Seanad debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

3:30 pm

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent) | Oireachtas source

The Minister of State is welcome to the House, although it is regrettable that the Minister for Defence. I am, of course, referring to the Taoiseach. As a Minister for State, Deputy Kehoe does not have full power. The Minister who does have full power, the Taoiseach, does not know enough about the Naval Service to even know how many ships we have or the number of them available for operational service.

I am deeply concerned that no one in the Government or the Department of Defence really understands the importance of a well-resourced and well-managed cybersecurity monitoring system under the defence or security services. This Government's cavalier attitude to this most important aspect of securing foreign direct investment will eventually cost our economy dearly. Is the Minister of State aware of the concerns of many of the multinationals operating in Ireland regarding the apparent lack of a clear retention and training strategy for cybersecurity experts in our Defence Forces? What is the plan? How will the brain drain be halted? An allowance of 96 cent per day will not do much to stop it. The internal Defence Forces computer incident response team, CIRT, was shut down a few months ago because the last person in this office purchased his discharge. We are now allocating up to €40,000 per month for a private contractor to provide the service if and when required. To say that this is very unsatisfactory would be a complete understatement. What does it say about our defence strategy that we now have a civilian company with eyes on military-grade communications and intelligence? I understand the Defence Forces are meant to provide two cybersecurity personnel to the interdepartmental, multi-agency, National Cyber Security Centre led by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Needless to say, these two seats are empty/ We have no spare personnel and no strategy to find them.

With regard to the Naval Service, will the Minister of State agree that we actually own nine ships? I hope he will. I hope he will further agree that only three of those ships are fully operational, rather than the six he mentioned. Two of the ships are not operational on a full-time basis because we do not have engine room artificer, ERA, personnel to look after them. I refer to P61 and P62. Will the Minister of State accept that while P31, LÉ Eithne, and P41, LÉ OrIa, are, as he stated, in for maintenance, this maintenance was not scheduled? Will he agree that, when that maintenance is completed, neither ship will be returned to the fleet in an operational capacity for the foreseeable future because of the shortage of personnel?

I now turn to the issue of Naval Service divers. There have been a number of tragedies off the coast of Ireland resulting in the need for deep-sea divers. The Naval Service's divers are trained to dive up to 60 m with mixed gases. As I understand it, they are the only professionals in the country who can provide that service. This was extremely important when Rescue 116 went down. The complement of navy divers should number 27 personnel. Will the Minister of State confirm that there are now only six qualified navy divers available?

With respect to the Air Corps, there is a reported pilot shortage of 30% but if senior officers are not included as flying that deficiency rises to 50%. Medical emergency flights, which used to be carried out by the Air Corps, are now contracted out at a cost of €7 million over two years. What would that €7 million have done for the Air Corps? What would it have done for pilot retention? Is this not a gross mismanagement of the system? We now have a plane on stand-by every night. Over the past nine months, it has only been used three times.

With respect to aircraft maintenance, AW139 helicopters and PC-9 aircraft are being sent to Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and the UK for maintenance. How much does this cost? Could that money have been used to retain military personnel in technical areas?

In the context of the Army, situations have arisen in the not-too-distant past in which young officers straight out of the Curragh found themselves in command of three platoons. In one instance, a battalion was managed by three captains and one lieutenant. We have a shortage of explosive ordinance disposal, EOD, specialists. This is probably the most unfriendly place to work from a family perspective.

The Minister of State spoke about medical care a few moments ago. Is it not the case that a senior officer reported on radio recently that he funded scans for a private soldier out of his own pocket because the Defence Forces do not have access to such scans? We are cutting allowances for injured personnel. If personnel in the Army Ranger Wing, whose job is particularly physical, are injured, they lose their allowances after 28 days. We continue to fight cases relating to Lariam in the courts.What do we do at the end of the day with most of these things? We settle them. The Minister of State referred to the working time Act in his speech. We are dragging PDFORRA to the gates of the courts and we then settle the cases. What is that costing? How much are we paying for legal advice when we know this has to be resolved, one way or the other? What is the establishment? The Minister of State talks about the €10.1 million that was provided by the Public Service Pay Commission and, indeed, I compliment the chairman on his work, given the constraints he was working under. Does that €10.1 million apply to the 9,500 we are supposed to have or to the 8,300-odd we currently have?

The Minister of State mentioned overseas service. Surely the United Nations pays for overseas service and it is not coming out of the Exchequer. We cannot include that in any public service pay agreement. With respect to the allowances for duties and patrols, these allowances do not even meet the minimum wage. We are talking about soldiers, sailors and airmen who are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In fact, when we boil it all down, the actual increase in pay is 96 cent a day for a private soldier with less than three years service and €1.30 for a captain, hardly something we should be shouting from the hilltops about.

Some time ago, I objected to the appointment of an assistant secretary general for people in the Department. The Minister of State fought his case in the House and it was accepted, by and large, for the Department. I am hearing that nobody has ever met the assistant secretary general for people. I understand he has not visited any installation or any barracks. Now that there is a story to be told with respect to pay and conditions, is the person in charge of personnel going to go out and meet soldiers, sailors and Air Corps people on the ground, explain to them how the Public Service Pay Commission arrived at its figures and explain to them how it will make a difference to their lives?

It was appalling in the last few days to hear the Taoiseach referring to our seven ships when we have nine. It is appalling to hear that the Naval Service is at 88%.The question is: 88% of what? When we take out the people who are non-seagoing and those on long-term sick leave, we are probably somewhere between 65% and 70%, in truth. When it comes to the LE Orlaand LE Eithnebeing stepped down for maintenance, ordinarily in the Naval Service this time would be used for planned leave, training courses and so on. However, for the two ships that have been stepped down, the LE Orlaand LE Eithne, the crews will be allocated to other ships in order to see those other ships at the establishment level.

Where we have arrived at is no great achievement. We are in a total mess and I do not know how we are going to get out of it. The spiral is downwards.


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