Dáil debates

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

4:00 pm

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)

Fine Gael supports this motion and the deployment of a contingent of the Defence Forces to Lebanon on service with the United Nations interim force. Ireland has a long and distinguished record of service both with the UN and in Lebanon and we should play a role in underpinning stability and supporting the ceasefire in the region.

Originally, UNIFIL was created by the UN Security Council in 1978 with a mandate to confirm Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, restore international peace and security and assist the Lebanese Government in restoring its effective authority in the region. Following the extreme crisis earlier this year, the role of UNIFIL has been enhanced and the force will now also monitor the cessation of hostilities, and accompany and support the Lebanese armed forces as they deploy throughout the south of Lebanon.

The force will also extend humanitarian assistance to the civilian population and assist in the return of displaced persons. Hand-in-hand with the revised mandate of UNIFIL II, the maximum troop strength will be increased from 2,000 to 15,000.

The Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces has recommended the deployment of a contingent of approximately 150 personnel as part of a joint Finnish-Irish unit. Given the turmoil and loss of life in the region in recent months, the primary responsibility of this UN force must be to focus on delivering stability and protecting the ceasefire. The issue of the disarmament of Hizbollah and other militias has already been the subject of UN resolutions and should remain the responsibility of the Lebanese Government.

While Fine Gael supports the involvement of members of the Defence Forces in this expanded UN force, the safety of any Irish personnel who may serve in Lebanon is of paramount importance. It is for this reason that I have repeatedly called for an expanded remit for the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights in this matter. A cross-section of informed personnel, including relevant ambassadors, members of the Defence Forces and United Nations personnel, should be invited to appear before the committee to discuss and debate the security situation in Lebanon and the challenges that our troops will face when deployed to the region. Given these undoubted challenges, a forensic analysis of all components of the mission should be required and this could be facilitated through the committee.

It is also of concern to me that we must ensure that the UNIFIL force in Lebanon is respected absolutely by all sides in the conflict. This force must command the support of both the Israeli and Lebanese Governments, and their co-operation will be crucial to the success of the revised mandate of this UN force.

In addition, given the recent bombing raids in the region, there is a heightened risk from unexploded ordnance to Defence Forces personnel on this mission. I would like assurances about the equipment and training which will be made available to members of the Defence Forces who are sent on this mission when dealing with this threat.

There is no doubt that the conflict over the summer was disastrous. No one questions the right of Israel to defend itself, indeed the despicable attacks by Hizbollah against Israeli citizens have seriously undermined stability in the region, as has the inability of the Lebanese Government to deal with that internal threat. Attacks against Israeli centres like Haifa cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely and cannot be expected to go without response from Israel. Having served with the Defence Forces in Lebanon as part of Ireland's commitment to the UN, however, I have seen at first hand the tactics of the Israeli military when dealing with any threat to its border with Lebanon. Whenever this border is threatened, the standard Israeli response is to use an extremely high level of force, effectively terrorising the civilian population.

As on other occasions, the Israeli response over the summer months brought with it an unacceptably high degree of civilian casualty and humanitarian hardship. I recently spoke to a retired colonel who visited Lebanon with Amnesty International and towns and villages he had known were completely flattened and he came across children living in bombed out buildings. Conditions were terrible, he told me. The Israeli strikes against Lebanon have punished the civilian population, undoing much of the vital economic development and rebuilding work that the Lebanese have been engaged in following years of internal and external instability.

It remains a point of some considerable and deep sadness that large sections of Beirut, particularly southern parts of the city, formerly referred to as the Paris of the Middle East in testament to its beauty, should once again be reduced to rubble. The citizens of that city had been engaged in much rebuilding work in recent years. This work was near completion at the start of this year but they now face the prospect of starting all over again.

The 1975-91 civil war seriously damaged Lebanon's economic infrastructure, cut national output by half and all but ended Lebanon's position as a Middle-East banking hub. The more recent peace had enabled the Government to restore control in Beirut once again, to begin collecting taxes and regain access to key port and Government facilities. However, the recent targeting of Lebanese sites by Israel has undone much of this work and a serious economic downturn will be the inevitable consequence. This can only add further to instability in the region.

This is an unusual conflict because there is no dispute over territory. A country is carrying out retribution on a neighbouring civil population it would argue harbours a terrorist group that is attacking its territory. Much of the debate in this country involved people who were definitive in their views but there is right and wrong on both sides. There is no simple solution. At the start there was a call for the UN to go in but it is difficult for that organisation as currently constituted, or NATO or any other force, to enter a conflict when the protagonists do not have any desire for it to come in.

I am critical of how the western world stood back, waiting for a signal from Israel that it had inflicted enough damage and terrorised the population enough before a resolution could be put in place. If that signal had not been given by the Israelis, would the conflict still be continuing? The west lost its moral authority, if it had any in the first place, in this case because of the delay in its reaction.

Once the ceasefire was achieved, we should have taken more of a lead. We hung back until the second tranche before we would commit when we should have declared a willingness to commit if the conditions were in place. Those in place today are fine and we are prepared to support them but every overseas mission has the potential to be dangerous. It is vital that the Minister for Foreign Affairs brings in the Israeli and Iranian ambassadors and the representatives of Syria and Lebanon and outlines to them our role in Lebanon and makes it clear to them that we will not accept targeting of UN positions. In the past, Syrian and Iranian-backed terrorist groups and the Israeli state have been reckless about the safety of UN personnel. Four members of UNIFIL were killed in this conflict, an inexcusable fact, and we must point the finger at the Israelis, although Hizbollah would have used the shelter of this UN position to carry out its attack, similar to Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad using the cover of the civilian population to launch attacks. There are two sides to this.

We are working with the Finnish, a welcome development. If the EU battle group had been in place we would have been able to go in faster and to operate more efficiently when we got on the ground. It is a perfect example of the concept behind EU battle groups.

We may have a humanitarian role. The first UNIFIL deployment kept the peace to a degree but civil society was never improved and it is important when we send people overseas that we look at adding a humanitarian or civilian affairs aspect to the mission to restore civilian administration. Civil administration is non-existent in southern Lebanon at the moment.

This commitment will place a strain on our resources and I ask the Minister to speed up the concept of the reserve serving overseas, particularly in specialist areas. There may be difficulties with employment law but we must improve this, particularly with increased commitments under the EU battle groups.

I also ask the Minister to examine the concept of extending the retirement age for officers. Officers at commandant rank must exit the Defence Forces at 56 having gained much expertise. The cut-off point should be 60, particularly when we are looking at increasing the age of people in the public service. There is a difficulty getting volunteers, particularly in the officer corps, to travel overseas and by increasing the retirement age, it would free up many people.

When the mission ends in Liberia, will we increase our contribution to UNIFIL II or will we go on to another mission? It is great to see our peacekeeping forces going to Lebanon and the UN taking a stand, albeit months after it should have gone. I think of the people of Darfur who are being terrorised by the Government of Sudan and a terrorist organisation, the Janjaweed militia, while we, in the west, stand idly by. This shows the United Nations is frequently ineffective.


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