Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Select Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality

Defence Forces Report: Motion

2:30 pm

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The next item for consideration is the following motion:

That Dáil Éireann approves the report by the Minister for Defence regarding service by the Defence Forces with the United Nations in 2014, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 29th June, 2015, in accordance with section 13 of the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006.

I invite the Minister to make some brief opening remarks, following which we will have a question and answer session.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am under a bit of time pressure but I will try to be quick and give as comprehensive a statement as I can. I am pleased to report to the committee on Irish Defence Forces' participation in United Nations missions in 2014. The report for 2014 was laid before Dáil Éireann on 29 June 2015. The following motion was been placed on the Order Paper for Dáil Éireann:

That Dáil Éireann approves the report by the Minister for Defence regarding service by the Defence Forces with the United Nations in 2014, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 29th June, 2015, in accordance with section 13 of the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006.

In commending the motion, I will shortly outline some of the key aspects of Ireland's involvement with the UN over the past couple of years. A central tenet of Irish foreign policy is support for the multilateral system of collective security represented by the United Nations. In this regard, Ireland has worked to uphold the primary role of the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security. Ireland reaffirmed this commitment in the Government's recent White Paper on Defence. The White Paper on Defence, which was published in August 2015, sets out the policy framework for the defence organisation for the next ten years and beyond.

Ireland's commitment to the United Nations has found expression in its long-standing tradition of participation in UN peacekeeping operations. Ireland has participated continuously in UN peacekeeping operations since 1958, a service which has comprised more than 64,000 individual tours of duty. No other country in the world has had a longer service. Participation in overseas peacekeeping missions is a key element of Ireland's foreign policy and has been an important dimension in meeting Ireland's international obligations as a member of the UN and the EU. Irish foreign policy is directed at supporting co-operative arrangements for collective security through the development of international organisations, especially the UN. This has included supporting effective international action in areas such as disarmament, peacekeeping, development and human rights. This approach continues to define Irish priorities within the UN system. Notwithstanding our current economic difficulties, Ireland continues to willingly play a full role in contributing to the security of Europe and the world, providing professional peacekeepers to a range of complex missions throughout the world.

During 2014, the Defence Forces continued to make a major contribution to international peacekeeping through their participation in UN-led and UN-authorised missions. Personnel were deployed on 14 different missions throughout the world in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.As of 1 November 2015, Ireland is contributing 489 Defence Forces personnel to 12 missions throughout the world.

In November 2014, in response to a request by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade under the emergency civilian assistance team, ECAT, initiative to assist in Ireland's response to the Ebola crisis in west Africa, a team of three members of the Permanent Defence Forces were deployed to the Embassy of Ireland in Sierra Leone to enhance the embassy's ability to respond to the crisis. The Defence Forces team completed its service in the embassy in June 2015. Five Defence Forces personnel were also deployed to Sierra Leone in January 2015 where they served as part of a UK-led joint inter-agency task force tackling Ebola in west Africa. The Defence Forces completed their service with that mission on 15 September 2015.

Ireland's main commitments during 2014 were to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, and the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, on the Golan Heights. Last December, I had the honour of visiting the 47th infantry group, which was serving with UNIFIL at that time. That visit afforded me the opportunity to see at first hand what the situation facing our troops was like in south Lebanon. I may go out again in a few weeks' time. The UNIFIL mission continues to represent Ireland's largest overseas deployment. Throughout 2014, a contingent comprising approximately 199 Defence Forces personnel was deployed to the UNIFIL mission. The Defence Forces serve as part of a joint Finnish-Irish battalion which is based in Sector West of UNIFIL's area of operations and is currently under Finnish command. It will come under Irish command next year.

Partnership with other like-minded states has become an increasing element of our overseas peacekeeping operations. The participation of both Finland and Ireland in the UNIFIL mission is but one example that demonstrates our joint contribution to international peace and security. In the absence of partners such as Finland, the range and nature of overseas operations which Ireland could undertake in support of international peace and security would be notably curtailed. Such joint deployments further support interoperability, build experience, significantly contribute to the range and nature of operations we can undertake in support of the United Nations and further deepen the excellent bilateral relationship between our countries. The United Nations Security Council, when extending the mandate of UNIFIL on 24 August, reaffirmed its determination to ensure no acts of intimidation would prevent UNIFIL from performing its mandated tasks and recalled the need for all parties to ensure the mission was secure and its freedom of movement was fully respected and unimpeded.

There were two rotations of Irish personnel to UNIFIL in 2014. The Defence Forces' contribution to UNIFIL in 2014 comprised the 42nd infantry group, with approximately 184 personnel, and the 45th infantry group, with approximately 186 personnel. Also, a number of Defence Forces personnel served at UNIFIL sector west headquarters in Shama and at the force headquarters in Naqoura. Brigadier General Patrick Phelan who was appointed by the United Nations as deputy force commander UNIFIL in April 2012 completed his assignment in April 2014. I thank him for his outstanding contribution to the success of the mission and wish him every success in the future.

Ireland’s second largest overseas deployment in 2014 was to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, on the Golan Heights in Syria. There were two rotations in 2014. The second, involving the 44th infantry group, was delayed by two weeks in response to a UN request to allow time for the mission to reconfigure following incidents in the UNDOF area of responsibility in August 2014. I suspect members will recall the incidents in question. The 46th infantry group completed its rotation in September 2014. The Irish contingent, comprising approximately 130 personnel, is tasked primarily with serving as the force mobile reserve within the UNDOF area of responsibility. In addition to the force reserve company, there are eight other Defence Forces personnel based in UNDOF headquarters in Camp Ziouani.

Fighting between Syrian Arab armed forces and anti-government armed elements escalated in the UNDOF area of responsibility during the reporting period. In August 2014 and in response to the hostilities, the Irish contingent, in its capacity as the force reserve company, dealt with several incidents, as requested by the force commander UNDOF, including assisting with the safe extraction of members of the Philippine battalion. There has since been a fundamental realignment of the UNDOF mission, with a view to minimising unacceptable risks to peacekeepers, while continuing to implement the mission’s mandate. In September 2014 the headquarters of the UNDOF mission, including the Irish contingent, was relocated from Camp Faouar on the Syrian side of the area of separation to Camp Ziouani on the Israeli side of the area of separation. Movement in the area of separation has also been restricted since September 2014. The United Nations continues to review the mission and provides regular updates on the mission for the Security Council in this regard.

Reflecting the high regard in which Irish peacekeepers were held, Brigadier General Anthony Hanlon was appointed by the United Nations as deputy force commander of UNDOF on 20 September 2014 for an initial one-year period. At the request of the United Nations, his appointment has been extended until 31 March 2016. UNDOF is assisted by military observers from the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation's observer group Golan which currently includes six Irish officers.

Ireland contributes military observers and staff to various United Nations missions such as the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation, UNTSO. Thirteen Irish personnel, including the head of mission and chief-of-staff of the UNTSO, Brigadier General Michael Finn, were deployed to the mission over the course of 2014. Brigadier General Michael Finn, or Mick Finn as he is known to most people, was appointed head of mission of the UNTSO by the United Nations in July 2013 in the rank of major general and had his appointment extended for a further period until the end of July 2015 at the request of the United Nations. I thank him for his outstanding contribution to the success of the mission and wish him well in his retirement.

I also had an opportunity to visit Irish troops serving with the European Union Training Mission in Mali, EUTM Mali, on 19 March. Ten Defence Forces personnel are serving with this mission, six of whom are deployed to the joint UK-Irish infantry training team, with one lieutenant colonel serving as executive officer to the training task force based in Koulikoro and three remaining Irish personnel occupying staff appointments in mission headquarters in Bamako. In this regard, I express my condolences and sympathy to the victims of the awful attack in Bamako in recent days.

During my visit to Mali I had the opportunity to meet the EUTM Mali mission commander, Brigadier General García-Vaquero Pradal, and the Irish troops serving with the mission. The visit also afforded me an opportunity to see at first hand the dedication and professionalism of military personnel and the tremendous work done by them in training and mentoring the Malian armed forces to improve their military capacity. I conveyed to the troops our deep appreciation of the outstanding manner in which they continued to perform their duties on overseas service.

Other missions in which Defence Forces personnel were deployed in 2014 were the EUFOR mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with seven personnel; the NATO-led international security presence or KFOR in Kosovo, with 12 personnel; and the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, in Afghanistan, with seven personnel. On 31 December 2014 the International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan ended and the seven Defence Forces personnel who had been serving with the mission transferred to the NATO-led training and advisory follow-on mission, known as Resolute Support, on 1 January 2015. Fourteen Defence Forces personnel were deployed to the Nordic battlegroup headquarters in Sweden from July to December 2014 and a number of Defence Forces personnel staffed appointments at UN, EU and OSCE headquarters.

The Defence Forces completed their service with the EU Training Mission in Somalia, EUTM Somalia, on 14 April 2014. The Defence Forces had been serving with the mission since April 2010. Ireland also provided the mission commander during the period from August 2011 until February 2014.

Ireland continued its deployment of five members of the Permanent Defence Force for service with the United Nations Mine Action Service, UNMAS, in South Sudan until September 2014 when Ireland completed its service with the mission. The role of Irish personnel deployed to the mission was to provide a specialist training team on conventional munitions disposal, mine and specialist search awareness for South Sudanese police officers.

It is important for Ireland to continue to build on its long tradition of service to the founding principles of the United Nations by making practical commitments of personnel to peace support operations. I assure the committee that, notwithstanding the economic challenges we are facing, the Government is committed to ensuring the Defence Forces will continue to contribute in a meaningful way to overseas operations. Members will note that, notwithstanding Article 42.7 of the Lisbon treaty and the challenges faced by France and the European Union, Ireland had planned a significant increase in deployment next year, particularly with UNIFIL. Relative to its size, available resources and capabilities, both financial and military, Ireland is proportionately a very large peacekeeping contributor within the international community. Overseas service is a core activity of the Defence Forces and Ireland's record of service in UN authorised peace support operations is second to none. The Defence Forces continue to make a significant contribution to such operations throughout the world. The Government places high importance on the valuable work being done by members of the Defence Forces overseas.

I fully recognise the importance of operational experience in peace support operations for the ongoing development of the Defence Forces. I had the honour to see at first hand the dedication and professionalism of our Defence Forces personnel serving overseas during my visits to UNDOF, UNIFIL, UNTSO, and EUTM in Mali. Last month, I met the commander and crew of LE Samuel Beckett, and previously I met the crew of the LE Eithne.

The LE Samuel Beckett, which succeeded theLE Eithneand the LE Niamh, is deployed to the Mediterranean to assist the Italian authorities on a bilateral basis in the humanitarian search and rescue operation efforts to prevent further tragedy and loss of life at sea. The three naval vessels have rescued a combined total of 8,592 migrants to date. As of today, this figure may have increased. The LE Samuel Beckettis scheduled to complete its deployment in early December 2015. It is due back between 14 and 17 December, subject to ongoing assessment of the crisis and the operational need to continue to provide such assistance. The need for a further deployment to the operation in the Mediterranean next year will be evaluated over the coming months and will be considered in the context of the ongoing situation in the Mediterranean and the overall EU response to it. While I intend that we will have a presence in the Mediterranean next spring, it is subject to Government approval. We must keep in close contact with our Italian colleagues to ensure our personnel are deployed where they are needed. It has been a very successful and worthwhile mission.

The current contribution of some 489 personnel to 12 overseas missions is very significant in the context of the reduced resources available for defence over recent years. It reflects the Government’s continued commitment to our responsibilities in the area of international peace and security. I acknowledge the significant demands placed on personnel who serve overseas and on their families when they are away. Without their loyal and continuing support, Ireland’s strong tradition of service overseas under the auspices of the United Nations would not be possible. Their committed and dedicated service in overseas missions reflects well not alone on the Defence Forces but on the nation as a whole, and contributes to Ireland’s excellent reputation among peacekeepers throughout the world.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I fully endorse the Minister's concluding comments on the pride Irish people take in our Defence Forces, who serve our country with honour, particularly in the blue helmet peacekeeping missions overseas. We are all immensely proud of and grateful to them for what they have done for us in the international community.

Regarding the UNIFIL operation, there are increased tensions in Lebanon. There was a recent bombing in Beirut by so-called Islamic State. Are there any new security procedures for the infantry there to follow? Does the Minister believe the escalation will reach the areas where they are serving?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We keep the security and risk levels to our troops under constant review. A bomb, claimed by Daesh, exploded in southern Beirut with great tragedy. It is some time since we have seen this level of bombing or violence in Beirut, and people would suspect it is very much linked with what is happening in Syria, given that it is a stronghold of Hezbollah, which is very active in fighting in Syria. Our focus is on ensuring our troops are safe, and they are. They are located far from the bombing site. It will be kept under constant review.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Regarding UNDOF, we were concerned about whether the mission was fit for purpose. It is a deadly war zone in the region, and shares a border with Syria. Our troops acted with great bravery and skill in extracting the Filipino battalion, which was surrounded by hostile rebels. Is the Minister concerned about the escalating tensions in the area and Russian aircraft being shot down? What is the Minister’s assessment of the threat to our peacekeeping forces?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The nature of the mission has changed much over a relatively short space of time. There has been a fundamental reconfiguration of how and where it operates. It was an observer mission. For many years, the mission was observing in relatively stable and peaceful conditions. The idea was to keep Syria and Israel apart. It is one of the UN’s oldest peacekeeping missions. It all changed with a very violent and ongoing civil war involving multiple players in Syria. The territory on the Syrian side of the "Alpha" line has become an unsafe place for peacekeepers to operate as observers. They are not armed or equipped for the potential risk. Irish troops behaved in a heroic manner in rescuing and supporting colleagues who were exposed in outposts. The mission has been reconfigured following the lessons learned from the activity.

Our troops and the vast majority of the mission, with the exception of some outposts and a contingent on Mount Hermon, which is a little further away, is in its base camp or headquarters on the Israeli side of the Alpha line. Much is still happening on the other side of the line, and rockets and gunfire can often been seen by night. Many people, and a political party, have called for us to pull out of UNDOF. I do not think we should. The UN is adamant that it wants us to stay. The mission is undoubtedly a stabilising factor, although it is not able to do all it was designed and is mandated to do. We hope to be able to return to a position in which it can. Strategically, having a UN mission there as a stabilising factor and observation force decreases the likelihood of Israel getting drawn into the conflict. This is why we are very happy to stay and we think it is a very valuable contribution.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

On the EU training mission in Mali, there has been a request for more troops under Article 42.7 of the Lisbon treaty, the mutual assistance agreement. It would mean French troops would be pulled out of Mali to be deployed as their President and Government see fit. Is the Minister considering deploying more Irish troops in Mali? What assurances can he give the Irish people about their safety, given the ongoing serious concerns about the stability of Mali?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Everybody would probably like to ask that question. Mali has been a dangerous place for some time. What happened in the Radisson Blu in Bamako last week was a tragedy for many people concerned. Mali has had many challenges for some time. Some 20 EU countries have peacekeeping, peace training or peace enforcement troops in Mali. There is a major European effort to try to stabilise the country and have the Mali Government stabilise the country and protect its own people. Ireland is playing a very important, practical and real role there in a training mission. I have been there and have witnessed it.

Since the Paris attacks, France has said it has multiple peacekeeping responsibilities across north Africa, as a result of which it feels very stretched.

If it is decided to redeploy troops from peacekeeping missions to focus on national security issues, gaps will obviously emerge. It is in terms of filling some of those gaps that Ireland is considering whether it can be of assistance to the United Nations. Obviously, we have spoken to France about that. It is an ongoing discussion. We actually had a reconnaissance mission in Mali before the attacks in Paris to consider whether we could do more there given the success of the training mission there to date. That is very helpful in terms of making an assessment. I reassure everyone listening that we will not send Irish troops anywhere without an appropriate risk assessment, appropriate reconnaissance and the usual reports that a Government needs and demands from its military and Department of Defence before it can sanction the sending of Irish Defence Forces personnel anywhere. There will be no knee-jerk reaction, but we obviously want to try to be helpful if we can. The recent tragedies and terrorism in Europe are resulting in a changed debate on security.

The role Ireland can play is to do what it is good at without compromising its neutrality or any other settled foreign or defence policies that apply. We are good at peacekeeping and have considerable capacity and experience in this area. If we can contribute to helping in UN missions as a result of the redeployment of French resources, we will consider that. It is a process that will be subject to the triple-lock system. There will be further debate on it if I bring any recommendations to the Government. We certainly will not rush anything on that score.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

With regard to the obviously necessary process we are involved in, we must review the report dealing with service overseas in 2014, which report is effectively historical. As is evident from the very legitimate questions that my colleagues Deputy Mac Lochlainn raised, it is impossible to have this discussion without spilling over into current activity.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We really should not do so, but I ask the Deputy to proceed.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am not going to go there. I am happy that the Minister has covered a number of the significant areas. Perhaps future committees reviewing reports such as this should meet to discuss ongoing overseas service more frequently so current issues can be dealt with as they arise.

As the Minister and others have done, I pay tribute to all of those currently serving overseas and those who have done so over a number of decades. While serving in an extraordinary number of theatres and in a variety of locations and facing diverse challenges, the troops have distinguished themselves always in terms of the service they have given. When one speaks to the people on the street about the Defence Forces, they speak first and foremost about the role the troops play in peacekeeping and peace enforcement. The troops cannot engage in this role without the support of their families back home who, in supporting them, suffer from considerable pressure and face many additional demands. We should acknowledge that.

Having regard to the report on overseas service in 2014, could the Minister state what percentage of the personnel currently serving overseas are female? The Minister alluded earlier to the problem with recruiting females to the service. The proportion of females is 6% nationally. What is the proportion serving overseas?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We can get the Deputy the exact figure. I understand that the last rotation that went to UNIFIL had the highest ever female representation on a rotation 20 mission. I believe there were 30 women, which is quite significant. Actually, I would rather not be quoted on that. Let me get the Deputy the exact figure. Thirty out of just under 200 sounds very high, come to think of it, but I know the number was significantly higher than previously. I will send the Deputy the figures. Some 6.2% of those serving in the Permanent Defence Force at present are women. We want to double the figure in the next five to ten years.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I have a copy of the report, which I read some days ago. The report is almost the same as the Minister's statement; there is very little difference between the two. There are some extra remarks in the statement that are not in the report. It is all welcome. I join colleagues in paying tribute to the Defence Forces, and I thank the Minister and his officials for attending.