Amid unspeakable horror, our navy has been a beacon of moral courage and real humanity
After five years of war, it's far too easy for the daily tragedies and atrocities in Syria and in the seas off Libya to be parked out of sight and out of mind. This week, however, the scale of the endgame in the Syrian war loomed large on our TV screens with reports as Syrian and Russian forces closed in on the remaining opposition forces in eastern Aleppo. With tens of thousands of unfortunate civilians trapped in the crossfire, their prospects for survival are bleak and there are UN warnings of massacres and war crimes on all sides.
This is a war without victories and with inhumanity and casualties beyond comprehension. Those who stayed are being bombed, while the millions who fled in search of safety are dispersed far and wide across neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Then they are herded by smugglers into leaky boats at considerable expense; thousands have drowned in the seas. Thousands of others have mercifully been picked up by rescue missions, including by Irish Defence Forces, and brought to the relative safety of Europe. Once in Europe, there has been confusion, bureaucracy and pass the parcel as countries decide how to manage the arrival of so many so quickly.
We in Ireland have been at times dismayed by the inadequacy of the EU's official response to this mass migration challenge. Our own Government promised in September 2015 to take our share of an allocation of Syrian refugees stated to be 4,000. Because of inefficiencies in Greece and Italy in managing and registering the refugees for onward relocation, only a fraction pledged to be accepted by receiving countries like Ireland have materialised.
But finally this week it appears that the Irish Government is accelerating its response at political and official level. Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Children's Minister Katherine Zappone both travelled to Greece this week, which injected some impetus into the process. It was reassuring that the ministers were there to explain the reality of the situation and the process which was under way, including assessing the families suitable to come to Ireland and the plans which need to be put in place here to receive them.
This week too was an opportunity to acknowledge the related work being done by the Irish defence and naval forces, Óglaigh na hÉireann, for their contribution to international peacekeeping and humanitarian work. For the last two years in particular they have been involved in the search and rescue missions of migrants in the Mediterranean.
On Monday, the Taoiseach presented the award for European of the Year 2016 to Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces Vice Admiral Mark Mellett.
Describing Óglaigh na hÉireann as the "lynchpin of our democracy" since the foundation of the State, Enda Kenny also noted that since 1958 they have had a continuous presence on peace support operations. Currently the Defence Forces have personnel deployed on 15 missions in 14 countries worldwide. There are ongoing UN-mandated peacekeeping missions in Lebanon and Syria; EU missions in Mali and Bosnia-Herzegovina; completed missions in Chad, East Timor, Liberia and Somalia. They also have assisted the international effort in Sierra Leone to fight the Ebola disease in 2015.
Our peacekeepers are highly regarded internationally for their professionalism and impartiality. Irish troops, because of Ireland's non-aligned military status, are viewed as even-handed professionals and have enhanced Ireland's international reputation.
On April 19, 2015, 800 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean in one day, causing international revulsion. There have been six humanitarian missions by the Irish Naval Service to the Mediterranean over the last 19 months as part of the EU's Operation Pontus which commenced following that tragedy. The voyage from Cork takes seven days. Once in the Mediterranean, the pace of work is intensive, rescuing men, women and children from the sea, administering basic medical treatment and food and delivering those rescued to Italy for processing.
The numbers saved by our naval service are extraordinary. Over 15,000 people have been rescued in the five subsequent missions in the international waters off Libya. Smugglers use ramshackle unseaworthy boats which have no hope of sustaining a long voyage. Some now claim that the EU rescue missions are acting as a 'pull factor' for the smugglers who continue to send unfortunate migrants off in flimsy boats knowing they will be rescued.
The problem is only some are in fact rescued and unknown numbers of migrants have drowned or starved in these seas. Most of those rescued are male. LÉ Samuel Beckett has rescued 2,584 men, 454 women and 64 children.
The Irish naval personnel, men and women, are highly trained and physically tough. The emotional toll of dealing with such life-threatening episodes is demanding. In the round, however, it is considered hugely rewarding.
Their job is not to ruminate on the politics of migration which fuels media and political discourse. They are there to do a humanitarian mission and save lives.
An RTÉ documentary this week entitled 'The Crossing' was an insight into the appalling experiences of migrants as they make the dangerous journey to reach the safety of Europe. It also showed the courage and resilience of the Irish naval personnel in the discharge of their duties. To see young Irish officers struggle to resuscitate half-drowned young migrants including heavily pregnant women was shocking. One could only be enormously proud of these young men and women acting in our name in very distressing circumstances.
The 1916 centenary celebrations provided a memorable domestic stage for Óglaigh na hÉireann and they rose to the challenge of marking the rising and related events with impressive dignity. They played a lead role in the events to "remember respect and reimagine 1916".
Chief of Staff Mark Mellett, accepting the European of the Year award on their behalf, spoke in glowing terms of the "physical and moral courage" which informs their performance in defending the State and civic society. He also acknowledged the 87 men and women who have died on overseas missions.
It has been overall a difficult year in public affairs. At a time of political shifts, shocks and discord, there is something uniquely reassuring about the unwavering loyalty of Óglaigh na hÉireann to the State and our democratic institutions.