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Sea Tests in New Zealand completed – but has the Naval Service enough personnel to operate more ships?

These are challenging and difficult times for the Naval Service. It issued pictures of its new vessel, described as the P71, on conclusion of her Sea Acceptance Trials (SATs) in New Zealand this week. However, the question remains about personnel shortages in the Service and the crewing of this and another expected vessel bought from New Zealand. Since the start of this month it has had just four operational vessels. There are another five at its Haulbowline Island dockyard. The Department of Defence is looking for help to remove a few of them – by decommissioning and recycling. Morale is “not at one hundred per cent” at the Cork Harbour headquarters of the Navy, I have been told. Regulations prevent comment in public by Service personnel, but private indications are of upset, concern and communication issues with personnel.

Confirming that LE Róisín (P51) and LE Niamh (P52) would not be putting to sea for some time the Department of Defence said: “As a result of previously acknowledged recruitment and retention difficulties in particular for specialist positions, the Naval Service has concluded that the Roisin should be placed in operational reserve with effect from 31 January 2023.”  Similarly, Niamh is to go into reserve on completion of its mid-life refit. The withdrawal of the LE Roisin, together with the mid-life re-fit of LE Niamh meant that, with effect from 01 February 2023, the Naval Service has four operational vessels. The Department said that “stabilising operational delivery and assisting in Naval Service regeneration, prioritisation of personnel training and development,” were amongst the reasons. No acceptance was shown that personnel difficulties had been being warned of for a considerable time. “The Department has ignored what it was told at the highest level,” a Naval Service officer privately told me, pointing to conditions and pay levels, as main reasons for personnel difficulties. However, on a positive aspect. a call of new recruits completed training and a passing-out parade this weekend.

Sea-going is a much different lifestyle to onshore employment and has a considerable impact on family and social life. It is demanding because of weather and other conditions. However other mariners, such as Merchant Navy personnel, spend much longer periods at sea. So why is it so difficult to recruit enough Naval personnel? In the past the Navy had been able to “pick and choose” and did reject applicants for small reasons, but now it cannot get enough. Trained personnel are in demand for onshore jobs. Qualifications and experience gained during Naval service make them attractive for employment elsewhere.

“A new comprehensive naval regeneration plan is being progressed,” I was told, but what that will do is not clear. It will need to be much better than what has gone before. Tanaiste and Defence Minister Micheál Martin told the Dáil: “The situation is not good in the Naval Service. We need a radical look at the whole organisation in terms of recruitment and retention.”

NAVAL BASE HAULBOWLINE

Trying to get rid of ships that are no longer wanted, but still at the Haulbowline Naval Base, the Department of Defence is trying a new approach. The last Naval ship auctioned off, LÉ Aisling, eventually ended in the ownership of Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar, embarrassing the Department because the auction achieved just €110,000 for the State. After passing through a Dutch company and another in the UAE, it was reported Haftar paid €1.3m. for it. Last Summer the Eithne, Orla and Ciara were decommissioned in one day. That was unusual, so is the Department’s search on the Government’s eTenders website “for the provision of Ship Recycling Consultancy Services to support the recycling of decommissioned Naval Service Vessels by safe and environmentally sound recycling methods via an EU-approved ship-recycling facility.” There were reports of interest in Orla and Ciara from the Philippines Government and a possible buyer in the Netherlands. From what happened in the sale of Aisling, the Department’s decision to opt for decommissioning and recycling seems to mean that warlords won’t be getting their hands on former Irish Navy vessels!

LÉ Eithne was the last Naval Service ship built in the Verolme Dockyard at Rushbrooke and went into service in 1984. Cork County Council was reported interested in acquiring it as a floating museum for the harbour, but Dublin Port has been reported in discussion with the Defence Department about the vessel going there. Another pair of naval vessels have been bought by Government from the Royal New Zealand Navy to replace Orla and Ciara. But will there be crews to operate these inshore patrol vessels?

Contrasting with the Defence Department here and recalling concern about protecting critical subsea infrastructure, such as underwater cabling, raised when the Russian Navy held exercises off Ireland, it is interesting to see that the UK Ministry of Defence has bought an offshore patrol vessel for conversion into a specialist ship dedicated to protecting British underwater resources. It is being refitted at Cammell Laird Shipyard in Birkenhead on Merseyside as “the first of two Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance ships for underwater surveillance and seabed warfare and will be operated by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.” No such Government action here to similarly protect our own subsea resources.

Tom MacSweeney

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