Thursday 23 November 2017

LE Eithne to depart for Mediterranean rescue mission on Tuesday

The LE Eithne as seen by the Air Corps during the annual Naval Exercise. Photo: Irish Defence Force/Flickr
The LE Eithne as seen by the Air Corps during the annual Naval Exercise. Photo: Irish Defence Force/Flickr
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

THE NAVAL Service will deploy patrol vessels for a third summer of humanitarian operations in the Mediterranean.

The Naval Service flagship, LE Eithne, has been assigned to begin the rotation of three ships in the Mediterranean on rescue operations for migrants attempting to reach Europe from North Africa.

It had been expected that the 33 year old vessel would depart Haulbowline Naval Base in Cork on May 1 but that departure was rescheduled pending final Government approval and will depart tomorrow.

Defence Minister Paul Kehoe will wish the vessel and 72-strong crew under Captain Brian Fitzgerald well as they depart Haulbowline Naval Base at 11am.

The first deployment under Operation Pontus 2017 will last for three months with two further Naval Service patrol vessels expected to be deployed until next November.

Ireland first dispatched Naval Service vessels to the region in 2015 amid concerns over the number of migrants drowning in the

Mediterranean after leaving North Africa, in particular the Libyan coast, on flimsy inflatable craft.

The inflatable craft were totally unsuited to the journey and were almost always dangerously overloaded by ruthless people smugglers.

Hundreds of migrants have drowned as a result.

LE Eithne completed a previous deployment to the Mediterranean alongside other Irish patrol vessels including LE James Joyce, LE Samuel Beckett and LE James Joyce.

Irish crews work under the direction of the Italian Navy and Coastguard.

Refugees that are rescued are usually brought to ports in Sicily.

The Irish ships use Malta as an operational base.

Irish personnel rescued 15,623 refugees last year after a three ship deployment which began in May.

That followed a similar three ship deployment in 2015.

Defence Forces chief of staff, Vice-Admiral Mark Mellet, stressed earlier this year that the deployments have been marked by the professionalism and dedication of navy personnel.

“It was a very difficult mission but it was carried out with great skill and professionalism,” he said.

EU chiefs admitted that migrant numbers last year were always expected to far exceed 2015 levels.

Some estimate that more than one million people - most from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan - will attempt to enter Europe in 2017.

Housing Minister and Cork TD Simon Coveney said the Naval Service has undertaken remarkable humanitarian work.

“Ireland can be very proud of the work done in the Mediterranean by Naval Service personnel,” he said.

“I believe that we should continue to support Italy in a practical manner as far as possible and the Italian authorities have indicated that ongoing support is welcome.”

The Naval Service’s ability to undertake such missions has been dramatically enhanced by investment in the eight-strong fleet since 1999.

Five new vessels have been delivered over the past 18 years.

LÉ William Butler Yeats, delivered last year, concluded a three vessel order with UK shipyard Babcock Marine.

However, the contractors have secured an order for a fourth vessel to a similar design.

Five vessels of the Naval Service’s eight-strong fleet are now 18 years old or newer.

The Government is examining the requirements of the White Paper on Defence which commits Ireland to replacing the three oldest vessels LE Eithne, LE Orla and LE Ciara which have been in service for 33 and 29 years respectively.

LE Eithne, the fleet flagship which has a displacement of 1,960 tonnes, is the oldest having been commissioned in 1984.

LE Orla and LE Ciara both date from 1988 but are less than one third the size of LE Eithne with a displacement of just over 700 tonnes.

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