Two decorated former senior Naval Service officers have called on Paul Kehoe, the junior defence minister, to resign.
The intervention has been made by former Commander Eugene Ryan, who won two commendations for intercepting €1.3bn of drug shipments, and former Captain James Robinson, who was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal for his role in recovering bodies from the 1985 Air India disaster.
They were angered after Mr Kehoe claimed two ships were being tied up for routine maintenance, contradicting the Navy’s most senior officer, who said manpower shortages forced him to tie up the ships and, while out of action, they will undergo refits.
Mr Robinson said Mr Kehoe “had to go because he smacks of a person who doesn’t know how the military operates” and that, by contradicting the flag officer commanding the Naval Service, Commodore Michael Malone, “he had humiliated him in front of his people”.
“Michael Malone is a leader of close to 1,000 people and he’s trying to lead,” said Mr Robinson. “To be publicly humiliated in front of his people is way outside the bounds.”
In a statement to personnel, Commodore Malone said manpower shortages forced him to “cut our cloth to measure” and would be tying up LÉ Eithne and LÉ Orla for refits.
Last Friday, Mr Kehoe contradicted him, claiming the ships were being tied up for routine maintenance.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar first sided with Commodore Malone’s version of events, but yesterday in the Dáil said Mr Kehoe’s version was also accurate, as he had been briefed initially just about the maintenance aspect.
Mr Robinson said the Department of Defence is out of touch as it does not realise it is more important to retain highly trained personnel than trying to plug ever increasing vacancies by recruitment alone.
“The Defence Forces are the first to suffer cuts and last to have them reinstated,” said Mr Robinson. “The Defence Forces, and the Naval Service in particular, sense a lack of urgency [about their plight] from the Government.”
Mr Ryan added: “Not only should he [Mr Kehoe] go, but the Defence Forces need a dedicated minister. Commodore Malone needs to be supported for his decision and not thrown under a bu.
It’s time for the Department of Defence civil servants and the minister to tell the truth. I’d like people to tell the truth. I meet sailors all the time. I meet senior NCOs who are extremely upset at all that’s going on. They’re nearly crying on my shoulder.
The Oireachtas committee on foreign affairs and defence has been urged to visit Navy headquarters to ascertain for itself how bad the manning situation is.
Mr Ryan said he would gladly go there with them as an observer to ensure that they asked appropriate questions.
“LÉ Eithne and LÉ Orla are only coming in now for refits because of crewing levels,” said Mr Ryan and maintained that, for her age, the LÉ Eithne is “one of the best maintained ships in any European navy”.
Mr Robinson said there is a lack of Government appreciation for what those in military service do.
“They can’t join a union or strike. They serve as a matter of honour and expect governments to treat them accordingly. It’s a question of respect,” he said.