Thursday, 11 April 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
15. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the reason 130 members of the Defence Forces were unable to leave the Golan Heights on their scheduled departure date of 4 April 2019 and the steps he will take to ensure accountability for this failure in view of the fact that it is the second time in a year that members of the Defence Forces have been unable to return home on time. [16803/19]
19. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the reason for the recent problems with flights for members of Defence Forces returning from Syria and the measures that will be taken to avoid such instances in the future. [16970/19]
I want to ask the Minister of State about the reason certain members of the Defence Forces had their return from Lebanon delayed and if he will make a statement on the matter. This is the second time this has occurred in six months and demonstrates a complete failure on the part of the Minister of State and his Department. In his public announcements, he said that it was the UN's fault. He is responsible for our troops. He let them down again. Many families were upset because they had this planned date. Can the Minister of State provide the House with an explanation of his actions?
I propose to take Questions Nos. 11, 15 and 19 together.
The recent UNDOF rotation was due to be completed on Thursday, 4 April 2019. The UN was responsible for organising the rotation flights to transport the current UNDOF contingent back to Ireland and has been organising these rotation flights for decades without incident. On 3 April, the UN advised my Department that the Lebanese authorities had not granted approval for the landing clearance in Beirut for the aircraft. I am glad to report that the UN subsequently secured an aircraft and the requisite clearances were put in place enabling all the soldiers to return home safely on Sunday evening last. All personnel impacted by the delay were kept informed of the situation throughout and families were also updated by designated family liaison officers.
The rearranged flight was the result of a concerted effort by UN staff, the Irish and Lebanese missions in New York, government authorities in Lebanon and Syria and the staff in my own Department and in the Defence Forces. I regret the impact of this delay on Defence Forces personnel and their families.
In October 2018, there was a delay in the return home of personnel from the 57th Infantry Group and in the deployment of the 58th Infantry Group. Similar to the recent incident, the delay last year was due to circumstances beyond the control of my Department. In that instance, the clearance that issued from the authorities stated incorrectly that it was for the UNIFIL contingent rather then the UNDOF contingent, as stated on the request. On that occasion, the Departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs and Trade and Ireland's Embassy in Cairo actively engaged with authorities in Lebanon and Syria and with the UN and the UNDOF mission to secure the relevant clearances in order to ensure the rotation of the contingent and the return home of those personnel completing service with UNDOF at the earliest opportunity.
The UNDOF contingent is operating in a very challenging region where there can never be complete certainty on transit routes and where the administrative procedures relating to the transit of military personnel are complex and cut across a number of jurisdictions. Approvals for the transit of foreign military forces in a congested conflict zone involve many international layers and are, therefore, not without hazard. While every effort is made to secure the necessary clearances on time, we do not have control over these and rely on the good offices of the states through which we are transiting. We will continue to engage with these states. However, given all the variables, it is not possible to guarantee rotation dates at this time with the requisite certainty and personnel will be advised of this uncertainty when deploying in future.
This shows that the Department cannot even be trusted to arrange a flight. The Minister of State is the one responsible along with his Department and he cannot deflect attention to the UN. What happened on both occasions shows that both he and his Department were asleep at the wheel. Many families had to cancel their holidays again or cancel plans. All those plans were cancelled when they were looking forward to seeing their loved ones after six months. It was a failure to ensure the safe and timely return of our troops, which is cruel on families.
One concern raised by the wives and partners of Defence Forces personnel was that the Minister announced the return date in the Irish media to protect himself, ahead of the troops on the ground being informed. If that is correct, and perhaps the Minister of State can correct the record, it shows he is putting protecting himself and his reputation over the people who have served Ireland and proudly represented the UN over there. This was a shocking development to see and I hope the Minister of State can clarify it.
To make a hames of the return once is unfortunate but to do so twice definitely smacks of carelessness and a lack of attention from the Department. In his answer, the Minister of State accounted for what happened. We know that but we still do not know why it happened. I would like to know how many other defence forces personnel from other jurisdictions have been similarly impacted in this way. Can he tell us how many have been affected? If he cannot, can he get us that information? Why does he not know? I have been in and out of Beirut on a number of occasions in the past two years and I have never had any problem. The Irish Government does not seem to have any problem in trafficking hundreds of US troops through its shores on a daily basis so I do not buy the explanation that it is a complex and difficult issue in an uncertain area. That does not add up.
If the Minister of State is blaming the UN for this, what has he done to address the situation? How could it possibly happen and what is the nature of the contract in which the Department has engaged to get our personnel back because the idea of this happening twice to families is disgraceful. We are talking about people who have been away on a foreign mission.
This is the second time this has happened that we know of. It is a cock-up of monumental proportions for the families awaiting the return of their loved ones who have served for six months. They probably had some idea, given that they were the ones who went in after the last cock-up. On that occasion, 119 soldiers were unable to return at the time they were told they would be returning. The Minister of State has blamed the UN. What has he said to the UN since then? Is he going to take this without any protest or without being given any guarantees? I ask because at the end of his reply, he said that when deploying troops, he could not guarantee return dates. That essentially is what he is saying. While he will send them wherever, it is a case of perhaps getting them back on the day on which they are supposed to return but it also might be a week or two weeks later.
In the last instance, a payment was given to those who were discommoded, that is, to each of the 199 soldiers affected. I do not know whether the Minister of State has looked at compensation for the changes families had to make to their routine, which had been set for a number of months, given that when the Minister of State sent the troops out, he indicated they would return after six months.
In response to Deputy Jack Chambers, my office announced this on social media on Thursday afternoon. Some media outlets picked up on that. I would call them very professional because they were able to pick up on that. I understand that the Deputy and his party communicate through social media. It is a very important tool that allows us to communicate-----
The Deputy might listen. He is not good at listening. We communicate through social media to inform the families. It would have taken 130 phone calls and up to very late on Thursday night to do that. I want to be able to communicate the message as quickly as possible. Many media outlets picked up on that.
In response to Deputy Jack Chambers and Clare Daly, the UN was responsible for this rotation. It is a very complex part of the world. There is war in Syria and thousands of people are crossing the Syrian border into Lebanon. This leads to very complex issues and this is one of them. The fact that other Irish troops who were going to go to the UNDOF mission were landing in Lebanon raised many issues. We spoke to the Lebanese Prime Minister's department, the Minister's department and our ambassador to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason.
We all worked together to get it fixed. Unfortunately there was a delay.
To answer Deputy Ó Snodaigh's question on compensation these people who were delayed coming home were delayed going out by two weeks and they received the overseas allowance while they were at home. I did not stop that. They were given a commitment that we would pay their overseas allowance from the very start. We did that even though they were not deployed on a mission overseas.