Early in May, it emerged that the state had to depend on an EU agency to assist in patrolling its fishing waters for the first time this year. This was due to a staffing shortage in the Navy, which further exacerbates Ireland’s problems in maintaining its defence responsibilities.
The Irish Navy's ships, worth millions of Euro, are lying idle in ports. In total, the Navy has 800 staff. When training non-seafaring personal, and those who need to complete their training for sea/shore rotation, the Navy lacks the personnel required to operate the vessels - leaving the Navy with the inability to operate ships and engage in operations at sea. Out of nine vessels at the Navy’s disposal, five are currently in operation.
The military in Ireland currently has a retention issue which leaves with it a considerable skills gap. In 2016 there were 44 vacancies for the rank of sergeant, and this number has risen to 155 as of 2021. Several corporals will have to be ranked up to fill these vacancies, leaving a number of corporal positions empty. Two hundred sixty-seven vacancies are open across the defence forces.
During an Oireachtas committee PDForra (the association representing more than 6,500 enlisted personnel), general secretary Gerard Guinan expressed his unfavourable outlook on establishing a permanent pay review body for military personnel. Instead, he argued that it PDForra would be better off if it was allowed to affiliate with the Irish Congress of trade unions. Mr Guinan went on to highlight more of the starting issues within the defence forces highlighting the naval strength of 800 staff but lacking operational capabilities.
The army has also highlighted the issue of vacancies for non-commissioned officers. Many of these vacancies are in technical positions that, in the normal course of events, would take years of training to backfill completely. While many from the lower ranks would be ranked up to fill these positions, Mr Guinan predicted there would be in excess of 650 vacancies at the corporal level if all sergeant vacancies were filled.
The defence forces have faced longstanding issues related to low pay and long hours, which in turn has contributed to an insufficient retention rate among staffing, leaving Irish Defence Forces below operational levels. Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Tadhg McCarthy stated he left the Navy as an engine room artificer after 24 years because there was no work-life balance. While Mr McCarthy at the time of the interview remains unemployed, many like him have been snapped up by the private sector because their skills are in such high demand.
As Mr McCarthy pointed out, many of his former colleagues were headhunted and pursued by the private sector. This further highlights the problem of Irish Defence Forces being outbid by the private sector. They are underpaying their staff, and their work hours are longer where the pay does not match up with these hours.
It was also highlighted that around 20 years ago, productivity levels were put at the forefront. Instead of focusing on personnel, the Navy would try to operate more ships. Mr McCarthy and many others believe that the pursuit of efficiency over adequate personnel has led to the current situation. Still, the lack of maximum personnel efficiency has been reached. Therefore, there has been a loss of productivity and an economic loss on the government's hand because of the lack of members in the defence force and unused equipment.
The flagship of the fleet, LÉ Eithne, is scheduled to be also replaced at the cost of around €200 million. The Department of Defence identified in a white paper in 2015 that the ageing vessel needed to be replaced. Currently, the Department of Defence has gone to tender.
On the international front, Major General Maureen O'Brien is the state’s military adviser to the UN secretary-general. Her appointment to the role in New York makes her the first female major general in the defence forces, taking her role as a senior peacekeeper within the UN. On occasion, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney, on occasion, remarked that the recruitment pace of women being recruited into the defence forces is too slow. Just 7% of staff are women. While the political aim to recruit more women may appeal to diversity and equality, the pay scale leaves a recruitment wall for the defence forces.
Most recently, Ireland's national health service, the HSE, suffered a cyberattack, and it has come to light that the position of Director for Cybersecurity in Ireland is vacant. Recently, TDs during another committee were told that the salary for the director of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) is €89,000 is below private sector offerings and, when compared with other Government departmental roles, is drastically low. The committee heard suggestions that wages between €220,000 and €290,000 would be more appropriate for the role. Furthermore, it was highlighted the current budget of €5.1 million would need to be increased significantly.
Writing in the Mayo News, Vice-Admiral Mark Mellet said that there needs to be an increase in spending in defence, citing Ireland's low spend comparatively to European neighbours. Vice-Admiral Mellet went on to quote Byzantine Emperor Maurice “A nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.”
In the meantime, the Department of Defence has outlined future cooperation with NATO and Europe. Irish defensive systems and operational capabilities are below requirements, leaving Ireland vulnerable as the recent HSE cyber-attack has exploited the hole in Ireland's ability to defend itself and its citizens.