Naval salute as crew embarks on Operation Sophia

History was made as two Irish Naval Service ships saluted each other in Cork harbour yesterday — one returning from a purely humanitarian mission and the other heading out to ratchet up the pressure on people-smugglers and gun-runners based in Libya.

A section of the crowd waiting for the arrival of the LÉ William Butler Yeats to the Naval Base in Haulbowline, Co Cork. Pictures: David Keane

The 56-strong crew of LÉ Niamh, captained by Lieutenant Commander Stewart Armstrong, will align the Naval Service for the first time with Operation Sophia, an EU taskforce assembled in the central Mediterranean.

Before departure, the crew, which includes three women, were addressed about the importance of the new mission by Minister with responsibility for Defence, Paul Kehoe, and Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett.

While the crew will still be involved in rescuing migrants, they will now also focus on disrupting people-smuggling networks.

They will seek out and destroy vessels before they can be used by people-smugglers, board ships suspected of gun-running, and be involved in training new Libyan coastguard units. Hundreds gathered at Haulbowline Naval base to wave her off and to welcome home LÉ William Butler Yeats, which spent three months in Mediterranean and saved 1,246 migrants from drowning.

Amy O’Brien from Ballyphehane is comforted by her mum Mandy

after saying goodbye to her brother Derick, sailing on the LÉ Niamh.

Its captain, Eric Timon, was told the previous day he was being promoted to rank of commander and will take charge of the Navy’s flagship LÉ Eithne next month.

He said that while the number of migrants requiring rescue was decreasing all the time, many were still losing their lives on the perilous crossing.

Unfortunately, three migrants had died on their watch.

The senior officer said that on one rescue mission the crew had to perform CPR on a number of migrants “and it was a testament to their training” that so many were saved.

On another occasion the crew had to launch special inflatable tubes into the water so migrants could cling on because their dinghy was sinking rapidly.

Lieutenant Aisling O’Flynn rushed off the ship to be embraced by her young son Fionn, who had brought her a rose.

Lt Aisling O’Flynn kisses her son Fionn after the arrival of the LÉ William Butler Yeats in Haulbowline yesterday.

She was thrilled to be back onshore for his second birthday next Wednesday.

Fionn’s dad Olan, who works as an operations manager with the Port of Cork, said he got help from both his and Aisling’s family to look after their son while she was away.

Aisling described the three-month rescue mission as “a fantastic experience,” especially when she saw the thankful expressions on the faces of children they had plucked from the sea.

Vice Admiral Mellett described the new Operation Sophia mission as “a game-changer for the Naval Service.”

The LÉ Niamh’s crew are expected to return home the week before Christmas.

Since the Naval Service got involved in migrant rescue operations in 2015 it has saved nearly 18,000 people.

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