Wednesday, 15 November 2017
Naval Service Vessels
Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. The Minister of State is very welcome. I want to raise the issue of defence spending this morning. We learned in recent weeks of plans by the Naval Service to purchase a new multi-role vessel, MRV. In recent years, the Naval Service has purchased three new ships, with a fourth ship on order, for a total of over €250 million. This additional MRV is likely to cost over €200 million, bringing the cost of five new ships to almost€500 million. Yet at the same time, the Naval Service is selling off its older ships for a pittance. The LÉ Emer, the LÉ Deirdre and the LÉ Aisling were sold for €320,000, €240,000 and €110,000, respectively. The point is that these ships could have been refurbished for a fraction of the cost of these unnecessary new warships. Ireland should only need naval vessels for fishery protection, emergency rescue and prevention of smuggling. As a neutral state, we have no requirements for aggressive warships. The misuse of the Irish Naval Service was highlighted when the LÉ William Butler Yeats replaced the LÉ Eithne in the Mediterranean for Operation Sophia, which unfortunately will result in the redeployment of Naval Service vessels from primarily humanitarian search and rescue to primarily security and interception operations. Indeed, this move has been condemned by Médecins sans Frontières and others, and is highly inappropriate for a neutral country.
Taxpayer funding for the Defence Forces is necessarily limited when we have 700,000 people on our hospital waiting lists and 8,000 homeless, including, as I heard this morning, 3,124 children. What I am trying to do is make sense of what is happening here, because over the years of the ever-growing crisis in housing and health, we have discovered that the Department of Defence has been spending money like confetti on warships. In my city of Limerick tonight, we will have 154 homeless children sleeping in hotel beds. We had 719 patients on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick in the month of October. Can the Minister of State explain why, at the time of the worst housing crisis in the history of the State and the worst health care crisis since the 1940s, her Government cannot sanction the money to build houses or hospital wings, but has been able to sanction almost €500 million in funding for new warships?Unfortunately, this replacement will result in the redeployment of Naval Service vessels from primarily search and rescue to primarily security and interception operations. This move has been condemned by Médecins sans Frontières and others and is highly inappropriate for a neutral country.
Taxpayer funding for the Defence Forces is necessarily limited since we have 700,000 on our hospital waiting lists and 8,000 homeless, including 3,124 children, as I learned this morning. I am trying to make sense of what is happening because during the same years as the ever-growing crises in housing and health we discovered that the Department of Defence has been spending money like confetti on war ships. Tonight, in my city of Limerick, a total of 154 homeless children will sleep in hotel beds. A total of 719 patients were on trollies in University Hospital Limerick in October. Can the Minister of State explain why, at a time of the worst housing crisis in the history of the State and the worth health care crisis since the 1940s, the Government cannot sanction the money to build houses or hospital wings but has been able to sanction almost €500 million in funding for new war ships?
Even if we decide the money has to be spent on defence – I do not accept that argument – then other points arise, including low pay and conditions in the Army. People are voting with their feet. My colleague, Senator Craughwell has been very articulate on this topic on several occasions. People are leaving the Army because of low pay. The Air Corps search and rescue service was in such a state of under-funding that it was unable to support the tragic rescue operation in Blacksod Bay in March. There is serious under-funding within our defence sector while we are spending vast amounts, hundreds of millions of euro, on new naval ships. I am obliged to conclude that it must be connected to our ever-increasing complicity in the new EU military battle plans.
I am seeking answers to these questions. I am unsure of the position in the constituency of the Minister of State but I have described what it is like in my constituency. We have a shocking health and housing crisis. Yet, the Government consistently believes that it is better to spend money on war ships than on housing for people or on their health. It makes no sense.
I wish to acknowledge Senator Gavan's commencement matter. On behalf of the Minister of State with responsibility for defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe, who cannot be present due to other commitments, I wish to take the opportunity to respond to the Senator on the topic he has raised.
It is a priority of the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to ensure that the operational capability of the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service is maintained to the greatest extent possible. This is primarily to enable the Defence Forces to carry out their roles as assigned by Government and as set out in the White Paper on Defence.
The Naval Service is the principal sea-going agency of the State and is charged with maritime defence, fisheries protection, contraband interdiction duties, search and rescue and enforcing Irish and EU law and legislation with the Irish economic zone. This zone currently extends to 132,000 square miles. This area is approximately five times the size of Ireland and amounts to approximately 16% of all EU waters.
The Naval Service currently operates eight ships in a flotilla. Equipment priorities for the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service to enable them to carry out the roles assigned by Government are being considered in the context of the lifetime of the White Paper on Defence as part of the capability development and equipment planning process. In this context the principal aim over the period of the White Paper is to replace and upgrade, as required, existing capabilities to retain a flexible response for a wide range of operational requirements at home and overseas.
The defence capital envelope for the period 2018-21 is €416 million. This will enable investment in major equipment platforms, including the continuing replacement and refurbishment of Naval Service vessels. The White Paper underpins the ongoing replacement of the Naval Service fleet. The most significant investment of recent years by the defence organisation has been on the procurement of the new off-shore patrol vessels for the Naval Service. The third ship in the programme, LÉ William Butler Yeats, was commissioned into service in October 2016. The three ships are performing well in operational service and have been a great enhancement to the capacity of the Naval Service.
A contract for an additional sister ship was placed with Babcock International, a British company, in June 2016. The fourth ship, to be named LÉ George Bernard Shaw, is scheduled for delivery in mid-2018. This aligns with the planning process in place under the White Paper on Defence, which will determine the defence organisation's maritime capability requirements. The requirement for a fourth ship is regarded as urgent and expedient given the age of the older remaining ships in the fleet, LÉ Orla, LÉ Ciaraand LÉ Eithne, all of which are over 30 years of age. In tandem with the acquisition of the new ships, the defence organisation has commenced planning for a mid-life refurbishment programme for the LÉ Roisinand the LÉ Niamh. The new ship will allow the Naval Service to meet its patrol day targets with due cognisance to the significant additional operational requirements for the naval fleet under the current Operation Sophia and previously under Operation Pontus in the Mediterranean Sea.
Overall, 17,500 migrants have been rescued since Naval Service vessels were first deployed in the Mediterranean Sea in May 2015 as part of Operation Pontus. The deployment of Irish naval vessels to the humanitarian mission in the Mediterranean over the past three years to engage in search and rescue tasks has been an important element in Ireland's response to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. The operation finished in October 2017. Since October 2017, the Naval Service is participating in the EU naval mission Operation Sophia. In accordance with the mandate for the mission, the Naval Service can be involved in surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations, search and rescue operations and disposal of migrant boats and force protection operations. Operation Sophia has thus far contributed to the apprehension of 117 suspected smugglers and traffickers. It has removed 497 boats from criminal organisations and it has contributed to 278 safety of life at sea events. Most important, it has saved the lives of over 41,500 migrants.
The expenditure on the Naval Service vessel replacement programme has to be taken in context the four new offshore patrol vessels will serve the country for the next 30 years and will provide good value for money given the nature of the assets and associated capacity involved. The acquisition of these modern new vessels combined with an ongoing maintenance regime for all vessels within the fleet and the continuous process of refurbishment, refit and repair, will ensure that the operational capacity of the Naval Service as the State's principal sea-going agency are maintained to the greatest extent.
I will address further some of the comments the Senator made in my subsequent contribution.
Not for the first time, the Minister of State has been put in a difficult position. In fairness to the Minister of State, the response from the civil servants does not answer the questions I have put. I asked how the Government can justify the expenditure of hundreds of millions of euro on new boats when we could have refurbished our existing fleet and put the surplus money towards the health and housing crises that have been ever-present in recent years. It speaks poorly of the Government that its priority are to please its friends in the EU by increasing military spending rather than looking after our people at home with better health and housing.
Another point relates to the disgraceful decision to send the LÉ Samuel Beckett to the biggest arms fair in the world. God knows what the great man would have thought of that. Is that what has become of our neutrality? We are now sending one of our flagship naval vessels to the biggest arms fair in the world at taxpayers' expense to help in selling arms and equipment to gangsters from throughout the world. It is absolutely shameful.
I know the constituency the Minister of State is from. I cannot believe that her constituents would be impressed by the fact that we can find hundreds of millions for new ships but not for hospital beds or housing.
I do not have a written response to the Senator's remarks but I will give him some information that may be helpful. The Government is providing over €5 billion for housing in the coming years and is making steady progress. On a weekly basis, over 100 people are finding themselves housed in new homes. I believed it is not just to say that nothing is happening, because it is.
We have seen the biggest budget ever in the health service in the lifetime of this Government and things are happening in the health service. It is wrong to say that the identification of people within the health service on waiting lists and people using the service are not being dealt with. This is happening on a daily basis under the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris. The new primary care centres throughout the country add to the flexibility of people being able to arrive on the door of a primary care centre. Going back to the provision of funding for Naval Service vessels, the Government recognises that the men and women of the Air Corps, the Army and the Naval Service provide a service that protects people whose lives might otherwise be in danger. They do so without ever complaining about the risk to their own lives on a daily basis. It is incumbent on us all, particularly those of us in government, to ensure the best vessels and equipment are provided for the Defence Forces. The Army, the Air Corps and the Naval Service enjoy an excellent reputation at home and throughout Europe. The efforts of the Naval Service which has lent its vessels and personnel to serve in rescue missions in the Mediterranean have been especially welcome. I take the opportunity to acknowledge the men and women who put their own lives at risk on a daily basis to protect others. As parliamentarians and citizens of this country, we support measures that will ensure they will have the best equipment and vessels at their disposal in order that they can continue to save lives and take part in humanitarian missions in the Mediterranean.