Dáil debates

Thursday, 1 February 2007

4:00 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Question 8: To ask the Minister for Defence the steps he has taken to implement the findings of the Behan report into the Niemba Ambush in the Congo in 1960; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2803/07]

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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In his report Colonel Behan made five recommendations, each of which I will now address in turn.

The first recommendation is that in the light of his research and study, the record of Dáil Éireann should be amended in regard to the location where Trooper Browne died. While no definitive conclusion can be reached regarding the precise location of Trooper Browne's death, the proposition that the Baluba tribesmen carried his remains from the ambush site cannot be substantiated and should be withdrawn. Likewise, the conclusion that he died at Tundula cannot be substantiated. The precise location of Trooper Browne's death remains an open question. It should be stressed that this in no way calls into question the validity of the award of the military medal for gallantry to Trooper Browne. I accepted this recommendation and I used the occasion of my last Dáil appearance to update the record in this regard.

The second recommendation is that Thomas Kenny and Joseph Fitzpatrick should have their reputations copperfastened by official recognition and an acknowledgement that they survived an horrific encounter with hostile forces, displaying courage, fortitude and tenacity to survive until finally rescued. As I have previously outlined to the House, and I reiterate here, I wholeheartedly recognise and acknowledge that both 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 to survive until finally rescued. I commend them both on the selfless service they have given their country.

Colonel Behan's third recommendation is a public acknowledgement, preferably at ministerial level, of the feat of survival and the trauma and suffering that this horrific incident visited on both men, with particular emphasis on Private Kenny by virtue of the most serious wounds and injuries he sustained. It is important that a serious effort is made in public to reintegrate Tom Kenny and Joe Fitzpatrick into the Defence Forces family. As I have previously outlined to the House, it is my intention to so do and to that end the Chief of Staff has proposed that appropriate public recognition of Mr. Kenny and Mr. Fitzpatrick be arranged on the day of an overseas parade. The UNIFIL review of troops, which is scheduled for Cathal Brugha Barracks at the end of April, would appear a suitable venue and occasion.

Colonel Behan does not recommend the award of medals to the two men and I have accepted his recommendation in this regard.

The final recommendation is that the family of Trooper Browne should be informed if the decision is taken to accept that the precise location of his death cannot be definitively established. I understand that Colonel Behan has briefed the family of Trooper Browne and they indicated that they had no difficulties with the report.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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I thank the Minister for that reply. In his last appearance in the Dáil, he mentioned that he intended to find a suitable event to honour both men and I welcome the decision to mark the occasion at an overseas function at the end of April at Cathal Brugha Barracks. Could the Minister expand on that?

Would the Minister reconsider awarding the medal to the two survivors? As the Minister acknowledged, they endured and survived an horrendous experience and there is no question about their courage and commitment in such circumstances. Both of them would like a medal and Joe Fitzpatrick believes nothing less would be adequate.

The military archives indicate an inaccurate version of the manner of Trooper Browne's death. Has the history of his unit been changed to reflect Colonel Behan's report?

Deputy Finian McGrath mentioned meeting the two men but Tom Kenny does not want to meet anyone at this time. Joe Fitzpatrick, however, is anxious to meet the Minister.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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We examined how best to commemorate what happened in the contribution of both soldiers in a public way. The Chief of Staff suggested that the UNIFIL parade that will take place in Cathal Brugha Barracks at the end of April might be a suitable public occasion because it will attract a lot media attention. Not only will we publicly recognise them at that event but, as Minister for Defence, I will also present them with a plaque or something of that nature. We have decided to do that unless something more adequate is proposed.

Most people who went abroad on service with the United Nations faced immediate danger and came under fire but not all of them have been given medals. The Army is sparing in distributing medals because it does not want to devalue those it gives for exceptional bravery and gallantry. If we gave a medal to everyone who was involved in a dangerous situation and who showed courage under fire, and all of those who go overseas are courageous by nature, it would devalue the worth of those medals.

I will leave the last word on this to the military authorities. Colonel Behan examined the situation carefully and decided that if people showed bravery, which is part of their job, and experienced danger, something faced by every soldier serving overseas, there was nothing extra that would enable him to conclude these men be given special recognition. The Army has had representations made to it by the families of people who died in action that they should be awarded medals posthumously and in all of those cases it refused. It takes exceptional action to get a medal but I leave this to the military authorities and Colonel Behan has not recommended the awarding of a medal. I am bound by that because Colonel Behan carried out a detailed investigation into all of this. He is an experienced officer and I do not want to second guess him.

If there is a need to correct them, that will be done, if has not been done already. I have no difficulty with meeting Mr. Fitzpatrick or Mr. Kenny. If the Deputy or any Member wishes to make an appointment, I would be happy to meet them. I informally met Mr. Fitzpatrick in the House the last time I took parliamentary questions. I had a few brief words with him because I did not have the opportunity to speak to him in detail. If he wishes to see me, I am open to meeting him.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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I thank the Minister for his reply and I will make the necessary arrangements. The reason I asked the Minister to review the awarding of a medal is the men have suffered for almost 47 years and they have had a cloud over their good names and that of their families. These are exceptional circumstances, which fall way beyond the call of duty. The Niemba ambush was the most catastrophic incident in all our overseas missions and these two survivors have been under a cloud for almost half a century. Colonel Behan has clearly vindicated them and these are exceptional circumstances. Rather than rely on his recommendation, perhaps the Minister might refer the case to the Chief of Staff for his opinion.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I accept the Deputy's comments but the military authorities have concluded that these circumstances, however harrowing and difficult they may be for the individuals involved, are not sufficient to warrant the award of a medal for gallantry under the relevant criteria. However, I do not wish to pre-empt any discussion I have with Mr. Fitzpatrick or anybody else Deputy Costello wishes me to meet. Mr. Fitzpatrick's public representatives can make their own case to me on a one-to-one basis and I would be happy to listen.

It would not be good practice to refer matters arising from Colonel Behan's report to the Chief of Staff, given that he appointed the colonel because he was eminently suitable and qualified to carry out this inquiry. He carried it out to the best of his ability. He is an outstanding military officer and a person of the highest integrity. I am disposed to accepting the conclusions and recommendations in his report.