Concern as Cabinet approves Irish Navy role in EU military operation

Dáil to debate motion on Defence Forces joining operation to neutralise migrant routes

 Migrants disembark a boat after they were rescued by Libyan coastguard in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast, in Guarabouli, east Tripoli, Libya, on July 8th. Photograph: EPA/Stringer

Migrants disembark a boat after they were rescued by Libyan coastguard in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast, in Guarabouli, east Tripoli, Libya, on July 8th. Photograph: EPA/Stringer


Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has expressed concern about Ireland’s participation in the EU’s military operation to neutralise migrant routes in the Mediterranean.

The international non-governmental organisation says a shift by the Naval Service from saving lives at sea to the “military focused” EU operation may “weaken dedicated search and rescue capacity”.

Cabinet approval for Naval Service transition to the EU’s Operation Sophia was secured by Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe on Tuesday, and a motion is to be put to the Dáil on Wednesday. Fianna Fáil is expected to support the motion, with Sinn Féin and Solidarity set to oppose it.

Labour’s defence spokesman Brendan Ryan said he would be raising the concerns flagged by MSF and asking that the Naval Service play no part in training Libyan troops in a way that could lead to “maltreatment and torture of refugees and migrants”.

The Dáil’s approval is part of the “triple lock” mechanism, involving UN and Government approval, for Defence Forces’ participation overseas. If approved, it would be the Naval Service’s first multinational mission.

The patrol ship WB Yeats is due to sail on Friday to replace the LE Eithne under the existing bilateral arrangement with Italy, but could switch to Operation Sophia relatively quickly. Italy participates in and holds the senior command position in the EU operation off Libya, and Defence Forces personnel may be seconded to its headquarters.

Save lives

MSF Ireland director Sam Taylor said Operation Sophia did not have a mandate to save lives, but its participants “respond when confronted with a given situation”.

He said MSF, which has assisted and rescued more than 40,000 people in the Mediterranean since 2015, believes that “any change in Ireland’s mission should not divert capacity, assets and resources away from the badly stretched and much-needed search and rescue response”.

“Ireland made the decision to provide humanitarian assistance in the Mediterranean Sea, committing its naval assets to save lives,” he said. “This commitment could be replicated by other states, not turned into a military operation. If there was a proactive EU-led system of search and rescue, NGOs would not be needed.”

Mr Taylor said 2,297 people have died in the Mediterranean so far this year with 40 drowning last weekend while attempting to get to Europe.

A Sinn Féin spokesman described Operation Sophia as “a military response to a humanitarian problem” which “responds to the symptoms, not the causes of the refugee and humanitarian crisis”.

Sinn Féin said it fully supported the Naval Service in current humanitarian search and rescue efforts, but was opposed to its military involvement.

Naval Service patrol ships have rescued almost 16,000 people from the Mediterranean since 2015, when Ireland became involved in Operation Pontus, a bilateral arrangement with the Italian government.

Step up involvement

However, it has been keen for some time to step up involvement as part of the EU’s Operation Sophia, which was initiated in June 2015 with a core mandate of identifying, capturing and disposing of vessels used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers.

Operation Sophia’s long-term plan is to build good relations with the Libyan administration which would then lead to an invitation to pursue smugglers in Libyan waters and on land – using amphibious vessels.

The EU military action at sea was criticised as a “mission impossible” by a British Parliament sub-committee last year, which called on the EU to create a wider strategy to address the root causes of irregular migration to Europe.

Difficulties posed for refugees in taking legal routes, such as applying for resettlement through the UN High Commission for Refugees, were also highlighted at the British parliamentary hearing.

It heard evidence that those migrants who had experienced assault, torture and rape en route to Libya regarded trafficking by sea as the “less extreme” option.

A spokeswoman for Mr Kehoe says the decision to participate comes on the advice and recommendation of the Defence Forces General Staff .

Mr Kehoe’s spokeswoman said that participation would “give the Naval Service access to a wider range of information and intelligence”.