised in the ruling will be given consideration in the aforementioned review.