Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 October 2006

2:00 pm

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Question 1: To ask the Minister for Defence the role Irish troops will play in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL II; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32434/06]

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Dublin South East, Green Party)
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Question 5: To ask the Minister for Defence the situation regarding the mission of Irish soldiers to be deployed to Lebanon; the number of troops involved; their duties; the locations where they will be stationed; if the overall mission is required to disarm Hizbollah; if this deployment will require the approval of Dáil Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32459/06]

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 5 together.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, was originally established on 19 March 1978 under United Nations Security Council Resolutions 425 and 426, 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 The Secretary General of the United Nations concluded that, as of 16 June 2000, Israel had withdrawn its forces from Lebanon in accordance with Resolution 425, thus partially fulfilling UNIFIL's original mandate.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 hostilities.

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. Since November 2001, a small number of Defence Forces personnel continued to serve at the force headquarters in Naqoura. Five personnel are currently deployed at the force headquarters.

In response to the crisis of July and August 2006, the UN decided, under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, to extend the mandate of UNIFIL to the end of August 2007, and to increase its troop strength from approximately 2,000 troops to a maximum of 15,000. The council also decided that, in addition to carrying out its original mandate under Resolutions 425 and 426, UNIFIL would also monitor the cessation of hostilities, accompany and support the Lebanese armed forces as they deploy throughout Southern Lebanon and extend its assistance to help 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 is to be considerably more robust than it was prior to the adoption of Resolution 1701, while still operating under Chapter VI of the UN Charter. UNIFIL will assist the Government of Lebanon in exercising its authority throughout the UNIFIL area of operations. It will take all necessary action, acting in support of the Government of Lebanon, "to ensure that its area of operations is not utilised for hostile activities of any kind". UNIFIL is not charged with disarming the Hizbollah. The question of disarming Hizbollah is a matter for the Lebanese Government. Moreover, it is recognised that this can only take place in the context of an overall political process in the region.

Following on from the ceasefire, which took effect on 14 August 2006, the Government here has been monitoring the situation. As the 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. On 3 October 2006, the Government authorised, subject to Dáil approval, the despatch of a contingent of the Defence Forces to UNIFIL. The necessary enabling motion was approved yesterday.

Following detailed discussions between the Defence Forces and their Finnish counterparts, including a joint reconnaissance mission to Lebanon, the current plan envisages the deployment of a Finnish engineering unit with an Irish protection detail in the eastern sector area of Lebanon. The planned Irish contingent will consist of approximately 150 Defence Forces personnel. The five Defence Forces personnel currently serving in Lebanon will continue to be deployed at the UNIFIL force headquarters.

The Finnish and Irish engineering unit will carry out tasks in support of UNIFIL and also some humanitarian work, including dealing with unexploded ordnance clearance and reconstruction. 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. Deployment to UNIFIL will take place on 30 or 31 October 2006 and, if approved, will bring the total number of Defence Forces personnel serving overseas to about 830 which is below the ceiling of 850.

Initial deployment would 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.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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The troops will be leaving around 31 October. Does the Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, plan to visit the troops before Christmas or will he visit the observers already out there before the troops are deployed?

The Minister will be aware that this additional commitment, which we in the Fine Gael Party support, will place additional strain on resources. Does he plan to increase the strength of the Defence Forces? How will he deal with the additional strain placed on Defence Forces resources in Ireland, given overseas commitments?

Has the Minister had discussions recently with either the Israeli ambassador or the Iranian ambassador based here in Dublin or with representatives of the Lebanese and Syrian embassies in London? Has the Minister for Foreign affairs engaged in such discussions? If not, would the Minister for Defence consider meeting them before Irish troops are deployed in the area? These are the countries with influence in the region and if difficulties arise it is important we have a direct link to someone who can bring influence to bear in the area.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I will clarify the situation on deployment for Deputy Timmins. The first advance party, consisting of four specialist personnel will travel to Lebanon on 14 October, that is, next week, to make the necessary advance contacts at ports, airports and so on. The second advance party, consisting of 35 personnel, will deploy to Beirut on 24 October and the balance will leave on either 30 or 31 October.

I have no plans to increase the size of the Defence Forces. Under the White Paper for the reorganisation of the Defence Forces the personnel limit was reduced to 10,500 on the basis that we would equip and train them to the highest possible standard. When the mission in Liberia ends next year there will be further personnel available to partake in overseas duties.

My colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, generally speaks to ambassadors. I do not know of any discussions he may have had with the ambassadors mentioned but I will ask him and return to the Deputy on the matter. I will talk to the Minister for Foreign Affairs before deciding whether I should meet these representatives. I had one rather fraught meeting with the Israeli ambassador, accompanied by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the time four UN personnel were killed by Israeli munitions.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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Was the Minister carrying his gun?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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No, I was unarmed that day. I was armed only with my genius.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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The Minister was lightly armed in that case, perhaps even still unarmed.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Timmins asked if I plan to visit the troops in Lebanon. I will do so, after they deploy, around mid to late November.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Dublin South East, Green Party)
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The Minister stated yesterday and repeated today that this mandate is considerably more robust than the previous one. Does this mean we could be drawn into hostilities at some stage?

From what the Minister stated yesterday and today, the nature of our role in assisting the Lebanese Government is not clear. Deputy Coveney said yesterday we will be assisting the Lebanese Government to disarm Hizbollah. Is the Lebanese Government mandated to disarm Hizbollah? Are we not mandated to assist it in doing so and, if so, are we not thereby disarming Hizbollah indirectly?

The Minister stated the disarmament of Hizbollah will only take place in the context of an overall agreement. What does he mean by this? Does an overall agreement involve Syria and Iran sitting at the table? Does it involve addressing the question of the Shebaa Farms, a disputed territory, and the Gaza Strip and West Bank?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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The mandate is more robust. In my reply I quoted the terms of the UN resolution laying out the mandate for UNIFIL. It includes the phrase "to resist attempts by forceful means to prevent it from discharging its duties under the mandate of the Security Council". This is not a typical run-of-the-mill Chapter VI-type resolution. Chapter VI-type resolutions generally come into play when a ceasefire is in operation, as it is in this case, admittedly. Generally, Chapter VI operations involve patrolling, monitoring and observing.

It is contemplated that attempts may be made to prevent UNIFIL from discharging its mandate and it is given the right to resist those attempts by forceful means. The provision, although not covered by a typical Chapter VI-type resolution, is designated a Chapter VI provision by the United Nations.

I take the point Deputy Gormley made yesterday that the people of Lebanon probably just want a Chapter VI mission rather than a Chapter VII mission. However, we have already engaged in Chapter VII operations. Such missions involved Liberia and Kosovo, and we are therefore well aware of the dangers.

The disarmament of Hizbollah is a difficult matter which has been fudged somewhat by the United Nations. The general understanding is that it is a matter for the Lebanese Government. Granted, part of our UNIFIL mandate in southern Lebanon is to support the Lebanese army as it redeploys through the region and re-establishes its authority. It is very unclear whether it is envisaged that UNIFIL troops will be accompanying the Lebanese army in confronting and disarming Hizbollah.

When the UN General Secretary referred to an overall agreement, I believe he meant it would certainly involve the Shebaa Farms. This is central to the issue. I cannot see how the agreement would not involve Syria and it may possibly involve Iran but I do not know the exact parameters of the General Secretary's statement. He was referring to an overall political settlement, just as disarmament took place in a part of this country in the context of an overall political settlement. I would imagine the settlement in the region in question would involve all the interested parties. It would certainly include Syria but I am not quite clear about Iran.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Has the Minister plans to increase the overseas allowance? He may have indicated at a recent conference that he would examine this matter.

A number of memorials were erected in honour of Irish troops who lost their lives in Lebanon. If a new contingent goes to the region, could it determine whether they need to be repaired or replaced?

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Dublin South East, Green Party)
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Hizbollah clearly has a great interest in the Palestinian problem. As part of the overall settlement, will the West Bank and Gaza Strip not also be discussed?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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On Deputy Gormley's question, I would imagine "yes" is the answer. The Palestinian question cannot just be syphoned off.

On the question of overseas allowances, I said at the PDFORRA annual conference that if the association were to request an increase in overseas allowances, it would be considered most sympathetically.