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Only one of Ireland’s naval fleet is operational because there are no crews.  Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell writes that Ireland’s waters are also EU waters

Ireland is the ‘lame duck’ in securing the European Union’s (EU) maritime domain, but particularly both its own Territorial Waters (TTW) and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). We are shameless, lacking any sense of responsibility to fellow EU Member States in protecting the western sea and air approaches to the European Continent. In this article, I intend to concentrate solely on the maritime domain.

Against this Irish sovereign neglect reality, I want to socialise the idea of whether any circumstances might arise where the EU would mobilise and deploy an EU Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) into Ireland’s TTW and EEZ in order to protect the wider interests of the EU, and the International Community.

A starting point for this conversation requires cognisance of current EU maritime strategies and how it views itself in the world. Currently, the overarching EU strategy is nested in the EU’s Maritime Strategy and Action Plan (EUMSS). EUMSS aims to protect EU interests at sea, protect the maritime environment, uphold international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, react promptly/effectively to growing threats, and ensure relevant training and education to counter threats.

In essence, the EUMSS informs EU Actions in stepping up activities at sea such as naval exercises at EU level, developing further coastguard operations in European sea basins, or designating new maritime areas of interests for the implementation of the Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP) concept. This concept is a tool to enhance the coordination of Member States’ naval and air assets present in specific maritime areas and reinforcing operations in securing inspections of EU ports.

Ireland has a marine territory of up to 220 million acres (880,000km²) which is ten times the size of Ireland's land area. The map of “Ireland” also includes Ireland’s marine territoryIreland has a marine territory of up to 220 million acres (880,000km²) which is ten times the size of Ireland's land area. The map of “Ireland” also includes Ireland’s marine territory Illustration: Marine Institute

Additionally, the EUMSS facilitates coordination with partners, including EU-NATO cooperation. Its remit is to step up cooperation with all relevant international partners to uphold the rules-based order at sea. It leads on maritime domain awareness. Its actions include reinforcing coastal and offshore patrol vessel surveillance and strengthening the Common Information Sharing Environment (CISE). In essence, it ensures that national and EU Authorities can exchange information in a secure way.

EUMSS manages risks and threats, including monitoring and protecting passenger ships and unexploded ordnance and mines at sea. Finally, it boosts EU maritime capabilities, including defence technologies in the maritime domain, such as the European Patrol Corvette, a new class of warship.

An EU Naval Force (NAVFOR) in Irish Waters?

EU NAVFOR missions operate under the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) direction and mandate. What might be an agreed mission mandate for such a maritime mission in Irish waters? Questions that would arise include; what is EUs threat/risk; who has final decision-making authority should such a military action be required; where would Operational/ Force HQs be situated; would Ireland provide national enforcement officers; would Ireland provide officers to the Operational/Force HQs; what happens to Irish naval vessels deployed in Maritime Defence Security Operations (MDSOs).

Could Ireland, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, survive the political embarrassment of the EU having, in extremis, to mount a NAVFOR Mission in Irish TTWs? With certainty, that scenario would inexorably lead to Ireland having to accept predictable second and third order effects such as EU demands of Ireland stepping up its maritime and air capabilities. What impact would such a demand have nationally? Should the Naval Service merge with the Irish Coastguard, or more sensibly, the Irish Coastguard merge into the Irish Navy, as inferred by the Commission on the Defence Forces in 2022.

Ireland’s National Maritime Security Act (2014) needs urgent updating. It’s inadequate for today’s maritime security reality. Ireland’s recent National Strategic Threat Analysis highlights a multitude of maritime risks that present viable threats to national security. However, political, institutional and citizen Ireland’s grasp of, interest in, or commitment to, a credible and actionable concept of national security remains a distant horizon. Ireland, to date, neither understands the requirements inherent in, or accepts the responsibilities of, sovereignty from a national security perspective. It’s a “who would attack us” mindset. It’s mired in a D Day Normandy landings mindset on Wexford beaches, not current threats.

Advantages and Disadvantages of an EU NAVFOR operation in Ireland’s EEZ and TTW

Some advantages: An EU naval force presence in Ireland’s EEZ /TTW comprising militarily capable vessels with the ability to develop and maintain a Recognized Maritime Picture (RMP) would be confidence building for the EU, Ireland’s non-EU international partners, and Ireland itself. Sharing this maritime domain awareness intelligence with Ireland would significantly enhance and enable Ireland’s own military operations.

Irish Navy personnel would be required to be located at the Irish Permanent Representative delegation in Brussels to inform Ireland’s national positions. Sadly, none are location there currently. Ireland hosting EU military exercises in its EEZ would significantly enhance its capacity/capability building initiatives.

Some disadvantages: Would EU NAVFOR operate within the 12 nautical mile limit, TTW? Currently, such vessels cannot operate inside any EU Member State’s TTW. Who would have operational control (TACON), the EU or Ireland? Would the force share intelligence gathered, and feed into a national RMP. In seeking and allowing such a NAVFOR in Ireland’s EEZ and TTW, the state would be absolving itself of its sovereign rights and associated obligations. What would the cost be to mount such an operation?

What access would EU NAVFOR have to Irish ports? Would EU aircraft be cleared for operations in Irish airspace, as these missions always have air assets? Would EU aircraft be based at Shannon and/or Ireland West airports? What would be the implications for EU military operations launched from Irish soil?

Can the Defence Forces ever return to operational and strength viability?

The personnel haemorrhage continues—a net loss of 50 personnel per month, 600 per year. Minister Micheál Martin and the Department of Defence (DOD) 's ONLY benchmark of success is stemming the loss of trained personnel and continuous net increases in strength. They have failed and continue to fail in this. The DF is heading for a personnel cliff edge.

When I’m asked if the DF can recover to its current mandated strength of 9,500, I say honestly, it’s 60/40 against this ever happening. And the odds are lengthening against it. The current strength of 7,500 is a historical low. Not only will a strength of 9,500 not be achieved anytime soon, but the Commission’s recommendation of reaching a Level of Ambition 2 (LOA 2) strength of 11,580 by 2028 is a total fantasy.

Over the decades, the DF never failed to attract quality recruits to all ranks. Today, the unwritten bond between the State and DF is ruptured. DOD exercises coercive control over the DF, facilitated by the minister’s light touch political supervision of the DOD. The Representative Associations describe this toxicity as “abuse of a dominant position”. Civil oversight of the military, which democracies require, and civilian control, which DOD are allowed to exercise, are not the same. That subtle but essential and absolute difference seems to be lost on our political class.

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On Sunday afternoon, Cork Harbour was poignantly reminded of passing times as the now decommissioned LE Orla (P41) and LE Ciara (P42) were led out of their home port for the last time, heading overseas for disposal at a scrap recycling facility.

Both Peacock-class patrol vessels have been in service with the Irish Naval Service around the Irish coast since 1989.

As Afloat reported in December 2023, the decommissioning of the 712-tonne sister ships was partly due to their age, coincidentally all built in 1984; in addition, the vessels were taken out of service due to the ongoing crewing crisis that has impacted the service, which has led to not enough sailors to crew all its ships. 

A Port of Cork pilot boat escorted the ships out of Cork Harbour in a relatively calm sea, with tugs fore and aft.

LE Orla (P41) and LE Ciara (P42) depart Cork HarbourLE Orla (P41) and LE Ciara (P42) depart Cork Harbour

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The “gutting” of the Naval Service has exposed Ireland’s vulnerability to a “massive increase in drugs being channelled from Irish waters into mainland Europe”, according to Aontú candidate Patrick Murphy.

Murphy, who is chief executive of the Irish South and Fish Producers Organisation, is standing for Aontú in the Ireland South constituency for the European elections.

The Ireland South constituency covers Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Kerry, Offaly, Wexford, Carlow, Clare, Laois and Wicklow

“It is long known that our rugged, and in many ways isolated coastline is a highly attractive gateway to the European continent,” he says in a statement.

“I have it on good authority that senior officers in the war against drugs have asked people engaged in fishing if they could keep a watchful eye on any suspicious activities on the waters. This is ongoing and their concerns are real. They even procured a small cutter for policing our shoreline,” he says.

“Why are so many Naval Service boats in Ireland tied up--we spent millions buying two more from New Zealand in the past couple of years, just to bring them in and tie them up to our ports and pier walls as we cannot find the resources to employ enough Naval Service staff to put them to sea,” he says.

“Can you imagine how the drug lords in Europe and beyond must see us; this is absolute madness, they are laughing at us and laughing all the way to the bank and on the backs of people to whom they ply their disgusting trade,”he says.

“I feel the gravity of the situation is not being taken seriously by our Government or the vast majority of our opposition. They are spending millions of taxpayers euros on small piers and ports for others to fish from, as our fishers are leaving the industry as they simply cannot continue due to the lack of opportunities for them to fish,”he says.

“We have the richest waters in Europe yet our fishers are amongst the poorest, it is absolutely beyond comprehension,” Murphy says.

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While Naval Service operational patrols have been restricted to two ships due to on-going personnel problems, the Irish Navy has got Observer status in an €87m. plan to develop a new European Patrol Corvette, involving five countries, strongly supported by the European Commission because of increased concern about maritime security.

Five Navies have formed the European Patrol Corvette development (EPC) programme - Italy, France, Spain, Greece and Norway. Ireland, Portugal and Romania are ‘Observers‘. The aim is to define the requirements for “a 2nd rank surface combatant vessel about 110 metres long and of 3,000 tons. It is being described as “a programme of future innovative naval vessels, a step forward in European defence co-operation.”

It is being developed under the banner of the PESCO project – ‘Permanent Structured Co-operation’ in the area of security and defence policy, which was established by a European Council decision on December 11, 2017. “It offers a legal framework to jointly plan, develop and invest in shared capability projects and enhance the operational readiness and contribution of armed forces,” according to its proponents.

“It will strongly contribute to European sovereignty in the second-line vessels domain, by strengthening the European industry, increasing efficiency and lowering delays to go from the military need to the delivery to Navies,” according to a statement by a consortium of shipbuilders. These include Fincantieri (Italy), Naval Group (France), Navantia (Spain) and interests from Greece, Denmark and Norway who are carrying out the first phase of the EPC programme.

It is expected to take two years to complete the initial design of what are being described as the “next generation class of Naval vessel – the European Patrol Corvette.”

The EPC project is strongly supported by the European Commission which has said that it will “foster European in-house and know-how skills by pooling the resources of the countries involved.

“The ships will be able to carry out a wide range of missions in operational contexts as diverse as surveillance on the high seas with a high degree of autonomy, or law enforcement and sovereignty affirmation missions closer to the coast, adapted to the different Navies’ needs. It is a programme of future innovative Naval vessels which is developed in a collaborative way by several Navies and members of the European Union.”

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The funeral for Naval Service Leading Seaman Conor Kiely (39), who was found dead on board the patrol ship LÉ Roisín, was held in Cork on November 21st.

Requiem Mass was concelebrated by Fr. James McSweeney, PP of Our Lady and St John Church Carrigaline and Fr Des Campion, SDB CF Office of the Chaplain,
Naval Base Haulbowline County Cork. 

President Michael Daniel Higgins, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Micheál Martin sent condolences.

Tributes were paid to a dearly beloved son and brother by family members.

Band 1 Brigade at the funeral of funeral service for Naval Service Leading Seaman Conor KielyBand 1 Brigade Cork played at the funeral of Naval Service Leading Seaman Conor Kiely

Remains were carried out of the church by Naval personnel and placed on a gun carriage to be transported to St. John’s Cemetery, Ballinrea, for burial with full military honours.

Naval personnel and mourners escorted the remains on foot for the 3.5 kilometre journey to the graveyard.

Escorts of Honour lined the route into the cemetery and rendered Honours to Conor.

There was a three-volley gun salute as the remains were placed over the grave, and the Last Post was played by Band 1 Brigade.

At the graveside, Conor’s hat was presented to his son, Cillian, and the tricolour that draped the coffin was presented to his father, Des.

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Former Irish Navy Vice Admiral Mark Mellett will be the keynote speaker at this year's Kennedy Summer School in New Ross Co. Wexford. The event, which is billed as 'A Festival of Irish and American History, Politics and Culture', will host over 60 guest speakers, including football legend Martin O’Neill and a husband and wife political duo, Democratic political consultant James Carville and Republican political consultant Mary Matalin.

Mellett, who was Ireland’s highest-ranking military officer, will discuss his career and life, as well as the strategic implications of the war in Ukraine, Ireland’s neutrality, and the effect of climate breakdown on global security. He will be interviewed by Dr Stacey L. Connaughton of Purdue University, an expert in military leadership.

As regular Afloat readers know, Mellett was distinguished with the French Government of 'Commandeur de la légion d'honneur', France's highest honorary decoration to foreigners, in May 2023. 

In the same month, Irish Mainport Holdings, a Cork marine services company, appointed Mellett as its Strategic Director

In July, he was appointed Chair of the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority (MARA).

The Kennedy Summer School, which is run in association with the Office of Public Works, New Ross District Council, Wexford County Council, Boston College, Purdue University, and Failte Ireland, will also host panel discussions and debates on topics such as the 50th anniversary of Ireland's membership in the European Union and celebrity politics.

He spoke to Afloat about some of the issues he has dealt with – from the Defence Forces' response to the Covid-19 pandemic to diversity and inclusion in the military in a Wavelenths interview with Lorna Siggins in August 2021 here and on his role in MARA in July 2023 here.

For those interested in attending the Kennedy Summer School, tickets and further details can be found at www.kennedysummerschool.ie or by calling St. Michael’s Theatre on 051 421255.

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The Dáíl has voted in favour of deploying a Naval Service patrol ship to the Mediterranean to enforce an arms embargo on Libya.

Before the vote on Wednesday, Opposition TDs raised concerns about whether the Naval Service would be working with the Libyan Coast Guard.

The Libyan Coast Guard intercepts vessels carrying migrants, and returns them to detention camps where there have been reports of human rights violations.

Tánaiste and Minister for Defence Micheál Martin said it was “not intended” that Naval Service personnel would engage with the Libyan Coast Guard when deployed to Operation Irini.

The EU NavforMed Operation Irini involves enforcing the arms embargo, but also training the Libyan Coast Guard.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has written to the Tánaiste, raising “serious concerns” about Ireland’s naval ship mission.

MSF has asked that the Irish Government to “refuse Irish naval training of the Libyan Coast Guard at any time in the future as part of Operation Irini” and to “make a statement on its decision”.

Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon had proposed an amendment to the government’s motion which emphasised the Naval Service’s primary responsibility to assist anyone in trouble at sea.

TDs voted in favour of the motion on Wednesday night.

Martin said that stopping a flow of weapons to Libya would help to “create the conditions for a permanent ceasefire”.

He acknowledged that Operation Irini “has no mandate” for search and rescue.

“Should an occasion arise where any Operation Irini ship is involved in SOLAS/SAR, the mission direction is that the 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”, he said.

In total, 661 people have died in the central Mediterranean this year, according to Flavio di Giacomo, a spokesman for the United Nations migration agency.

This number includes people who went “missing” but after some hours are considered dead. At least 55 people died in the latest incident after a boat left Garabouli, near Tripoli in Libya and only five survived.

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The Social Democrats have said that the proposed deployment of a Naval Service vessel to the Mediterranean as part of an EU mission must prioritise assisting persons in distress at sea.

Social Democrats defence spokesman Gary Gannon is seeking support for an amendment to a motion due to be voted on this evening (April 26) in the Dáil.

“The Government is seeking the support of the Dáil in approving the participation of an Irish naval vessel in Operation Irini for seven weeks this summer,” he said.

“The core task of the mission is the implementation of the UN arms embargo on Libya to prevent weapons entering the country by sea,” he noted.

Social Democrats defence spokesman Gary GannonSocial Democrats defence spokesman Gary Gannon

“We know there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, with desperate refugees attempting to reach the EU on flimsy and unsafe vessels. Tragically, thousands of men, women and children have died trying to make these perilous journeys,” he said.

“For that reason, I have added an amendment to the Government’s motion to clearly state that saving the lives of those in distress at sea is a central part of this mission,”Gannon said.

“The Irish Naval Service has a proud tradition of taking part in previous EU humanitarian missions. If Ireland is to participate in Operation Irini, the preservation of life should be clearly outlined as being a priority,” he said.

“In addition, we need stronger assurances from the Government that the Irish Naval Service will have no role in training the Libyan Coastguard - which is another element of this mission – due to concerns over their links to militia and appalling track record of human rights abuses,” he said, urging TDs from all parties and groupings to support his amendment.

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A Government decision to deploy a Naval Service patrol ship for maritime security in the Mediterranean has been welcomed by the Defence Forces.

As Afloat reported earlier, The LÉ William Butler Yeats has been identified as the vessel which will participate in the EU Naval Force in the Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED) operation “ Irini” in June and July 2023.

This is subject to Dáil approval; the Defence Forces press office notes.

“Irini” is the Greek word for peace, and the operation was initiated as part of EUNAVFOR MED in March 2020.

It is tasked with implementation of the UN arms embargo on Libya through the use of aerial, satellite and maritime assets.

The EU mission is mandated to carry out inspections of vessels on the high seas off the coast of Libya which are suspected to be carrying arms or related material to and from Libya in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2292 (2016) and subsequent UN resolutions, in addition to monitoring violations perpetrated via aerial and land routes.

As secondary tasks, “Op Irini” also: monitors and gathers information on illicit exports from Libya of petroleum, crude oil and refined petroleum products;

contributes to the disruption of the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks through information gathering and patrolling by planes;

is tasked to support capacity building and training of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy. The implementation in this activity has not started due to the political fragmentation in Libya, the EU mission says.

The crew of LÉ William Butler Yeats will begin a “work up period” to be “mission ready”, the Defence Forces press office says.

The ship will be tasked with information, surveillance and reconnaissance operations while also engaging in rigid hull inflatable boat operations on a regular basis, a capability in which the Navy “excels, from experience in the north-east Atlantic ocean”, the press office said.

Defence Forces chief of staff Lieut Gen Seán Clancy welcomed the announcement stating that the deployment of LÉ William Butler Yeats on “Op Irini” will “provide the operation with highly skilled and capable personnel with experience in Maritime Defence and Security Operations (MDSO) throughout Ireland’s maritime domain and on previous overseas missions – Operation Pontus and Sophia”.

“This deployment is crucial to the regeneration of Ireland’s Navy and is directly linked to our efforts to recruit, retain and incentivise seagoing,” he said.

Flag Officer Commanding Naval Service, Commodore Michael MaloneFlag Officer Commanding Naval Service, Commodore Michael Malone

Flag Officer Commanding Naval Service, Commodore Michael Malone said that “with ambitions for the expansion of the Naval Service, as outlined in the Commission on the Defence Forces report, this deployment presents an opportunity to build on the experiences gained through previous maritime overseas missions”.

“Our sailors bring vital experience to bear in what remains a dynamic operational role,” he said

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Politician and former Army Ranger Cathal Berry has criticised the State’s lack of resources to monitor Russian Federation-flagged commercial ships off the west coast.

The Independent TD for Kildare South told Newstalk Breakfast that it was “simply not good enough for a sovereign state”.

“We couldn’t even put a naval ship out there over the weekend because of the current problem in Haulbowline in Cork,” Berry told interviewer Shane Coleman.

He said, "normal practice is if you have a sensitive convoy moving through your economic waters, you would put out at least one of your naval ships to shadow that convoy as it moves down”.

Due to a crewing shortage in the Naval Service, Ireland had no ship capability and had to “rely on the Air Corps”.

There was “no substitute” for a Naval ship, he said, while noting that the Naval Service vessels have no full sonar capability.

Berry took issue with the letter to The Irish Times on the issue by Russian Ambassador to Ireland Yuriy Filatov, who had questioned the media reporting of the ships.

The 79.8 metre-long Umka is an offshore supply vessel and the Bakhtemir, also 79.8 metres long, is a salvage and rescue ship. It is equipped with diving platforms and subsea submersibles capable of deep water work on infrastructure.

Both ships left the Russian port of Murmansk on February 23rd and were identified off the Irish west coast early last week.

The Air Corps also released photos of a third ship, the Fortuna, a 169-metre pipelay crane vessel. The Defence Forces issued a statement last night to say the ships were monitoring had left the Irish exclusive economic zone.

A Finnish Institute of International Affairs academic Eoin McNamara, told RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland programme that the presence of the vessels off the Irish west coast in the past week represented “a cheap way to send a threat” to Ireland, the EU and NATO.

It was intended to signal that the Russian Federation-flagged ships knew where telecommunications cables lay and had the equipment to disrupt them, he said.

McNamara, the research fellow at the institute, said that “the Russians are very good at sending signals and then making excuses for it”.

“I wouldn’t take these Russian excuses as genuine”, he said.

The line “always” or “often leads back to the Kremlin”, he said.

They say they are commercial vessels, cargo vessels ship repair vessels ...they can be all of those things”, but it was also a “very cheap way” to let Ireland and many states know that they “pose a threat in a hybrid way”, McNamara said.

Irish Defence Forces (105 Sqn, Irish Air Corps) Photos of Russian Ships off the West Coast of Ireland

Ireland is “not set up with the Naval infrastructure” to monitor such ship movements and was relying on intelligence from elsewhere, he said.

McNamara has contributed to previous reviews of the Defence Forces.

Listen to Newstalk Breakfast here

And to RTE Radio 1 Morning Ireland here

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Afloat's Wavelengths Podcast with Lorna Siggins

Weekly dispatches from the Irish coast with journalist Lorna Siggins, talking to people in the maritime sphere. Topics range from marine science and research to renewable energy, fishing, aquaculture, archaeology, history, music and more...