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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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Naval Service ships and Air Corps aircraft were tasked to track two Russian ships identified off the west coast this week due to concerns about potential interference with subsea cables.

As The Irish Times reports, the Umka and the Bakhtemir were spotted close to IRIS high-speed, subsea communications cable which became operational last year off the Galway coast.

It reports that the “ships appeared to double back on themselves several times in the general area of the cable”.

The Russian Federation-flagged ships are an offshore supply vessel and a salvage and rescue ship which is equipped with diving platforms and submersibles for deep water work.

They are operated by the Russian Marine Rescue Services, and had been involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Following confirmation of the ships’ presence off the Irish west coast, they were placed under surveillance by Air Corps aircraft and Naval Service patrol ships.

The newspaper reports that “later analysis determined the ships’ unusual movements were probably a result of efforts to avoid bad weather, rather than anything sinister”.

Both ships sailed from Murmansk three weeks ago, and left the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on Monday.

They are reported to be en route to the port of Malabo in Equatorial Guinea.

Read more in The Irish Times here

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Sharks in Irish waters

Irish waters are home to 71 species of shark, skates and rays, 58 of which have been studied in detail and listed on the Ireland Red List of Cartilaginous fish. Irish sharks range from small Sleeper sharks, Dogfish and Catsharks, to larger species like Frilled, Mackerel and Cow sharks, all the way to the second largest shark in the world, the Basking shark. 

Irish waters provide a refuge for an array of shark species. Tralee Bay, Co. Kerry provides a habitat for several rare and endangered sharks and their relatives, including the migratory tope shark, angel shark and undulate ray. This area is also the last European refuge for the extremely rare white skate. Through a European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) project, Marine Institute scientists have been working with fishermen to assess the distribution, diversity, and monthly relative abundance of skates and rays in Tralee, Brandon and Dingle Bays.

“These areas off the southwest coast of Ireland are important internationally as they hold some of the last remaining refuges for angel shark and white skate,” said Dr Maurice Clarke of the Marine Institute. “This EMFF project has provided data confirming the critically endangered status of some species and provides up-to-date information for the development of fishery measures to eliminate by-catch.” 

Irish waters are also home to the Black Mouthed Catshark, Galeus melastomus, one of Ireland’s smallest shark species which can be found in the deep sea along the continental shelf. In 2018, Irish scientists discovered a very rare shark-nursery 200 nautical miles off the west coast by the Marine Institute’s ROV Holland 1 on a shelf sloping to 750 metres deep. 

There are two ways that sharks are born, either as live young or from egg casings. In the ‘case’ of Black Mouthed Catsharks, the nursery discovered in 2018, was notable by the abundance of egg casings or ‘mermaid’s purses’. Many sharks, rays and skate lay eggs, the cases of which often wash ashore. If you find an egg casing along the seashore, take a photo for Purse Search Ireland, a citizen science project focusing on monitoring the shark, ray and skate species around Ireland.

Another species also found by Irish scientists using the ROV Holland 1 in 2018 was a very rare type of dogfish, the Sail Fin Rough Shark, Oxynotus paradoxus. These sharks are named after their long fins which resemble the trailing sails of a boat, and live in the deep sea in waters up to 750m deep. Like all sharks, skates and rays, they have no bones. Their skeleton is composed of cartilage, much like what our noses and ears are made from! This material is much more flexible and lighter than bone which is perfect for these animals living without the weight of gravity.

Throughout history sharks have been portrayed as the monsters of the sea, a concept that science is continuously debunking. Basking sharks were named in 1765 as Cetorhinus maximus, roughly translated to the ‘big-nosed sea monster’. Basking sharks are filter feeders, often swimming with their mouths agape, they filter plankton from the water.

They are very slow moving and like to bask in the sun in shallow water and are often seen in Irish waters around Spring and early Summer. To help understand the migration of these animals to be better able to understand and conserve these species, the Irish Basking Shark Group have tagged and mapped their travels.

Remarkably, many sharks like the Angel Shark, Squatina squatina have the ability to sense electricity. They do this via small pores in their skin called the ‘Ampullae of Lorenzini’ which are able to detect the tiny electrical impulses of a fish breathing, moving or even its heartbeat from distances of over a kilometre! Angel sharks, often referred to as Monkfish have a distinctively angelic shape, with flattened, large fins appearing like the wings of an angel. They live on the seafloor in the coastal waters of Ireland and much like a cat are nocturnal, primarily active at night.

The intricate complexity of shark adaptations is particularly noticeable in the texture of their skin. Composed of miniscule, perfectly shaped overlapping scales, the skin of shark provides them with protection. Often shark scales have been compared to teeth due to their hard enamel structure. They are strong, but also due to their intricate shape, these scales reduce drag and allow water to glide past them so that the shark can swim more effortlessly and silently. This natural flawless design has been used as inspiration for new neoprene fabric designs to help swimmers glide through the water. Although all sharks have this feature, the Leafscale Gulper Shark, Centrophorus squamosus, found in Ireland are specifically named due to the ornate leaf-shape of their scales.