Dáil debates

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

Overseas Missions: Motion.

 

3:00 pm

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the despatch, pursuant to section 2 of the Defence (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1960, as applied by the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006, of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for service with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, established on 19 March 1978 under UN Security Council Resolutions 425 (1978) and 426 (1978) and in accordance with its additional enhanced mandate as set out in UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (2006) of 11 August 2006.

I thank the House for agreeing to take this motion at short notice. I propose to introduce the motion and provide some brief information on the reason the Government decided to respond positively to the United Nations and provide a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL.

On 3 October 2006, the Government authorised me, as Minister for Defence, to despatch a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for a period of one year for service with the UNIFIL, which was established on 19 March 1978 under UN Security Council Resolutions 425 (1978) and 426 (1978) in accordance with its enhanced-additional mandate as set out in UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (2006) of 11 August 2006. It also authorised me to move a resolution in Dáil Éireann approving the despatch of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for service with UNIFIL in accordance with its enhanced-additional mandate as set out in UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (2006) of 11 August 2006; to make appropriate budgetary provision in consultation with the Minister for Finance to fund the contingent; and to make preparations for the selection, training and equipping of a further contingent of the Permanent Defence Force to provide for the possibility of Ireland's continuing participation in UNIFIL beyond the one-year period, provided that the Security Council renews the mandate of UNIFIL and subject to any further decisions which the Government may take as to continued participation in the force.

Pursuant to this authority, this motion has been placed on the Order Paper for Dáil Éireann. In commending the motion to the House, I will briefly outline the Defence Force's participation in UNIFIL to date and the background to Ireland's response to the United Nations to provide a contingent.

UNIFIL was originally established in March 1978, following the invasion of Lebanon by Israel, with a mandate "to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli Forces, to restore international peace and security and to assist the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area". The Secretary General of the United Nations concluded that, as of 16 June 2000, Israel had withdrawn its forces from Lebanon in accordance with Resolution 425 (1978), thus partially fulfilling UNIFIL's original mandate. Since then, UNIFIL has continued to operate in southern Lebanon.

The mission continued to focus on the remaining part of its mandate, namely, the restoration of peace and security in the region through observing, monitoring and reporting on developments in its area of operation, liaising with the parties with a view to correcting violations along the line of withdrawal, the so-called "blue line", and preventing the escalation of incidents.

On 12 July 2006, the Hizbollah militia launched a raid into Israel, killing a number of soldiers and abducting two. Israel's military response against Hizbollah rapidly escalated into a ground attack across the border into southern Lebanon, air strikes on targets throughout Lebanon, including Hizbollah controlled areas of south Beirut, and the destruction of transport and energy infrastructure. Israeli towns and cities were subject to large-scale attack by Hizbollah rockets. More than 1,000 Lebanese civilians are estimated to have been killed and hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the border were forced to flee the conflict zone.

In response to the crisis, the United Nations Security Council decided, under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, to extend the mandate of UNIFIL to the end of August 2007 and increase its troop strength from approximately 2,000 to a maximum of 15,000. In addition to carrying out its original mandate under Security Council Resolutions 425 and 426, UNIFIL will also monitor the cessation of hostilities and accompany and support the Lebanese armed forces as they deploy throughout the south of Lebanon. It will also help to ensure humanitarian access to civilian populations and the voluntary and safe return of displaced persons. The nature of the expanded UNIFIL mandate is such that its role will be considerably more robust than it was prior to the adoption of Resolution 1701, while still operating under Chapter VI of the UN Charter.

The ceasefire, which took effect on 14 August 2006, has been holding well with only a small number of incidents reported in the days immediately following the official cessation of hostilities. The final withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon was more or less completed on the night of 30 September 2006, in accordance with a general agreement that Israel would leave southern Lebanon by the end of September and once UNIFIL reached 5,000 troops. Israeli troops are still present in the town of Ghajar, which straddles the border. It is hoped the withdrawal of all Israeli troops from the Lebanese portion of Ghajar can be confirmed in the coming days.

The first phase in the three-stage deployment of UNIFIL II was successfully completed with the deployment of approximately 5,000 international troops in southern Lebanon alongside units of the Lebanese army. Full deployment is on course for early November, when UNIFIL will have a strength of 15,000 personnel deployed.

Ireland has participated in UNIFIL since 1978. Between May 1978 and November 2001, the Defence Forces had an infantry battalion with an approximate strength of 540 personnel in Lebanon, together with approximately 100 personnel in UNIFIL headquarters and the force mobile reserve. The battalion's main duty was to provide a presence in the area by operating patrols and checkpoints and manning observation posts. The presence of the Irish battalion in south Lebanon undoubtedly helped to restore a certain normality to the area, as evidenced by the increase in population and economic activity in the region over the course of its deployment. Following the withdrawal of the Irish battalion in November 2001, a small number of Defence Forces personnel continued to serve at the force headquarters in Naqoura. Five personnel are deployed at the force headquarters.

The Government has monitored the situation following the ceasefire of 14 August with a view to determining how best Ireland might contribute to the expanded UNIFIL II mission. As Deputies will appreciate, given our other existing commitments, the Defence Forces have limited resources to contribute to this mission. Against this background, an option was identified whereby Ireland might partner Finnish troops and provide a protection detail to a planned Finnish engineering company. The Defence Forces have operated alongside Finnish troops in various UN missions and are familiar with Finnish operations. In addition, Finland is also one of the participants in the Nordic battle group.

Detailed discussions have taken place between the Defence Forces and their Finnish counterparts, including a joint reconnaissance mission to Lebanon. A Defence Forces team also travelled to Finland to finalise details of a possible joint contribution. The plan envisages the deployment of a Finnish engineering unit with an Irish protection detail in the eastern sector area of Lebanon.

It is planned to deploy a contingent of approximately 150 personnel as part of the joint Finnish-Irish unit. The existing five Defence Forces personnel will continue to be deployed at the UNIFIL force headquarters. At the request of the United Nations, it is also proposed the Irish officer deployed as senior liaison officer in UNIFIL HQ will take up a new appointment at a co-ordination and planning cell to be established within UNIFIL in Beirut. This will ensure effective interaction with the Lebanese authorities.

The Finnish-Irish engineering unit will carry out tasks in support of UNIFIL and humanitarian work, such as dealing with unexploded ordnance clearance. While the Irish element will be tasked primarily for reconnaissance, security and protection duties associated with the engineering works, it will also be available to undertake other tasks at the request of the UNIFIL force commander. These could include protection details, escorts and security duties within their area of operations.

The main portion of deployment to UNIFIL is planned for 30 and 31 October 2006. Initial deployment will be for one year, subject to renewal of the mandate and a satisfactory review of the mission at that time. In line with standing policy that the duration of any deployment should be set at the outset of a mission, it is considered that Defence Forces involvement in UNIFIL should not exceed a maximum of two to three years in duration.

Following the reconnaissance mission and consultation with our Finnish colleagues, UNIFIL and other parties, it is assessed no direct threat to UNIFIL personnel exists. That said, the uncertain and volatile situation means incidents, misunderstandings or wider political developments all have the potential to impact negatively on the peacekeeping operation, while the large quantity of cluster-bomblets and other unexploded ordnance also present a risk.

However, the ceasefire seems to be holding well and the Defence Forces have assessed the overall threat as low within a volatile situation, an estimation not dissimilar to that encountered by Irish personnel on other peace support missions. Given the Defence Forces equipment, training and experience, the Chief of Staff has advised me the mission is within the capability of Defence Forces personnel and they can play a meaningful role.

While Dáil Éireann previously approved the despatch of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for service with UNIFIL under UN Security Council Resolutions 425 and 426, the Attorney General has advised a further Dáil resolution is now required given the expanded role of UNIFIL under UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Hence this resolution before the House.

It is estimated the additional cost to the Defence Vote in transportation, start-up and sustainment costs and overseas allowances will amount to approximately €10.2 million over the initial 12-month period to 31 October 2007. As UNIFIL is a UN-led operation, certain troop and equipment costs incurred by Ireland will be reimbursed. It is estimated that UN reimbursement of costs to the Exchequer will amount to approximately €3 million over a 12-month period. The net additional cost to the Defence Vote will, therefore, amount to approximately €3.8 million in 2006 and €3.4 million in 2007.

We return to Lebanon in unfortunate circumstances and against the backdrop of massive destruction of infrastructure and the communities whom we served for more than 23 years from 1978 to 2001. However, I am confident the Defence Forces will have a real and substantive role in supporting the rebuilding of Lebanon and we will play that role with the same courage, fortitude and commitment as heretofore. I commend the motion to the House.

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