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Lé William Butler Yeats Alamy Stock Photo
Operation Irini

Opposition TDs raise concerns about proposed naval mission in the Mediterranean

An amendment was also added to the government’s motion by Social Democrat TD Gary Gannon.

Opposition TDs have raised concerns about the nature of a proposed naval mission to the Mediterranean that would see an Irish vessel assisting in intercepting weapons going to Libya.

The government brought forward a motion to send LÉ William Butler Yeats – a Samuel Beckett-class patrol vessel – to assist in operation Irini, which primarily aims to enforce an arms embargo on Libya. 

While Dail members were largely in favour of the mission’s primary aim, a common theme in questions from opposition TDs surrounded the possibility of Irish naval personnel training members of the Libyan coastguard.

The Libyan coastguard is a notorious organisation largely made up of former militias that has benefitted from European funding and training despite accusations of human rights abuses from UN observers.

A number of TDs stated that they would not support the motion if that secondary task was to be part of the Irish naval mission.

Independent TD Catherine Connolly was critical of the lack of a “humanitarian element” in the language of the mission and characterised it as another policy aimed at protecting “Fortress Europe.”

“I won’t support this until it’s absolutely crystal clear that we will not be training the Libyan coastguard,” she said.

Connolly’s comments echoed those of People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy, who used some of his time to list the many alleged crimes of the organisation, who routinely  intercept boats of migrants and return them to detention camps in Libya, where human rights abuses are commonplace. 

In March of this year, when summarising a UN fact-finding report, the UN Office of the High Commissioner said: 

“There are grounds to believe a wide array of war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed by State security forces and armed militia groups.”

The report itself said: 

“The Mission found reasonable grounds to believe that high-ranking staff of the Libyan Coast Guard, the Stability Support Apparatus and the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration colluded with traffickers and smugglers, which are reportedly connected to militia groups, in the context of the interception and deprivation of liberty of migrants.” 

In response to these concerns, Minister of State Peter Burke, who was standing in for Tánaiste Micheál Martin, said:

“For absolute clarity, let me confirm that at no point during the deployment will the mission be involved in the training of Libyan coastguard and we will declare caveats to that effect before formally joining the mission.” 

This contradicted the original language of a statement released by the Tánaiste prior to the debate, which specifically mentioned assisting in “the development of the capacity and training of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy.”

The Tánaiste’s statement continued: 

“While capacity building and training of the Libyan Coastguard is part of Operation Irini’s mandate, is not intended that Naval Service personnel will engage in this activity when deployed to Operation Irini.”

The use of the phrase “not intended” drew considerable criticism from opposition TDs. 

An amendment was also added to the government’s motion by Social Democrat TD Gary Gannon which sought to emphasise the Irish navy’s responsibility to assist anyone in trouble at sea. The vote on that amendment and the motion as a whole will take place tomorrow. 

Gannon’s amendment was put forward in response to lines in the Tainiaste’s statement concerning the limitations of the mission. 

The statement read: 

“Operation Irini has no mandate for search and rescue events. It operates on the high seas and in areas which does not attract such activity. 

“Should, however, an occasion arise where an Operation Irini ship is involved in such an event and rescues migrants, these migrants would be disembarked to a European Coastguard ship as soon as possible so that the Operation Irini ship can return to its mandated operations with the minimum of delay.”

Another concern raised by some TDs was the limited capacity of the Navy when it comes to patrolling Irish waters. 

“We’re attaching our wagon too much to these big issues,” said independent TD Mattie McGrath. “We can’t defend our own huge shoreline and we can’t defend our own fishermen.” 

Speaking in defence of the proposed mission, Burke said:

“It is important to stress that the core task and secondary tasks of the mission are all covered by an EU mandate.”

“The naval service will gain valuable experience and benefit in terms of enhancing capability and interoperability with international naval forces.”

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