Defence Minister Paul Kehoe has been criticised as being “asleep at the wheel” after admitting he was not “briefed in advance” over the Navy staff shortages “fiasco”, which led to two vessels being docked.
Mr Kehoe has conceded that neither he nor senior officials were told about a newsletter stating that the LÉ Eithne and LÉ Orla were being docked because of an inability to properly staff them.
He is still insisting that staff shortages were not the cause of the two ships being taken out of commission, even though Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has stated clearly that this was the case.
Mr Kehoe initially claimed the two vessels were solely taken out of commission for repair works and described articles which highlighted the staffing issue as “inaccurate reporting”.
Now Mr Kehoe says there was “no question of minimising them and my main focus is returning the Naval Service to its full capacity”. He said challenges in recruiting of personnel are well known.
“There are recruitment and retention challenges in the Naval Service and difficult decisions have to be made to regenerate the Naval Service,” he said.
“I can confirm that neither I nor any senior official was briefed in advance of circulation of the internal Defence Forces newsletter dated June 27 which issued to Naval Service personnel. Subsequently, it was confirmed to my officials that both LÉ Eithne and LÉ Orla were in port for scheduled maintenance, including a period of dry dock.”
At the time, Mr Varadkar appeared to contradict Mr Kehoe’s insistence that two Naval Service ships were taken out of service for routine maintenance rather than crew shortages.
“Rather than spreading the crews over seven ships, they are now going to fully staff and fully equip five, and the other two are going to maintenance,” Mr Varadkar said last month.
“I just had a briefing on that this morning. As you know, the Navy has been short-staffed for quite some time... Lots of people are finding it hard to get staff and the Navy is one of those areas.”
The relevant naval officer who provided the briefing had, the Taoiseach said, “described it as ‘cutting the cloth to fit the measure’; that’s what’s going to be done”.
When it was put to him that this suggested Mr Kehoe had been inaccurate in the way he described the situation over the weekend, the Taoiseach replied: “I don’t think so. I think both put together, both are true.”
Jack Chambers, Fianna Fáil defence spokesman, said Mr Kehoe’s latest comments are “further evidence” he is asleep at the wheel and not on top of his brief when there are systemic, long-term issues he has completely failed to address.
“There are serious concerns now because of the ongoing exodus of personnel from the Naval Service. This fiasco is another example of Minister Kehoe’s dysfunctional tenure in the Department of Defence. He first tried to deny what was happening and then tried to attack the media for what was entirely accurate reporting. Instead of shooting from the hip, he should read his brief,” said Mr Chambers.