Navy eyes bigger role in fight on trafficking
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.
Defence Minister Paul Kehoe is carrying out a review of the part being played by the Naval Service in rescuing the migrants.
He is also seriously considering a proposal that the Irish should switch from its existing deployment with the largely humanitarian-focused Operation Pontus to Operation Sophia, which is the EU's mission to prevent illegal trafficking in the Mediterranean. That review has been under way for the past couple of months but is thought to be close to a conclusion.
The Naval Service flagship LÉ Eithne first deployed to the Mediterranean in May 2015. Since then, five Naval vessels, including LÉ Niamh, LÉ Samuel Beckett, LÉ Róisín and LÉ 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 nine to 12 weeks.
Since deploying with Pontus, the Naval Service crews have rescued a total of 16,808 people. The LÉ Eithne returned to the Mediterranean 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 in the overseas mission, senior Naval Service officers believe Ireland could benefit even more by taking part in Sophia.
This mission is mandated to disrupt the people smuggling and trafficking operations.
It contributes to information exchange and the implementation of the United Nations' arms embargo, and supports building up the capacity of the Libyan coastguard and navy.
It also identifies, captures and disposes of vessels and other assets used, or suspected of being used, by migrant smugglers or traffickers, and disrupts the criminal gangs by countering their activities, preventing further loss of life at sea and reducing the suffering and exploitation of migrants.
A decision to allow the Naval Service to take part in Sophia is subject, as in most overseas missions, to the triple-lock mechanism, which means UN, Government and Dáil 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 LÉ Eithne currently has 70 naval personnel on board, along with two medics from the Army and Air Corps.