Irish naval vessels will not be able to patrol the Mediterranean Sea to assist with the rescue of migrants, the Taoiseach has told the Dáil.

Leo Varadkar said that as three Irish naval vessels are in operational reserve or undergoing maintenance, the navy's operations will be restricted.

Confirming that the Irish Navy will not be in a position to return to the Mediterranean he said: "We will have to focus on our seas and on fishery protection and drug interdiction instead."

Responding to questions from Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, Mr Varadkar said: "Those vessels will be out of service until mid-September and late October. But with current staffing levels it is unlikely they will be brought back into service. So that means three ships will be held in operational reserve or in maintenance with the remaining six vessels fully operational.

"It does mean that some operations will be restricted, for example the naval service will not be able to return to the Mediterranean because we will have to focus on our seas and on fishery protection and drug interdiction instead."

Earlier, Ms McDonald pointed out there has been considerable controversy over the decision of the navy to dock two vessels because of personnel shortages.

She quoted Minister of State with responsibility for Defence Paul Kehoe dismissing concerns about the recruitment and detention crisis and his claims that two vessels were being docked because of "planned maintenance". 

The Sinn Féin leader questioned how the Taoiseach contradicted the Minister's comments and asked if Minister Kehoe would retract his comments and acknowledge that he was inaccurate and wrong.

Ms McDonald said the docking of the two vessels will mean less drugs seizures and there will be less of a deterrent.

She asked what the Taoiseach is going to do as Minister for Defence about the crisis in the Naval Service.

Mr Varadkar said the Government "has acknowledged for some time that the Naval Service is short-staffed and it has a compliment of 1,094 personnel and currently has just 934. So it is short-staffed and often that does not tell the full story because it is particularly short-staffed when it comes to certain specialists and technical staff."

He said the Government is restoring pay through the Public Sector Pay Agreement.

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He said that the Government signed off on a €10 million package for the Defence Forces last week which will provide for additional allowances. 

Mr Varadkar said there will also be a review of "tech pay" in the naval service, because there are people with particular technical skills such as engineers who are sought after in the private sector and "command very good salaries."

In relation to the fleet he clarified that the navy currently has nine vessels.

"At present of the nine vessels, LÉ Róisín is going through a mid-life refit and will not be available for service until the end of the year. The LÉ Eithne and LÉ Órla are going through planned maintenance as Minister Kehoe said.

"Their crews have now been deployed to other vessels so they are fully crewed and fully staffed." 

He added: "That this is important to do from a detention point of view. It said it is better to have a small number of ships fully staffed." 

Ms McDonald questioned how Minister Kehoe contradicted Commodore Michael Malone and asked if he would withdraw his remarks?

The Taoiseach said that Minister Kehoe got his information in a navy briefing at Haulbouline at the weekend.
He acknowledged again that the naval service is under-staffed.

Mr Varadkar said that rather than having the situation where staff are "spread thinly across a large number of vessels" there will be a smaller number of vessels.

He added that the Government want to see a seventh vessel put back in service before the end of the year.