Role of Naval Service crews in combating criminal gangs in Mediterranean under review
Naval Service crews may be given a bigger role in combating the criminal gangs netting huge profits from people smuggling and exploiting migrants in the Mediterranean.
Minister with responsibility for Defence, Paul Kehoe is currently carrying out a review of the part being played at present by the Naval Service in rescuing the migrants.
And he is seriously considering a proposal that the Irish should switch from its existing deployment with the largely humanitarian-focused Operation Pontus to Operation Sofia, which is the EU's mission to prevent illegal immigration in the Med.
That review has been under way for the past couple of months but is thought likely to be close to a conclusion.
The Naval Service flag ship, LE Eithne first deployed to the Med in May 2015.
Since then, five Naval vessels, including LE Niamh, LE Samuel Beckett, LE Roisin and LE James Joyce, have all taken part in Pontus.
In 2015 and 2016, there were three separate missions each year, mainly concentrated on the summer months when migrant crossings are most frequent.
Each mission usually lasts for 9 to 12 weeks.
Since deploying with Pontus, the Naval Service crews have rescued a total of 16,808 people.
The LE Eithne returned to the Med in May.
Although the performance of the crews has given a boost to all Defence Forces personnel and added to Ireland's standing as a leading contributor overseas mission, senior Naval Service officers believe Ireland could benefit even more taking part in Sophia.
This mission is mandated to:
* disrupt the people smuggling and trafficking operations in the Med
* contribute to information exchange and the implementation of the United Nations arms embargo
* support building up the capacity of the Libyan coastguard and Navy
* Identify, capture and dispose of vessels and other assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers
* disrupt the activities of the criminal gangs by countering the activities, thus preventing further loss of life at sea and reducing the suffering and exploitation of migrants.
A decision to allow the Naval Service take part in Sophia is subject, as in most overseas missions, to the triple lock mechanism, which means UN, government and Dail approval must be given before it can go ahead. Ireland would be part of a 25-state response to the migrant crisis by countering the trafficking gangs.
As part of a multi-lateral mission, the Naval Service would also benefit from access to a wider range of information and intelligence, which would enhance the security of deployed personnel and assets.
It would also help increase the professional capacity of the crews across a range of Naval skills.
The LE Eithne currently has 70 Naval personnel on board along with two medics from the Army and Air Corps.
Last October Mr Kehoe initiated a new awards scheme in which special operational medals were presented for the first time to members of the Defence Forces, who were deployed abroad on non peace support missions.
Since then, recipients have included the crews of the ships deployed in the Mediterranean.