Dáil debates

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Priority Questions

Overseas Missions.

3:00 pm

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Question 2: To ask the Minister for Defence the number of Irish soldiers who are stationed in the Lebanon on peacekeeping duties under the UN mandate; the type of work that is being carried out by Irish soldiers there; the quality of rations being provided; his plans to visit the soldiers in Lebanon; the present political and military climate in the Lebanon; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3315/07]

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Dublin South East, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Question 5: To ask the Minister for Defence if he will report on the deployment of Irish troops in the Lebanon; if there has been a recent update of the security risk of the mission; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3225/07]

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 5 together.

UNIFIL was originally established on 19 March 1978 under United Nations Security Council Resolutions 425 and 426, following the invasion of Lebanon by Israel. Its mandate was "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 The Secretary General of the United Nations concluded that as of 16 June 2000, Israel had withdrawn its forces from Lebanon in accordance with Resolution 425 of 1978, thus partially fulfilling UNIFIL's original mandate. Since then, UNIFIL continued to operate in southern Lebanon, focusing on the remaining part of its mandate, which was the restoration of peace and security in the region.

In response to the July-August 2006 crisis, 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, 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.

At the time of the crisis, Ireland had five Defence Forces personnel deployed at the force headquarters in Naquora. These personnel are still in place. However, in response to the expanded mandate for the mission and a request from the UN, the Government with Dáil approval, increased Ireland's contribution to some 162 personnel. The additional contribution is part of a joint Finnish-Irish engineering battalion which carries out tasks in support of UNIFIL, including dealing with unexploded ordnance clearance and reconstruction. Ireland provides the security detail for the engineering contingent from Finland. While the Irish element is tasked primarily for reconnaissance, security and protection duties associated with these engineering works, it is also available to undertake other tasks at the request of the UNIFIL force commander. Initial deployment will be for one year, subject to renewal of the mandate and a satisfactory review of the mission at that time.

A key aspect and the primary concern in respect of participation in any mission is the safety and security of Defence Forces personnel. Prior to deployment, the Defence Forces undertook a joint reconnaissance mission with their Finnish colleagues. Following consultation with the Finns, UNIFIL and other parties, it was determined that there is no direct threat to UNIFIL personnel. That said, the uncertain and volatile situation means that incidents, misunderstandings or wider political developments all have the potential to impact negatively on the peacekeeping operation. The large quantity of cluster-bomblets and other unexploded ordnance also presents a risk. While there have been political difficulties and some civil unrest in the country recently, the ceasefire in southern Lebanon seems to be holding and the Defence Forces have assessed the overall threat as being low within a volatile situation. This is not dissimilar to that encountered by Irish personnel on other peace support missions. This continues to be the assessment of the Defence Forces and I am satisfied that all appropriate security measures are in place to ensure the safety of the Defence Forces personnel serving in Lebanon.

For the first few days after the initial deployment on 31 October, pack rations, supplemented with locally purchased breads, fruits and vegetables, as well as additional food items shipped from Ireland, were provided to all personnel. Commencing on 4 November 2006, a hot meal was provided daily from field kitchens. The dining facility in the camp was opened on 6 December 2006, with hot food served at all three meals daily. The Defence Forces have assured me that the food served in this camp is to a high standard and the bill of fare provides a balanced diet of meat, vegetables, potatoes, fruit, pasta, rice and dairy products. As Members will appreciate, this is a new operation in a new camp and it takes time to put in place all the required facilities.

While I had planned to visit the Defence Forces contingent in late November, the Chief of Staff advised me to defer my visit until the new year when the mission was better established and had a more detailed understanding and assessment of the operation and the security situation. I now look forward to visiting the contingent towards the end of this month.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Minister for his detailed response. If I understood the Minister correctly, the total number of Defence Forces personnel comes to 162. This appears to be somewhat lower than the number projected originally, which was approximately 200. Can the Minister explain why the maximum number of troops that was available was not sent?

Can the Minister clarify the nature of the tasks in which the troops are engaged? What is the nature of the support work for the Finnish troops mentioned by the Minister? Moreover, although the Minister stated they could perform other work, presumably they have not been requested to so do. Are they likely to be asked to do so or is it likely they will remain purely in a supportive capacity for the duration of their mission?

The political climate appears to be quite volatile. That said, is it the case that the military ceasefire is holding and that there is no real action on the ground? Have the Irish troops been under fire at any time since their arrival? They have been deployed there for approximately three and a half months.

In respect of the rations, is it not correct that the only rations available to the troops on their arrival were year-old prepacked Army rations and that they were without fresh food? This was highly inadequate and left much to be desired as there was sufficient notice of the contingent's departure. Fresh and hot food, as well as dining facilities, could have been arranged in advance.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

In respect of the numbers, I cannot recall any specific statement to the effect we planned to send 200 troops. I believe the phrase used was "up to 200".

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It was a round figure of approximately 200 troops.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It was a maximum of 200 troops. As the Deputy is aware, this is a joint operation with the Finns. We took advice from the Finnish armed forces as to the kind of detail they required of us. The number arrived at comes to 157 troops, in addition to the five personnel who were already there and the Finns regard this to be quite sufficient.

As for the task itself, in essence the Finnish contingent is an engineering brigade that will be involved in two things. First, it will be involved in reconstruction work, of which a great deal is needed in Lebanon. Second, the Finns will be engaged in clearing unexploded ordnance. The job of the Irish contingent is to provide them with protection as they carry out such work, lest they come under attack. I suspect the Chief of Staff probably advised me to hold back from visiting before now because most of the activity thus far has centred on the camp's establishment, which is a major job.

In addition, once deployed the Irish are at the disposal of the UNIFIL force commander, who can request them to perform other duties within their area of operations. As yet, I am unaware of any tasks he has asked them to perform. For example however, he could ask them to perform escort duty, patrols, etc., which would be beyond the protection duties being carried out at present.

It is true that the political climate has been volatile. As the Deputy is aware, Hizbollah is trying to pressurise the Lebanese Government to either cede more power to itself and its Christian allies or, alternatively, to resign. A number of demonstrations were held in December and January that culminated in a public strike on 23 January. I agree this makes for a dangerously volatile situation on the ground. Nevertheless, the ceasefire appears to be holding well. I keep in touch with the situation on a daily basis and if it worsens dramatically, the Government will be obliged to take whatever action it deems to be necessary. It will do so in conjunction with, and on the advice of, the personnel on the ground.

Deputy Costello asked whether the Irish troops had come under fire. Thus far, the Irish troops have not come under attack from any source and they have been far away from the action. From the time of their arrival, there has been very limited action in the Lebanon. Most incidents occurred in the immediate aftermath of the ceasefire in the middle of August.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Irish must have frightened them.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

As for the question on rations, my information is that for the first few days after the contingent's arrival, essentially they consisted of cold food or prepacked rations. In addition however, I am informed that certain foods were purchased locally and the rations were supplemented by some foodstuffs imported from Ireland. I can provide the Deputy with more details in this regard. After three or four days, they were in a position to provide at least one hot meal per day. A couple of weeks later, the kitchen became operational on 6 December and subsequently they were able to provide three hot meals per day.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It was a couple of months later.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The period from 1 November to 6 December is only five weeks.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Some of them had been in situ since October.

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I ask Deputy Costello to allow the Minister to reply as we are running out of time.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It was a period of five weeks from 31 October. This is not unreasonable as it takes some time to get such facilities up and running. The hot food to which Deputy Costello refers is provided from within the camp. It is not as though Lebanon is the sort of place in which one encounters people selling hamburgers and hot dogs on the side of the street. It is somewhat too dangerous for such activity

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Dublin South East, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context

They have falafel.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Deputy's tastes are more exotic than mine.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Dublin South East, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That is Lebanese taste.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That might not be to everyone's taste.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It is not as volatile as Limerick.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Limerick has quietened down considerably.

This is the position. Incidentally, I have monitored this issue closely and have been assured by the Chief of Staff and the top Army brass that all is hunky-dory in respect of the food in Lebanon and that the troops are extremely happy with their fare.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Dublin South East, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Minister for his reply and I wish our troops well. As the Minister has noted, the situation is highly volatile. The troops are undertaking this mission in conjunction with the Finns. Is the Minister aware the head of the UN mine action co-ordination centre, Mr. Chris Clark, has stated that the de-mining efforts in Lebanon have been seriously hampered by the lack of co-operation from the Israeli authorities? He claimed that while the Israelis had handed over maps of the areas occupied, these had proved to be useless in the de-mining effort and that a list of the types of ammunition fired was required. Such a list is readily available to the Israelis because the delivery of cluster munitions is controlled by computer. Can the Minister confirm whether there has been a lack of co-operation on the Israeli side? Is it hampering the efforts of our troops in Lebanon? If so, has the Government made any representations to the Israelis on this matter? What contact on the ground has there been with the Israelis?

We have talked about the volatile circumstances in the area. General Sulaiman of the Lebanese Army has said that up to 60% of the force is Shia. There is a real danger that they could go over to Hizbollah. If that happens, it will not be so hunky-dory, to use the Minister's words. Have our troops on the ground had contact with Hizbollah commanders? Surely that is the best way to ensure there will not be any attacks and that Hizbollah does not have those intentions.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I am aware of Mr. Clark's statement. We must bear in mind that the Irish are not directly involved in clearing the unexploded ordnance. Clearing that ordnance is the Finn's task and the Irish are merely providing protection for them while they are doing so. It appears the necessary co-operation is not in place. We would prefer if the Israelis had been more co-operative. The Irish Government criticised the Israeli army after the conflict for its use of this weaponry. I am informed that the UN mine action service identified 842 cluster bomb strike locations in south Lebanon with an estimated 1 million unexploded cluster munitions contaminating the area. This is quite serious.

The Government has been critical of the Israeli Army for its use of this weaponry. As Deputy Gormley knows, we have been seeking a legally binding international agreement on the use of this kind of weaponry, particularly in built-up areas. We have made some progress on that and have had much help internationally.

Irish Army commanders in the Lebanon have been and remain in touch with the Israelis, particularly with regard to the task of mine clearance. I do not know whether there has been any direct contact between the Army and Hizbollah. I can make inquiries about this and let Deputy Gormley know. I presume there may have been some informal contact.

To answer the Deputy's main question, there is a certain lack of co-operation from the Israelis. The Israelis have first-hand knowledge of where these things are located. I hope we have collectively persuaded the Israelis to be more forthcoming as this unexploded ordnance presents a danger not only to UN forces, including the Irish, but also to civilians in southern Lebanon who have suffered quite enough. Some 1,000 civilians were killed directly in the conflict, more than 4,000 were injured and 30,000 homes were destroyed. I hope more co-operation will be forthcoming. The sooner this co-operation is forthcoming the more quickly we can get the job done.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Ceann Comhairle, I would like to ask the Minister——

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I am sorry Deputy. We have spent 16 minutes dealing with this question and only 12 minutes were allotted. I would like to facilitate the Deputy, but then I would have to facilitate Deputy Gormley. I must call the next question.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Question 3: To ask the Minister for Defence if his attention has been drawn to the fact that a recent Army report on the circumstances of the Niemba ambush in the Congo on 8 November 1960 has been rejected by both survivors of the ambush; if he is willing to speak to the survivors who claim the report contains inaccuracies, has omitted important information and misrepresented their views; if his attention has further been drawn to the fact that both men are calling for an independent and unbiased report on the Niemba ambush; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2883/07]

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

In February 2006 the Chief of Staff appointed Colonel Tom Behan to examine all aspects of the Niemba ambush. I accepted the findings of his report and addressed the matter during Priority Questions on 16 November 2006. I reiterate my congratulations to 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 and I would like again to publicly acknowledge the sacrifice made by all the members of the patrol at that time and extend my deepest sympathies to the families of all those who died.

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 concerning Trooper Browne and Private Kenny. The first question is where exactly did Trooper Browne die. From the extensive research and interviews carried out by Colonel Behan, both from military and civilian sources, 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.

The second area of controversy in regard to the record of the Niemba ambush is what Trooper Browne did 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 convened in 1961 awarded Trooper Browne the Military Medal for Gallantry.

Despite Colonel Behan's research of all the available reports, consultation, interviews and direct evidence, there is no absolute certainty achievable in regard to these two matters of controversy. Colonel Behan sets out in his report that he is satisfied there is no material extant which he did not uncover and which would provide new evidence capable of proving conclusively any one version of the events which are the subject of dispute in relation to the Niemba ambush. Equally he is clear about the lack of definitive material which could establish beyond doubt all what occurred in the course of the Niemba ambush. It must be borne in mind that only two known living persons could ever have known what exactly happened in this action and it is a certainty that neither of them were aware of all the events which took place in the course of the action.

Accordingly, I am satisfied there is no more to be gained by holding an independent inquiry. I would instead like to focus on how best their contribution can be suitably recognised and honoured.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I agree with the Minister that this is a sensitive and harrowing issue for the families and people directly involved. I commend our UN soldiers for their work on many difficult missions.

Truth rests at the core of this issue and we need the truth to come out. In view of the grave accusations concerning the recent Army report on Niemba, will the Minister undertake to personally meet with both survivors, Mr. Tom Kenny and Mr. Joe Fitzpatrick, to take account of their misgivings? Will the Minister consider the merits of appointing an independent person, not associated with the Army, to take evidence from both survivors and consider other vital evidence omitted from the Army report, such as that of the Swedish officers who acted as interpreters for our troops in the Congo? Is the Minister aware that the Army has refused to answer serious questions from the Niemba survivors that have arisen over the accuracy and reliability of this report? Is the Minister aware that both survivors feel their names have not been cleared by the report? Can the Minister confirm he has received a written request from the Taoiseach to further investigate this matter? If so, what does he intend to do to bring this unfortunate affair to a satisfactory conclusion?

Surely the survivors deserve more than an inconclusive report by the Army which appears to be hiding the truth behind the events at Niemba almost 50 years ago. I commend the work carried out by Dr. David O'Donoghue in his book The Irish Army in the Congo 1960-64: The Far Battalions. Much valuable research was carried out and published in this book. Is the Minister aware of the information contained in it?

Does the Minister recognise that Private Kenny and Private Fitzpatrick survived a horrific encounter, showed great courage and acted in the interests of their country? I urge the Minister to meet these two individuals.

4:00 pm

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Deputy McGrath says he is interested in the truth. So are we all; the truth is what we want. Unfortunately, it is sometimes not possible to definitively establish the truth of an event that happened in the past. This ambush happened 46 years ago. Only two eyewitnesses are alive whom we can trace. If we could talk to the Balubas they might be able to throw more light on the matter. It is almost certain that neither of the two eye-witnesses to whom we can talk is aware of all the circumstances because this was a fraught situation in which they were under fire and in danger of their lives. Deputy Finian McGrath suggested appointing an independent person to carry out yet another report but we should focus on rehabilitating the two soldiers, which I propose to do by acknowledging their contribution at a public event and presenting them with a commemorative plaque to recognise what they did.

An assumption underlies the question about Dr. O'Donoghue's submission but Colonel Tom Behan considered all the extant material relevant to the case and interviewed every relevant person. His firm conclusion was that no further material which would throw any more light on the matter was extant. If that is the case I do not see the merit in holding a further inquiry. Our efforts should focus on doing everything possible to rehabilitate the reputation of the two men in question. I recognise that they endured an horrific ordeal and I commend them on their selflessness, courage and dedication. I regard them as outstanding examples of what Irish soldiers abroad should be and hope to acknowledge that at a public event in the next couple of months.

I am sorry to hear the soldiers feel they have not been vindicated by the report. I suspect the reason is the report makes its conclusions on the balance of probabilities because Colonel Behan, an independent person of the highest integrity, says there is not enough material to enable him to come to a conclusion beyond reasonable doubt. My proposal to publicly acknowledge the contributions of ex-privates Kenny and Fitzpatrick will go a long way to satisfying them. I do not know if I can completely satisfy the doubts that remain but I will do my best.