The naval service is to tie-up two of its ships in port indefinitely due to a deepening manpower crisis. Of the three services in the Defence Forces, the naval service is suffering the most from a haemorrhage of personnel for better paid jobs in the public sector.
The Irish Examiner has learned that the nine-ship fleet will be reduced to seven as the navy’s flagship, LÉ Eithne, and coastal patrol vessel LÉ Orla will be taken off operational duty for the foreseeable future. Despite her age, LÉ Ciara, which was purchased from the British in 1988, is to remain on patrol.
Ideally, the navy’s newer P60s — LÉ Róisín, LÉ Niamh, LÉ Samuel Beckett, LÉ James Joyce, and LÉ William Butler Yeats — should each have a crew of 50, but are normally operational with 45. Sources in the naval service have indicated the manpower crisis had often led in recent times to them sailing with crew numbers as low as 34.
Both the LÉ Eithne and LÉ Ciara were due for major refits, but according to a source will receive “minor maintenance to achieve a certain readiness level” in the event they need to be redeployed during a major emergency.
In a statement, the Defence Forces press office said Flag Officer Commanding the naval service, Commodore Michael Malone, was “currently managing the consolidation of naval service assets”. This was “due to ongoing personnel challenges and to Óglaigh na hÉireann’s commitment to valuing its personnel, their welfare and safety”.
It added that military authorities continue to examine all recommendations and options with the aim of maximising the effectiveness of the Maritime Defence and Security Operations. The general secretary of PDforra, which represents enlisted men in the Defence Forces, told an Oireachtas committee yesterday that “the navy is in a dire state”.
Gerard Guinan, whose association represents more than 6,500 enlisted personnel in the Defence Forces, told the Oireachtas committee on Justice, Defence, and Equality that the “naval service was down personnel, probably to its lowest level ever.”
He said the delay in the publication of the Public Service Pay Commission (PSPC) report into possible improvements of allowances for the Defence Forces “has been extremely frustrating” for his members, who are the lowest paid public servants.
“To say we’re angry[about the delay] is an understatement,” said Mr Guinan.
It is expected this report will now be published next Tuesday. Leaks suggest the PSPC is only recommending a small increase in allowances, amounting to 96 cent per day after tax for Defence Forces personnel.
Mr Guinan said: “96 cent a day after tax won’t be enough to save the navy. It is not an overstatement to say we have lost significant numbers of highly qualified and outstanding soldiers, sailors and aircrew over the past few years.
PDforra has repeatedly stated in recent years that the naval service does not have the manpower to run all of its ships and criticised the lack of proper accommodation for sailors at the Naval headquarters in Haulbowline Island.
As a result of poor pay and soaring rents, up to 80 sailors are currently sleeping on ships when off-duty. PDforra president Mark Keane told the committee that on average 11 or 12 were sleeping nightly on each ship.
“The older ships do 26-day cycle patrols and are then back in [port] for 16 days,” he said. “The sailors are working onboard 60-70 hours a week and then sleeping on the same ships when they are off duty. They deserve a proper place to go and put their heads down at night.”