I urge all parties, including the Government, to support our amendment that this vote be deferred until such time as the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence has considered it. Despite the claims of the Minister earlier today, there is no urgency. Why would we sign up to an operation that is nearing the end of its mandate in December, given that it would take at least three months to prepare for it and the existing operation continues until November of this year? Operation Sophia existed in 2015 when the State took the decision not to sign up to it and signed up for Operation Pontus instead. The issues with Sophia have not been addressed in this House or elsewhere since then. Where is the discussion about it? Where is the discussion with the organisations operating in the region who have highlighted major concerns about the Libyan coastguard, the organisation the Irish Navy is now supposed to work with as part of its deployment in Operation Sophia? Organisations such as Amnesty International, the Irish Refugee Council and the Immigrant Council of Ireland, along with Médecins Sans Frontières have all raised major concerns about this proposal. The Minister, in fact, met Médecins Sans Frontières only last week.
The genius who dreamed up the titles for the operations was having a laugh. Pontus is a region of the Black Sea and has nothing to do with the Mediterranean. Somewhat bizarrely or perhaps ironically, in Greek mythology Sophia is the god of wisdom, in Christianity she is referred to as the wisdom of god and elsewhere as the friend of wisdom, or Philo Sophia - philosophy. There is, however, no wisdom in this mission. This is a military response to a humanitarian problem in a region that has been destabilised by recent wars, conflicts, famines and poverty. Many European nations must shoulder the blame for the problems that have ravaged Africa. Their imperial quests, looting, plundering and exploitation of the wealth of that continent for centuries still impact. Ireland was not an imperialist power, and we have more in common with the fleeing refugees than with many of the nations still involved in warmongering and exploiting parts of the world, including Africa, that have been denied the chance to develop and evolve. There has always been an element in the military here who have wanted to play with the big boys, and they have their backers in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who have felt hampered by the stated policy of Irish military neutrality. In the past they wanted Ireland to become a NATO member and now, in conjunction with compliant Government parties, they see that opportunity. They are trying to force us to join the EU battle groups and, in this instance, Operation Sophia. Some are saying that what is behind the Government’s decision to jump ship from Pontus to Sophia is that the Italians are now playing poker with people’s lives as a means of forcing more EU supports and resources to help them deal with the immigration crisis. There is no justification for the Irish Government to contemplate jettisoning our neutrality, and with it the international goodwill, respect and high esteem that underpin our efforts when helping others.
Is comhair agus ceart dúinn tacú leis na teifigh agus iad a tharrtháil, agus seasamh i gcoinne siúd atá ag iarraidh muid a shú isteach in aontas míleata, i gcoinne neodrachta ár Stáit. Tá na mílte á bhá san Mheán Mhuir gach bliain agus tá an tAire ag iarraidh dul ag ogaíocht i gcoinne smuigléirí daoine agus na treabhanna armtha gafa leo. Smaoinigh cé thug an t-armlón dóibh sa chéad dul síos. Déileáil leis na cúiseanna seachas na torthaí, agus bíodh meas ag an Rialtas ar ár neodracht.
Only last week the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence heard harrowing testimony from Médecins Sans Frontières about what is happening in the Mediterranean. Their findings were supported by a House of Lords report published only two days ago which pointed to increased deaths at sea annually since 2015. There were 3,175 that year, 4,500 in 2016 and there have already been 2,169 so far this year. In fact, Sophia has failed to disrupt the business of people smuggling, with only low-level smugglers being caught, and despite 425 boats being destroyed, they have just shifted their business to more unstable precarious inflatables. The boss of the EU’s border agency, Frontex, Fabrice Leggari, also this week stated that more refugees are on the dinghies than ever before, increasing the chances of capsizing and drownings.
Operation Sophia involves emboldening the disgraced Libyan coastguard which has been found to be abusing refugees caught on boats, firing live rounds at overloaded vessels, co-operating with the smugglers and the militias by selling seized boats back in some cases, and putting captured refugees into the inhuman conditions in so-called migrant detention centres. This is what the Minister wants us to sign up to. These centres are exactly where the refugees will be sent. While some will try to present Operation Sophia as laudable, I urge Members to be fully familiar, in the little time we have, with what they are committing to before sending members of the Irish Defence Forces into possible conflict.
Operation Sophia mandates participating countries to take military action in Libyan waters and on Libyan soil. This is very worrying and is something that may significantly increase the risks to navy personnel. This is different from rescuing sinking rafts overloaded with desperate people in the choppy waters of the Mediterranean. Theoretically, attacking and sinking Libyan ships could be construed as an act of war by some of the militias in the area and their international backers. Operation Sophia will undermine our existing humanitarian mission of coming to the aid of drowning refugees. If we support this Operation Sophia, we are diverting Irish Naval Service ships from saving refugees clinging to floundering boats. In future, it would only be when an unfolding tragedy at sea was spotted that they would be required under the laws of the sea to divert away from their anti-human trafficking and policing duties that we are going to sign up to under Operation Sophia. Just because the UN sanctions a mission does not mean it is appropriate for our Defence Forces to participate in it. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two parties primarily responsible for eroding Irish neutrality, support this motion, and if approved by this House, Operation Sophia will be yet another breach of Irish neutrality. Ireland’s foreign policy should be based on active neutrality, meaning our Naval Service should be allowed to continue its humanitarian mission without having to participate in offensive military operations.
Operation Sophia has been in place since 2015 and has already proven to be a failure, so why add our name to that failure? The vitally important role the Irish navy has performed in Operation Pontus has been universally commended and has the support of NGOs in the area. They need to continue working together and deal with the humanitarian crisis we have in the Mediterranean. I urge the Minister to put lives first, ensure we have adequate vessels whose primary purpose is search and rescue in the area, and encourage and support NGOs to continue their vital role in their humanitarian work in the Mediterranean.
A total of 73,000 refugees and migrants have reached Italy by sea this year, and more than 180,000 last year. Tragically, in excess of 10,000 have lost their lives in the perilous crossing in the past two and a half years. The more boats that are sunk, the more unscrupulous the murderous smugglers are in sending their victims to sea in rubber dinghies. I urge the Minister of State not to pass this motion without proper discussion of, and debate on, its effects.