The success of the mission that led to the seizure of cocaine valued at €157 million from a ship in Irish waters was probably due to the “courage” of the Defence Forces personnel involved, rather than the resources they had at their disposal, a TD has said.
Independent TD Cathal Berry, a former Defence Forces officer, made the remarks as he criticised a shortage of helicopters for the operation which he said added “unnecessary risk” to the mission.
The operation, which was undertaken by a joint taskforce comprising the Garda, Revenue, Naval Service, Air Corps and Army Ranger Wing (ARW), was the most complex drug interdiction ever undertaken by Irish agencies and led to the largest cocaine seizure by weight in Irish history.
On Saturday The Irish Times reported on how the dramatic interception of 2.2 tonnes of cocaine off the south coast last week was threatened by a number of crucial failings and shortages.
The Air Corps had no serviceable helicopters available capable of inserting an ARW team on to the deck of the MV Matthew.
This meant an AW139, seconded by the Air Corps to the National Ambulance Service, had to be recalled and pressed into service.
Furthermore, such complex operations normally require two helicopters, one to provide sniper cover and to take part in rescue operations if necessary if the lead helicopter fails.
Just one helicopter was available for Tuesday’s operation.
There were also failings involving the CASA 235 maritime surveillance aircraft – which is due to be retired this year – which was sent to monitor the operation.
Its mission computers failed, meaning it could not use its cameras, search radar or other surveillance equipment.
Footage of the mission was taken on a camera phone, sources said.
Mr Berry was asked about these issues during an appearance on RTÉ's The Week in Politics on Sunday morning.
He said the operation was successful but this was probably “due to the courage of the people involved rather than the resources”.
Mr Berry said: “We do have six of those helicopters but five were unavailable and only one was serviceable and that was the one, the medical helicopter in Athlone.”
He said it was “stripped of all its medical equipment, given two machine guns and sent down to Cork and did the assault”.
Mr Berry said the use of only one helicopter for such a mission was “highly unusual” and “not in accordance with any national or international best practice”.
He added: “What if the helicopter had to ditch in the sea or if it had a crash on the ship itself?
“You need two helicopters at a minimum to provide mutual support and that’s a major, major issue because it’s a risky operation anyway.
“And we were asking the individuals to take on additional unnecessary risk as a result of this.”
Speaking on the same programme Minister for Enterprise Simon Coveney, a former defence minister, said the mission was a “huge success” and also “a reminder of why we need to continue to invest in our Defence Forces significantly”.
He said he secured an agreement in last year’s budget for a multiannual increase to bring yearly spending from €1 billion per year to €2 billion by 2028.
“So we are going to dramatically increase the financial resources available to the Defence Forces and rightly so.
“We’re at the start of that process,” Mr Coveney said.