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Explainer: The minister, the understaffed Naval Service and the 'young fellas caught up in the middle'

The dispute comes after a decision was made to take two vessels out of operation, leading to various claims and rows in the Dáil.

The LÉ Samuel Beckett being commissioned in Dublin in 2014.
The LÉ Samuel Beckett being commissioned in Dublin in 2014.

SAILORS IN AN understaffed Naval Service feel like they’re “caught up in the middle” of a major row involving the Taoiseach, the minister and senior naval officers. 

The dispute is one of several challenges the government is facing on defence matters but more than any other it has heaped pressure on Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe. 

The dispute comes after a decision was made to take two of the navy’s vessels out of operation and place them in reserve.

In a newsletter sent to members of the Naval Service, Commodore Michael Malone said the decision was taken to “cut our cloth to measure” as a result of personnel leaving the organisation and the service operating “at reduced manning levels”. 

Since that decision was first reported, Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe became embroiled in the controversy when he said the two vessels were docked for maintenance reasons.

Kehoe’s statement seemed to contradict that of the most senior officer in the Naval Service, leading to some sharp exchanges in the Dáil and two former Naval Service officers telling the Irish Examiner that the minister should resign

The Taoiseach defended Kehoe, saying that “nobody in this house knows more about military matters or understands defence” more than the minister. 

The response did not satisfy Fianna Fáil leader Michaél Martin, who said the army and the Naval Service had “lost all confidence” in Kehoe. 

The numbers

Of the Naval Service’s nine ships, six are currently operational, with three at sea – a number Martin described in the Dáil as “sub-optimal for an island nation”.

The LÉ Róisín is currently undergoing a refit and the two ships that are being taken out of operation are the LÉ Eithne and the LÉ Orla.

The crew of the LÉ Róisín is being redistributed while this refit takes place, something the Defence Force’s described as “normal practice”.

The current minimum number of crew required for a vessel to go to sea is 34 sailors, a number which has been reduced from 44. 

In his statement to members, Commodore Malone said he has listened to feedback since this reduction came into effect.

“During my FOCNS Annual Inspections I have listened to the ships’ companies, who have articulated the greater pressure felt by not having the ships fully manned to establishment. This has been exacerbated by operating nine ships with an establishment for six and a half,” he said. 

Therefore I have taken the decision that the Naval Service now needs to “cut our cloth to measure” and take an operational pause to allow us to consolidate and regenerate. This will be achieved by placing two ships, LÉ Eithne and LÉ Orla, in an operational reserve capacity until adequate numbers of sufficiently qualified and experienced personnel are available.

In the Dáil on Tuesday, the Taoiseach said the ships were “going into planned maintenance” and that Kehoe had been told this in a briefing at Naval headquarters in Haulbowline in which Commodore Malone was present.

L.E_. James Joyce_90557367 (1) The LÉ James Joyce at Haulbowline Naval Base. Source: RollingNews.ie

“What is different is that their crews are now being redeployed to the other vessels to ensure they are fully crewed and staffed,” the Taoiseach said. 

In a statement, the Defence Forces Press Office said the redistribution of crews from the LÉ Eithne and LÉ Orla would help to bring other ships “up to the appropriate manning levels”. 

The Defence Forces said that the ships were indeed going into “planned maintenance” but the crew’s redistribution made this decision stand out.

“It is not normal practice to redistribute the crew of a ship that is in for this type of maintenance but it was felt necessary to do so given the current shortage of personnel.”

“The operational plans and outputs of the Naval Service will continue to be reviewed in the context of the resources available.

In a further statement to TheJournal.ie, a Defence Forces spokesperson said:

Any measures of this nature are taken for the benefit of Óglaigh na hÉirean and for their safety because the Defence Forces values our members.  

9419 Syria Bound_90554324 Minister of State with responsibility for Defence Paul Kehoe. Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

In the Dáil on Wednesday, Martin accused the Taoiseach of sounding “a bit like President Trump when he said that two opposites were actually the same thing”. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Senator Gerard Craughwell said the fact that the ships were going into maintenance in no way means that they aren’t being taken out of service. 

“If you were going to Australian for a year and you had a car that you wanted to leave there until you came back, you’d have the car serviced and put away carefully so it’s serviceable when you come back, and that is precisely what Malone was doing with the Órla and the Eithne,” he explained.

Craughwell said it’s possible that the same could happen with another vessel if the problems with the retention of staff are not addressed, a prediction that is echoed by some Naval Service members. 

One who spoke with TheJournal.ie said members are “flying out the door” and that it’s difficult to blame people who are seeing better opportunities elsewhere. 

“You have a young fella and he’s going to sea for 26 day cycles, he’s looking at his buddy down the road in a local medical factory. Three 12 hour shifts a week, he’s earning more money than the individual going away for 26 days and he’s home every night of the week,” they said. 

“The young fella is caught up in the middle of it. He’s none the wiser to the mess that he’s stuck inside in the middle of.”

The sailor added that the minimum crew of 34 for a vessel is probably sufficient, provided that all on board are receive the requisite training. 

The member specifically alleged that there have been issues with the length of time devoted to fire safety training. 

Asked about this claim, a Defence Forces spokesperson said that all personnel are trained to the highest standards.

“Safety is the number one priority for the Defence Forces and all personnel are trained to the highest standards with regards to safety and fire safety is the number one priority for the Naval Service,” they said. 

Recruitment

A chronic recruitment shortage in defence forces across Europe has been a problem in recent years but the rendition issues have hit the Irish Naval Service particularly hard. In his letter, Malone stated that the organisation has lost 540 personnel in the last five years. 

These issues are being felt across the other parts of the Defences Forces as well with Craughwell saying the Air Corps is increasingly stretched.

“I was rather disappointed that Micheál Martin didn’t put down a motion of no confidence in Paul Kehoe,” the Senator said. 

I mean if we’re serious about a critical appraisal of the junior minister, who has had defence for seven years, how could someone have confidence over someone who has presided over the complete collapse of cyber security, the Air Corps, the collapse of the Naval Service. How could anyone say they have 100% confidence?

SHANNON TERROR ATTACK 758A8473_90540201 A staff retention crisis has put the Defence Forces under strain. Source: Eamonn Farrell

In an appearance in the Seanad on Wednesday, Kehoe defended his record and referred to the former Irish Army Sergeant as “Senator Negative Craughwell”.

Kehoe said that “at no stage did I or the government ever deny the staffing issues in the Naval Service” but he reiterated the the two ships were undergoing “planned maintenance”.

“I am happy to explain the current status of the naval fleet,” Minister of State Kehoe said.

The LÉ Róisín is going through a mid-life refit, while the LÉ Eithne and the LÉ Orla are going through planned maintenance and their crews will be deployed pending the return to service of both vessels. This will be kept under constant review. The three ships will be held in operational reserve or in maintenance.

“The remaining six vessels are fully operational. I reiterate that I and the government are fully mindful of the staffing and personnel issues that are facing the Naval Service. That is why I have directed officials and military management and senior naval officers to meet on Friday to fully explore all options to address the challenge in the Naval Service.”

“My focus is on returning the Naval Service to full capacity as soon as possible,” he added.

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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