The LÉ Eithne is expected to be given the order to deploy in the Mediterranean after next Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, at which Minister for Defence Simon Coveney will almost certainly get approval from colleagues to send it on a humanitarian mission to save drowning refugees.
Mr Coveney said he had been advised by the navy’s most senior officer, Commodore High Tully, that the LÉ Eithne and its crew will be ready for the mission within the next 48 hours.
The vessel will make history as it will be the first time the navy has ever been involved in a humanitarian/peacekeeping role.
Mr Coveney said that in the meantime, Ireland would be working on a memorandum of understanding with either Italy or Malta, or both, on the mission.
He said it would need to be “very clear” what Ireland’s role would be in the humanitarian operation and where refugees lifted from the sea by the LÉ Eithne would be dropped off, be it Malta or Italy.
“We have made initial contacts with both countries and we will focus this week on bilateral discussions so we have full clarity on who is doing what.”
He said it would not be practical for the vessel to pick migrants up in the Mediterranean and come back to Ireland with them, as this would mean the vessel would be out of the Mediterranean for anything up to 10 days.
The Italian government immediately repatriates those who have come ashore, mainly from Libya.
Mr Coveney said that the Departments of Justice and Foreign Affairs were looking at how and if Ireland could agree to take refugees as part of the overall European effort.
He has also said that the EU may have to look at a ground mission in Libya to prevent people smugglers ferrying people across the sea in “coffin ships”.
It is envisaged the LÉ Eithne would spend no more than three months in the Mediterranean and would probably then be relieved by another vessel.
Mr Coveney said it was important that this country did its bit during the summer as this was the time when the refugee crisis was at its most intense.
He added that despite losing a ship to humanitarian duties he was satisfied that the Naval Service would still be able to fulfil its important roles in fishery protection and drug shipment interceptions.
The decommissioned LÉ Aoife is also due to be sent to the Mediterranean.
She was gifted to the Maltese government by Mr Coveney especially to help with that country’s efforts in preventing refugees drowning off its waters.
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