Taoiseach ‘cannot confirm’ Naval vessels did not sail due to staff shortages

Martin accuses Government of ‘contempt’ towards defence after ‘Irish Times’ report

File image of the Navy patrol ship the LÉ Niamh.

File image of the Navy patrol ship the LÉ Niamh.

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has told the Dáil he could not confirm that two Naval Service vessels were unable to sail because of a shortage of staff, as he had not yet received a report on the matter.

On Tuesday, The Irish Times reported that the LÉ Orla and LÉ Niamh could not sail last week because of insufficient staff and that reservists had been brought in to deal with shortages on a third vessel.

Mr Varadkar said the chief of staff of the Defence Forces was compiling a report on the issue and he pointed out that the Naval Service had a staff of 1,000 and was at 92 per cent capacity.

He was responding to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who said a picture was being painted of a very seriously depleted Defence Forces, which was going through a serious retention crisis and shortage of expertise.

There was very low morale, and members of the forces were poorly paid, Mr Martin said. There is “a very real sense of a lack of respect and indeed contempt by Government toward defence”.

When the Taoiseach said he could not confirm The Irish Times report, Mr Martin said: “You are the Minister for Defence; you are in charge.”

He questioned why the incident could not be confirmed when there was an emergency meeting at Naval Service headquarters in Haulbowline, Co Cork, on Friday between the chief of staff and a number of senior personnel.

Mr Martin added that there was no denial from the Naval Service, which issued a carefully worded statement in response to the report.

“I ask a very simple question: did this happen that two ships could not sail?” he said.

And he told Mr Varadkar: “You’re failing the Army, you’re failing the Defence Forces and you’re continuing to fail them.”

Rejecting Mr Martin’s claims, the Taoiseach said he hadn’t yet received a report on the issue, adding that “there can be many reasons why a vessel can’t sail”.

Mr Martin claimed that the command structure had fallen down, and that there was a 30 per cent shortfall in Air Corps pilots and a critical shortage of specialists including engineers and bomb disposal experts.

Losing expertise

The Taoiseach said there was a general turnover of staff in the Defence Forces of 8 per cent but acknowledged that they were losing expertise to the private sector, where there was a demand for the forces’ expertise, including that of pilots and engineers, that had not been there during the recession.

He said the mechanism for dealing with pay issues in the forces was the Public Sector Pay Commission.

He insisted that the Government was a strong supporter of the Defence Forces for their role internationally in peacekeeping and at home as an aid to the civil power and support for the Garda.

He told Mr Martin that “in contrast to what you said”, the Government was investing in defence and that the budget for it this year had increased by 35 per cent.

The Government was spending €250 million on new vessels, €32 million for new aircraft and €11 million on new utilities, while there were also upgrades in a number of barracks, he said.

The Taoiseach noted that the Government would continue to engage with Defence Forces representative organisations PDForra and Raco.