'This is not easy work but it is vital work' - Acting Minister pays tribute to sailors and medics travelling to deal with migrant crisis
Defence Minister Simon Coveney admitted he expects Irish sailors and medics to face "deeply harrowing" scenes in the Mediterranean as more than one million migrants are set to try to reach Europe this year.
Mr Coveney was speaking as he inspected LE Roisin at Haulbowline Naval Base as the patrol ship became the fourth to be deployed to the Mediterranean to assist with migrant rescues off the north African coast.
Two further Irish vessels will be deployed later this year.
LE Roisin under Lt Cdr Ultan Finegan and with an operational crew of 57 sailed from Haulbowline at 12 noon today bound for Malta.
There are three female crew.
The patrol vessel boasts an all-volunteer crew which includes three medics, Able Seaman Stefan Cornu from Waterford, Cpl John Campbell from Mullingar and Private Graham Whittaker from Athlone.
Two of those on board served on migrant rescue missions last year, Cdr Ken Minihan and Sub Lt David McKenna
The Irish ship will once again operate under the direction of the Italian Coastguard.
EU chiefs admitted that migrant numbers this year are 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 this year.
With Turkey now cracking down on migrant movements under a new deal with the EU, there are mounting concerns the more dangerous north African route will become main entry point to Europe.
Acting Defence Minister Simon Coveney said EU's deal with Turkey on migration is akin to putting a sticking plaster on a major wound.
"I am very concerned about that. I am not comfortable with the arrangement we have in place with Turkey. This is really a bandage rather than a permanent solution to try and slow down this extraordinary mass movement of people."
"There are 164,000 people have tried to cross the Mediterranean already this year from January to the end of March."
"We are trying to stem that flow and get some management on it. But the EU should not be out-sourcing this problem to Turkey."
"I think we are likely to see as many people trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya towards Italy as we saw last year."
"We knew last year there were about 800,000 people, most of them families, on the shoreline of Libya waiting for traffickers to put them into boats that are not seaworthy."
"That is almost the population of Munster and, if anything, that number has probably increased."
“Ireland can be very proud of the work done in the Mediterranean last year 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.”
"This is not easy work but it is vital work. It will not solve the migration crisis but it will save lives."
"But everyone appreciates that this will be harrowing work over the next few weeks," he said.
Three navy ships – LE Eithne, LE Niamh and LE Samuel Beckett – rescued almost 9,000 migrants since the first vessel deployed in May 2015.
LE Niamh alone rescued more than 4,100 migrants and recovered 39 bodies as its deployment coincided with the most intense migration movements.
Le Samuel Beckett, which returned to Ireland on December 17 as the Irish mission was suspended for the winter, successfully rescued 1,088 migrants off the north African coast.
A total of 39 bodies were also recovered.
The Naval Service’s ability to undertake such missions has been dramatically enhanced by investment in the eight-strong fleet since 1999.
Four new vessels have been delivered over the past 16 years and a fifth (LE William Butler Yeats) is due for delivery later this year.
That ship concludes a three vessel order with a UK shipyard though the contractors are eager to offer Ireland follow-on vessels built to the same design and specifications.
By next December, five of the eight-strong fleet will be 17 years old or younger.