Minister defends Naval Service rescue role in Mediterranean
Paul Kehoe refuses to comment on criticism of LE ‘Niamh’
An LE Eithne rescue operation in the Mediterranean in June 2015. Photograph: Irish Defence Forces
Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe said he was immensely proud of the Naval Service as the LE Eithne and its crew prepared to depart for the Mediterranean to assist in the rescue of refugees fleeing north Africa and the Middle East.
Mr Kehoe said he believed Ireland should continue to assist Italy in a practical manner in as far as possible and the Italian authorities have welcomed this support which will see the patrol vessel LE Eithne under Cmdr Brian Fitzgerald return to the Mediterranean to assist with the rescues of migrants.
“As Minister with responsibility for defence, I feel immensely proud of the crew members that are going out to the Mediterranean this morning – over the last number of years, we have seen the immense difference that the Irish Naval Service have made in rescuing migrants,” he said.
The rescue operations began in May 2015 when the LE Eithne departed for the Mediterranean and rescued some 3,377 migrants, and since then Naval Service ships have rescued a further 12,071 to give a total of some 15,448 people the Naval Service has saved in Operation Pontus.
But Mr Kehoe would not be drawn on controversy that emerged last week at the trial in Sicily of three men accused of people trafficking when the Italian authorities criticised the LE Niamh for not venturing inside Libyan territorial waters in the course of a rescue operation in August 2015.
Mr Kehoe said the Department of Defence was waiting for communications from the Italian authorities, as close co-operation with them was necessary in order to facilitate the participation of the Naval Service in the rescue operation.
“We have had regular contact with the Italian authorities and as you know, there is a process that you have to go through here and it wasn‘t until we went through the process and I was satisfied that I gave full permissions for the Naval Service to embark on this operation,” he said.
Asked if he was concerned that the presence of Naval Service ships in the Mediterranean was adding to a complex set of “pull factors” attracting migrants to risk crossing the sea to Europe, Mr Kehoe was emphatic that the presence of the ships was a positive and not a negative factor.
Number of migrants
“The people I think of when our Naval Service is travelling down to the Mediterranean are the children who risk their lives – children who don’t see much of a future while they are crossing – and I think the Irish Naval Service personnel give them hope of their dream for a future.”
Cmdr Fitzgerald said that the 72-strong crew of the LE Eithne were looking forward to the challenges of the mission, which was originally scheduled to last 12 weeks but now, with a delayed start date, will last nine weeks with the ship due to return to Haulbowline on July 21st.
Cmdr Fitzgerald said that he didn’t believe the controversy aired at the trial in Sicily regarding the LE Niamh’s unwillingness to enter Libyan territorial waters would have any impact on relations with the Italian coast guard and the LE Eithne’s mission in the Mediterranean.
He said the LE Eithne, with its helicopter-landing facilities, was the ideal type of vessel for the operation and he was convinced the crew would do a very good job on behalf of the Irish State in assisting the Italian authorities in the rescue of migrants.
“It’s a very rewarding mission for the crew because you feel you are making a difference out on the sea in an area where we have the expertise – it’s a great recruitment tool and a great retention tool for the Naval Service and we’re delighted to be participating in this type of mission,” he said.