Tuesday 19 November 2019

It is no time for heel-dragging - lives are waiting to be saved

Our naval service is ready and waiting to assist in alleviating the humanitarian crisis occuring in the Mediterranean, says Eoghan O Neachtain

A rescuer carries an injured child as migrants disembark from military ship
A rescuer carries an injured child as migrants disembark from military ship "Bettica" following a rescue operation at sea on May 5, 2015 in the port of Salerno, southern Italy

Eoghan O Neachtain

Edmund Burke, the famous 18th-century Irish statesman, once mused that "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing". That quote should be very much to the forefront of our consciousness in considering the Mediterranean migrant crisis.

Over the past number of weeks, we have witnessed thousands of migrants departing Africa's Northern coast in grossly inadequate and overloaded vessels in desperate and perilous attempts to reach the European coast. Nobody should doubt that this is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. Those who wish to avert their eyes or are prepared to sit on their hands while reports come through of thousands of impoverished people drowning at sea are guilty of a callous disregard that dehumanises all of us.

Thankfully, the international press is beginning to give this human tragedy the attention it deserves. Ignorance, indifference and a lack of preparation meant that many lives were needlessly lost because there was only a limited number of European navies and coastguards, mainly Italian, to come to the rescue of desperate people fleeing war, poverty and oppression.

This crisis is not taking place anywhere near Ireland's territorial seas, but it is to the great credit of our Taoiseach and our Government that Ireland has chosen not to stand idly by and do nothing, as the lives of tens of thousands of people are endangered.

At a European Council Extraordinary Meeting on April 23, Enda Kenny announced that Ireland would send a top-range naval vessel to assist in the humanitarian effort, subject to certain legal clarifications. Preparations immediately commenced and today the LE Eithne is fully crewed and ready to sail from Haulbowline to offer assistance in this humanitarian crisis.

As the crisis is outside our jurisdiction, international law means officials from the Departments of Defence, Justice and Foreign Affairs must agree a memorandum of understanding with the Maltese and Italian authorities regarding the exact nature and conduct of Ireland's humanitarian response.

As soon as this agreement is concluded, the LE Eithne will set sail and our navy will be able to play a full part in this very necessary migrant aid operation.

The Irish naval service is vastly experienced in this type of large-scale search-and-rescue missions. Tragic occurrences, such as the loss of the Aer Lingus Viscount in 1966, the Fastnet Yacht Race disaster in 1979 and the Air India crash in 1985, have tested our Navy in the past and have created a collective know-how that will serve our sailors well in the Mediterranean.

As well as the experience garnered from these large-scale, high-profile international operations, it is worth noting that, often out of sight and mind of the majority of Irish citizens, our naval services participate in countless smaller-scale search-and-rescue operations in the harsh and unforgiving waters of the North Atlantic.

All of this skill and expertise will now be brought to bear to help those escaping from persecution and conflict in North Africa.

While the area of operation of this particular mission in Mediterranean waters will be new to the naval service, the humanitarian aspect will be all too familiar to naval personnel and the mission is well within their capability. We can all be proud that the ranks of our national naval service is filled with brave men and women with vast experience of large-scale international humanitarian interventions, often carried out at the behest of international organisations and also Irish NGOs.

Flying the Irish flag in international waters won't present a challenge or be a novelty to the naval service. In recent years, as part of various diplomatic missions, our naval service has proudly sailed as far east as Tokyo, as far west as Panama, north to Reykjavik and south to Cape Horn.

On this particular deployment, our Navy's actions will be a manifestation of our nation's proud tradition of responding in a positive and helpful manner to the plight of others less fortunate than ourselves.

Ireland has always been willing to play an active and noble part when confronted by humanitarian disaster. The deployment of LE Eithne and its professional crew in the Mediterranean is a further tangible international demonstration of this small nation's endeavourers to promote international peace and stability. Since the 1950s, our armed forces have showcased this positive element of our foreign policy with pride across the globe, often but not exclusively under the banner of United Nations peacekeeping endeavourers.

The challenges immediately ahead are as much political as nautical. Our naval service is more than up to its end of the bargain, but the real question is "Can officialdom step up to the plate?". While LE Eithne remains in Haulbowline, a full seven days' sailing from the "drowning waters" of the southern Mediterranean, more and more unfortunate migrants are losing their lives. The Taoiseach showed great compassion in offering an Irish naval vessel to assist in this humanitarian crisis, but the wheels of bureaucracy are grinding slowly.

It is high-time for the memorandum of understanding to be concluded. The naval service needs to be allowed to do its job. And, most importantly, lives need to be saved.

As an island nation, our relationship with the sea has been hugely varied, but our empathy for the plight of migrants at sea should be unequivocal.

Eoghan O Neachtain is a former government press secretary. He was also a Commandant in the Irish Defence Forces and was its official spokesman

Sunday Independent

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