The positive publicity surrounding the Naval Service’s role in saving trafficked migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea was responsible for an increase in people joining the force.
That’s according to recruitment figures released by the Naval Service showing the years leading up to the operations and while they were underway.
However, concerns have been raised by Naval Service sources that without such missions, and with still no pay increases coming from the Government, it will prove hard to attract the same numbers as witnessed when Operation Pontus and Operation Sophia were in full flow.
The Irish Government decided to send the Italians naval help in 2015 as part of a bilateral agreement, and this first mission was known as Operation Pontus.
In October 2017 the Naval Service moved from Operation Pontus, this time joining an EU taskforce in a similar mission called Operation Sophia.
That maritime operation ended earlier this year and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently told the Dáil he didn’t see Ireland getting involved in any similar operations any time soon.
In 2013 there were 47 recruits drafted into the Naval Service.
In 2015, the year that LÉ Eithne became the first ship to start migrant rescue missions, that figure jumped to 95. In 2016 it increased again to 104.
In 2017 a total of 90 recruits entered the force and last year it was 104.
At the peak of the migrant rescues, the Naval Service saved 8,592 lives in 2015 and a further 7,029 in 2016.
The rescue figures dropped somewhat after that, and especially during the naval service’s shift on Operation Sophia when its ships were stationed much further off the coast of Libya where they concentrated on surveillance and boarding vessels suspected of gun-running or bringing supplies to people-smuggling gangs.
"There was also a sense of ‘joining the navy to see the world’ and there was additional money for sailors doing these missions,” a Naval Service source said.
Retention is becoming a serious issue now. Last year while there were 104 recruited into the force there were 147 who were discharged from it.
According to Naval Service sources, the aspiration is to induct 120 recruits in 2019. With a rising economy, it is questionable whether that can be attained.
Mark Keane, president of PDForra, which represents enlisted personnel, and who works in the naval base, said his colleagues really missed being on the Mediterranean missions.
“Operation Pontus and Operation Sophia gave people the opportunity to use the skills sets they had learned and the operations also allowed them to work with other navies,” Mr Keane said.
“It appealed to young people. The experience they had, helping to save lives, was very important to them,” he said.