‘We’ve passed our breaking point’: Ireland’s military malaise
Some Defence Forces staff now see Minister Paul Kehoe as antagonistic
LE Emer’s role has encompassed maritime defence and security, ocean governance, safety and surveillance; port security, fishery protection, drug interdiction, pollution control and search and rescue. Photograph: Irish Naval Service LE Emer’s role has encompassed maritime defence and security, ocean governance, safety and surveillance; port security, fishery protection, drug interdiction, pollution control and search and rescue. Photograph: Irish Naval Service
For decades, relations between the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence have been strained, with the former feeling ignored, unappreciated, or worse. However, the state of relations between the military and civilian authorities is now at a stage that is unparalleled since the early years of the State.
The dispute over pay and conditions between the department and military members has been rumbling on for years and has attracted little public attention. But there is a sense among many members of the Defence Forces that the situation has changed as a result of Minister of State Paul Kehoe’s comments on the reasons for mothballing two of the Naval Services’ nine ships, including its flagship vessel the LÉ Eithne.
Kehoe has never been popular among serving members, the civil servants behind him even less so. Many agreed with the assertion made by the former deputy head of the Army’s Ranger wing, Cathal Berry, that Kehoe is “an empty suit”, resenting, too, the defence brief was assigned to a junior minister rather than to a full member of cabinet.
But when Kehoe stated last Saturday that the two ships were tied up for routine maintenance rather than because of staff shortages, opinions began to harden with Kehoe being seen as antagonistic.
It was a matter of loyalty. Both the head of the Naval Service, Commodore Mick Malone, and the Defence Forces Press Office were on the record as stating the ships were being withdrawn because there were not enough sailors to man them.
Ireland’s military may be in the midst of the worst staffing crisis in its history but there is no equivalent problem in the department that oversees it, in the eyes of the military. Staff levels in the department have increased nearly every year since 2015 and now stand at 346.
“Our members are double jobbing. Many are doing more than that. In April almost 100 people left. But the department has no problem creating new jobs for people there,” said a military officer.
During those same years, about 3,200 exited the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service, leaving Óglaigh na hÉireann at its lowest strength in decades.
In the past, military personnel tended to stay quiet about such matters. This was not just because of rules forbidding serving members from speaking publicly. There was also a culture of “putting up” with things.
That has changed. There is now no shortage of people seeking to draw attention to the dire state of a military they see as being hollowed out by short-sighted Government policy.
The charge is being led by families of serving members and retired soldiers and officers. Some complain how their husbands have to deliver take-aways after 24-hour guard duty shifts to make ends meet. Others point out the embarrassment of having an Air Corps that operates only during office hours.
This week two former Naval officers, ex-Commander Eugene Ryan, and ex-Captain James Robinson, called for the resignation of Kehoe.
Serving members are also coming forward, on condition of anonymity, and supplying information to journalists and politicians about the retention crisis.
“We’ve reached an inflection point. Everyone has a breaking point. We reached and passed ours,” says Cathal Berry, who retired from his post as an Army commandant in March to speak out about the retention crisis.
“The main driver behind it is the families are now suffering. You can put a lot of pressure on serving personnel and they’ll take it but don’t threaten their families, don’t undermine the education of their children.”
Senior officers said this week they understood Malone’s decision. “It was the safest and most prudent way of deploying the available resources. Staffing a ship without enough men is not safe and not effective,” one said.
What they did have a problem with was that Kehoe appeared to be throwing Malone under the bus. “He was effectively calling him a liar in the knowledge Mick couldn’t fight back.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who is also nominally Minister for Defence, tried to appease both sides. The ships are being tied up for planned maintenance but also because there are not enough men to crew them, he said.
Robinson, who now heads the Irish Maritime Forum (TIMARFOR), said his organisation was “appalled” Kehoe had “dragged two senior military officers into a political spat”.
“What has caused so much anger within TIMARFOR is the casual manner in which the minister threw [Cmdr Malone] under a bus. This was entirely dishonourable,” Robinson wrote in a letter to The Irish Times.
Kehoe’s comments were technically true. The LÉ Eithne and Orla were both due periods of maintenance this summer. But it is also true neither ship will be coming back into service anytime soon. Navy sources say it could take up to 18 months for enough new crewmen to be trained.
Despite its age, the loss of the LÉ Eithne is particularly damaging to the fleet. It has the longest range of the Service’s nine ships and is the only one capable of refuelling a helicopter at sea.
Usually when a ship undergoes planned maintenance, its crew is given leave or are sent on training courses. But the crews of the LÉ Eithne and Orla will be immediately redeployed to other vessels which are suffering staff shortages.
A third ship, the LÉ Roisín is undergoing a mid-life refit while another three ships are often unable to sail due to staffing and operational issues. “We are effectively in a situation where we have to patrol a sea mass of 900,000 square kilometres, 24/7, with four fully operational vessels,” said one officer.
The result is bigger holes in coastal patrols and more illegal drugs landing on Irish coasts or travelling through Irish waters, he said. International missions are completely off the table.
The mothballing of ships is merely the most visible symptom of the retention crisis. The Air Corps is also no longer able to fulfil some of its most basic functions.
Much of the regular servicing of its helicopters and PC-9 aircraft must now be carried out at facilities in the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium.
The Air Corps can no longer carry out emergency medical flights at night. Instead a German company has been granted a two-year HSE contract, worth €7 million, to maintain a plane on standby at Dublin Airport during the night. Since it started in March 2018, the service has been used three times.
Earlier this year an internal cybersecurity team was stood down after the last member departed the military.Two Defence Forces security personnel are supposed to be seconded to the State’s National Cyber Security Centre, Both those positions are currently vacant.
The elite Naval Service Diving Section now has just six trained divers, down from an establishment strength of 27. This means it is no longer able to maintain a 24-hour on-call service for search and recovery operations.
Kehoe rejected accusations he was trying to minimise the crisis as he outlined a proposed €10 million package of allowance increases (critics say the package will result in an increase of 96 cent a day for private soldiers, before tax).
“At no stage did I or the Government ever deny the staffing issues in the Naval Service,” Kehoe said in the Seanad on Tuesday.
In the same address he stated: “Given the unique and demanding nature of military life there is understandably a high level of turnover of Defence Forces personnel.”
For some of the serving and retired Defence Forces members, the comment was a further kick in the teeth. People don’t leave the Defence Forces because it’s tough, Berry said, “they leave because they have to feed their families.”
On Friday a spokeswoman for the Department of Defence defended Mr Kehoe’s performance and outlined achievements including securing support for sending the Army Ranger Wing to Mali and an increase in allowances for defence forces personnel.
The Minister has invested in ships, aircraft and barracks across the country and has enhanced legal protections for personnel, she said.
“Minister Kehoe is fully aware of the issues affecting the Defence Force and is fully focussed on addressing the challenges and putting the Defence Forces on a pathway towards full strength”.