Thursday, 18 November 2021
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Recently, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence paid a visit to the Naval Service base in Haulbowline. There are many issues of concern with regard to our Naval Service, primarily around personnel, the patrol duty allowance and difficulties in retaining naval personnel. Other issues have also been identified, one being the lack of ability for subsurface surveillance and how that is impeding our Naval Service. What plans are in place to increase our capacity for subsurface surveillance?
I thank the Deputy. The White Paper on Defence sets out an ambitious programme of capital investment in the Naval Service, including the mid-life refit and upgrade of the P50 class of vessels and the replacement of the flagship LÉ Eithnewith a multi-role vessel, MRV. The MRV is an important element of the defence equipment development plan and is provided for in the Government's national development plan as a major capital project. It is the Government’s intention that this new vessel will provide a flexible and adaptive capacity for a wide range of maritime tasks. The Naval Service retains certain capabilities that allow for underwater search and surveying, for example, an underwater remotely operated vehicle, ROV, and a magnetometer system. As part of the ongoing development of capabilities, further capabilities that will enhance the Naval Service’s under-sea situational awareness, such as multibeam echo sounder systems, are also being developed. Projects for other vessel replacements, such as the replacement of the coastal patrol vessels the LÉ Ciaraand LÉ Orla, will be considered over the lifetime of the White Paper on Defence in the context of overall capability development and funding, along with the overall equipment development plan process.
I accept that our capacity for subsurface surveillance is somewhat limited but we do have some capacity, particularly with the use of the ROV. These issues will be considered as part of the work of the Commission on the Defence Forces, which will be reporting in the next few weeks on capacity within the Naval Service, Air Corps and Army. We have to prioritise within the budget envelopes and capital investment plans we have.
I agree with the Minister about needing to prioritise. The number one priority must be the retention of members of the Defence Forces, which is a major issue. We have 1,000 fewer members than where we need to be and the inability to put ships at sea must be tackled first and foremost. Members of the Naval Service are highly committed and passionate about the work they do but they are also realistic about the challenges they face and the ability to put ships at sea in the first instance. The Minister will be well aware that Ireland possesses one of the largest maritime to land ratios within Europe, with a maritime border of 1,315 km. At any point in recent times we have only been able to put one ship at sea, limiting our ability to ensure maritime security. The Minister will also be aware of the continental data cables that go past our southern coast. Due to our limitations, first in terms of personnel but also in terms of subsurface surveillance, our ability to monitor what is happening to those cables is highly limited, putting our security and the European project at risk.
I am more than aware of the recruitment and retention challenges across the Defence Forces and we are acting on those. I launched a recruitment campaign specifically targeting potential Naval Service recruits in Haulbowline in June. To date, 78 new personnel have been inducted, including 65 recruits, eight cadets, three direct entry specialists and two rejoined listed personnel. I am not saying that solves the problem because it does not. This is going to take time. One of the big tasks of the Commission on the Defence Forces is to focus on recruitment, retention and numbers across the Defence Forces. I look forward to debating its report. I expect it to be very detailed. We will hopefully dedicate significant time in this House to developing the full detail of that report, probably in January as I will likely get a finalised version in late December.
I too eagerly await the publication of the commission's report but the critical thing is the actions that will stem from it. Unfortunately, the Minister has previously failed to deliver on the White Paper, which has ultimately landed us in a situation where we are unable to put ships at sea, and unable to ensure that not just our national security but that of Europe is protected. Stephen Malphrus stated, "When the [submarine] communication [cable] networks go down, the financial sector does not grind to a halt, it snaps to a halt." Ships from other countries are coming into our waters carrying out what can only be described as concerning activities and all we can do is sit back and monitor. We are not able to see what is actually going on and that is a direct result of our inability to put ships to sea or see what is going on under the water. We have a responsibility for everything up in the air, at surface level and at subsurface level so our hands are seriously tied behind our back.
To be clear, the subsea cables that connect Ireland internationally are not at the moment the legal responsibility of the Irish Naval Service. That being said, we want to improve capacity all the time and we are investing in our fleet in order to do that. We have invested significantly in our naval fleet in the last ten years and we will continue to do so. We have to do that in a way that is planned and consistent with the capital investment programme.
The commission report will allow us to focus very strategically on the resources that are needed to improve defence capacity at sea, in the air and on land. I hope that when the time comes to look at the resourcing question the Government will have the support of Sinn Féin in terms of improving our defence resource.