Lt Cmdr Stuart Armstrong
The Irish naval vessel LE Niamh sails back into Cork this Wednesday morning; its crew, who plan to wear Santa hats for the voyage into their home harbour, glad to get back to families and loved ones just in time for Christmas.
For Blessington man Stuart Armstrong, the captain of the ship, the past three-month mission has marked new territory for the Irish Naval Service. Lt Cdr Armstrong’s 56-strong crew are the first from Ireland to take part in Operation Sophia, a European Union operation, which aims to neutralise people smuggling in the Mediterranean.
Irish naval ships, since 2015, have taken part in humanitarian rescue operations, but the LE Niamh’s latest mission, which started in October, is the first to expand that mandate.
Speaking to the Leinster Leader from off the coast of Malta last week, as the ship prepared to return home, Lt Cdr Armstrong said: “The purpose of Operation Sophia is to disrupt the business model of the smugglers.”
The sailors returning home to Ireland this week have not only rescued many desperate refugees, they have also been involved in stopping oil smuggling, which makes rich those criminals involved in migrant trafficking; helped enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya and assisted in training up the Libyan coastguard and navy to police their own waters.
“It puts them [the people smugglers] out of business,” he said. “People are profiting on misery and the desire of people wanting to exit Africa, so we remove their ability to take advantage of that.”
The LE Niamh departed Haulbowline on October 6 last to become part of a six-nation task force, along with ships from Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain. The cabinet voted last summer to approve the switch from a purely search-and-rescue mandate in the Mediterranean to full participation in Operation Sophia, despite some political opposition at a switch to a military-focused involvement.
However, as the man in charge of the mission, Lt Cdr Armstrong believes that the increased scope of Operation Sophia is the best way forward in the Mediterranean, as not only does it save lives, but also attempts to shut down the criminals in charge of launching boatloads of vulnerable migrants onto dangerous seas.
Their work has involved sharing information on the movements of illicit oil tankers, gathering information and tracking those vessels from port to port. Irish sailors have hailed and boarded those vessels to make sure that all is above board.
“The actual physical work we were doing, we had lots of practice on,” he said, referring to the Irish navy’s role in fisheries and drugs patrols in Irish waters. “We believe we got good at doing it by doing our domestic work, and we’re applying those skills down here off Libya.”
Training the Libyan coastguard has also been a big part of their job, and the role of the navies involved in Operation Sophia has evolved to monitoring and giving the Libyans feedback.
An Operation Sophia rescue mission on November 3, in which LE Niamh took part
He believes that the work of Operation Sophia and other missions has significantly stemmed the tide of refugees trying to make the perilous journey from Libya — the numbers this winter have been at 20 percent of last year’s figures.
For the Irish crews, rescuing people from sinking boats and from the water “is quite harrowing, and there is no way of sugar coating it.
“These are desperate people in desperate situations. The last part of their movement out of Africa is the most dangerous. Everyone thinks of the Mediterranean as where they go on their holidays, but it is a big, dangerous sea.”
“Before we deployed we did a lot of preparation. We were pretty sure we would see some harrowing scenes.”
The Irish crews have access to personal support services for counselling on how to deal with these critical incidents and with stress management. Professional counsellors joined the ship for a couple of days half-way through the tour; and again before they departed for home, to be available to talk at crew members’ request, and there will also be available after they return home.
The skills learned during the past three months will serve the Irish Navy well, he added.
“In my opinion, without a shadow of a doubt, it is good for everyone. It is good for Ireland and it is definitely good for the navy. The skills and experience that all the sailors on board are gaining will serve the navy and Ireland for decades to come.”
“When situations do arise in Ireland, not as often, but they can — such as drug interdictions or mass casualties with fishing trawlers — we have that knowledge and experience and steeliness and confidence to deal with those issues. It’s good experience and it’s good for morale in the navy, participating on an international scale and proving ourselves as worthy and useful to the effort.”
Some young members of the Irish crew are finding themselves in mission-critical situations at an age when their peers’ greatest worries are starting college or their first job.
“Some of them are teenagers, and that has to be remembered,” said their captain. “It is young men and women who are doing this as well; not all of them are privileged or as lucky to have had the 18 and a half years of experience that I have had. I think that’s commendable. Most of the time, the guys in the boats, doing the rescues, are 21 or 22 years old. It think it’s worth recognising that they are representing Ireland at such a young age and doing an incredible job, and I’m so proud of them. They are well up for it, trained, really good at it and motivated, but it’s just worth noting that as well.”
Lt Cdr Armstrong has two stand-out memories of the trip.
The first is coloured by his recent experience of becoming a first-time dad to Olivia, now almost eight months old, with his wife Joy.
“It was seeing the first baby being rescued, a little baby girl not more than 12 months old. I had just had a baby. I saw [the child] being held by the boarding officer on the boat as this rescue unfolded in front of us — there were over 100 people in the water. My crew just performed supremely, I was so proud of them. Then there was that moment when the rib came back to the ship, and there was this pile of people in it and at the front the officer was holding this 12-month-old baby in his arms. That was the most memorable for me.”
The six Operation Sophia vessels met on November 25, and 'posed' for this photo. The LE Niamh is second from left
Another standout moment, of a very different kind, came on November 25, when the whole Operation Sophia fleet got together for the first time. The LE Niamh joined the FGS Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the HMS Echo, FS Premier-Maitre L’Her and the ITS Zeffiro and their captains were received by Rear Admiral (LH) Javier Moreno, the Force Commander and Chief of Staff on board SPS Cantabria. “That for me was a professionally proud moment, as the first ever captain of an Irish ship taking part in such a mission.”
The Manor Kilbride native, who is the son of Joan and Hugh Armstrong, finished school in Terenure College in 1998 and spent a year and a half doing outdoor sports education before joining the Defence Forces.
The grandson of a lighthouse-keeper, William Fitzgerald, he loved messing around in boats as a youngster. “If it floated or had an engine I was interested, so I always knew I would give it a go. I applied and was offered the job, so I always said ‘If I like it, I’ll stay’. And now I’m into my 19th year…”
He is now half-way through his command of the LE Niamh, with another year to go. “Every year it has gotten better, although it’s not without its challenges. It’s a remarkable career to have, I’m very lucky.”
SALLY THE TURTLE HITCHES LIFT ON NAVY SHIP
The LE Niamh had an unusual guest on board as she made her way to the Mediterranean last October.
A loggerhead turtle called Sally, who had been found by divers off the coast of Kerry in April, hitched a lift back to warmer waters with the Irish crew. The turtle had been the victim of a shark attack, and was rehabilitated in Dingle’s Oceanworld.
Sally travelled in a specially-constructed transportation box for three days, being cared for by the LE Niamh’s crew, before she was released back into the sea near the entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar.
WATCH: Video below of Sally making her way to freedom