Dáil debates

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

4:00 pm

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the proposed deployment of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for service with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. The recent conflict caused major international difficulties over the summer and gripped Ireland and other countries owing to the slaughter of civilians and destruction of infrastructure that took place in Lebanon.

Once again the Middle East is a major theatre of conflict. In the past, the Palestinian question was the central issue. Now the conflict is considerably broader with the murderous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the threat of nuclear conflict in Iran. Islamic fundamentalism has been given a new momentum and has developed a global character and context. No part of the world is free from this new targeting. The spectacular attacks on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 in New York, the London metro, Madrid railway and Bali holiday resort as well as other smaller and failed attacks have made the world a more dangerous place. The current President of the United States has contributed in no small way to this serious development.

The previous secular regime in Palestine under the Fatah leadership of Yasser Arafat which campaigned for a Palestinian state while recognising Israel's right to statehood has been superseded by the newly elected and more fundamental Hamas organisation, which does not recognise Israel as having any right of existence in the Middle East. The streets of Gaza now regularly experience bloody and bitter conflicts between Fatah and Hamas armed supporters. The turmoil is intense and conflict can spark off very easily in such highly charged circumstances.

Thus it was that the recent conflict began in Lebanon. On 12 July a number of Israeli soldiers on border duty were killed and two were abducted by Hizbollah. Israel retaliated not by negotiation or diplomacy but by immediate invasion of Lebanon, a sovereign state which had not been privy to Hizbollah activity and had not sanctioned or approved of it. On the contrary, the Lebanese Government strongly disapproved of Hizbollah activity. The indiscriminate bombardment of the civilian population, particularly the massacre of women and children at Qana following a similar massacre in the same place in 1996, was an outrageous breach of the Geneva Convention. The targeting and destruction of infrastructure was also deliberate. The propelling of tens of thousands of cluster bombs by the Israeli army in the days before the ceasefire was a calculated decision to leave death and destruction behind when it withdrew and make reconstruction of the infrastructure and tillage of the land a slow and dangerous process.

Eventually, a cessation of hostilities was agreed and the United Nations Security Council decided under UN Resolution 1701 of 11 August 2006 to increase the existing 2,000 UN troops in Lebanon to 15,000. Under the resolution, the UN would monitor the cessation of hostilities, accompany Lebanese forces as they deployed in southern Lebanon and on the border with Israel, assist with the provision of humanitarian aid, the safe return of displaced persons and the reconstruction of the country and work towards a permanent ceasefire.

As the Minister indicated in his briefing note earlier this week:

The nature of the UNIFIL mandate is such that the role of UNIFIL is to be considerably more robust than that of its predecessor while still operating under Chapter VI of the UN Charter (peacekeeping operations mounted under Chapter VI are of the traditional peace keeping type seen heretofore in UNIFIL, where the UN acts as a monitoring, patrolling and observing force after peace has been established).

Ireland's participation in Lebanon was continuous from UNIFIL's establishment in 1978 until 2001. This makes it the longest continuous UN mission in which we have participated. With an infantry battalion of approximately 540 soldiers in Lebanon throughout the mission, thousands of Irish soldiers experienced military service in Lebanon and many paid the ultimate sacrifice giving their lives in the cause of peace in the Middle East.

When the President of Lebanon and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan both strongly requested Irish participation in the new United Nations force it was always likely that Ireland, with its vast experience and track record in Lebanon, would be willing to answer the call and set in motion the triple lock mechanism to do so. Considering our neutral status as a country, our oft demonstrated support for the anti-war campaign in the Middle East, numerous calls inside and outside the Oireachtas for a ceasefire in Lebanon during the conflict and the establishment of a UN peacekeeping mission, it would be little short of churlish and perverse of us to do other than respond positively.

What is more pertinent to the Irish situation today is not that we are responding positively but that we must determine and clarify the role Irish troops will play in Lebanon. From the Minister's remarks, it appears that they will play a supporting role to Finnish troops who will be tasked with undertaking engineering works in the eastern sector of Lebanon. The Irish troops will undertake security, protection and escort duties for approximately 250 Finnish soldiers in an engineering unit. Considering the length of time Irish troops have participated in Lebanon, the experience and expertise they have accumulated in that period and the relationships that have been built with the Lebanese people it seems incredible that a more central role could not have been found for them. Anyone who remembers the television interview with the Lebanese Prime Minister following the cessation of hostilities when the proposal was made for the United Nations to establish a peacekeeping force will remember his heart-felt call for Irish troops to be part of the force, saying they would be very welcome in Lebanon. Surely there is a role for them that would allow their strengths, talents and experience to be employed more meaningfully than as bodyguards for other troops. Surely there are humanitarian tasks to be performed, village reconstruction to be aided and overseen, displaced persons to be accommodated, communities to be assisted and communications networks to be maintained. All of these tasks are more suited to Irish troops given their relevant experience in Lebanon.

The Minister is concerned that incidents and misunderstandings have the potential to impact negatively on the peacekeeping operation. That is all the more reason those with experience on the ground for over a quarter of a century should be more usefully and directly employed. I do not know whether it is too late, as they are due to leave at the end of the month, to widen the role of the Irish contingent. If it is not, the Minister should revisit the matter. I know the initial deployment is for one year, subject to renewal of the mandate and a satisfactory review of the mission after 12 months. If the Minister cannot broaden the remit of the Irish troops now, he should report to the House after the first year of the mission. He should present us with a report and an assessment of the role played by the Irish troops with proposals for its widening where feasible and appropriate.

Although the situation has been described as volatile, the risk is low and the ceasefire, contrary to expectations, has held well. In that context, Irish troops can more easily be deployed in Lebanon without great concerns for their safety, such as might have been expected a month ago. During the summer the Ministers for Defence and Foreign Affairs expressed concern about the instability which they gave as a reason they were delaying the deployment of Irish troops until phase two. The situation has been stabilised. Therefore, it would be easier to revisit the question of a wider and more flexible deployment of Irish troops in the coming months. Perhaps the Minister can come back to the House after the first review, or perhaps he can today specify an area of humanitarian involvement and direct contact with the Lebanese people in which the talents and experience of the Irish troops could be used to the maximum. Although it is one of the key issues, we have heard no word about this from the Minister. One of the key reasons the Irish troops are so welcome in the Lebanon is their talents, experience and expertise, as well as their ability to build good relations with the people.

I welcome this debate and hope there will be no division in the House on the issue. It is part of our role and commitment to the United Nations and against war, wherever it may be, as well as our neutral status that we participate wherever there is instability and threats to peace and wherever the United Nations asks us to do so.


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