Seanad debates

Monday, 12 July 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Naval Service

9:30 am

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to take this Commencement matter which relates to the Naval Service's plans to acquire a flagship multirole vessel, MRV. This arises from a number of concerns relating to the Department and the navy. I thank Mr. Darragh Duncan, a UCD student working as an intern in my office, who has done considerable research on the issue. There are clearly many conflicting issues around these matters. I will take the Minister of State through some of those issues chronologically. On 15 February 2021, The Irish Timesreferred to a recent European Commission inquiry into Ireland's fisheries protection capabilities, deeming them unsatisfactory. That finding relates to this Commencement matter.

On 4 June 2021, The Irish Timesreported that Ireland has had to outsource fisheries patrols to other EU vessels to control our fisheries. That is a challenge in itself. On 6 April 2021, the Irish Examinerreported that the Naval Service's plans to acquire a new flagship MRV at a reputed cost of €200 million had gone to tender. Further commentary has reported that the tender process is not going ahead. The 2015 White Paper on Defence stated that such a vessel was required. That vessel would need to be flexible and adaptive. It would need to be able to carry freight and to be capable of a wide range of maritime tasks, both at home and abroad. At this point, I acknowledge the amazing humanitarian work our Naval Service has carried out in the Mediterranean. That was important.

There are concerns around the issue of the European Commission's inquiry into Ireland's fisheries protection capabilities. We should be concerned about that. We must also address the issues of cost and morale within the Naval Service. I am reliably informed that membership is now below 1,000. It is, fact, approximately 900, when the Naval Service normally comprises the recommended level of approximately 1,200 members. Without being negative, there are concerns about the morale of our navy. There is a need to support it in terms of the infrastructure, machinery and expertise that are required.

There were suggestions that this MRV would be used as a hospital ship, would be capable of carrying troops and helicopters and would be amphibious, in addition to catering for airborne landings. It would be a multifaceted, mutifunctional, expensive and essential military resource. It is needed to provide humanitarian support and emergency services in Ireland. There are concerns here. I am asking that we have the necessary ships and specialist equipment, and the motivated staff to address issues around fisheries protection, which are critically important. We also need to find out where we are on this project. Is it on course as the draft tender documents set out? It is important infrastructure that is needed. It would give the Naval Service a boost and a sense that we are all on the one page. It is important that we have absolute clarity about where we are on this important project.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Defence and Foreign Affairs who cannot be present due to other commitments. On his behalf, I welcome the opportunity to respond to the Senator on the topic he has raised.The Naval Service is the principal sea-going agency of the State and is charged with maritime defence, fishery protection, contraband interdiction duties, search and rescue, and enforcing Irish and EU legislation, as appropriate. The Irish economic 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 has a nine-ship fleet with two of those ships, the LÉ Eithneand LÉ Orla, in operational reserve. The Government has acknowledged the recruitment and retention issues that are currently impacting on Naval Service operations and the availability of operational ships and also the impact on fishery patrol days, which is a situation that is being managed carefully. The Minister's focus is on returning the Naval Service to its full capacity.

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, the LÉ Róisínand LÉ Niamh, as well as the replacement of the flagship Naval Service vessel, the LÉ Eithne, with a multirole vessel, and, subsequently, the LÉ Ciaraand LÉ Orla. The P50 mid-life upgrade programme is well under way, with the recent return to operations of the LÉ Róisínand work is commencing on the LÉ Niamh project.

The multirole vessel project is an important developmental project and indicative of the Government's commitment to ongoing investment and development of defence capabilities. The project is included in the national development plan as a major capital project and is an important element of the defence equipment development plan. A joint civil-military project team has been appointed to manage this project. Work to date has focused on the pretender concept of operations stage and preparing a detailed specification of capability requirements for a tender competition. In addition, a competition is under way to appoint a marine adviser to support the procurement of a multirole vessel. This process should be finalised within the coming weeks. It is the intention that the new vessel will be able to contribute across a number of defence roles, with a design specification capable of providing a flexible and adaptive capacity for a wide range of tasks, both at home and overseas. It is planned that it will be enabled for helicopter operations and will have a freight-carrying capacity.

It is intended to hold a public tender competition in due course to cover the supply of the multirole vessel, subject to availability of funding within the overall defence capital funding envelope. As this project is at pretender stage, the Senator will appreciate that it would be inappropriate to comment further on the design and capabilities of the ship.

With regard to the European Commission's assessment that Ireland's fisheries protection capabilities are "unsatisfactory", while it is acknowledged that there is room for improvement in respect of Ireland's sea fisheries protection, the Minister is satisfied that the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority and Naval Service continue to actively engage with the Commission and EU partners on matters related to the Common Fisheries Policy. During 2020, the Naval Service carried out 781 fishery patrol days. Up to 31 May 2021, the Naval Service had carried out 338 fishery patrol days.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I am conscious that the Minister of State is taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney. I thank the Minister, through the Minister of State, for his very comprehensive response. That is his style and the way he operates. I like that he accepts there were shortcomings. He refers to the European Commission's audit and subsequent administration inquiry, which identified there were severe and significant weakness in the Irish control system. This is a Minister who is prepared to face up to the problems and challenges and to seek to address them.

I thank the Minister for the very comprehensive reply in which he has addressed a number of issues relating to the humanitarian work of the Naval Service, which is critically important. In the remaining time, I thank the Naval Service and the Minister for the work that has been done in the Mediterranean in the past and I hope it will be done again in the future. It is important that we are involved and support this service, which is critically important, both for fisheries and for the forces themselves.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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The Government acknowledges the challenges in the Naval Service in terms of recruitment and retention and the impact this has on planned fishery protection patrol days at present. The Minister's focus is on returning the Naval Service to its full capacity. The acquisition of 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 capabilities of the Naval Service, as the State's principal sea-going agency, are maintained to the greatest extent. Projects for the replacement of other vessels will be considered over the lifetime of the White Paper in the context of overall capability development and funding along with the overall equipment planning process.

In addition, it should be noted that the programme for Government contains a commitment to an independent commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the Defence Forces. The commission commenced its work in December 2020 and is due to report in December 2021. As part of its terms of reference, the commission is looking at the structure and size of the Defence Forces, encompassing military capability structuring and staffing.

Sitting suspended at 11.26 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.