The Naval Service: throwing a lifeline

The deployment of Naval Service flagship, LÉ Eithne, to the Mediterranean in May 2015 marked the advent of a series of significant humanitarian missions to the region by Irish vessels. Ciarán Galway visits the Naval Service Headquarters outside Cork city to discuss the missions, codenamed Operation Pontus, with Captain David Barry, Officer Commanding Naval Operations Command (OCNOC).

Throughout the course of 2016 alone, a total of 181,126 people were recorded to have irregularly arrived in Italy across the Mediterranean Sea. Whilst the countries of origin for the majority of those migrants were predominantly located across East and West Africa, approximately 90 per cent departed from Libya.

Since the initial decision, taken on behalf of the State, to interject in the ongoing humanitarian crisis on the seas between North Africa and Europe, a further four Irish vessels have subsequently embarked upon similar deployments conducted on a rotational basis. As a result of these endeavours, the lives of some 15,500 migrants have been secured.

In 2015, LÉ Eithne, LÉ Niamh and LÉ Samuel Beckett rescued a total of 8,631 men, women and children, assisted in the rescue of a further 1,146 and retrieved the bodies of 39 deceased. A total of 6,881 migrants were rescued by LÉ Róisín, LÉ James Joyce and LÉ Samuel Beckett in 2016, while having assisted in the rescue of an additional 2,820 and the recovery of 36 bodies.

Crossing the bridge to Haulbowline Island in Cork Harbour, a geodesic distance of some 2,500km or seven days’ sailing from the seas lying to the north of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, the imposing grey hulls of several Irish naval ships come into view. The office of Captain Barry, a senior naval officer with over 40 years’ worth of experience, is peppered with maritime paraphernalia and overlooks the harbour waters. The surroundings are a world away from the popular perception of the Mediterranean.


Barry opens the discussion with a detailed contextualisation of the scenario in which the Naval Service found itself immersed. “We all know about the migrant flows, particularly from Syria, but it really became an issue from 2013 and 2014. The Italians deployed a naval force dubbed Operation Mare Nostrum to protect their national oil and fishing interests and conduct search and rescue, while the EU established a border control Operation Triton through Frontex, the EU border agency, which is operating around the Italian coast and Sicily.”

EU operations have been primarily concerned with tackling illegal migration. As such, Frontex was initially deployed too far north to have other than limited relevance to search and rescue missions. Bearing the brunt of the financial expenditure and effort, therefore, the Italian Navy became increasingly involved in search and rescue further south and appealed for assistance.

Frontex, however, felt that the Italian operation was inadvertently acting as a draw, enticing migrants in the knowledge that they would be rescued. Despite the Italian view that, in the absence of intervention, there would be serious loss of life, at the end of 2014, they withdrew their operation feeling that, without additional support, there was no alternative.


“The migrant flows continued and, in a single incident on 19 April 2015, a boat capsized with the loss of over 800 lives. The Italians, who had already taken the decision to re-establish their mission, reacted very quickly through Operation Mare Sicuro. Likewise, the EU reactively enhanced Triton and established the European Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med) which subsequently became known as Operation Sophia. While Triton was extended further south, it was essentially still a border control operation and is limited in its proactive involvement in rescue,” explains Barry.

This incident also proved to be a catalyst for the Irish Government’s decision to make a contribution. This was taken by the Taoiseach Enda Kenny alongside then Minister of Defence, Simon Coveney. “In the meantime, the Department and ourselves had met with the Italian Navy and Coastguard. The decision was taken that we would deploy, work alongside the Italian authorities and that any migrants rescued would then be transferred to Italy where they would be processed.”

“We have stumbled across migrant vessels that, if we weren’t there, then nobody would ever have even spotted, let alone assisted. I am also absolutely certain that there have been migrant vessels that have sunk with significant loss of life and no one even knows about them simply because there was no one there.”

Shifting dynamic

The tempo of activity in the Mediterranean came somewhat as a shock to the Naval Service. Placed on station north of Tripoli, the types of vessels that the Naval Service encountered tended to be converted fishing boats with up to 600 people aboard, or alternatively, inflatable boats with up to 200. The smaller boats being completely unseaworthy; the reality is that they were never intended to ever actually reach Italy.

“However, the situation does change and is quite dynamic,” the OCNOC emphasises. “For instance, whilst having followed the patterns of previous years, the figures for 2016 indicate a sharp influx in migration flows in the autumn. In 2015, migrants tended to come in a steady stream whereas in 2016, for various reasons, mainly weather, they were coming in waves. What also started to happen in 2016 was that smugglers started masquerading as fishermen, trying to recover boats and engines. Now when we take people off a boat, we sink it. That is because it’s a hazard to navigation, but also to stop it from being used again.”

Last year, both Operation Mare Sicuro and the EU NAVFOR operation were being conducted in the region alongside the efforts of a number of non-governmental organisations, such as MSF. “The NGOs are making a significant contribution,” he acknowledges. “They have also changed the dynamic slightly in that they tend to sit right at the 12-mile limit north of Libya. However, our experience is that some of the larger naval vessels are reluctant to get drawn into search and rescue unless they have to and, as such, a lot of the day to day work of picking up migrants fell to the NGOs, the Italians and us.”

External relationships

Barry highlights that the positive working relationship with the Italians, especially with Operation Mare Sicuro. “From a practical point of view, once you get engaged in an actual search and rescue operation, that comes under a marine rescue coordination centre which, in theory, should have been the Libyan marine rescue coordination centre (MRCC), but as Libya is in chaos, it is non-existent. In practice, therefore, the coordination centre in Rome, run by the Italian Coast Guard took control.

“When the Eithne first arrived, Admiral Ribuffo, commander of Mare Sicuro visited our ship and we have exchanged liaison officers at every rotation since. As we found our feet and got up to speed, our relationship with the Italians became less of a hand-holding exercise and we started to operate a little bit more independently. The relationships with NGOs is fine, though many don’t want to have any dealings with the military and that’s understandable. They don’t want to be associated with any side in a conflict. On an operational level, however, there are no issues and the relationship is very good.”

Domestic taskings

The Mediterranean mission, Barry concedes, takes extra work and commitment. “Does it affect our home commitments? Of course it does, but not to any significant extent. We have our tasking here at home and we are still delivering on it. In fact, our outputs for 2016 were higher than before this mission started. The reaction we get to this mission is almost universally positive and I think the Irish public really appreciate what our people have done.

“It is a first in many ways for the Naval Service. We have deployed ships overseas on numerous occasions, but they tended to be one-off diplomatic and trade visits. This is a new role for us, but that’s what ships are designed to do; to go to sea and stay there. I suppose another advantage is, if anything arises or goes wrong, you can always withdraw, which is more difficult if you are committed ashore with hardware and people,” he suggests.


Detailing the daily routine of deployment, Barry emphasises the professionalism of his personnel. “Our people are used to working on ships off the west coast of Ireland in the storms and gales of winter and believe me, a 3am start in the Mediterranean is far more tolerable than a 3am start on the Porcupine Bank. Certainly it’s tough work and it’s very demanding, physically and mentally, but we operate the same routine as the Italians and EUNAVFOR down there.

“We do 14 days on station and three days stand down to refuel, replenish supplies and also give people a break. That’s the routine and so far we’ve actually found that, if anything, it has helped develop our young men and women. They grow in maturity, they grow in self-confidence and they realise their full capabilities. They are more than up to it and, in fact, we have no shortage of people who have deployed to the Mediterranean and want to go back again because, while it can be challenging work, it is personally rewarding.”

Personnel support

Barry also acknowledges: “Some of our people have come across situations that are difficult. There’s no doubt about that. But, we have our systems in place to deal with that. Before going down there at all, people are briefed, people are counselled and we train people on-board as peer supports. If you’re living on a small ship, with 50 other people, you all know each other very well, very quickly and if anyone is having issues it will be recognised very early.

“We also have the capability to fly specialist teams to deal with the trauma that people may experience. As a matter of routine, we send our Personnel Support Services (PSS) down half way through each deployment. They also travel back with the ship which takes about seven days to get back to Ireland. They talk to people on both a group and individual basis and we do all we can to mitigate against problems arising for our people.”


When each ship comes back, a review is conducted into the experience in order to improve procedures, equipment and practises. That is in then fed into an after action report system. We’re going through that at the moment in an overall review of the last two years. We’re pulling together all the reports from the six ships and we’re getting together the ships’ captains plus their key personnel. We sit down and go through a follow up process and consider: ‘Right, if we’re authorised to deploy again in May 2017, these are the issues that were raised, have we sorted them out or what do we need to do?’”


Through the experience garnered, the Naval Service is currently involved with a European Defence Agency (EDA) project to run training for naval ships dealing with migrants. The project team is currently chaired by Captain Barry himself. “This is something that we had suggested to the EU and they have taken on board. We’re working on the development of a syllabus to deliver courses, or a one week course for a ship’s command. Our knowledge will certainly feed into that,” he confirms.

“Considering the parameters of the mission, with its sole focus on humanitarian work, we see no major obstacles to delivery. However, if you take a step out beyond that and consider how to best cure the problem as opposed to dealing with the symptoms, then it’s a different kind of question. Should Ireland be playing its part in the EU effort as opposed to what is essentially an independent effort down there? It’s a policy matter, but certainly this problem is not going to be resolved by Ireland having a ship down there. It requires a more holistic solution.

“The mission will only be successful when we’re not rescuing anyone, but the fact that we have to be there at all is an indication that the problem is not being resolved. The Naval Service is fully aware that a comprehensive resolution to this problem will not happen by pulling people out of the water.”

Profile: Captain David Barry

A native of Dublin, David Barry joined the Naval Service immediately after leaving school. Having served both at sea and ashore, he has commanded the Deirdre, Aisling and flagship LÉ Eithne.

In the late 1990s, Barry served in the Middle East, spending two years working as a Military Observer with the UN Truce Supervisory Organisation in Israel and in Syria. Within this role he was deployed to the Golan Heights and then worked as a Liaison Officer to the Syrian military in Damascus. He also spent a number of early years in the UK training with the Royal Navy.

Previously, Barry was employed as the Associate Head of the National Maritime College of Ireland, a combined naval and civilian college partnered with Cork Institute of Technology. In early 2014, he entered his current role and expects to see out his time up to retirement in this appointment.

Outside of work, Barry struggles with a garden that’s too large for him and, having spent most of his adult life in Cork, is a keen Munster Rugby supporter.

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