Giovanni Parente profile
Despite a boost from participation in humanitarian operations, the Irish Naval Service has suffered an ongoing exodus of personnel, writes Giovanni Parente, PhD scholar in the Centre for Military History and Strategic Studies and an Irish Research Council awardee.

The Irish Naval Service is experiencing an unexpected sort of renaissance. Historically, the Naval Service took care of fisheries' protection, but was deployed 11 times from 2015 to 2018 in humanitarian missions; Operation Pontus, bilaterally with the Italians, and the European Union's Operation Sophia. The participation in these two missions has had implications on the number of serving personnel in the last eight years.

Since January 1, 2024 Irish Naval Service personnel have received a considerable increase in their patrol duty allowances. The Tánaiste and Minister for Defence, Mícheál Martin, announced last November that the subsidies were going to double after the tenth day of patrolling, and serving personnel to receive over €20,000 more than in 2023. This plan has a broad economic impact and a potential benefit in answering an ongoing problem in the Defence Forces related to the retention of military personnel - those who voluntarily choose to stay in the military after their obligatory term of service ends.

In the last decade, it was noted that participation in humanitarian maritime operations promoted recruitment, given extensive publicity of the missions. However, one reason the naval personnel were forced to leave the organisation was the cuts to their salaries. The Naval Service is meant to have a personnel of 1,094, but at the end of June 2023 had just 755 serving personnel.

At the end of 2014, then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney, and Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, agreed to Ireland's bilateral cooperation in the Operation Pontus humanitarian mission. This meant Ireland's Naval Service participated in its first-ever overseas mission in the Central Mediterranean.

In May 2015, the first ship, LÉ Eithne, left Ireland to sail to the Mediterranean. Subsequently, there were seven other Irish deployments in the mission: LÉ Eithne and LÉ Beckett twice, LÉ Niamh, LÉ Róisín, LÉ Joyce and LÉ Yeats. On their return, the naval personnel were awarded the International Operation Service Medal, an unusual circumstance for the Naval Service, and RTÉ's The Crossing documentary highlighed the value of this humanitarian mission.

Irish participation in Pontus lasted until 2017. In the following years, the Naval Service participated in the European Union's humanitarian Operation Sophia, their first-ever mission supporting the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy. LÉ Niamh left the naval base of Haulbowline in October 2017 and, in eleven weeks, rescued 613 migrants.

In 2018, LÉ Beckett and Joyce were also sent to the Mediterranean for eight consecutive months. LÉ Beckett saved 106 migrants, while LÉ Joyce was not tasked with the primary task by Sophia's force Commander.

On the one hand, the positive deployments in the Mediterranean brought renewed interest in the Naval Service. There was an unexpected rate of enlisted personnel at both seaman and cadet levels, from 1,057 in 2014 to 1,094 in 2016. But despite the recognised merits, the retention crisis affecting the Defence Forces, particularly the Naval Service, hasn't ended since 2008 when the financial instability began.

Like the rest of the public sector, the Defence Forces has suffered from a reduction in pay rates. Salaries of enlisted naval personnel and officers were reduced by 7.5% and 10% from January 2010. Similarly, those enlisted saw their pay rates decrease by 10%. From 2013 to 2018, most personnel had their salaries reduced between 5.5 and 8% and had their allowances cut by 10%.

The retention crisis was regarded as an "exodus of personnel" from the public to the private sector. The percentage of naval personnel exiting the organisation has increased since the Naval Service stopped its operational participation in Pontus, with a negative record of 14% in 2019. In 2022, an entire class of electricians left the military service to join a private company in Cork through a "discharge by purchase" procedure.

It appears that financial restrictions on serving personnel have often reduced the daily maritime operations, so much so that in the second half of 2023, the Naval Service could deploy only two vessels, LÉ Beckett and LÉ Yeats. This negative trend of considering the Defence Forces as "a cost centre" ended with the recent announcement of doubling the allowances. The current recruitment campaign, "Be More", is regarded as an "overarching priority" of the Government. These salary increases demonstrated the proactive response by the executive in making a radical change to stop the retention crisis.

In the contemporary outlook of conflicts in Europe and the world, the example of the Irish policy of neutrality, considering this proposal to expand the recruitment of military personnel and fair economic recognition, means strengthening the idea of non-belligerence by supporting the thesis that the real victory is that which is fought for peace.

Main image credit: Brian Clayton via Wikimedia Commons

This piece originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm