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File photo - The Ocean Patrol Vessel LE George Bernard Shaw Alamy Stock Photo
retention crisis

'MV Matthew op highlights how our personnel need to be properly paid', ex-Naval commander says

Eugene Ryan spoke to The Journal following the major drug seizure on a cargo ship earlier this week.

A RETIRED COMMANDER has said Defence Forces staff need to be paid better to bring the force “up to standard”. 

Eugene Ryan, former Commander of fleet operations and one of the founding members of MAOC(N), the EU narcotics monitoring body was speaking to The Journal this week following a multi-agency operation that led to the seizure of €157 million worth of cocaine from a cargo ship after it was boarded by Army Rangers on Tuesday.

This has been the largest ever seizure of drugs in the history of the State.

The elite soldiers took control of the ship off the Cork/Waterford coast on Wednesday as part of a major drug smuggling investigation. 

The seizure of the drugs was carried out following support from the Drug Enforcement Agency in the US, the National Crime Agency in the UK and other international support, including the EU-backed Maritime Analysis Operations Centre and French police. 

Commander Tony Geraghty of the Irish Naval Service confirmed that shots had been fired at the MV Matthew in advance of the boarding to prevent the ship from manoeuvring. They were warning shots, fired into the sea, Geraghty said – and there were no indications that anyone on board was armed. 

The shots were sent into the water around the vessel in the moments before the Army Ranger Wing fast-roped from an Air Corps helicopter onto the deck.

Ryan told The Journal that his “overall response” to this week’s operation is “absolute pride in the people that I know and the people that I don’t know, that served on board the ship, on both the aircraft, the people that abseiled down from the helicopter, Coast Guard, RNLI, customs and Garda Síochána”.

Retention and pay issues regarding Defence Forces members have been reported on repeatedly over the last number of years. 

Ship availability

The Journal revealed in August that the Irish Naval Service will have just two ships available to go to sea until the new year and sources have said that considerations are being made to have a reduced fleet in 2024 due to the ongoing staffing crisis.

The ships available to go on patrol will be the LÉ Samuel Beckett and LÉ William Butler Yeats – it is understood a third ship may be put on standby.

Tánaiste and Minister for Defence Micheál Martin admitted at the time that the state of the Irish Naval Service is “not acceptable”.

He claimed that many people had left the Naval Service and took up jobs in pharmaceutical and other industries in the Cork Harbour area.  

Eugene Ryan told The Journal that the Government and the Defence Forces “need to focus now before it’s too late … on the report that was written recently by the Commission on the Defence Forces and the Level of Ambition 2, which is to be achieved by 2028, which called for nine operational ships, 2,000 naval personnel”.

“If anything had gone wrong this week off the Irish coast, we would not have had a backup for this. And everybody would have gotten away with a major crime,” Ryan said. 

Retention crisis

Retention and pay issues regarding Defence Forces members have been reported on repeatedly over the last number of years. 

Addressing the retention crisis at the Defence Forces, Ryan told The Journal that what’s needed to bring the Defence Forces “up to standard” is to “pay the people”.

“We’ve got to pay the people what they should be paid,” Ryan said.

“The Garda Síochána that were with us on board the vessel with us when we were firing upon the big ship, they were paid multiples, multiples of allowances that we were paid,” he said. 

“The Naval Service rating gets €60 per day extra for being at sea. That’s before tax. After tax, it’s approximately €1.50 per hour. So that’s [what] they’re getting per hour, and they were the ones doing the firing,” he said. 

Ryan said that “if you’re going to be serious about keeping people in the Navy, you’ve got to pay them the proper rates” in line with Garda rates. 

He also noted that the Naval Service doesn’t get overtime, whereas An Garda Síochána does. 

“I was at sea for 24 of my 40 years, we worked 16 to 18 hours a day if there was an operation ongoing and not one cent of overtime,” he said. 

In his comments in August, the Tánaiste said that pay has been increased for the Naval Service cadetships with earnings starting at €46,000 and enlisted personnel start on €37,000.

He did not answer a question posed by The Journal in regard to the Patrol Duty Allowance – which is a financial incentive paid to sailors while at sea which representative bodies have been campaigning for to be reintroduced. 

Eugene Ryan said that “unfortunately, these days, it’s about the money”.

“It’s not about loyalty to the organisation anymore. It’s about money,” he said.

“And they’re being poached by other companies as well because they will offer them better money. Large corporations will offer a better income. So that’s the problem we have we’re never going to win that battle unless we pay them.”

Sources across the three Defence Forces branches – Army, Air Corps and Naval Service -  told The Journal in May that there is constant head hunting of military personnel by private sector recruiters keen to bring in the uniform veterans for their skills learned in service. 

All sources said that the main driving force behind members resigning early was the pursuit of a greater work-life balance coupled with better pay.

Two sources in the Army spoke of the difficulties of retaining their colleagues and of obtaining specialist ‘techpay’ for experts in various qualifications.

The extra pay, known as techpay, comes from those members who have studied and qualified while in service. Those sources told us, they believe, the increased pay they are entitled to is not being honoured by the Department of Defence and that is causing people to look elsewhere for employment.

Naval Service members said their service is the greatest affected by the retention crisis with a shortage of specialists causing just one member of the crew’s absence causing ships to not be put to sea. 

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Hayley Halpin and Niall O'Connor