Dáil debates

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

3:00 pm

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

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I wish to share my time with Deputy Coveney.

Séamus Pattison (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

4:00 pm

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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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.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Timmins for sharing time. I am pleased to support the Government's proposal to deploy troops to Lebanon as part of UNIFIL II. I have been accused of taking a somewhat gung-ho approach to this issue in encouraging the Government to make the decision it has confirmed in the Chamber today. That is not the case. I am aware the commitment to deploy troops is a serious one and that Ireland has experienced tragedy in Lebanon where 48 Irish servicemen lost their lives. I pay tribute to them.

We should not lose sight of the fact that this deployment offers an opportunity to play a small but valuable part in perhaps the most important European Union led United Nations mission of our time. People were horrified over the summer to see close coverage of a war which flattened Lebanon. Ireland has an opportunity to play a role trying to ensure we build peace in a region about which we know something. It is not often the Secretary General specifically calls on the European Union to offer leadership for a mission. He also asked countries with experience in Lebanon to show courage and make a contribution of troops to the mission. While it would have been helpful if the Government had made a commitment to deploy troops before now, this decision is nevertheless welcome and has my strong support.

I am fortunate to have been involved in the debate on UNIFIL II in the European Parliament, during which many MEPs posed the same questions. Will our troops be safe in Lebanon? Will they be asked to disarm Hizbollah on the ground? If this had been the case, it would have given rise to serious concerns but most of these concerns have been allayed. Those listening who share them should note the responsibility of disarming Hizbollah lies with Lebanese forces. This responsibility, which must be fulfilled, forms part of the UN resolution underpinning the UNIFIL II mission. Irish troops and forces from other EU and non-EU member states who make up the 15,000 strong contingent must support the Lebanese army in this difficult task.

Many other jobs, for example, de-mining, must be done on the ground. Disgracefully, the Israelis, particularly in the final few days of the conflict, used cluster bombs to savage effect. Unfortunately, as people returned to their villages, largely consisting of rubble, they had to face the dangers of thousands of unexploded small munitions from cluster bombs.

Both sides are to blame for the conflict of the summer. The UNIFIL mission, with Ireland supporting a large European Union force, can make a valuable contribution towards building lasting peace and stability in a region which is crying out for both.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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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.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt leis na Teachtaí Gormley, Finian McGrath agus Joe Higgins.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo agus go bhfuil an Rialtas sásta an rún seo a phlé sa Teach inniú. Níl ach 65 nóiméid i gceist. Ní leor sin agus sinn ag plé beatha 150 fir agus mná Éireannacha agus a gclann. Ba chóir go mbeadh an díospóireacht seo sa choiste, áit ina mbeadh níos mó ama againn na ceisteanna seo a chíoradh i gceart agus baint go mion leis na sonraí atá i gceist. Caithfimid déileáil leis an méid atá os ár gcomhair agus is trua nach bhfuil ach 65 nóiméid againn.

According to the Irish United Nations Veterans Association, since 1958 the Defence Forces have provided 70,000 soldiers for tours of duty overseas in 40 countries. Some 85 members of the Defence Forces have died overseas and many more have been injured. It is always important that overseas missions are fully scrutinised before the deployment of Irish soldiers. It is particularly important in the case of UNIFIL, given the threat posed to the personnel by Israel which last summer demonstrated again its willingness to kill United Nations personnel with impunity. Last July Israeli shelling resulted in the deaths of four UN observers despite the fact that UN peacekeepers had warned Israeli soldiers ten times to stop the shelling. This is not the first time Israel has shown absolute disregard for the lives of UN staff. In 2002 Israeli occupying forces in the West Bank killed UN Relief and Works Agency project manager Mr. Iain Hook. The direct threat posed by Israel to members serving with UNIFIL must be recognised and the Minister has not done this.

Sinn Féin had hoped the resolution extending the UNIFIL mission would provide for deployment on both sides of the border and give UNIFIL a mandate to monitor Israeli activities. Unfortunately and foolishly, the mandate does not extend to this. The mission is in south Lebanon alone. However, given that the Lebanese are supportive of the UN mission, Sinn Féin also supports it but we are concerned about some aspects of the expanded mandate. The Department of Defence briefing notes state the role of UNIFIL is to to be "considerably more robust" but claims that it still operates under Chapter VI of the UN Charter. Chapter VI covers traditional peacekeeping tasks such as monitoring, patrolling and observing. However, according to a senior US State Department official, the resolution expanding UNIFIL's role has all the characteristics of a Chapter VII resolution. It walks, talks and acts like a Chapter VII resolution. Chapter VII allows for enforcement by military means. The Minister must clarify whether the more robust role of UNIFIL II strays into the arena of Chapter VII. Although he addressed some of these issues, I would like him to go further in ensuring we are not straying into the arena of Chapter VII.

While Ireland has a proud record of involvement in peacekeeping missions overseas, including Lebanon, where Irish members have been stationed since 1978, it is important to remember that there have been mistakes and we should avoid repeating them. During the years there have been reports of discrimination or differential treatment by UNIFIL of Muslims versus Christians. Some former members informed me that at times the Israeli-backed Christian militias were given a free run in UNIFIL-patrolled areas, while some members of the Muslim population were treated poorly. I hope that will not be the case on this occasion. I am aware that it was not the case in most of the regions in which Irish soldiers served in the past and I understand they were quite good in ensuring that discrimination did not occur.

The Minister for Defence must monitor the operations of the new UNIFIL force to ensure that it operates at all times in a manner above reproach. This is particularly important in light of the new, robust UNIFIL mandate to which the Minister referred. We must be vigilant in respect of attempts to co-opt the UNIFIL force into serving the ends of interested countries and their foreign policies and we must ensure that such corruption of the mission is not allowed to happen. Given the nature of the mandate, I ask the Minister to make a commitment that the House will return to this issue in six months to discuss how UNIFIL ll is progressing.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Dublin South East, Green Party)
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It is only right and proper that the House should have the opportunity to debate the deployment of 150 Irish troops to Lebanon. I said yesterday that the Government might have been reluctant to debate this matter in the House because, strictly speaking, it is not a Chapter VII mission, although Condoleezza Rice has said that, for all intents and purposes, it is such a mission. Like Deputy Ó Snodaigh, I ask that the Minister clarify the position. Lebanon did not want it to be a Chapter VII mission but it seems that the United States has managed to manoeuvre matters in such a way that it may become such a mission.

This mission carries certain risks and could easily turn out to be our most dangerous to date. The Minister outlined some of the dangers involved. It is at times such as this that the families of those brave men and women who will serve in Lebanon ought to be foremost in our minds.

The Green Party has supported every mission that has come before the House as part of the triple lock mechanism. We will also be supporting this mission, but with certain reservations. We have already lost 44 personnel in previous missions in Lebanon and members of our armed forces will be entering the field in very volatile circumstances. There is great resentment and hatred towards Israel in Lebanon following the former's attacks. Those attacks were in total breach of international law, a fact the Minister did not mention. He ought to clearly state that this was, in fact, the case. The Lebanese justifiably feel that the international community sat back and allowed their beautiful country to be destroyed. They have little trust in the western powers led by Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair.

On the other hand, Israel realises that its attack was entirely counterproductive, that it increased the popularity of Hizbollah and that it radicalised Lebanese youth. It would now like to broaden the conflict and have Europeans become involved in its war against terrorism. That is why Israel wants an international presence in Lebanon.

If the peacekeepers are too closely identified with Israel and are seen as a proxy force of occupation, the mission could go disastrously wrong. I remind the Minister of comments made by the speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabi Berri, in The Guardian today to the effect that Hizbollah will resume its military campaign unless Israel withdraws from the disputed Shebaa farms area and other pockets of territory occupied during the summer's 34-day war. We ought to pay heed to what Mr. Berri said in the article, namely:

The UNIFIL presence will not hinder Hizbullah's defensive operations. The resistance doesn't need to fly its flags high to operate. It's a guerrilla movement, it operates among the people.

Most interestingly — this is quite sinister — Mr. Berri also expressed concern that UN forces could be involved in gathering information that could fall into the hands of Israel's intelligence agency Mossad.

The Minister can clearly see that there are inherent dangers with this mission and that we ought to bear them in mind. It is important that the force should liaise closely at all times with the Lebanese Government and its army. Despite what Condoleezza Rice says, it is not a Chapter VII mission. It cannot be about disarming Hizbollah — I see the Minister nodding, perhaps in agreement with me — because that could be quite counterproductive. Having emerged victorious from the war, the members of Hizbollah will be in no mood to be seen as losers by being forced to disarm.

The question arises as to how long the mission will last. Will it be open-ended? When one considers the resolution, it appears that the length of the mission is indefinite. That matter must be examined because as long as the vacuum exists and there is no movement towards a lasting settlement, the risk increases substantially. We need a lasting settlement and all the parties, including Syria and Iran, to come to the negotiating table in order to consider the issues of the Shebaa farms, Gaza and the West Bank. If that is not done and a such a settlement is not arrived at, there could be another outbreak of hostilities.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this important motion regarding the deployment of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for service with UNIFIL. I support the deployment, and I do not say that lightly. We all have family and friends in the Defence Forces and we all know the serious consequences of the proposal before the House. It is not easy but it is essential if we are to make a considerable contribution to resolving the situation in the Middle East, particularly as it relates to Lebanon and Palestine. Ireland needs to be in a position to act as an honest broker and create space for a peaceful resolution of the horrific conflict in the region.

Let us take time to remember all of those who were slaughtered during the summer. The nightmare that cost over 1,000 lives in a few weeks was a disgrace and those in Britain and America who either sat on the fence or acted as cheerleaders for the slaughter of innocent civilians should be challenged. As far as I am concerned, Bush and Blair have blood on their hands. There is no getting away from that. This is somewhat rich when Bush and Blair lecture us on violence and ways of ending the Irish conflict. Did it ever dawn on them and their colonial friends that they are also a huge part of the problem? Colonialism or imperialism, whether in the 1700s, 1800s or 2006, never works.

My loyalty in this debate is to Ireland, in the first instance, and to the United Nations. Major reforms of the United Nations are needed in order to ensure that it is owned and run by the people and not just a few major powers that have no respect for the rule of international law. Such law should be based on respect for each other and a deep sense of respect for human rights regardless of whether one lives in Chechnya, Palestine or south Armagh.

On the subject of human rights, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the wonderful and brave journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in recent days in Russia by dark forces that are opposed to truth, justice and human rights. To her family and friends, I offer our deepest sympathy. Her work, like that of Pat Finucane in this country, will never be forgotten.

It is important to acknowledge the major contribution of Irish troops to United Nations missions in the past. I commend them and thank them for their dedication, service and commitment. From a political perspective, I am concerned that some politicians want to change that independence and integrity by slowly sucking us into military alliances. I reject such behaviour and stress the need for caution and wise decision-making. We should retain our independence and neutrality and we will thereby continue to enjoy the respect of the rest of the world.

I wish our troops well and ask them to act in a caring, professional and impartial manner. They must remember that not only are they representing the Irish people, they are also serving the interests of peace, justice and respect for human rights.

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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The United Nations has no credibility as a champion for the people of Lebanon. Resolution 1701 blatantly understates the criminal slaughter of more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians by the Israeli armed forces. The barbaric destruction of huge swathes of infrastructure in Lebanon and the massacre of the innocents was carried out using armaments, aeroplanes and bombs supplied to Israel by two of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, namely the United States and Britain. Germany has just given Israel three nuclear-powered submarines in the wake of the slaughter. This is the body to which the Government and others now look to resolve the problems of the people of Lebanon.

Many well-meaning people in Ireland, including ordinary Irish soldiers, believe that United Nations troops will help to bring peace to the Lebanon. Unfortunately, they will be disappointed. Members should consider the disaster that recently befell the Timorese people when, under the very eyes of the United Nations forces, that country split apart. In reality, the terms of this deployment are dictated to the United Nations on Israel's behalf by the United States. Irish soldiers risk being caught in a murderous conflict between the Israel Defence Forces, IDF, and the Hizbollah.

If the United Nations considers a buffer zone to be necessary in southern Lebanon — in reality it is to protect the IDF — why does it not maintain a buffer zone in the south of Israel to protect the long-suffering Palestinian people of Gaza, who are now corralled and slaughtered weekly, in what is the greatest concentration camp in the world? The solution to this crisis is not more United Nations forces. It lies in the hands of the working people and peasants of the Lebanon, the Palestinian people and the Israeli working class. It does not lie in the hands of the United Nations imperial powers, the Israeli ruling class, the inept Lebanese Government or any such force. Moreover, it does not lie in the hands of Hizbollah either, which is a right-wing fundamentalist force.

On the basis of a democratic and socialist Middle East, in which its resources are used for the benefit of the people of the region, the peoples can come together, work out a peace solution and live in peace. This is the way forward rather than another short-term United Nations so-called solution, which will undoubtedly end in failure. As a Socialist Party Deputy, I am the only Member to oppose this motion. Unfortunately, under the rules of the House, this means there will be no division. However, I believe this opposition will be vindicated by future events.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all Members for their contributions and for recognising the importance of the contribution of Ireland and the Defence Forces to international peace and security. I am particularly grateful for the kind words and compliments from Members regarding the manner in which the Defence Forces have discharged such missions. This debate reflects the high regard in which the Defence Forces are held as peacekeepers and the warm regard which the people have for the Defence Forces. This is recognition of the important role they play in the community they serve, both here and abroad.

I will respond to some points raised by Members. Deputy Timmins rightly sought assurances regarding the equipment and training the troops will receive before going to Lebanon and I am happy to provide such assurances. The Deputy also referred to the enormity of the physical damage, a point with which I concur. Approximately 30,000 buildings have been destroyed and as estimates of the damage come to between €3 billion and €6 billion, an enormous rebuilding job remains to be done. Deputy Timmins also asked whether, on the conclusion of the mission to Liberia next year, the troops involved will be redeployed to UNIFIL II with the same mandate or with a different role. I cannot say at present. It will depend on both circumstances in the Lebanon and on demands on our resources elsewhere in the world at that time.

Deputy Coveney referred to the possibility of our troops being asked to disarm Hizbollah. As he rightly noted, this will not happen. The disarmament of Hizbollah is the clear responsibility of the Lebanese Government and the United Nations has expressed the view that such disarmament can only take place within the context of an overall political settlement.

Deputy Costello questioned the Irish troops' role overseas. As I noted, the two major outstanding problems — apart from the volatility of the situation — are the destruction of property and infrastructure and the quantity of unexploded ordnance. The most recent estimate suggests that 350,000 unexploded pieces of ordnance remain in part of Lebanon, which is quite scary.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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This refers to the cluster bombs that were used in the last days of the war.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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Yes, this refers to cluster bombs, cluster bomblets etc.

I will explain the purpose of the Irish-Finnish contingent. The Finnish contingent consists of engineers who will rebuild the infrastructure. Any ordinary use of language would describe that activity as being humanitarian. In addition, the Finns will clear unexploded ordnance in their area of operations. Essentially, the Finnish contingent is an engineering unit and it will require protection. The Finns will need troops to perform reconnaissance and to check out the safety of an area.

At present, 677 troops are serving abroad. As the maximum to which we are committed is 850 troops, not much capacity remains. We did not have sufficient capacity to put together a full Irish contingent. We examined how we could contribute usefully and this is what we came up with. The Finns are delighted with it and the United Nations stated that it fits in perfectly with its plans and it will be a successful mission. The work the Irish troops will perform there is both real and valuable. In addition to the work they will undertake with the Finns, the Irish contingent will remain as an asset of the overall force commander in the Lebanon. He will be able to call upon the Irish troops to perform any other task he may wish to assign to them. I refer to tasks such as escort duties, patrolling etc., within their area of operations.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh and other Members referred to the possible danger to our troops. When taking such a decision, all Ministers for Defence, of whatever political persuasion, are always conscious of the danger to the troops. I agree with Deputy Gormley that this mission has the potential to be extremely dangerous. However, both the Liberian and Kosovan missions were extremely dangerous initially. From my perspective, this mission is not necessarily any more dangerous. However, it must be monitored as it progresses.

We have trained and equipped the troops to the maximum degree possible to try to ensure their safety. Moreover, our troops have considerable experience in peacekeeping operations and peace enforcement operations.

As to whether the mission falls under Chapter VI or Chapter VII, it is a Chapter VI mission and is described as such. In general, Chapter VI missions occur when a ceasefire is in place, which is the case at present. Basically, Chapter VI missions consist of monitoring to ensure that no one tries to break a ceasefire, that there are no arms transactions etc. and there is no training of illegal militias etc. It simply consists of keeping an eye on the situation. In Chapter VII missions, people must engage in what is called peace enforcement. They are obliged to use force to compel people to separate from each other, or to get in between opposing armies.

This is a Chapter VI mission. A ceasefire has taken effect and, essentially, this will be a monitoring operation. However, at some stage, I presume the Lebanese Government must discharge its obligation to disarm Hizbollah. In that case, UNIFIL II will play a supporting role and will support the Lebanese army and Government. The resolution contains wording to the effect that they are entitled to use all force to ensure that no one interferes with the discharge of their mandate. While this might have a Chapter VII ring to it, it is really a Chapter VI mission.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh also asked whether I would return to the House in six months time to discuss progress. Such matters are always kept under regular review anyway. If a debate is needed, or if the situation changes materially during the coming months, I expect the Whips will facilitate a debate in the House on the matter. In any event, the Government will be obliged to act.

Deputy Gormley referred to the activities of the Israeli army. There is currently a United Nations investigation into the use by the Israeli army of cluster bombs and I anxiously await its outcome. Deputy Joe Higgins voiced his opposition to the mission. He envisages the solution in terms of the working classes of Lebanon, Palestine and Israel all coming together. Although that may be great, while we wait for the working classes to do so, we must go in to secure the situation, which is the purpose of this proposal. I commend the proposal to the House.

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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While the Minister has contempt, we will see who will be laughing later.

Question put and declared carried.