Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 8 March 2018
Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
Service by the Defence Forces with the United Nations in 2016: Motion
In this session, members will consider a motion regarding the proposal that Dáil Éireann approves the report by the Minister for Defence regarding service by the Defence Forces with the United Nations in 2016, which was referred to the committee by Dáil Éireann on 20 February 2018.
I invite the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe to make his opening statement.
Before we begin consideration of this motion, I would like to deal with another matter. Earlier, a number of people spoke about health and safety in the Air Corps. Under my instructions, the General Officer Commanding, GOC, Irish Air Corps, Brigadier General Seán Clancy, has invited the committee to visit the Air Corps base and I ask that the Chairman and the committee secretariat arrange that visit through my office. I would encourage committee members to visit the Air Corps to see the improvements that have been made in terms of health and safety.
I am pleased to report to the committee on the Irish Defence Forces' participation in United Nations missions in 2016. The report for 2016 was laid before Dáil Éireann on 5 October 2017. The following motion has been placed on the Order Paper of Dáil Éireann and referred to this committee:
That Dáil Éireann approves the report by the Minister for Defence regarding service by the Defence Forces with the United Nations in 2016, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 5 October 2017, 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 in 2016. Ireland’s commitment to supporting the UN on international peace and security issues has been demonstrated through continuous participation in UN peacekeeping missions since 1958. 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. At present, there are some 586 members of the Permanent Defence Force serving in missions overseas. Irish troops are deployed in UN-led and UN-mandated missions in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
Ireland’s main commitments during 2016 were to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, and the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, on the Golan Heights. The UNIFIL mission continues to represent Ireland's largest overseas deployment. At the request of the United Nations, a contingent of Defence Forces personnel deployed to UNIFIL in mid-2011. Ireland has served as part of a joint battalion comprising Irish and Finnish troops since June 2012. Since May 2015, the Finnish contingent has included an Estonian platoon of some 40 personnel. Command of the joint battalion has rotated between Ireland and Finland, by agreement. Ireland has been in command of the joint battalion since November 2016.
Partnership with like-minded states has become an increasing element of our overseas peacekeeping operations. Working with like-minded states is critical to overcoming the new and ever-emerging challenges we face. Together, we can provide support for fragile states and work to prevent conflict from escalating. Also, in the absence of partners, the range and nature of overseas operations which Ireland could undertake in support of international peace and security would be notably curtailed.
There were two rotations of Irish personnel during 2016 comprising the 53rd Infantry Group in May and the 109th Infantry Battalion in November. At 31 December 2016, there were 379 Irish personnel serving with the mission. An Irish officer, Major General Michael Beary, took up the post of head of mission and force commander with UNIFIL in July 2016. At the request of the UN, his appointment has been extended until July 2018. His appointment to this prestigious post is a tribute to the fine reputation of Irish peacekeepers over the years and to the skills and attributes that they bring to the job. It is also a tribute to the professional competence, experience and integrity of Major General Beary himself.
The United Nations Security Council has extended the mandate of UNIFIL until 31 August 2018. Ireland's second largest overseas deployment in 2016 was to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, on the Golan Heights. The Defence Forces contribution to UNDOF in 2016 comprised the 52nd Infantry Group and the 54th Infantry Group, each with approximately 130 personnel. The Infantry Group operated in the role of a quick reaction force on stand-by to assist with ongoing operations within the UNDOF area of responsibility. At the request of the UN, Brigadier General Anthony Hanlon was extended in his appointment as deputy force commander, UNDOF, until 21 May 2016. The security situation in the UNDOF area of operation is continually reviewed by the UN and the Defence Forces.
The continued presence of the UNDOF mission remains an important element in ensuring stability on the Golan Heights and in the Middle East generally despite the ongoing conflict in the region. It should be noted that the role of UNDOF is one of being an observer in regard to the separation agreement between Israel and Syria. It is not a peacekeeping or peace-enforcement mission. Its continued presence is supported and welcomed by both Syria and Israel.
Ireland continued to contribute military observers and staff to various UN missions throughout the year under review. The main mission in this regard is UNTSO. Twelve Irish personnel were deployed to this mission in 2016, including Colonel Eamon Caulfield as Deputy Chief of Staff of UNTSO.
Ireland increased the contingent of personnel deployed to the EU training mission in Mali to 18 during 2016. The objective of this mission is to improve the capacity of the Malian armed forces to maintain security in Mali and restore the authority of the Malian Government. Ireland has participated in EUTM Mali since the mission was launched in 2013. Ireland's contribution to the mission has been further increased and currently 20 Irish Defence Forces personnel are deployed to EUTM Mali.
Other missions in which Defence Forces personnel were deployed in 2016 were the EU-led mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, EUFOR, with seven personnel; the NATO-led international security presence in Kosovo, KFOR, with 12 personnel; and the Resolute Support Mission, RSM, in Afghanistan, with seven personnel. Ireland withdrew from RSM in March 2016.
In addition, during 2016 a small number of Defence Forces officers continued to serve with MINURSO, the UN mission for the referendum in Western Sahara, MONUSCO, the UN stabilisation mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and UNOCI, the UN operation in Côte d'Ivoire.
I had the opportunity to travel to Mali in October 2016 to meet the Irish personnel serving with the EUTM Mali mission. The Taoiseach and I visited UNIFIL in December 2017, and next week I will be travelling to the UNIFIL, UNTSO and UNDOF missions. Such visits are a valuable opportunity to be briefed on the situation and the challenges facing the respective mission areas.It is also an opportunity to thank the members of the Defence Forces for the incredible work they are doing in overseas missions.
During 2016 and again in 2017, I met with fellow defence Ministers to discuss contributions to peace-support operations and UN commitments to progress peacekeeping reform. These summits provide an opportunity to consider the evolution of UN peacekeeping as we face new and more complex security and peacekeeping challenges across the globe.
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 taken seriously its obligation under the UN charter to make available to the Security Council armed forces, assistance and facilities in order to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security. The current contribution, of some 586 personnel, to overseas missions is very significant in the context of the resources available for defence. This figure will increase further in 2018, with the planned consecutive deployments this year of two Naval Service ships as part of Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean. In 2018, in the region of 650 personnel will be deployed to overseas missions.
As a long-standing contributor to UN peacekeeping missions globally, we are very aware of the challenging nature of the missions we assign to our personnel. The UN is in the process of reforming its peacekeeping operations with a view to becoming more effective and cost-efficient and being more transparent and accountable in its decisions. In this connection, the promotion of a strong gender perspective is a key element in all our peacekeeping operations and an important part of improving the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping operations.
UN peacekeeping continues to be one of the most flexible and effective tools available to the international community in responding to crises around the world. Any reforms that create the conditions for successful peacekeeping operations and thereby produce tangible improvements in the lives of the people under protection in mission areas are to be welcomed.
Operational experience in peace-support operations is essential for the ongoing development of the Defence Forces. It is important to acknowledge, however, that participation in peace-support missions comes at a personal cost for individuals, who must be away from families and friends for extended periods of time in unfamiliar and difficult environments. Without their commitment and dedication Ireland's strong tradition of service overseas, under the auspices of the United Nations, would not be possible.
Since 1958, over 65,000 Defence Forces personnel have served on overseas missions. This year also marks significant anniversaries in relation to our UN peacekeeping role. It will be the 60th anniversary of Irish participation in UN peacekeeping missions and it will be the 40th anniversary of our first deployment to Lebanon as part of the UNIFIL mission. This is an opportune time for me to acknowledge the significant contribution that they have made to UN peacekeeping operations over many years.
I commend the motion to the committee.
I wish to raise a number of issues. I welcome the report in the main. I commend the work over 40 years. UNIFIL, in particular, has been a testament to the work of the soldiers in the Defence Forces. They have set a standard and have earned much praise for the country because of their actions. It is opportune that Major General Michael Beary is heading the mission in UNIFIL although he has come under quite vicious attack from both the Israeli representatives and the United States Ambassador to the United Nations in recent times. His credibility has been slighted by those representatives. In December, what was being said of him was reported. We should use the opportunity to stand fully behind him and the soldiers who have acted under him in recent times and also the previous detachments from the Irish Defence Forces who have served in Lebanon with distinction and who have been under physical attack from the forces they were trying to keep apart and that are represented at the United Nations. They are the very same ones who are attacking or questioning the Major General's ability. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Ms Nikki Haley, said UNIFIL was giving terrorism a pass in the area and that Major General Beary was blind to Hezbollah's actions. Furthermore, she said he had an embarrassing lack of understanding of what is going on and seemed to be the only person in southern Lebanon who was blind to what Hezbollah was doing.
The Minister of State said he is visiting the UNIFIL mission next week. I hope he will be able to inform Major General Beary and the soldiers serving under him of the support of this committee and that, despite the attacks at such a high level, we are fully behind the work in the area. The actions of Irish soldiers and others in the UNIFIL mission have resulted in relative peace in the area. As I stated, their work has stood up for us internationally.
I have had and still have doubts about the mission in Mali because of the activity of the Malian army in the past and its still-questionable activities.
With regard to the mission in Western Sahara, it is good that the Irish are participating. It is a pity it is not matched by the European Union's actions. We need to see the referendum on independence in Western Sahara. That is what the mission is meant to encourage but it has not happened to date.
The Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan is a NATO mission.
I do not think Irish troops should have any role to play in a mission that has any connection with NATO. Irish soldiers should not be involved in such missions.
I would like to put on record once again how proud we are of the Irish forces who serve in various parts of the world on peacekeeping missions. I emphasise "peacekeeping". We are experts in it and have been doing it in Lebanon for about 40 years. I was there myself when I was Minister for Defence and I saw these people in operation. We should be very proud of them.
I reject any criticism that is levelled at us from anybody in respect of the work of our peacekeepers. We are not and should never become associated with one group or another. We are there for a given purpose, to keep peace. It is important that this committee let its feelings be known. We are very proud of our peacekeepers and it behoves us to remind people that their location and the work they do is peacekeeping. We are not on one side or the other. It is a very difficult task but we are experts at it.
I ask the Minister of State to pass on our congratulations to all these peacekeeping missions, whether they involve 100 people or 30 people. I have seen it myself and the Minister of State has seen it as well. They are wonderful and are highly respected throughout the world. I reject any criticism that is levelled. People should be reminded that they are peacekeepers. They are not there to support one regime or another. Sometimes they have to make difficult choices but they do so according to the purpose for which they are in that particular location. I want to put on record my full support for the role and work of our peacekeepers abroad.
Most things have been said. Overall, the report is very positive and very welcome. As Deputy Seán Barrett has said, we are extremely proud of our soldiers who serve on overseas missions. I have made the point several times that it is not a holiday they embark upon but very serious missions which pose a threat to life and safety and to their health and well-being. They undertake this in the service of their country, maintaining peace and sometimes enforcing peace. It is part of our international obligation to participate with other like-minded states in working towards global peace and ensuring security across the globe. We have as important a role to play as any other country. Despite our small geographic size, we have quite a large stature on the international stage and we certainly display that, particularly with our Defence Forces and our work overseas. To see that we have sent some 65,000 members of the Defence Forces overseas since 1958 is quite remarkable and extremely impressive. As citizens, we should all be very proud of this.
We are celebrating our 60th anniversary with UN peacekeeping missions and our 40th anniversary in UNIFIL. These are milestones to be celebrated and to be proud of. Has the Minister of State or anyone in his Department thought about how we might mark the occasion? Might it be worth erecting some sort of statue or monument to recognise our UN veterans, in particular, and those who have served on UN missions overseas? They have represented our country and our Defence Forces with distinction. Given the year that it is in it and the fact that we have reached these incredible milestones, it would be a really worthwhile project to consider some sort of monument, perhaps somewhere here in the capital. It could become a location for children in school, young people and citizens across the board who are very proud of their soldiers to come and learn about the history of Ireland's participation in UN projects. It could form part of a visitor attraction. We should think about doing this to try to acknowledge the work that has been done. Ours is a unique achievement in this regard. There are plenty of people who might come up with some design concepts. I have seen one that included the blue helmet as part of the design, which I thought looked very impressive. It would be instantly recognisable in what it represents. The Minister of State might discuss this with his officials to see if it is something that could be achieved this year.
I thank our Defence Forces members. There are nearly 600 members overseas at present. I thank them and their families, who are without their loved ones for the period of the mission. Let us not forget the partners and children who are themselves serving their country in their own way.
The Minister of State will be heading away next week to meet with members of the Defence Forces. The committee conveys its thanks and appreciation for the work they are doing. They are doing wonderful work. They take great pride in their work everywhere they go. As peacekeepers, they have been protecting people all over the world for many years. When our peacekeepers are coming home, it is wonderful to see the excitement from the families. The families are suffering as well. Young children and wives, partners and everybody else associated with our peacekeepers have a difficult job while the soldiers are serving abroad. It is only right and proper that we acknowledge everybody - families, extended families and everybody associated with this. It is a great achievement for the country. We are certainly punching well above our weight, which has been acknowledged worldwide.
In conclusion, I endorse the remarks of our colleagues. I hope the Minister of State will have the opportunity, when speaking with our peacekeepers during his St. Patrick's week visit, to convey to them the committee's unanimous appreciation of the work they do. That is the unanimous view of the Irish people as well. I know some families in which the third generation has now served on peacekeeping missions. That is a great tribute to those families. As Deputy Lisa Chambers said, it is not easy for the partners left at home. They are generally families in which there may be young children. It is not easy but they have given and continue to give great service to our State.
I saw some political commentary at the weekend suggesting that some Fine Gael MEPs will be bringing out a radical policy document on neutrality and our defence policies. I hope that before the end of week, we will hear the Minister of State staunchly defending the triple lock system and our neutrality in order to be reflective of the views of this committee. We will leave it to the Minister of State's good self to do that.
I forgot to say one thing about our peacekeeping college. It is the greatest establishment and has been there for so many years, yet very few people actually know about it. I keep reminding people about the role of a peacekeeping college. When I was Minister for Defence, I got a visit from the US military attaché seeking to know whether it would be in order for him to recommend to his superiors that they send their key personnel to our peacekeeping college. He said to me: "You know, Minister, we know nothing about peacekeeping. All we know is that we train young soldiers to use the best equipment in the world and we give it to them when they are trained and send them off on peacekeeping missions." The role of that peacekeeping college is incredible. It should be given more publicity and greater awareness. The Minister of State might consider having some sort of ceremony at some stage to highlight the role of the peacekeeping college so that the public at large can know about it and the reputation it has far and wide.
I am injury time as well as I have to head to Donegal. Deputy Ó Snodaigh raised the anniversaries of 40 years in UNIFIL and 60 years in the UN. He praised the standard we have set and the great ability of Major General Mick Beary. I will of course pass on his comments.
UN Under-Secretary General Lacroix visited the UNIFIL mission only last week and fully praised the work of Major General Mick Beary and acknowledged the professional work he was carrying out. The Deputies mentioned a number of other missions and I will pass on their good comments. Deputies Lisa Chambers and Seán Barrett are experts.
The UN peacekeeping college will be very much part and parcel of the celebration of 60 years of peacekeeping, 40 with UNIFIL which we should celebrate. Deputy Lisa Chambers outlined a number of ideas in that regard. I have set up a civil military group comprising representatives of the Department and An Garda Síochána because Garda members also participated in peacekeeping missions during the years alongside members of the Defence Forces. There will be an appropriate ceremony which will involve as many people as possible. The Deputy could have stolen my march on events at schools. I have asked for reviews of peacekeeping missions to be carried out outside the walls of barracks in a public space, not inside them, to which we can then invite as many members of the public as possible. Since my appointment, I have insisted on bringing along as many primary and secondary school pupils as possible. I hope we can involve schools in some way in the anniversary celebrations. It is important to do so, as it would be an opportune time to promote the Defence Forces.
I will pass on the committee's good wishes, as requested by Deputy Tony McLoughlin. An invitation was issued to members to visit the UNIFIL mission.
I have nothing to do with the drafting of the document being produced by Fine Gael MEPs, but I read with interest a leaked version in last weekend's newspaper. I have not yet seen a full copy of the document, but I will read it with interest.
I always thought Fine Gael was a disciplined party and that nothing happened without senior people knowing about it.
On behalf of the committee, I thank the Minister of State and his officials for attending and dealing with all of the issues raised. He will correspond with us on a number of issues, particularly those related to the Estimates.