Dáil debates

Thursday, 16 November 2006

3:00 pm

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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Question 5: To ask the Minister for Defence if he will publish the report on the investigation he has commissioned into the Niemba ambush in the Congo; if he will give due recognition to the two survivors of the ambush; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38195/06]

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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As the Deputy is aware, I undertook during Priority Questions on Thursday, 23 February 2006 to ask the military authorities to revisit this matter in light of the questions raised on that date. The Chief of Staff appointed Colonel Tom Behan to examine all aspects of the Niemba ambush. Due to the breadth of this investigation, this process has taken some time. I have now had a chance to review this report. I congratulate Colonel Behan for the time and effort he has expended in researching this sensitive and harrowing episode in Irish military history.

The ambush occurred almost 46 years ago. It was the first such action involving the horrific deaths of Defence Forces personnel on a scale which still remains unique. It has never been very far from public consciousness. However, the actual horror of the event has faded from the national psyche at this remove. This report will bring the issue back into sharp focus for anybody who will read it. I publicly acknowledge the sacrifice made by all the members of the patrol at that time. I again extend my deepest sympathy to the families of all those who died. I take this opportunity to underline the courage, fortitude and tenacity displayed by Privates Kenny and Fitzpatrick in order to survive.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I will now concentrate on the conclusions of the report. On 8 November 1960, an 11-man patrol, commanded by Lieutenant Kevin Gleeson was attacked by a large number of Baluba tribesmen while on patrol from their base at Niemba and were quickly overwhelmed. There are two principal areas of controversy in regard to the record of this ambush, both of which concern Trooper Browne and Private Kenny. The first question is where exactly did Trooper Browne die and the second is what did Trooper Browne do to contribute to the survival of Private Kenny.

In regard to where Trooper Browne died, from the extensive research and interviews carried out by Colonel Behan, his final conclusion is that Trooper Browne fired his weapon to distract the Baluba attackers from their task of beating Private Kenny to death. He further concludes, on the balance of probabilities, that Trooper Browne managed to then escape his pursuers, wounded or otherwise, making his way to the village of Tundula only to be killed by hostile Balubas two days later. Therefore, the previous supposition that he died at the ambush site and that Baluba tribesmen carried away his remains cannot be substantiated. Likewise, the conclusion outlined above that he died at Tundula cannot be definitively substantiated.

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
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The remainder of the reply will be included in the Official Report.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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On a point of order, while this is not my priority question, it is important, if it is agreeable to the House, to allow the Minister to read the full reply into the record.

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
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A full transcript will be recorded on Question Time, even though the Minister has only two minutes to reply.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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This is my question and we should allow the Minister the time to read the full reply as it is such an important issue of concern to many Members.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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The second area of controversy in regard to the record of the Niemba ambush is what did Trooper Browne do to contribute to the survival of Private Kenny. The report clearly concludes that prior to his escape from the ambush site, Trooper Browne fired his weapon at the Balubas who were intent on beating Private Kenny to death, thereby distracting them and saving his life. The Medal Board that was convened in 1961 awarded Trooper Browne the military medal for gallantry.

Despite all the research, consultation and interviews, there is no absolute certainty achievable in regard to these two matters of controversy. I wish, however, to address some of the ambiguity that may have resulted from the two scenarios recorded in the unit history. In the absence of the wide and detailed research available to me now, the best advice previously available to me was that Trooper Browne most likely died at the scene of the ambush and the Baluba tribesmen carried his remains away. This must now be discounted.

I wholeheartedly recognise and acknowledge that Private Kenny, particularly in view of the serious wounds and injuries he sustained, and Private Fitzpatrick survived a horrific encounter with hostile forces, displaying courage, fortitude and tenacity in order to survive until finally rescued. I commend them both for the selfless service they gave to their country and hope that this report will bring some peace of mind to them both.

While the award of a medal was not recommended, I am examining proposals as to how best these two men's contribution can be suitably recognised and honoured. In addition, I intend to invite both at the earliest opportunity to attend a suitable Defence Forces event at which I will acknowledge their contribution publicly. I also have made arrangements today for copies of the official report on the Niemba ambush to be placed in the Oireachtas Library.

4:00 pm

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply and for commissioning the report, the contents of which he indicated. I also compliment Colonel Behan for an extremely clear and succinct report. In the Gallery is Dr. David O'Donoghue, who recently brought much of this to the attention of people in his book, The Irish Army in the Congo 1960-1964: The Far Battalions.

Most of all, I acknowledge the two survivors of the Niemba ambush, Mr. Joe Fitzpatrick and Mr. Tom Kenny, who tenaciously campaigned for 46 years to recover their reputations, which they believe were severely maligned, clear their good names and right the record once and for all. A number of years ago, I had the privilege of launching the book written by Joe Fitzpatrick, My Time in the Congo. Mr. Fitzpatrick is also in the Gallery.

Considering this has taken 46 years, and given the trauma and suffering those men and their families experienced due to the loss of their good names, will the Minister explain why we do not have a solution to this matter? Why was the record not cleared before it reached this stage?

Mr. Kenny seeks an apology from the Army and the Department of Defence. Is the Minister prepared to make that apology? Mr. Fitzpatrick seeks a medal. Is the Minister prepared to award that medal? The Minister indicated he is prepared to publish the report, which is worthwhile. The two survivors are at odds with each other on what type of recognition they feel is proper. Will the Minister provide clarity on how he intends to give due recognition and indicate what he will do?

I will quote from the recommendations which are solid and clear:

Thomas Kenny and Joe Fitzpatrick should have their reputations copperfastened by official recognition and acknowledgement that they survived an horrific encounter with hostile forces, displaying fortitude and tenacity in order to survive until finally rescued.

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
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It is not appropriate to quote during Question Time. We already spent eight minutes on this question and I wish to give the Minister an opportunity to respond.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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Will the Minister be specific on what type of recognition he is prepared to give?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I will deal with why this matter has taken until now. This issue was one of the first raised with me after I became Minister of Defence. I commissioned a report to properly research the matter. The question was initially asked by Deputies Gregory and Finian McGrath and I was delighted to respond to their concerns.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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I thank the Minister.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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Now that we have fuller information, I am required to officially correct the record and I have no difficulty with doing so. I also have no difficulty with making an apology to the two men if the original record at my Department got the facts wrong. I apologise for any trauma or grief caused by the fact that the record was incorrect.

It is not within my power to grant a medal. That is a matter for the Army, which decides on who is awarded medals. In this case it recommended not to do so, which is no reflection on either of the gentlemen in question. Detailed considerations are involved. After two military boards, the Army has not recommended medals. I cannot tell the Army when to award a medal.

The report has just come into the public domain and the type of recognition to be given is still under discussion. I hope we will find a way to adequately recognise the courage and fortitude of these two men.