A former senior army officer has claimed that civilian officials in the Department of Defence are interfering with operational issues, which should only be a matter for the Defence Forces.
Retired Brigadier General Ger Aherne made his comments in the aftermath of a row over two naval service ships being tied for refits due to manpower shortages.
The former senior officer said he had read correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act which detailed the fallout from a question asked by the Irish Examiner inquiry on June 26 into the ‘hibernation’ of LÉ Orla and flagship LÉ Eithne.
The Defence Forces drafted a reply to the question, which department officials expressed concern about, stating that civil service/military round-table talks should take place before any operational decision was made.
Prior to this stage, the flag officer commanding the naval service, Commodore Michael Malone, issued a communique via an internal newsletter to his personnel.
He stated that more than 500 personnel had left the service in the past five years and this had created huge pressure on those who remained to get fully-manned ships to sea.
As a result of this, he proposed “to cut our cloth to measure”, and took the two ships out of service and also sent them for refits. They are being kept in reserve and will be brought back into action should there be a major emergency.
Commodore Malone also made the decision regarding the ships in the interests of health and safety. The crews of both vessels were sent to serve on other ships.
After the Irish Examiner published the story, the minister of state for defence Paul Kehoe told the media that the ships were being tied up purely for routine maintenance and refused to comment on the issue of manpower shortages also being at the heart of the decision.
The FOI request revealed that Mr Kehoe had asked his civil servants to prepare a briefing note for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who is also Minister for Defence, on the issue.
Soon after Mr Kehoe had made his statement, Mr Varadkar appeared to contradict him and then backtracked somewhat when questioned further on the matter.
Mr Aherne said decisions made by senior military personnel such as Commodore Malone were operational, “which were a matter for the military and not the department”.
He suggested that in the past there had been some political interference, “but it has become more manifest in recent years”.
He added that nobody in the higher echelons of the department had ever served in the Permanent Defence Forces and therefore operational matters should be left to the experts — senior commanders in the army, naval service and air corps.
Mr Aherne claimed the relationship between the military and the civil service is “toxic and dysfunctional”. He said the Defence Forces’ hands were tied behind their backs because, unlike An Garda Síochána, the chief of staff is not in charge of his own budget.
He reiterated that the Department of Defence should only be responsible for political advice, not for holding the purse strings or interfering in operational decisions. Mr Aherne said that the naval service is “losing people hand-over-fist” and the reason for this is primarily due to poor pay and conditions.