In recent days there has been considerable controversy surrounding the recent decision of the Naval Service to dock two vessels because of the continuing recruitment and retention crisis in the Defence Forces. As the Taoiseach knows, the officer in command of the Naval Service, Commodore Michael Malone, wrote in a Defence Forces newsletter on 27 June that 540 personnel had left the service in the past five years and that because of an inadequate number of personnel, he had taken the decision to place two ships in an operational reserve capacity.
In response to that information making its way into the public domain last weekend, the Minister of State with responsibility for defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe, dismissed it, as he has consistently dismissed concerns about the recruitment and retention crisis in the Defence Forces when these matters have been raised. On Saturday evening he claimed the two ships were being docked because of what he called "planned maintenance" and crews were being redeployed to other vessels. He directly contradicted the concerns of Commodore Malone. The Taoiseach yesterday accepted that the Naval Service faces significant staffing challenges and said it was "cutting its cloth to measure". He agreed with Commodore Malone and contradicted the Minister of State.
Does the Taoiseach think it appropriate for the Minister of State to withdraw his remarks given that he was wrong and his assertion was inaccurate? I believe that should happen today. The docking of two naval vessels will have consequences and a number of military sources in the press this morning spelt out precisely what will be those challenges. A source indicated that because of Ireland's massive sea area, having nine vessels is like having two Garda cars patrolling the island of Ireland, so with the vessels docked, it is like having one and a half such patrol cars. Another source said that this is like having a "neon sign for drug smugglers" because the deterrent factor is gone, with the end result being more drugs on the streets in Dublin, Portarlington, Ballina and so on.
That is the potential outworking of this issue. Fewer naval patrols in Irish waters because two vessels are docked means there will be fewer drug seizures and less of a deterrent. That cannot continue, so it is time for serious action to tackle what is a serious recruitment and retention crisis facing the Naval Service and the Defence Forces more generally. It is clear the recent recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission are wholly inadequate. The Naval Service is operating at 88% of capacity and personnel numbers across the board have dropped below 8,500, despite a commitment to maintain numbers at 9,500. Morale is on the floor; 1,000 people left last year and 92 left in the past month alone. This is a very real crisis so what will the Taoiseach as Minister for Defence do about all of this? When will he ask the Minister of State to withdraw his inaccurate comments from the public record?