Our Defence Forces are key to our democracy and security. We are an island nation and therefore our naval services in particular are important for patrolling and protecting our seas, resources and our interests. The Navy is in a crisis of morale and numbers and it lacks confidence about its future. The inability to retain staff is central to that crisis. Able sea personnel is now at 50% strength, mechanics are at 46% strength, communications operatives are at 50% strength and the diving section is at 33% strength. Alarmingly the Report of the Public Service Pay Commission shows that a significant number of personnel in both the specialist and generalist areas will leave, the majority within two years, with 63% of specialists planning to leave the general Defence Forces.
Flag Officer Commanding, Commodore Michael Malone, has confirmed the loss of 450 crew over the last five years has placed an extraordinary burden on those who remain, so that all ships are at reduced manning levels but that they docked two ships in a commitment to valuing the welfare and safety of personnel.
The Government has been in denial about this crisis for too long. Repeated spin from the Minister of State and the Government has attempted to camouflage the crisis. The most recent manifestation of this was the efforts by the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to undermine Commodore Malone's communications to his staff by claiming that the two ships were docked due to maintenance and not crew shortages. The Taoiseach tried to rescue the Minister of State and sounded a bit like President Trump when he said that two opposites were actually the same thing. The Taoiseach said that rather than spreading the crews over seven ships they were going to fully staff and equip five. Speaking at Haulbowline, the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, said that it was inaccurate reporting but I understand he was quite adamant with the media at the time and trenchantly argued this was inaccurate reporting. The Taoiseach has endeavoured to rescue him from his plight. Commodore Malone was very clear when he said: "I have taken the decision the Naval Service now needs to cut our cloth to measure and take an operational pause to allow us to consolidate and regenerate."
The Minister of State's behaviour has angered the Naval community. Retired personnel are incensed, as is evident from today's Irish Examiner. To be frank, the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, does not inspire confidence in them. The military community questions his competence and authority within the Government. This crisis has been identified for some time but effective intervention measures were not taken by the Minister of State. This morning, only three ships are out at sea. The remaining are in dock. I understand the LÉ Róisín is on a mid-life extension programme, which is a wonderful phrase.
Does the Taoiseach have confidence in Deputy Kehoe as our Minister of State in the Department of Defence? Why did the Minister of State contradict Commodore Malone and undermine the media reports so trenchantly? Does the Taoiseach accept that our naval strength is sub optimal for an island nation and attempts to deny that only exacerbate the problem?