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Naval Service staffing crisis deepens as critical engineers leave for better pay on cruise ships

The Naval Service has fallen to 840 personnel as more signal they wish to leave in the coming months.

LE Samuel Beckett in Ballycotton Bay, east Cork.
LE Samuel Beckett in Ballycotton Bay, east Cork.
Image: Irish Defence Forces

THE GOVERNMENT WAS warned one year ago in a secret report that the Irish Navy was likely to be reduced to just three operational ships due to a fall in critical engineering staff, The Journal has learned.

It has emerged that the navy has been reduced to just 840 personnel at the Cork Harbour base on Haulbowline island.

This will reduce further in the coming months as upwards of 40 people have indicated that they wish to resign. 

A minimum strength for the Service is recommended to be 1,094 fully-trained personnel. The Navy has eight ships attached to its Cork Harbour base – two extra inshore vessels were recently purchased from New Zealand. 

It currently has five ships available for operational patrols but repeated concerns have been expressed about the level of staffing. 

According to a number of security sources a secret memo carried out by a body dubbed the Joint Operational Planning Group raised the issue. 

It is understood that this report, compiled a year ago, warned that the staffing crisis in the Naval Service would result in a further reduction of ships capable of going to sea. 

The Journal was told that last week Minister For Defence Simon Coveney was in Haulbowline for the commissioning of seven new officers.  

It is understood that during this event officers had advised that there was an impending need to tie up another navy ship due to staffing shortfalls.

Naval officers are now engaged in a desperate effort to find a solution. Speculation in the Navy is that one of the ships is due to undergo two lengthy maintenance periods with a patrol in the middle. 

It is believed that one solution may be to cancel the patrol and join the maintenance periods together. 

“This would be fudged as a way of getting over it,” a source explained.  

Separately the staffing level has become much worse with multiple sources confirming that the numbers of critically important ship crew, known as Engine Room Artificers (ERAs), is at such low numbers that ships may be tied up indefinitely.  

Every ship needs at least three ERAs to run a shift rotation with a Chief Petty Officer making up the fourth member of the team to oversee their operations. 

Major threat

Mark Keane, the President of PDFORRA said that the ERAs are a major threat to the effectiveness of the navy as they leave to better paid jobs working on cruise ships, merchant marine and in industry in the Cork Harbour area. 

“A group was set up to look at recruitment and retention but it is five years too late – everyone in the navy could see this staffing issue coming to fruition.

“The British navy suffered a recruitment crisis during the economic downturn ten years ago but their recruitment is now up 30% but the Irish navy has continued to fall. 

“What are the British doing differently? Basically navy morale is low and people are looking elsewhere to careers with proper benefits, wages and a work life balance,” he said.  

Keane added sailors had taken great pride in the refugee rescue missions in the Mediterranean and the recent dispatch of a naval vessel to Lebanon on a resupply operation.   

“We all joined to want to do that kind of work – we want to be able to use our skills and be involved in good work.

“But we are doing more with less constantly and it is not sustainable – people are burning out. The Engine Room Artificers are becoming a complete rarity – can’t find them. Numbers are at a critical level.

“They are leaving the naval service and going to Princes Cruises and other work like the pharmaceutical industry in the harbour because they will get upwards of €15,000 to €20,000 in their pay packets there.

“We need to pay people for the job they do – and the hours they work.  

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“We accept the Navy is never going to be family friendly but there is a way of making it a better work life balance – we have less people and that means people are at sea more,” he said. 

The recent Commission on the Defence Forces recommended a significantly increased Navy, possibly to 12 ships, and the doubling of the Naval Reserve with new part-time units in Galway, the north west and the north east. The reservists would serve much of their time playing a critical role in port security.

The issue of the retention of Naval Service personnel will be raised in the Dáil tonight in questions with Minister Coveney. 

Cathal Berry TD, a former officer in the Defence Forces, strongly criticised the Government’s lack of progress on naval retention. 

“There is a solution here and that is a national minimum wage for Defence Forces members – that is what is required.

“At this stage a court case in the High Court is needed to vindicate the rights of Defence Forces members. The State needs to make sure people are paid for the work they do and then there will be no need for committee meetings or strongly worded letters,” he added.

In a statement the Department of Defence denied that the Naval Service would be reduced to threes ships and.

It also said that the Government has “acknowledged the recruitment and retention difficulties in the Naval Service which are presenting ongoing challenges”.

The spokesman said that Minister Coveney approved a “comprehensive Naval Service regeneration plan in 2021″ which is being progressed and monitored by a high-level civil and military team.

“The aim of the plan is to address the issues facing the Naval Service in the context of human resources, operational capacity, and infrastructure. A number of the staffing measures in the plan have been implemented.

“A seagoing service commitment scheme, aimed at retaining experienced personnel and incentivising sea-going duties, came into effect in 2021. The Scheme offers eligible participants an opportunity to receive €10,000 for a two-year sea-going service commitment, to be delivered within a 48 month reference period.  A sea going naval personnel tax credit of €1,500 has also been extended for the 2022 tax year.

“These payments are in addition to existing pay and allowances, including patrol duty allowance,” the statement read. 

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