Tuesday 27 September 2016

Brave Irish Navy sailors left exposed by solo rescue missions in the Med

Eoghan Ó Neachtáin

Published 08/07/2016 | 02:30

The LÉ Róisín is the fourth Naval Service ship to be deploy in the Mediterranean since the humanitarian crisis began Picture: Collins
The LÉ Róisín is the fourth Naval Service ship to be deploy in the Mediterranean since the humanitarian crisis began Picture: Collins

LÉ Róisín, is currently preparing to end her 12-week patrolling off the Libyan coast as part of the Government's response to the migrant crisis and will be replaced by the LÉ James Joyce operating to the same humanitarian mandate.

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The LÉ Róisín is the fourth Naval Service ship to be deploy in the Mediterranean since the humanitarian crisis began. These ships have rescued nearly 10,000 migrants.

Operation Pontus, which despatched our navy to the Mediterranean, has been a success in terms of its humanitarian aims. It has also brought credit to our Defence Forces and highlighted their courage and their skills in planning, logistics and crisis management. Nevertheless, the time has come to re-evaluate the nature of this deployment in light of recent developments in Europe.

Operation Pontus is a single-ship mission conducted in close co-operation with the Italian Navy, whose ships are deployed as part of Operation Mare Sicuro, an Italian national effort to deal with the migrant route between Libya and Sicily. Irish ships are permitted to land rescued persons into Italian ports because of an agreement concluded between the Irish and Italian governments. However, the fact remains that the Naval Service is operating solo and is not a part of an overall solution.

Simultaneously, there is a common European response to the crisis called EU Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED). The total number of European countries contributing to this effort now stands at 24. Headquartered in Rome, its flagship is the Italian light aircraft carrier ITS Garibaldi. This multinational mission is operating in the same area as both the Italian Mare Sicuro mission and as our Naval Service.

However, the EU mission has a significantly more robust mandate. It is charged with intelligence gathering, the disruption of people smugglers, the training of the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard and the upholding of the recent UN Security Council Resolution 2292, which deals with the humanitarian situation in Libya.

Right now, neither the EU, the Irish or the Italian mission are authorised to enter Libyan territorial waters. However, the sea area in which they are operating is highly volatile and all of the naval ships, including the Irish, take serious precautions. Threats exist from the various factions in the struggle for power within Libya, and from Isil.

The risks prompt the question why the Irish response is not part of the overall EU response?

The multinational nature of EUNAVFOR MED has a UN mandate of which other neutral countries like Sweden and Finland are part. This is an environment in which our Defence Forces are already comfortable operating in. Since its earliest deployments to the Congo, our Army has always shown itself to be a capable and, when necessary, robust force in troubled international environments. So why is the Naval Service treated differently?

Our Naval Service frequently exercises with other navies. It has shown itself to be interoperable and highly efficient. It has a history of arms interdiction and has also proved to be adept at drugs and contraband interception over many years.

Put simply, our Naval Service is up to the job. Such a deployment would be in keeping with the recent 'White Paper on Defence', which is expansionary in nature and envisages such deployments with the appropriate UN mandates and with the Triple Lock approval.

Reassigning the Naval Service ship from its solo mission to one along the lines of our UN troop contributions would be a practical step and enhance Ireland's effort to international security. This step would also be well advised given the continuing instability in the area. As things currently stand, the Irish ship does not receive real-time intelligence from EUNAVFOR MED. To be fair, the Irish ship receives co-operation, but is not entitled to the support that comes with membership of a multinational force.

Ireland is currently outside the collective European maritime response to the migrant crisis and therefore the Naval Service risks becoming isolated. The UK contributes a ship but this may be reconsidered in light of recent political developments. Even Austria, a country without a coastline, has contributed personnel to the EUNAVFOR MED mission.

It would be better for the Naval Service and our wider national interest, for Ireland also to participate.

Eoghan Ó Neachtáin is a former officer in the Irish Defence Forces. He served as Government Press Secretary to three Taoisigh.

Irish Independent

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