Wednesday, 7 March 2007
The Niemba ambush occurred almost 46 years ago. It was the first such action involving the horrific deaths of Defence Forces personnel on a scale that remains unique. It has never been far from the public consciousness and I would like to publicly acknowledge the sacrifice made by all of the patrol's members and to extend my deepest sympathies to the families of those who died.
I will not take up the time of the House by going over the circumstances again, but there are two areas of controversy, namely, where Trooper Browne died and what he did to contribute to the survival of Private Kenny. The report concludes that prior to Trooper Browne's escape from the ambush site, he fired his weapon at the Balubas who were intent on beating Private Kenny to death, thereby distracting them and saving his life.
Colonel Behan's research of the available reports, consultation, interviews and direct evidence shows that there is no absolute certainty achievable in regard to these two matters. However, all the material assembled by Colonel Behan, including the statements of the interviews with Mr. Kenny and Mr. Fitzpatrick, will be added to the unit history and other associated papers held at the Military Archives, thereby creating the fullest and clearest record possible of this tragic event.
Since the completion of the report, Mr. Kenny and Mr. Fitzpatrick have asked me to hold an independent inquiry on the matter, but I do not believe that any further inquiry or investigation will resolve the facts of this case. Rather than focusing further on the specific circumstances in dispute, I would prefer to focus on how best the contribution of Mr. Kenny and Mr. Fitzpatrick can be suitably recognised and honoured. I would like to advise the House that I will be meeting each of the men tomorrow.
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 where both could receive an appropriate presentation, such as a plaque or scroll. The UNIFIL review of troops, which is scheduled for Cathal Brugha Barracks at the end of April, would appear to be a suitable venue and event. A liaison officer has been appointed to keep Mr. Kenny and Mr. Fitzpatrick informed of developments with this proposal.
I would like to take this opportunity to recognise and acknowledge that Mr. Kenny, particularly in light of the serious injuries he sustained, and Mr. Fitzpatrick survived an horrific encounter with hostile forces, displaying courage, fortitude and tenacity to survive until finally rescued. I commend them on the selfless service they have given their country.
I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet the two survivors and for his compliments on their tenacity and courage. It was the largest number of lives lost in the history of the Defence Forces while serving abroad. It has to be true to say that, unfortunately, the Irish contingent was ill-equipped and ill-prepared for what lay ahead in the Congo. The survival of Privates Kenny and Fitzpatrick in the horrific events of the ambush was a measure of their courage, willpower and tenacity, as the Minister said. However, they have never been given adequate recognition for their heroic survival. The Minister has done more than any other in the pursuit of justice in the case, but there are outstanding issues of concern which must be fully and finally resolved. He will agree that it is unacceptable that one or either of these brave two survivors should find it necessary to protest outside Leinster House. That has been the case in recent weeks. Part of my reason for asking the Minister to meet them was to prevent this continuing and resolve the outstanding issues involved. I am glad he has agreed to do so.
In so far as I understand it — he will tell the Minister tomorrow, first-hand — Private Kenny's sole wish is that the official record should accurately reflect what happened to him and how he survived. He is looking for nothing more nor less than this. The Minister will be able to assure him that that will be the case and that his account of what happened to him will be recorded in the official record from now on. Unfortunately, that has not been the case for a variety of reasons. Private Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, wants and is entitled to due recognition for what the Minister has referred in the Dáil, namely, his tenacity and courage in his survival in that horrific ambush. I hope that when the Minister meets Private Fitzpatrick tomorrow he will be able to resolve that issue of recognition. I believe strongly that for far too long, for reasons I will not go into, including some, perhaps, I do not fully understand, these two brave men have not been given due recognition for their courage in their survival in the horrors of Niemba. I hope this is the final phase and that on this occasion the outstanding issues of concern will be resolved and that they will finally receive the recognition due to them.
I thank Deputy Gregory for his kind remarks. I came to this issue with an open mind. Several of my predecessors in office had been asked about it and took the advice of the Army that the matter was closed. I reopened it. We had a full inquiry, as a result of which certain conclusions have been reached, which were not arrived at previously. I take the Deputy's point about Private Kenny wanting to have the record altered to include his account of events. I am confident I will be able to assure him that we shall be able to do this. As yet, I am not sure what Private Fitzpatrick wants to talk to me about. However, I have invited him and he has agreed to come. I shall meet both of them tomorrow and try to resolve the outstanding issues to the very best of my ability in so far as this is within my power. I do not want to see anyone protesting outside Leinster House, particularly an old soldier.