Internal documents show frustration over Naval Service ships controversy

Papers detail efforts by officials to prepare Minister Paul Keogh for media questions

The Department of Defence was unhappy with how the military responded to media queries about two Naval Service ships being taken out of service, internal documents show.

An announcement last June that the LÉ Eithne and LÉ Orla were being taken out of active service due to personnel shortages caused considerable anger among Defence Forces personnel and led to calls for the resignation of Minister of State with responsibility for defence Paul Kehoe.

In a Naval Service newsletter, Flag Officer Cmdr Mick Malone stated the service needed to "cut its cloth to measure" and that the ships were being placed in an "operational reserve capacity until adequate numbers of sufficiently qualified and experienced personnel are available".

The Defence Forces press office then appeared to confirm this statement.


A week later, Mr Kehoe contradicted Cmdr Malone’s statement and said the ships were being withdrawn for “routine maintenance”. He said media reporting to the contrary was inaccurate.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar then appeared to contradict Mr Kehoe when he repeated Cmdr Malone's assertion that the Naval Service was "cutting its cloth to measure".

Throughout this period officials in the department expressed frustration and confusion with events as they struggled to get the Minister’s messaging right and discern the exact reasons for the withdrawal of the ships, according to internal communications released to The Irish Times following a Freedom of Information request.

Manpower shortages

Problems started on June 26th when the Irish Examiner asked the Defence Forces if the ships were being tied up due to manpower shortages. The following day the Defence Forces emailed the department a copy of the reply it intended to give the newspaper which stated that Cmdr Malone was “implementing a strategy of consolidation and regeneration”.

A department official replied she was concerned with this response as it related to decisions that were not yet made and which were due to be discussed at a forthcoming “civil/military roundtable”.

The Defence Forces issued a slightly revised response stating Cmdr Malone was “currently managing the consolidation of Naval Service assets”.

However, this reply also appeared to cause annoyance on the civil service side. A department memo prepared four days later stated it was concerned the statement did not mention planned consultations between civil and military officials about Naval Service manpower.

Reports of the ships being withdrawn in The Irish Times and Irish Examiner prompted department officials to seek an explanation from deputy chief of staff Maj Gen Tony McKenna as to why they were being tied up.

‘Technical inaccuracies’

In a text to a department official, the general responded that the articles contained “a mix of facts, technical inaccuracies, opinion and speculation as you might expect”.

He said the ships were tied up for “scheduled self maintenance and refit” and they remained on the patrol plan for late September and October.

“Whether this actually happens will depend on the [Naval Service capacity to regenerate key [personnel] in the interim,” Maj Gen McKenna wrote, adding that a report by Cmdr Malone would provide clarity on this issue.

The department declined to release Cmdr Malone’s report to The Irish Times on national security grounds.

‘On operational pause’

A department spokeswoman declined to say if the ships will go back on patrol once their maintenance is complete. The vessels remained “on operational pause”, she said on Friday.

Other documents detailed efforts by officials to prepare Mr Keogh for media questions about the contradiction between his statements and those of Cmdr Malone.

One document outlined possible media questions and detailed the answers the minister should give.

“So is the flag officer wrong?” one of the hypothetical questions reads. Mr Kehoe was advised to respond: “This isn’t about right or wrong. This is about charting a way forward for the Naval Service which I am confident we can do.”

Another question asked if it was correct to say two ships were being tied up. The Minister was advised to reply that no ships were currently tied up but that “it may be the case that the operations of the Naval Service will change including the number of operational ships”.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times