Thursday, 20 September 2012
To ask the Minister for Defence if there has been any impact on the current Irish peacekeeping mission in South Lebanon in view of the current crisis in neighbouring Syria; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39491/12]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 30 together.
I addressed most of the issues in regard to the role of our contingent in UNIFIL in answering a priority parliamentary question on the matter earlier.
In the area in which the Irish-Finnish battalion operates, the security situation remains calm but tense. The battalion implements force protection measures appropriate to the prevailing operational and security developments in the region. As Deputies will appreciate, the area of tension in regard to Syria lies on the Syria-Lebanon border and in the city of Tripoli. This is some distance from where our troops are located. While the spread of such tension across Lebanon cannot be ruled out, the violence to date in Syria has not impacted on the current Irish peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. That said, the security situation in Lebanon will continue to be kept under review by the Defence Forces and force protection measures will be adjusted should that be required.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. Some of my points were made earlier by Deputy Finian McGrath. We are all enormously proud of the role of our troops for over a quarter of a century in Lebanon. No doubt, they will continue to distinguish themselves in the region. In light of the Arab spring, the significant instability and uncertainty that exists and the background of Syrian strikes against forces within Lebanon, this Parliament needs assurances that our troops deployed in the area will be prepared and have all the necessary resources to ensure their safety and that they can carry out their mission effectively. What additional steps have been taken by the Department and military authorities to ensure the success of the mission of the 106th battalion?
I assured the Deputy that this is kept under review daily by military personnel in Lebanon. As I stated, most of the Syrian strikes are in the north of Lebanon. The Irish 106th battalion is in south Lebanon on the blue line. The violence in Syria has not yet had an impact on the Irish peacekeeping mission. The Irish-Finnish battalion's mandate is specific to South Lebanon. The battalion maintains situational awareness of all developments of note in the Middle East. It implements force protection measures appropriate to the prevailing operational security environment in the region, and the Irish and Finnish personnel are briefed regularly on developments. I assure the Deputy that this matter is a priority for the Irish Defence Forces and that what is happening along the Syrian border will be kept under review. Since the Irish Defence Forces are in the south of Lebanon, the occurrences in north Lebanon are not as pertinent as they would otherwise be.
With a view to maximising and maintaining the security of the Irish troops in Lebanon, we would best serve them by ensuring we retain a neutral position on events in Syria. I would not for a second try to defend Mr. Assad and I have no sympathy whatsoever for his organisation; neither would I take sides with the rebels, who are being armed by Saudi Arabia. There is a civil war in the region at present and it is really important that we retain a neutral stance. Very often, as in Libya, sometimes the side one wants to remove is replaced by a crowd that is not much better. One does not know what one is going to get much of the time. The rebels and Syria, whom I imagine will eventually win the civil war, will be problematic and Ireland would be best advised to ensure it retains a neutral position. This would maximise the safety of our troops in the country close by.
I fully understand where Deputy Wallace is coming from and I take his views on board. However, the Irish troops are engaged in peacekeeping measures and are neutral in any such work. The conflict at the blue line is not as great as in north Lebanon along the Syrian border. I will pass on the Deputy's views to the Minister for Defence, Deputy Shatter.
I have a number of questions for the Minister of State. He mentioned Ireland's peacekeeping role. Does he agree that a part of that work is to stop conflict and save civilians' lives? The violence of the Syrian civil war of recent months has been horrific as regards civilians. Many people are concerned that the situation is being left adrift and lacks strong international support for a peace process. What is the Minister of State's opinion of the peace process proposed by President Chávez of Venezuela, which involves inclusive negotiations and a cessation of violence and is based on our peace process?
Ireland's position as outlined by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is that we remain unpersuaded that military intervention or the arming of opposition factions would be likely to bring an end to the fighting or create the conditions for harmony. It is undeniable that there is little appetite, if any, among the international partners for external interventions, not least due to the complexities of the Syrian situation.
The Defence Forces will continue their peacekeeping duties on the Blue Line in southern Lebanon as planned. No Deputy wants a conflict. The situation is being kept under review by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Defence Forces and personnel serving in Lebanon.
No one more than our Defence Forces would want to see the Irish Government stand up, as it has done in the form of the Tánaiste. I pay tribute to him on his role in the Friends of Syria group's condemnation of the actions of everyone involved in slaughtering innocent people. We need to make that point.
I also condemn the violence on both sides. I take the Minister of State's point about the Irish being on a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, but when I mentioned staying neutral, I was referring to the need for Irish personnel in Europe to maintain Ireland's wonderful neutral position when commenting on the situation. Our position has been well known for years and should be preserved.
I acknowledge the Deputies' opinions, but I will not get caught in their crossfire. The deepening crisis in Syria could destabilise Lebanon, given the former's long history with and deep involvement in Lebanese politics. The situation should not be underestimated. The Lebanese Government and society are fearful that should the violence in Syria devolve into open sectarian warfare, it could easily spread into Lebanon where many of the same fault lines between minorities can be found. I do not want any Deputy to leave the House with the wrong impression - this issue is being kept under review by the Irish authorities. If there is a danger to Irish troops, it will be addressed.