By Rose Barrett
For two former members of the Defence Forces, looking after vulnerable ex-service personnel has become their main focus in life.
Ollie O’Connor, CEO Óglaigh Náisiúnta na hÉireann (ONE) spent 22 years in the army, stationed at border headquarters during the Troubles. Having left in 1997, Ollie worked with Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks (PDFORA) until 2006 before joining ONE. The care of former service men or women is top of his agenda.
Diarmuid Higgins began as an Army apprentice, an electrician, before joining the Irish Naval Service. He served 21 years in total and worked on eight ships during his career, from mine sweeping to the L E Eithne helicopter patrol vessel!
In September next, Diarmuid will take up his position as President of ONE.
“Why do we need ONE? Defence Force members become institutionalised,” said Diarmuid. “They are used to a strict routine, being fed, rising and going to bed at a certain time. Some find it hard to survive on their own; others have developed addiction problems, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their service overseas, on peace keeping duties in the Lebanon, Syria, the Golan Heights or indeed, at home.
“Now, there are proper counselling and supports and ONE is playing its part in that, in that we are training and educating our members on mental health first aids, recognising the early signs of trauma, should they need assistance.”
“We have a full-time social worker at Brú na bhFiann in Smithfield for the Dublin area. There are currently 35-40 ex veterans seeking our assistance, circa 25 in Dublin. Ex-veterans under stress can be fluid, in that they frequently move around so the challenges for us is to make contact with them, and to maintain that link.
“At Brú na bhFiann, we have an ex-army doctor who is now a TD, Dr Cathal Berry. Cathal visits and gives the lads an exercise routine and he is there to offer assistance.”
Brú na bhFiann
Ollie works at the Smithfield centre, which can accommodate 35 veterans.
“ONE has four branches now in Dublin, from Fr James Gilmore Branch in Fingal; Sgt Pat Mulcahy Branch in city north; Cathal Brugha Branch in city south and the Roger Casement Branch which is in Baldonnel, south Co Dublin,” said Ollie.
“Of 1,000 volunteers across the country, 300 are here in Dublin.”
For Ollie, ‘Support, Comradeship, Advocacy and Remembrance’ are the four words that aptly sum up ONE’s work.
“In relationship to support, we supply accommodation, advice and information in our reference support centres, at McKee Barracks, Cathal Brugha Barracks and Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel.
“From a handshake to ensuring someone has somewhere to sleep for the night, our veteran support centres are like a merge of the Men’s Shed and Citizens Information Centre – ex-service men can meet there, get advice or sort vital needs like accommodation.
“When you were working in the services, there was a blanket around you, a medical service, a personnel support service, and someone to help with welfare and mental health issues.
“But when you leave the service, that blanket support is completely gone.
“ONE has these supports for ex-service members. In the two last years, we’ve set up agreements with the Royal Hospital Donnybrook and Leopardstown Park Hospital for ex-vets who can no longer live independently.”
Lobbying on behalf of veterans is another purpose of ONE and to remember also “those who’ve gone before us”, said Ollie.
“Our homeless initiative is funded primarily by the homeless section of Dublin City Council – resident rents may be supplemented by social welfare rent allowances.
For Diarmuid, having a trade to fall back on was a bonus as he could not have survived on his defence force pension.
“Our main fundraising ever year is the Fuschia collection, the fuschia being the symbol of ONE, as the poppy is the symbol for the British Legion.
“It’s too easy for veterans to slip into a life of poverty,” said Diarmuid. “Before Christmas, we delivered hampers to veterans and two of their ‘homes’, I would describe as ‘hovels’, not homes, not a proper safe dwelling.”
“Sadly, veterans are not recognised in this country. Everyone wants the army, navy or air core to be there in time of trouble such as snow removal, sea and air rescue, flooding, forest fires and refuse strikes.
“Remember when the fire brigade staff went on strike? The army stepped in but that’s soon forgotten. ONE will celebrate its 70th anniversary in March; obviously with Covid restrictions, plans have been deferred until September when we will host our AGM at the Mansion House.
ONE is a voluntary organisation with the only criteria for membership being one has to have served in the Defence Forces, Reserve DF, the Red Cross or Civil Defence Forces. ONE has four accommodation centres in Ireland; in Dublin, Donegal, Athlone and one to open soon in Cork. See www.oneconnect.ie
PHOTO -L-R – Diarmuid Higgins (President Elect ONE) and Ollie O’Connor (CEO ONE)