Irish swelling the ranks of the British military – by 0.01%


On 27 November 2008, BBC Radio 4’s PM programme carried a story about a large increase in the number of recruits to the British military from the Irish Republic.  The story was trailed on BBC news headlines throughout the day.  Since then, the BBC website has carried an article written by PM journalist, Michael Buchanan, under the headline Irish swell ranks of UK military [1].


One could be forgiven for thinking the British Army’s serious recruitment problems were at an end and that, thanks to the fighting Irish, Britain was, happily, in a position to continue its imperial mission in the world.


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The BBC website story begins:


“The British military is experiencing a large rise in recruits from the Irish Republic, figures obtained by BBC Radio 4's PM programme have shown.


“They reveal a four-fold increase in military personnel from the Irish Republic during the past three years.”


The least one would expect from an article making such a bold claim would be a set of numbers showing exactly how many recruits from the 26 Counties joined the British military in the past three years.  Remarkably, the article doesn’t give any such numbers.


The only figures given relate to recruits to the British military through its recruiting centres in Northern Ireland.  According to the article, the percentage of these from the 26 Counties has risen as follows in the past few years:











Since no figures are given for the total recruited through these centres, it isn’t possible to calculate the actual number recruited from the Republic in these years.


The “four-fold increase” in recruitment from the Republic is justified by comparing the 3% in 2005-06 with the 14% in 2008 so far.


Making such a claim assumes that the total numbers recruited through Northern Ireland centres were approximately the same from year to year (since, for example, if total numbers fell, 10% of the 2007-08 total could be greater than 14% of the 2008 total).


The “four-fold increase” claim also ignores recruitment from the Republic through other recruitment centres.  The latter was justified after a fashion by saying that “most of the southern Irish recruits join up” in Northern Ireland.


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Lt Col Dick Rafferty, the man responsible for recruitment in Northern Ireland, was interviewed in the programme.  Obviously, he knows the precise number of southern Irish recruited through his centres, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to calculate the percentages.


This begs an obvious question: why are actual, readily understandable, numbers absent from Michael Buchanan’s article?  The answer is that, had actual numbers been present, the article could not have been entitled Irish swell ranks of UK military – the “swelling” would have been revealed to be a pimple, because the numbers involved are extremely small, even after the “four-fold” increase in the past 3 years.


My guess is that recruitment has gone up from under 10 per year to about 30 per year since 2005.  Given that the British Army is about 100,000 strong, the Navy nearly 40,000 and the Air Force over 40,000, it is a bit of a stretch to describe an extra 20 recruits from the Irish Republic as “swelling the ranks of the British military”.  The actual “swelling” amounts to around 0.01%, that is, one ten thousandth, of the British military’s total strength.


That’s why the story contained no actual recruiting figures.  The message that the British military wanted delivered about increased recruitment from the Republic would not bear the inclusion of actual recruiting figures.  And BBC journalist, Michael Buchanan, colluded with the military in excluding them.


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What do I base my guess on?


First, an Irish Times article by Conor Lally on 6 September 2008, entitled Lure of combat draws Irish men and women to British army.  This stated:


“Last year, of the number of soldiers from the island of Ireland to join the British army, just three per cent were from the Republic. This year, that figure has jumped to 16 per cent, or about two recruits per month.” [2]


This means that, up to then in 2008, only 16 soldiers had been recruited from the Republic (and the annual rate was 24).  Those figures must have come from the British military.  Could it be that Conor Lally refused to be fobbed off with the meaningless percentage figures that later appeared in the BBC story?  It should be said that his percentages are difficult to reconcile with the BBC’s above.  Note, however, that they are for British Army recruitment only. 


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Second, an Irish Independent article by Security Editor, Tom Brady, on 10 October 2008, which began:


“A recruitment drive by the British Army in the Republic has had little impact on the Defence Forces.


“The expensive drive has been focused on potential recruits here for more than a year. But the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Lt Gen Dermot Earley, revealed yesterday that between April last year and the end of September, only 24 applicants had signed up. He did not want to comment on the drive but made it clear the campaign had not interfered with the recruitment process here.” [3]


This figure, which again appears to be for the British Army only, represents an annual rate of 16 for the period April 2007 to September 2008.


(Defence Minister Willie O'Dea is quoted in the article as saying “there were currently five applicants for every vacant post for enlisted personnel in the Defence Forces, while the rate for officers' positions was 25-1”.)


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Third, a written question in the House of Commons on 18 February 2008 revealed that


“In 2007, 257 people from Northern Ireland, who applied through one of the four Armed Forces Careers or Army Careers Information Offices in Northern Ireland, joined the Army” [4].


That was the written answer given by Defence Minister, Derek Twigg, in reply to Conservative MP, Andrew Rosindell, who asked “how many people from Northern Ireland joined the British Army in 2007?”


In addition to these 257 people from Northern Ireland who joined through these offices there were, of course, others from the Republic.  Taking the 10% figure given by the BBC as the percentage from the Republic in 2007-08, at a rough guess this means around 28 from the Republic in 2007.  (It’s only a rough guess because the 10% figure is for 2007-08, rather than 2007, and it applies to all recruits to the British military, not just the British Army). 


This figure (which is for the Army only) is higher than the other two, but it is still very small beer in a British military complement of around 180,000.


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On 1 April 2006, there were only 325 people in total from the Republic in the British military, 215 in the Army, 50 in the Navy and 60 in the Air Force, that is, roughly 1 in 500 of the Army, 1 in 1000 of the Navy and 1 in 1000 of the Air Force, were from the Republic.  This was revealed in a written answer in the House of Commons on 5 June 2006 [5], which sets out in detail the extraordinary numbers of non-British people in the British forces, particularly in the Army.


In April 2006, 6.2% of the British Army wasn’t British (6,670 personnel) and that doesn’t count over 3,000 Gurkhas, which brings the total non-British close to 10% [6].  Of this, the contribution from the Republic (or “Eire” as it is called in the answer) is small compared with Fiji (1,995), Jamaica (975), South Africa (720), Ghana (660) and Zimbabwe (565).  Even the Caribbean islands of St Vincent and St Lucia, with 280 and 225 respectively, each contribute more.  The “swelling of the ranks” by 20 or so, which seem to have occurred in the last few years, will not change matters significantly.


The British Navy and Air Force are much less dependent on foreign recruits than the Army – only 1.2% of the Navy and 0.4% of the Air Force are not British.


(If an article in The Sun on 27 December 2007 is to be believed, the number of foreigners in the Army has rocketed in recent years.  There were, The Sun says, only 300 foreign troops in the Army a decade ago, not counting the Gurkhas [7].)


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Why is the British military engaging in this outlandish attempt to convince the public, with the help of the BBC, that the Irish are “swelling the ranks of the British military”?  Their objective is obvious: it is to make it seem that it is not an unusual event for people from the Irish Republic to join the British military, and by so doing encourage recruitment from the Republic.


A number of factors have convinced the British military that the time is ripe for recruitment there.  Lt Col Raffferty told the BBC:


“This is a generation who are less familiar with the British army supporting the policing operation of the north.


“They are more familiar with the wider efforts of the British army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Where previously [the troubles in] Northern Ireland informed the mindsets of the last generation, that is less the case with this upcoming generation.”


Another factor that he doesn’t mention is the current vogue for celebrating past Irish participation in the British military, by, for example, claiming the first World War as “our war”.  The British state sees the possibility of making Afghanistan and future British wars “our wars” too and of our helping to supply the cannon fodder, as we did in 1914-18.  Happily, there is very little evidence of success to date.



David Morrison

18 December 2008