Searing heat a big challenge for Irish Navy in Med mission to prevent weapon smuggling

Crew of the LÉ William Butler Yeats endures near record-breaking temperatures as part of EU mission to enforce an arms blockade on Libya

Despite a month of patrolling the north African coast in near record-breaking temperatures, there are few tans among the crew of the LÉ William Butler Yeats.

In fact, the 57 sailors look almost as pale as when they sailed out from Naval Service Headquarters in Haulbowline, Co Cork on June 15th to take part in Operation Irini, an EU mission to enforce an arms embargo on Libya. The ship’s captain, Lieut Cdr Alan Flynn, says sailors are not allowed to work on deck at 11am-2pm.

“It doesn’t suit the pale Irish skin at all,” says Flynn of the stifling heat.

During the midday break the sailors are allowed do their own thing. That can be catching up on personnel administration, working out in the ship’s gym or having a nap, he says.


The heatwave, which has been causing devastation across southern Europe this month, has affected the mission in other ways.

On occasion electrical systems have to be shut down to prevent overheating. The engines, which powers the ship’s cooling systems, have held up well, the captain says, although as he speaks, engineers are carrying out repairs below.

The heatwave, named Cerberus, has been linked to climate change and the challenges faced by the crew are set to get worse for Irish overseas peacekeepers.

Irish overseas troops must “be trained and equipped to operate under more extreme climate and weather conditions”, the Commission on the Defence Forces said last year. This process has already begun; the Defence Forces is to shortly begin replacing all their uniforms with new material that can withstand “extreme, hot, dry” conditions.

Climate change is also expected to be the reason behind future overseas missions, whether they fall under an EU or UN banner.

Climate change is “a threat multiplier that catalyses water and food scarcity, pandemics and displacement”, the EU Global Strategy states. The World Economic forum has listed it as one of the main security threats over the next decade, alongside weapons of mass destruction and cyberattacks.

Irish soldiers already have some experience of this, dealing with increasingly unstable security situations exacerbated by resource scarcity in Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This is one reason the Government has committed almost 200 troops to the revamped “EU Battlegroups” system, which will serve as a crisis response force in Africa and the Middle East. There are also increased calls for a new EU migrant rescue mission in the Mediterranean as a growing number of climate refugees attempt the dangerous sea journey to southern Europe.

The Naval Service would like to play a role in this, just as it did in a previous mission, Operation Sophia, when navy personnel rescued thousands of migrants in 2015-2019.

Operation Irini, which succeeded Sophia, is not about rescuing migrants, at least not directly. Its purpose is to stop and inspect ships that may be trafficking arms to either of the two main factions now controlling Libya in the wake of the civil war that ended in 2020.

The EU logic is that this will help stabilise the country and therefore prevent future flows of uncontrolled migration over the Mediterranean. Irini is also responsible for gathering information on maritime petroleum smuggling, which is used to fund arms purchases, and human trafficking routes.

A fourth function, to train the Libyan Coast Guard, remains dormant amid serious concerns about that organisation’s human rights record in dealing with migrants. Ireland has indicated it has no interest in taking part in this training, even if it is activated.

The Yeats will rescue distressed seafarers it comes across, as it is obliged to under international maritime law, before handing them over to the Greek or Italian coast guard. But this hasn’t arisen to date, Flynn says, and it is not expected. The Yeats, and the rest of Irini’s ships, operate in a sector that is seldom used by migrants, he says.

The main job of the Yeats, which is one month into its six-week deployment, is to make what are called “friendly approaches”. On orders from the mission headquarters in Rome, a four-man team deploys in a rigid hull inflatable boat (rhib) towards a merchant vessel and climbs abroad.

Once aboard, they will informally chat with the captain and crew about their voyage and cargo. The Irish crew will then give the captain a small gift, usually a coin with the Yeats’ logo, and return to their vessel before relaying the information they gathered back to headquarters.

As the name implies, it’s a friendly affair, says Clodagh Bradshaw, leading communications operator and one of the friendly approach team.

The captain of the merchant vessel is entitled to refuse a boarding and doing so doesn’t necessarily mean they are up to no good, she says. “They completely dictate everything. If they’re not happy, if they have an ETA and we’re disturbing that they’re more than entitled to say no,” she says.

To date the Irish crew has carried out four such boardings, all without incident.

“It’s hard to tell if they’ll be welcoming but so far they all have been,” says Bradshaw.

The friendly approach is designed to differentiate Irini from other military organisations operating in the area, such as Nato’s Operation Sea Guardian, whose presence is clear from the hulking US navy expeditionary ship docked up the harbour from the Yeats.

It’s primarily about gathering intelligence from those using the sea routes, says Cdr Frank O’Connor, who helps oversee the mission from Rome. He is one of three Irish personnel based in the headquarters.

“Very often those people who are in and out of places and the people who are running the ships there, they have a lot more information than you,” he says.

Irini crews are also permitted to conduct armed boardings of non-compliant vessels to search for arms. It is an element of the mission that officials don’t like to emphasise, but one demonstrated by the various freshly greased machine guns on the side of the Yeats.

There are many steps before an armed boarding can take place. First, the mission must get the permission of the country where the ship is registered. It must then wait four hours for a reply and if the answer is no, they must withdraw.

Since Irini began in 2020, Turkey is the only country to refuse boarding permission, which it has done 10 times. Ankara has been a frequent critic of the mission, which it accuses of favouring one side in the Libyan conflict.

O’Connor points to the Irini’s two major successes, both of which occurred over a three-month period in 2022. In July an Italian boarding team found dozens of military vehicles aboard a ship registered to Equatorial Guinea that were bound for Libya. In October a Dutch flagged ship was found to be carrying a similar cargo when it was searched by an Irini team.

Two arms finds in three years of operations doesn’t sound like much. O’Connor acknowledges finding illicit shipments can be like searching for a needle in a haystack but says Irini is as much about deterrence as anything else.

“Even the presence [of Irini ships] and the friendly approaches has an effect on people and lets them know we are there and that there’s a risk there for them.”

The crew of the Yeats were in good form as they docked for resupply, repairs and rest in the Maltese capital of Valletta last week.

This is despite losing two crew members. One had to be repatriated after suffering a serious leg injury shortly after deployment. The other, a young loggerhead turtle named Cróga – meaning “brave” – was thrown (gently) overboard off the coast of Portugal. The Yeats had been tasked with returning him to warmer waters after he washed up half-dead in Mayo last February.

There have been a few other mishaps. At the start of the mission, one of the rhibs was punctured but the crew managed to repair it.

“Whatever problems we have encountered, and there have been minor issues, I have been really impressed by the manner in which the guys have responded and brought ourselves back up to operational capability,” says Flynn.

Systems have gone down for a few hours at a time but the ship hasn’t had to come off mission at any point, the captain says.

In some ways, the Irini mission offers a reprieve to the crew. Instead of patrolling for almost two weeks at a time, as they often do in Irish waters, the ship typically goes out for six days before coming into port. While docked, they usually get some shore leave. The sailors talk fondly of the Mediterranean towns they’ve visited so far: Augusta and Catania in Sicily and Souda Bay in Greece.

While on board, food plays a big role in keeping morale up.

“Today we have bacon and chorizo linguine for lunch and chicken enchiladas for dinner. We try not to repeat ourselves,” says Chef Darren Dreelling. Vegetarians and vegans are also catered for and there’s a decent stock of plant-based burgers in the freezer.

“The food is important. People are missing their families, they’re working hard and they’re a long way from home.”

While at sea, quizzes and Mario Kart tournaments are organised for the evening and Able Seaman Andrew Hennessy makes sure stores of sweets and crisps are adequately stocked (no alcohol is allowed at sea).

They also have satellite TV. The ship’s second in command Aron Nutley, from Monaghan, is looking forward in vain to his county’s semi-final appearance against Dublin that evening.

Despite the extreme heat, the calm waters of the Mediterranean pose little challenge for sailors used to the rolling waves of the north Atlantic.

“We tend to stay out in weather that may be unfavourable to other nations,” Flynn says. He recalls one recent patrol when Irini headquarters advised him to take shelter from incoming rough weather along the Italian coast. It was nothing the Yeats wasn’t used to at home and the captain opted to stay on mission.

Operating alongside larger, better equipped navies is vital for building and demonstrating skills, says Flynn, who has been deployed to the Mediterranean twice before with Sophia.

“The training and experience we’ve gotten this mission can be brought home. And those lessons can inform how we train, how we equip ourselves, how we manage our ships, and how we deploy in home waters.”

Irish sailors are more than capable of performing in co-operation with their Greek and Italian counterparts, he says.

“Ultimately, we want to step that up as much as we can to improve our capabilities and improve our standing within the naval community.”

The Yeats is due home at the end of July but Flynn believes they are more than capable of staying out a few weeks longer.

“I’ll definitely be recommending that we come back next year. Hopefully the Navy will be in a position where we can send either one ship for a little bit longer or maybe two ships for equal kinds of stints.”

Give the manpower crisis impacting the Navy, that is by no means certain. With the Yeats in the Mediterranean, the Naval Service has just three ships available to patrol the entire Irish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), an area seven times as big as Ireland’s land mass.

Two more coastal patrol boats will soon be put into service patrolling the Irish Sea but these will be unsuitable for international duty or extended times at sea.

Lieut Gen Seán Clancy, the Defence Forces Chief of Staff, visited the Yeats last week where he told the crew that he views international missions as vital to addressing the recruitment and retention crisis impacting the organisation. And with migration flows from Africa expected to continue to increase, it seems certain there will be a continued demand for Irish ships in the Mediterranean, whether as part of a rescue or stabilisation mission.

But it’s a chicken and egg situation, Clancy says. More sailors are needed to take part in international missions and more international missions are needed to recruit sailors.

The Defence Forces are going through “extremely challenging times. The numbers speak for themselves”, he says.

“But we can’t be hopeless in the sense that we are not going to try.”