LIKE Horatio Nelson surveying the fleet with a blind eye, Minister with Responsibility for Defence, Paul Kehoe, seems to gaze vacantly, impassively, detached and, from some accounts, politically switched off at the disaster confronting the Haulbowline Matelots.
The Irish Naval Service, you see, is in danger of falling apart as the flagship, LÉ Eithne, and the offshore patrol boat, LÉ Orla, are mothballed and taken off operational duty. The problem is this: young men and women aren’t attracted to a career on the ocean waves because of the rotten wages they earn.
And, until Kehoe’s big boss, Vlad, agrees to provide a decent salary for members of the Defence Forces, people will not enlist or remain in the job.
Indeed, so bereft of sailors is the Navy that vessels have been going to sea with crews as small as 34 whereas between 45 and 50 crew members were needed. Eventually a decision was taken to remove two perfectly-good vessels from active service on the basis of safety.
As Kehoe’s press officer quaintly explained, it was a question of ‘managing the consolidation of naval service assets’ which – when the Pidgin-English was deciphered – meant having to run the ship with reduced crew numbers. Needless to say, there was a thorough assessment of ‘ongoing personnel challenges’ and an evaluation of sailors’ welfare and safety.
But it was the phrase ‘personnel challenges’ that tickled the nation’s fancy. What a way to disguise the fact that the Navy’s overlords, the Fine Gael government, permitted such a deterioration in conditions for sailors which, in turn, has had a damaging effect on the hitherto successful disruption of illegal drug convoys, and the protection of Irish fishing rights.
The fact of the matter is that the maritime lads and lassies are buying their way out, not re-enlisting, so keen are they to have nothing more to do with an outfit that, some feel, treats them as 21st century galley slaves.
Indeed, according to two University of Limerick reports and other independent studies, the situation is very serious. The Department of Defence is in ‘decline’ on account of the departure of large numbers of sailors, soldiers and aircrew from the Defence Forces.
Experts warn that ‘currently there is an annual discharge rate of approximately 8.9% per annum from the defence forces. Internationally, the maximum acceptable turnover rate for the military is 5%. Within the Naval Service, the discharge turnover is a massive 14% per annum.’
And worse: the experts also warn that ‘even if the Department of Defence were to recruit an extra 750 recruits per annum that would not be enough to stem the tide of discharges and retirements within the organisation.’
Contributing to naval woes is the lack of suitable accommodation for members of the naval service when they come off patrol at sea. PDFORRA told an Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence, and Equality that sailors can be at sea for 26 days or up to four months and, when they return to base, they are obliged to ‘kip’ on the ship because they can’t afford rented accommodation.
On average, 11 or 12 people are sleeping nightly on each ship when off duty, having worked a 60 or 70 hours a week.
Another sign of the times is that members of the defence forces have had to set up their own medical scheme. It uses the King’s Hospital in Belfast – of all places – for private treatment of those injured in the line of duty or in need of convalescence. Not too long ago there were three hospitals for military personnel, in the Curragh, Dublin and Cork.
Interesting too that a Private Members Motion, proposed by Fianna Fáil and amended by Sinn Féin, called for the restoration of Defence Forces pay and allowances. It was carried in the Dáil by a two to one majority.
But, commentators quickly pointed out that because it was a private members’ motion, and not Law, it was not binding on the government. The point was made that, if the content of the motion were proposed in a Bill, it would have been ruled out of order because it would be deemed to be interfering with government finances.
However, because the Fine Gael government does not have a majority in the Dáil, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin can yet put pressure on Varadkar and chums to implement the motion; and If Vlad tells them to hump-off, he runs the risk of a Dáil defeat on next October’s budget – that is if Martin genuinely believes in the sailors’ cause and is ready to practice what he preaches.
Our matelots also might be interested in knowing the identity of those who voted with the government against the motion for restoring Defence Forces pay and allowances. They included Ministers Shane Ross, Sean Canney and Katherine Zappone.
Some TDs mysteriously did not turn up for the vote. Ministers ‘on the run’ were John Halligan, ‘Boxer’ Moran and Finian McGrath. Also missing were Michael Harty, Noel Grealish, Michael Healy-Rae, Danny Healy-Rae and a chap we’ve all heard of, Michael Lowry.
Oh, and let’s not forget that other bone of contention: overtime payments. Last April, Clare Daly raised the matter in the Dáil, informing it of Naval Service members earning €435 for a 40-hour week, plus just €125 for an extra 40 hours’ overtime.
Or the Trump visit, when 350 members from the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps earned as little as €80 (after tax) in overtime, whereas Gardaí individually were able to trouser as much as €1,500!
Meanwhile, Vlad and chums are busy negotiating the construction of a warship that will cost in excess of €20Om. Designed to accommodate an entire infantry company and all its equipment, the monster will have an onboard hospital and the capacity to launch helicopters from its flight deck. It is intended for service ‘at home and abroad.’
And it’s not that the Naval Service is short of boats. Recently Varadkar formally commissioned the fourth offshore patrol vessel, the LÉ George Bernard Shaw, at a ceremony in Waterford. Cost? A whopping sixty seven million euros!
At the commissioning ceremony, Vlad made this comment with a perfectly straight face: ‘Our ships assert the sovereignty and integrity of our territorial waters; they protect both the waters of our country and the European Union. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the personnel of the Naval Service for their work in fishery protection, marine search and rescue and the many other tasks you perform selflessly.’
Within the context of the pay and conditions controversy that’s tearing apart the Naval Service, the speech came across as galling, provocative and unacceptable. Inevitably, it led to calls for dumping Fine Gael’s obscene, €200m warship (vanity) project.