As the situation in Libya becomes more volatile, with increased attacks on civilian-run volunteer migrant rescue ships, the Defence Forces believe it is time for the Irish naval service to join EU Navfor Med (Operation Sophia), which is adopting a more aggressive approach to tackling people smugglers and illegal shipments of arms to Libya, where Islamic State has a foothold.
The Irish Examiner has learnt the Defence Forces have told the Government it is time to join the EU Navfor mission, whose member nations are attempting to intercept arms shipments to terrorists, gain vital intelligence on them and in the meantime prevent hapless migrants being launched into deathtrap boats.
Because of neutrality issues, joining EU Navfor Med would require the approval of the Cabinet and the Dáil.
The Department of Defence said participation by the Defence Forces in EU Navfor Med is under review.
The department said: “The European External Action Service has recently produced a Strategic Review of Operation Sophia, which is currently under consideration through EU Council Working Groups. Potential participation in Operation Sophia will be considered in the context of this review.”
Ireland’s commitment to migrant rescues during the past two years has been through Operation Pontus, in co-operation with the Italian authorities.
The non-political Irish Maritime Forum, which is represented by professionals with a wide range of experience in the maritime domain, has written to the Departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach saying it is time the Naval Service switched to operating under EU Navfor Med.
Irish Maritime Forum spokesman James Robinson, a former senior navy officer who helped recover bodies after the 1985 Air India disaster, said in the wake of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, Ireland needs to strengthen her ties with the remaining EU nations.
Mr Robinson said: “Joining Operation Sophia would demonstrate Ireland’s commitment to European co-operation to the nations whose understanding and assistance we will need when Brexit negotiations get under way in earnest.”
Mr Robinson said his organisation cannot understand why Ireland continues to operate in a bilateral arrangement with Italy when an EU mission acting in compliance with a UN mandate has commenced operations in the same area.
He said there are several neutral nations among the 25 countries contributing to Operation Sophia.
“Ireland is notable by her absence and this absence misses an important opportunity to garner diplomatic credits from the other 25 contributing EU member states as opposed to Italy only,” he said.
“Our non-involvement is highlighted by having a naval ship in the same area but outside the EU mission. What message this sends to our fellow Europeans is anybody’s guess.”
Meanwhile, the LÉ Eithne has just arrived off the coast of Libya to help rescue migrants.