The demise of a well-known ship is always poignant. In the case of LÉ Eithne, it also speaks to the wider malaise in the Naval Service.
Built in Cork in 1984, the former flagship sailed many thousands of miles on missions ranging from fisheries patrols off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland to a goodwill visit to Buenos Aires for the sesquicentenary of the death of Admiral William Brown, the Irish-born founder of the Argentine Navy. She also served on humanitarian missions in the Mediterranean.
It is unlikely the Naval Service could undertake such missions now. The problem is not ships. The LÉ Eithne – along with the smaller LÉ Ciara and LÉ Orla, which are also to be scrapped – is close to the end of her useful life. The Naval Service still has six modern offshore patrol ships, and two more inshore patrol ships are on the way.
However, the problem is that the Naval Service only has sufficient personnel to crew two ships, raising very serious doubts about our ability to meet obligations to effectively patrol our territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The recent interdiction by the Naval Service – along with other branches of the Defence Forces – of a cargo ship carrying cocaine worth €157 million bound for Europe serves to highlight the need to be able to properly police our waters. Similarly, the transit of four Russian vessels through the Irish EEZ earlier this year and similar incursions last year makes clear the urgent need to have more ships at sea.
The Government has announced measures to improve the recruitment and retention of naval personnel. They include an increase in the allowance paid to crew while they are at sea. But there are other issues affecting the wider Defence Forces that must be addressed including pensions, allowances for overseas service and the implementation of the working time directive.
Getting the Naval Service’s ships back to sea will require both money and a sense of urgency that is characteristically absent from our approach to national defence.