Commodore rejects criticism of Naval Service plan

 

The Government's response to the Price Waterhouse review of the Naval Service and Air Corps is not "a fudge", but recruitment of additional staff must come before improved productivity, the Flag Officer, Commodore John Kavanagh, has warned.

In his first interview on the review, published last week, Commodore Kavanagh said its success would depend on how many of its recommendations were implemented. A memorandum to Government raised the question of how many of its provisions will be acted upon now, before publication of the proposed White Paper on Defence. A key proposal to appoint an independent chair or ombudsman has been dropped.

The Naval Service has been facing a personnel crisis for some time, and one which the direct entry recruitment of up to 10 watchkeepers will only partially alleviate. Some 15 officers have left the service in the last 18 months, and the total staff figure is below 1,000.

This comes at a time of growing unrest within the public service generally, and increased pressure on the Naval Service specifically in its key tasks of fisheries protection and drug interdiction. Ireland has the second-largest and most poorly policed sea area in Europe, with the smallest naval fleet - equivalent to two Garda patrol cars to cover the whole island, compared to a European average of 20.

Commodore Kavanagh conceded that morale was poor, and that the atmosphere had not been helped by the delay in publishing the review, initiated in 1996 with a three-month deadline. The consultants' figure of 1,144 staff, with additional crew for the eighth ship, was very welcome, he said. "I hope we can start recruiting and training to fulfil that, and to relieve pressure on existing personnel."

Another recommendation relating to a two-year sea/shore cycle was also very significant, he said. "Society has changed. People are no longer prepared to stay at sea all the time, but if they are assured of the time span when they join, it provides the sort of stability required to run the service.

"I think that the working conditions our staff are expected to endure are not given due recognition. For half the year, those at sea are working in the most appalling weather conditions off the west and south-west coasts," he said.

Commodore Kavanagh, who was a member of the steering group established by the Government for the review, welcomes the proposed devolution of authority in recruitment and training, and greater financial independence from the Army.

He also welcomes the proposed relocation of headquarters to Haulbowline in Cork Harbour, and does not fear losing influence in political circles in Dublin. "By the time that happens, we will be more independent anyway, so a presence in Dublin won't matter so much."

Though the memorandum to Government on the review still requires clarification, the press statement issued by the Minister for Defence, Mr Smith, last week copperfastens the Naval Service's future.

The State's future sea and air support requirements will be discharged by the Naval Service and Air Corps "on the basis of an appropriate mix of multi-tasking, multi-capabilities and dedicated services", it says. Government decisions on equipping and staffing will be made accordingly.

Proposals to privatise fisheries protection - favoured by the Department of the Marine - are effectively dismissed. "The Scottish fisheries protection service, which is referred to by the consultants, is a single task agency and is not an appropriate model for us," Commodore Kavanagh said.

"The value-for-money option is obviously recognised, along with the need to be able to compete in line with the Government's strategic management initiative." As for future taskings in the context of the White Paper, he believes that the US Coast Guard did offer the most appropriate model, with its mixture of military, policing and benign duties.

Already, boardings of fishing vessels were up by over 40 per cent, and the target of 180 days at sea was almost within reach by some vessels, he said. "Given that we have one vessel tied up for six months of the year on an EU-funded refit programme, which has been running since 1994, we do pretty well," he said. Some three to four ships in the seven-ship fleet are at sea all the time.

He accepted the point made by the consultants about the need for greater efficiency, but said that personnel requirements must come first. The combination of Haulbowline's computerised fishery protection information system, and the work of the Air Corps Casa maritime patrol aircraft, had already had a radical effect on fishery protection, he said.

While he accepted that an eight-ship fleet, as recommended, was sufficient for the moment, he cautioned that much depended on whether drug interdiction activity increased. There was also a continuous demand for ships to attend shore functions, which added to the pressure on deployment.

Commodore Kavanagh said he was optimistic in general about the review, and welcomed the recognised timetable for replacing the fleet. "After all, much of the £235 million re-equipment budget is about replacing existing ships." Nor did he believe that the expansion of the Irish Marine Emergency Service (IMES) posed any threat to the navy's future role in search and rescue and pollution control.

He believed he would see the proposed establishment figure of 1,144 reached before he stood down in five years' time. "I take the Government's commitment at face value. Overall, if it is put into effect, this document is very positive for us."