Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Recognition of Irish Military Service at Jadotville in 1961: Statements
The non-commissioned officers and men of A Company and attached 35th Infantry Battalion, United Nations forces in Congo took responsibility for the UN post at Jadotville on 3 September 1961. On 9 September, they were surrounded by a large force of Katangese gendarmerie. Early on the morning of 13 September, the company came under attack, which it endured almost continuously until 17 September. Despite its courageous resistance, A Company was taken captive. By this time, A Company had run out of water and several of its men were wounded. Their sacrifices in the service of peace are remembered with pride.
From Jadotville garrison, A Company and attached 35th Infantry Battalion, I mention Commandant Patrick Quinlan. I mention captains: Dermot Byrne; William Donnelly; and Thomas McGuinn. I mention lieutenants: William Carey; Joseph Leech; and Thomas Quinlan. I mention Chaplain Thomas Fagan. I mention Company Sergeant John Prendergast. I mention Company Quartermaster Sergeant Patrick Neville. I mention sergeants: Geoffrey Cuffe; Henry Dixon; Francis Gilsenan; Walter Hegarty; Patrick Joyce; Thomas Kelly; John Monaghan; Martin McCabe; Kevin McLoughlin; James Rea; and George Tiernan. I mention corporals: William Allen; Colm Brannigan; Patrick Burke; James Dempsey; John Devine; John Donnelly; Patrick Duffy; John Foley; John Foster; John Kerr; Brendan Laffere; Michael Lynch; John McAnaney; James McArdle; John McDonagh; Thomas McDonnell; John McEntee; John McManus; John O’Brien; Peter O’Callaghan; Michael O’Connor; Timothy Quinn; Patrick Rhatigan; Joseph Relihan; Christopher Roche; Michael Smith; Seán Tiernan; and Francis Williams. I mention privates: Gerard Battles; Francis Boland; Joseph Bracken; Robert Bradley; Michael Brennan; John Broderick; Michael Broderick; James Byrne; Patrick Conlon; Desmond Connolly; John Conway; Charles Cooley; Thomas Cunningham; Patrick Delaney; Albert Dell; Patrick Donnelly; John Dowler; Joseph Duff; William Duffy; Maurice Doyle; Patrick Dunleavy; Anthony Dykes; Michael Farrell; James Feery; Simon Finlass; Dominick Flaherty; John Flynn; John W Flynn; Thomas Flynn; Michael Galvin; Patrick Gildea; John Gorman; Edward Gormley; Noel Graham; Michael Greene; Thomas Gunn; William Hannigan; Dominick Harkin; James Harper; William Heffernan; Daniel Hegarty; Henry Hegarty; Joseph Hegarty; Gerald Hennely; Patrick Hogan; Thomas Hogan; William Hughes; William Keane; Robert Larkin; Thomas Larkin; Kieran Lynch; Edward Maher; Francis Malone; Joseph Maloney; Donal Manley; John Manning; James Myler; Daniel Molloy; Patrick Monaghan; James Murray; James McCourt; Michael McCormack; Michael McDermott; Thomas McDonagh; Matthew McGrath; Joseph McGuinness; Terence McMahon; Francis McManus; Anthony McNerney; John Nicell; James O’Kane; Joseph O’Kane; Robert Orr; Michael O’Sullivan; John Peppard; Christopher Powell; John Purtill; Matthew Quinlan; James Redmond; Daniel Regan; William Riggs; Anthony Roper; James Scally; Michael Seery; John Shanagher; John Stanford; Noel Stanley; Timothy Sullivan; Bernard Sweeney; Philip Sweeney; James Tahaney; Michael Tighe; Charles Tomkins; and Patrick Williams. Attached were: Commandant Joseph Clune; Lieutenant Kevin Knightly; Sergeant Colman Geary; Corporal Thomas O’Connor; Corporal James Lucey; Private James Kavanagh; Private John Dreelin; Private Michael Dunne; Private William Ready; Private Joseph O’Brien; Trooper Patrick McCarton; Trooper Michael Nolan; Trooper John Shanahan; helicopter pilot Eric Thors, interpreter Larse Froberg; and helicopter pilot Hovden Bjhrne.
I hope many of the individuals and their families will gain solace and pride from having their names read out in Seanad Éireann in the way the Cathaoirleach has just done. It is a recognition of the stature in which they are held by the political system across all sides of the political divide in Ireland. I thank the Cathaoirleach for that.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the recognition of the Irish military service at Jadotville. As Members are aware, the siege of Jadotville occurred during the United Nations operation in Congo. This was the first peacekeeping mission in which significant numbers of Irish soldiers took part. A total of 6,000 Irish soldiers served in Congo from 1960 until 1964. I want to take this opportunity to recall the contribution of all who served in the various Irish contingents over the course of this long, difficult and complex mission.
I would like to particularly acknowledge at the outset that last Sunday, 8 November, marked the 60th anniversary of the Niemba ambush, where nine members of the Defence Forces were killed while serving with the UN operations in Congo. This was and still remains the largest single loss of life in any one incident in the history of the Defence Forces' participation in UN service. Two retired Defence Forces members who survived the Niemba ambush are still alive today. Due to the prevailing public health measures, it was not possible to hold a commemorative event to mark this tragic incident. The General Officer Commanding 2 Brigade, Brigadier General Tony Cudmore, laid a wreath at Cathal Brugha Barracks last weekend to remember those nine soldiers from the 33rd Infantry Battalion who lost their lives while on UN service during the Niemba ambush. Defence Forces veterans associations also mark this significant anniversary.
I will turn to the events at Jadotville in September 1961. The siege of Jadotville was a prominent event that occurred during Ireland's peacekeeping mission in Congo in September 1961 where A Company and 35th Infantry Battalion came under sustained attack. From 13 to 17 September, the men of A Company endured almost continuous attack. At the end of the siege, the men were taken into captivity until they were finally released on 25 October 1961. In 1962 and 1965, a constituted medals board considered the issue of award of medals, including nominations that had been submitted in respect of some of the men of A Company.This medals board did not award any medals the citation of which mentioned Jadotville. This decision was subsequently reviewed by the medals board and it was indicated that the issues raised had received due consideration, and that the board was not prepared to alter its findings.
In 2004 a broader examination of the events at Jadotville was conducted by military officers. This board recommended that the events at Jadotville and the contribution of the 35th Battalion be given recognition. The outcome of this broader examination of the events at Jadotville has led to a number of initiatives that honour the collective actions and bravery of the men of A Company at Jadotville and recognise the very significant contribution of A Company, and the 35th Infantry Battalion as a whole, to the UN peace support mission in Congo. Recognition of the courageous deeds and valiant actions of the members of A Companies over the years have included a presentation of scrolls to A Company in 2006. Portraits of Lieutenant Colonel McNamee, 35th Battalion commander, and Commandant Quinlan, company commander, A Company, were commissioned in 2006. In July 2010, the 50th anniversary of the first deployment to Congo was commemorated in a highly publicised and well-attended event at Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel. A nominal roll of A Company, printed in copper, was affixed to the monument in Custume Barracks and was unveiled as part of the 50th anniversary of the Jadotville affair in September 2011. On the occasion of the 55th anniversary of the siege of Jadotville, a unit citation to honour the collective actions and bravery of the men of A Company was issued. This unit citation was presented to the company in recognition of their collective heroism and professional performance during the siege of Jadotville when they were cut off from support and reinforcements. This was the first time a unit citation was awarded within the Defence Forces.
In June 2017, at the request of the then Minister of State with responsibility for defence, a further review of archival records relating to the siege of Jadotville was undertaken by the military authorities but this did not uncover any additional information that was not already known. The findings of this review clarified that there is no certainty available in archive records on the totality of A Company personnel recommended for awards. Furthermore, it revealed no evidence of the outcome of the award consideration process. Given the increase in knowledge and understanding of the unique and exceptional circumstances surrounding the siege of Jadotville, the then Taoiseach and the then Minister of State with responsibility for defence decided that the most appropriate decision would be to collectively honour the actions of A Company at Jadotville further. The Government committed, as an exceptional step, to award a medal known as An Bonn Jadotville, or the Jadotville Medal, to each member of A Company, 35th Infantry Battalion, and to the family representatives of deceased members. This specially commissioned medal gives full and due recognition in honour of the courageous actions of the men of A Company during the siege of Jadotville. The words inscribed on the medal are "Cosaint Chalma", which means "valiant defence", and "Misneach", which means "courage". These words were carefully chosen in order to pay tribute to the courageous actions of the men of A Company. Coupled with the unit citation that issued in 2016, no other collective award of this nature has been made to date and the uniqueness of such awards should not be understated.
In recent times, the issue of awarding military medals for gallantry, MMG, and distinguished service medals, DSM, to some, or all, of the soldiers of A Company has been raised in a number of forums. The personnel from A Company who were recommended to be considered for the award of the MMG or DSM underwent due process by a properly constituted medals board in 1962 and 1965. There is a well-established institutional process that takes place within a relatively short timeframe after events to assess the contemporaneous facts and findings.
The decision to award a MMG or DSM is one for the Minister for Defence under regulations. Such a decision is taken on foot of advice from a military board duly appointed by the Chief of Staff in accordance with Defence Forces regulations. This is the sensible and proper approach. As Minister, I rely on professional military advice in such matters, as I believe all politicians should. I do not intend to award MMGs or DSMs without the required evidence and appropriate recommendations coming from military sources. To do so would be anathema to military personnel generally. The sound and reasoned judgment that comes of senior military experience and a determination to get to the facts and bring forward a fair and balanced recommendation is what is required when it comes to the award of such medals.
The award of DSMs and MMGs are provided for in Defence Forces regulations, DFR A9. The criteria for the award of medals provides that the initial recommendation for the award of the medal to an individual may be made by an officer of the Defence Forces and shall be accompanied by a statement setting out the grounds for such recommendation and giving such other relevant information as will enable higher authority to determine the merits of the act or acts. The recommendation shall normally be based upon the statement of a person who has personal knowledge or was an eyewitness to the act or acts. The act or acts must be described specifically and in detail. If the initial recommendation is made by an officer who does not have personal knowledge or was not an eyewitness to the act or acts, the testimony of at least one person who has personal knowledge or was an eyewitness to the act or acts, must accompany the recommendation. Where possible, the testimony of more than one such person shall be obtained. These are the regulations, which I know sound somewhat formal.
The introduction of any change to the regulations or to the criteria for the award of DSMs or MMGs is not a straightforward matter and has many associated complexities. For example, consideration must be given to any potential unintended consequences arising, such as maintaining the integrity of the award of medals system and implications for previous decisions of properly constituted military medals boards.
The availability of documentary evidence and official records presents a significant challenge in this case. It has been previously indicated that any additional documentation, information or evidence to support the request to award such medals will, of course, be considered. At this juncture, no new information has come to light that would be cause for the matter to be re-examined.
While I fully appreciate that the experiences in the Congo and at Jadotville were particularly distressing, it is also the case that many other members of the Defence Forces who have served overseas have been involved in serious and disturbing incidents where death and severe injury have resulted. This is in no way intended to denigrate the distress suffered and the courageous actions of those involved at Jadotville. Rather, it is to indicate that service in a war-torn region inevitably exposes members of the Defence Forces to the possibility of involvement in incidents of a very serious and distressing nature. This is what it means to be a peacekeeper and a soldier.
The Defence Forces have participated in overseas missions mandated by the UN since 1958. We can be justifiably very proud of the fact that they have completed approximately 70,000 individual tours of duty overseas in that time. In that time, a total of seven personnel have received the MMG while 90 personnel have been awarded the DSM for acts relating to service overseas.
The Defence Forces can only recommend the award of bravery and distinguished service medals in exceptional circumstances. Cases for the award of such medals are examined in great detail having regard to the circumstances pertaining in each particular case and on the basis of comparison with previous similar awards. There are awards made to all personnel who serve on overseas missions, which aim to recognise the contribution made by the members of each contingent serving on the peacekeeping mission and the difficult circumstances in which they have to operate. In this regard, the personnel referred to have received both a United Nations medal for their service in Congo, awarded by the UN, and the United Nations peacekeeping medal, awarded by the Irish Government.As I have outlined earlier, in 2017 the Government decided as an exceptional step to award a medal, known as An Bonn Jadotville or The Jadotville Medal, to each member of A Company 35th Infantry Battalion and to the family representatives of deceased members. This unique and specially commissioned medal gives full and due recognition in honour of the courageous actions of the men of A Company during the siege at Jadotville.
Notwithstanding all of the actions that have been undertaken to date, including the reviews and examinations of the events of Jadotville which I outlined earlier, the issue is receiving further consideration now by my office and by the Chief of Staff. I have asked the Chief of Staff for his views, in writing and in person. The Chief of Staff has proposed the establishment of an independent group of external experts to consider the entire case and evidence, including new evidence, if any, that is available. My understanding is that on that board will be ex-military officers, a historian, and an academic who understands the context and what happened in some detail, so that we will have genuine and independent expertise examining the case, which many Members have raised politically in various forums and in some cases directly with me. This independent review group will report its findings and recommendations to the Chief of Staff, as it should, and the Chief of Staff will then make recommendations as appropriate to my office on the basis of that work and the recommendations that come from it.
I know there is huge emotion linked to the Jadotville case, and rightly so. This was something for us all, but in particular those linked to the Defence Forces, to be very proud of. The men who served there are responsible for extraordinary service to peacekeeping and to Ireland in what was an incredibly complex, challenging and difficult theatre of conflict. Governments, at different times and with different Ministers, have tried to recognise that in different ways. The conversation still continues in relation to Jadotville. That is why I have asked the Chief of Staff and he has responded to me in a constructive way in terms of a process that we believe is appropriate.
I do think we need to be careful, however. We cannot move to a situation where politicians decide who gets medals and what kind of medals they get in terms of service either at home or abroad. This has to be a recommendation that comes from the military themselves. That is how this works. Otherwise we move into the space of trying to please people politically as opposed to robust assessment through military structures, through a medals board in these cases, where assessments are made. That being said, my job as Minister for Defence, legally and as the head of the defence infrastructure for the country, is to make sure that the context is fully understood and, if new evidence arises or if new perspectives develop, that they are recognised and that appropriate reviews take place. That is the context in which we are looking at this review, which is not the first, but I believe the context of it is important.
I would like to take this opportunity to recall the contribution of all the men and women of the Defence Forces who have been deployed on missions in the cause of peace overseas. They are not only soldiers but also ambassadors, for Ireland, for what we stand for, and for our commitment to peace and peace management abroad. The continued participation in United Nations missions illustrates the very positive difference a small country like Ireland can make in many parts of the world which desperately need our intervention. I thank the Seanad for this opportunity to recognise the service overseas of so many Irish Defence Forces personnel, whether they be Air Corps, Naval Service or Army, which is the case for the vast majority. In particular, I thank the House for giving me an opportunity to give both the history and the perspective on Jadotville, which is certainly not a closed book. As soon as the Chief of Staff concludes the process that he has agreed to undertake, I will be more than happy to come back to the Seanad to talk about the recommendations and the decisions that can be made on the back of them.
It is fitting that we have this debate today on the 102nd anniversary of the end of the First World War and in commemoration of the 49,000 Irish soldiers who lost their lives during that war. Having the opportunity to address our war heroes who were at Jadotville is significant. On a personal level, I wish to mention Sergeant John Lynch who died in Lebanon in 1997. I was teaching his daughter, Christine, at the time, and I will never forget the loss, tragedy and trauma visited to Christine, her mum, and her little brother, Scott. The military funeral in Newbridge in the church beside the school where I taught is something that will always be with me.
Coming from Kildare and living so close to the Curragh, the issues affecting the Defence Forces are very close to my heart. It is my contention that the veterans of the siege of Jadotville need to be properly recognised. I raised that two weeks ago here in the Seanad. The Minster mentioned that any awards that would be recommended must be seen as having been in exceptional circumstances. The siege of Jadotville was certainly exceptional and the bravery and courage shown by these men were absolutely exceptional.
The Minister talks about the complexities involved in the awarding of medals and the legal position which means he is unable to make awards of the military medal for gallantry other than on the recommendation of a military board appointed by the Chief of Staff. However, there are occasions when we need to find an alternative solution when a set of regulations appear to be unfair. I hope this is such an instance where we can honour the 29 veterans of Jadotville and still protect the integrity of the awards system. I welcome the fact that the Chief of Staff has proposed the establishment of an independent group of external experts to consider the entire case and evidence, and we await the findings of that.
In 2020 Ireland's peacekeepers are highly respected, having played a very significant role in Cyprus, East Timor, Lebanon and Chad. We have to remember that in 1961, this was one of our very first international military deployments. In 1958 a small number of observers had gone to Lebanon, and then in 1960, Irish troops were sent to the Congo as part of the UN force, ONUC. A total of 6,000 Irish men served in the Congo between 1960 and 1964. I recommend that Members read The Poisonwood Bibleby Barbara Kingsolver, which gives a glimpse into the lives of those at the time. One of the largest ONUC engagements in which Irish troops were involved was the siege of Jadotville. The odds at the time were stacked against the Irish contingent. They were lightly armed and had only one truck, two jeeps and patchy radio communications when they were attacked by a larger force of almost 4,000 troops. The Irish commanding officer, Commandant Pat Quinlan, was an astute tactician, and his soldiers repeatedly repelled the attackers. It is a wonder that there were no Irish fatalities sustained given the nature of the onslaught that they endured. Facing insurmountable odds, A Company had to surrender eventually after exhausting their ammunition and supplies. They were held captive for five very difficult weeks until their eventual release and were home in Ireland in December 1961.
The return to Ireland was very difficult. Many of the returned soldiers felt it was better for their careers not to mention Jadotville. There was a sense of embarrassment about the surrender and about some poor decision-making by senior Army officials. According to Commandant Quinlan's son, Leo, five Irish soldiers who survived that siege subsequently took their own lives.It is a shame that so many of them were not alive to see the review of the battle and the awarding of various recognitions, such as the anniversary commemorations of the first deployment in Baldonnel in July 2010 or the unit citation given to A Company. The courage and tenacity shown by Irish forces at Jadotville are not in question. The 29 veterans who served with such bravery deserve to be honoured and I hope the Chief of Staff can find a solution to bring closure to this very lengthy campaign for the veterans, their families and, indeed, many in this House.
Our heroes deserve these awards but we also need to honour their memory and courage by improving the present day situation of our soldiers. Our Defence Forces' pay and conditions remain a huge unresolved issue and fighting for decent pay and conditions for all our Defence Forces is a key objective for me and my party. The impact of poor pay and conditions on Defence Forces families has real and significant consequences in my constituency of Kildare South. I acknowledge the extra €32 million in budget 2021 but more needs to be done. Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces, WPDF, has stated that over the last nine years the Defence Forces have suffered from political neglect and institutional indifference. There are many issues that must be resolved. Last year's agreement on technical pay to increase military allowances has not been implemented. That is completely wrong. Along with our spokesperson on defence, Senator Wilson, I met with PDFORRA and the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, recently and I fully support PDFORRA's desire to be an associate member of ICTU.
The need for troops to quarantine for four weeks for overseas deployment should mean they get extra pay. I ask the Minister to address that issue. Our Defence Forces are currently demoralised due to poor pay and conditions and we absolutely need to treat that as a priority. We also urgently need to improve living conditions in the Curragh and other barracks. The Army Ranger Wing's allowances have also not been implemented.
I echo the views of my colleague, Senator O'Loughlin. The Minister will be aware that many local authorities have passed motions and supported this matter because of the interest shown in this House and the other House. I know the Minister is genuinely interested in this but what he is proposing is perhaps not the solution many of us would have sought. I urge the Minister to ask that that investigation begins as quickly as possible, bearing in mind that there are only eight men from that period still alive. While they are youthful in their enthusiasm it is important that the investigation takes place and that the Chief of Staff reports to the Minister as quickly as possible. I ask the Minister to indicate a timeframe for when he anticipates that report will come back.
I welcome the Minister to the House. This is the first time I have met him as Minister for Defence in this House so I congratulate him on his appointment. I also congratulate him on the fact that he has not appointed a Minister of State to work under him in the Department of Defence and has taken a hands-on position. He has met the representative bodies and visited a number of centres and units throughout the country. I am 100% behind him. I want to work with him and see him achieve the things he has told me he wants to achieve with the Defence Forces. Our Defence Forces are a proud group of people and all they need is the recognition that the Minister is working to get for them.
Since October 2016, I have called on the Government of the day to award medals to the Jadotville heroes on 28 separate occasions, the most recent being on the Order of Business a few weeks ago. The first time I raised the issue was in 2016, after the parade organised by ex-sergeant Paul Clarke at Collins Barracks, which was called Jadotville day and which has been held every year since. I came into this Chamber and said it was a sad reflection on the country that we did not do those heroes proud. We have not issued them with medals for the service they have given the country. Over the last four years I have travelled the length and breadth of the country and I have been honoured to meet surviving Jadotville veterans and the proud families of those who are sadly deceased.
However, my greatest sadness and remorse is that I served as a sergeant alongside three of the heroes of Jadotville in Dún Uí Mhaoilíosa i nGaillimh and never knew that they had served in Jadotville. I never heard word of Jadotville. I am talking about Corporal John Flynn, Private Charlie Cooley, who was nominated for the distinguished service medal, DSM, and Gunner Bobby Orr, all of whom served in Galway. I want to say to these men, particularly because I trained recruits in Galway, that I am deeply sorry I did not know of their heroism and that I was not in a position to introduce recruits to them as the heroes they were. I acknowledge John Gorman in particular. He devoted most of his life to fighting for the recognition of his peers who served with him in Jadotville. If any man deserves recognition in this House today, it is John Gorman.
I have stood in the Chamber on a number of occasions and noted the passing of valiant members of A Company who went to their graves without the vindication and honour they deserved. I have met the families of those who took their own lives. Believe it or not, they returned from Jadotville as heroes. Most of them came from Galway and Athlone. They marched into Athlone as heroes and a very short time later they were regarded as cowards. I heard names being called out by the Cathaoirleach at the start of this debate. One that sticks in my mind is Geoffrey Cuffe. Geoff and I served in Athlone training potential non-commissioned officers, NCOs. He was a wonderful character in his time.
The people from Jadotville who were nominated for military medals for gallantry were: Company Sergeant John Prendergast; Sergeant John Monaghan; Sergeant Walter Hegarty, who is related to me through my niece; Corporal Timothy "Tadhg", Quinn; and Private Gerald Hennely. Those recommended for DSMs were: Captain William "Liam" Donnelly; Lieutenant Kevin Knightly; Lieutenant William Noel Carey, who is still with us; Lieutenant Tom Quinlan, Company Sergeant John Prendergast; Sergeant John Monaghan; Sergeant Walter Hegarty, who got a DSM at a later stage; Sergeant Tom Kelly; Corporal Frank Williams; Corporal James Rea; Corporal James Lucey; Corporal Tom McDonnell; Corporal John Foley; Corporal John McDonagh; Corporal John McManus; Corporal Tadhg Quinn; Corporal Michael Lynch; Private Joe O'Kane; Private Robert Larkin; Private Michael McCormack; Private Tom Gunn; Private Charles Cooley, who is watching this in Renmore today and who has a great character; Private Thomas Flynn; Private Michael Tighe; Private Daniel Molloy; Private John Nicell; Private Jim Feery; Private Noel Stanley; Private Michael Brennan; Private Gerard Hennely; Private Matt Quinlan; Private Michael Galvin; and Private Patrick McCarton. Those are recommendations. I fully support what the Minister is trying to do but this is a military matter, not a political matter. It is up to the military authorities to re-examine this case and make recommendations to the Minister. It is not for politicans to decide who gets medals in this world.
The late Colonel Pat Quinlan's action is cited in military textbooks worldwide as the best example of the use of the so-called "perimeter defence". The siege of Jadotville is internationally regarded as one of the most heroic battles in Irish military history and to this day is hailed as an example of bravery and military genius. Why is it that we cannot recognise our heroes? Why can Australia award a Victoria cross 75 years after an event and we cannot do similar? Again, it falls back to the military to look at this matter and make recommendations to the Minister. It is not for the Minister to demand medals for anybody.
I could go through the battle and the various waves that happened but there is no point in that. We have all heard of it before and there is no point in replaying that here today. A Company suffered no collateral damage. A few people were wounded but that was all. However, it inflicted massive damage on the enemy. Over the last four years I have had the unique privilege of working with John Gorman and Commandant Leo Quinlan, who is the son of Pat Quinlan. Indeed, I served under all of the Quinlans at one stage or another in my career. They are a fine military family. Colonel Pat Quinlan, or Commandant Quinlan at the time, was without doubt a leader second to none.For a man from a military background where there was no experience of warfare and battle, his leadership at Jadotville was phenomenal and second to none.
I compliment the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, on the brave step he took in bringing about An Bonn Jadotville. It was a tremendous day for all of us. I thank the students of Galway Community College and Malahide Community School for their political lobbying on behalf of the veterans of Jadotville, and the history teachers in particular. We have heard that eight veterans are still alive but that does not mean we can throw out the rule book and give those eight people medals. As my colleague, Senator Byrne, said, what we must do is expedite the research of the Chief of Staff into this issue, get a medals board together and see if we can make a recommendation. A recommendation is not a medal and that needs to be learned here. There needs to be an open and transparent appraisal of what took place at Jadotville, and then medals should be issued where they are due.
I say that because I am extremely proud of the people of whom I speak today. I am extremely proud of people like Charlie Cooley. I met him not so long ago sitting in a wheelchair. Those are all men in their 80s now. At the end of the day, we did some service for them by giving them An Bonn Jadotville but we need to go the extra step and clearly decide one way or the other on this issue.
Finally, I ask the Chief of Staff to include two further people in his deliberations. One is Pat Quinlan, who was never recommended for any medal whatsoever. He was, however, the leader on the day in Jadotville. The other person is John Gorman, who I believe, in the finest military tradition, has gone over and above the call of duty to ensure that his peers and colleagues were recognised for what happened at Jadotville. I am sorry for going over my time.
I thank Senator O'Reilly, the Fine Gael spokesperson on defence, for allowing me to lead in this debate on behalf of our party. Before I get into the merits of this debate and why I believe we should have these medals awarded, I pay tribute to individuals, like Senator Craughwell and former Senator Gabrielle McFadden, who were lone voices in the wilderness for so long. They are now being joined by a chorus of voices, from all political parties and none, in both Houses of the Oireachtas. One need only search kildarestreet.comfor "Jadotville" to find a flurry of parliamentary questions, Commencement matter debates and a mention on the Order of Business by Senator Wall last week. I refer to what so many of us here in the last month have said, let alone what individuals have been doing on both sides of the House.
I also want to highlight what I, as a new Member of this House, have found to be the most refreshing aspect of this debate. It is that there is no political one-upmanship from anyone here. No one is trying to get out in front of another individual. Nobody is trying to get credit, or anything like that. Everybody is very much on the same page and we are all sharing information with each other that we get back from representations. We are all talking to each other. I have picked up the phone to Senators Craughwell and Wall more times in recent weeks than ever before. It is important to state that we are all on the same page on this issue.
That brings me to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, who as a former Minister of Defence had been engaged on this issue previously, as was his office. I thank him for that because I know he is genuine and sincere, and we saw that in his remarks today. We can all agree that the Minister wants to see some kind of successful conclusion to this matter. I also pay tribute to Commandant Leo Quinlan, the son of Pat Quinlan. Without his determination in recent years, I fear that this issue would have fallen by the wayside. It could have fallen into the annals of time and been forgotten about. I have had the pleasure of speaking with Commandant Quinlan on several occasions this week to increase my own understanding of what is a complex issue. We might not be discussing these issues at all today if it was not for Commandant Quinlan.
The Jadotville action is the biggest military engagement the Irish Army has ever faced against a foreign enemy since the foundation of the State. It has been likened to the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 and to the battle of Rorke's Drift in 1879 during the Zulu Wars. Can we imagine that a battle in which 155 Irish troops engaged is in the same league, historically speaking, as the Battle of the Alamo? There were only 155 Irish troops, and they are seen as being on that level of military engagement in the history of military conflict globally.
That resulted from Commandant Pat Quinlan being a remarkable tactician and strategist, and it is because of his ability that this battle is right up there in the annals of military history. The fact that only five Irish troops were wounded during the five-day siege is a testament to Commandant Pat Quinlan and how he valued the lives of the troops under his command. As Senator Craughwell explained to me earlier, Commandant Quinlan ensured that a field of fire was placed on enemy targets, rather than putting Irish troops in positions where the threat of injury or death was dramatically increased. He kept his soldiers safe and looked after them, and that is why only five of them were wounded in a five-day siege against an enemy force numbering 3,500 strong.
I believe that there are historical reasons why medals were not awarded in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. I am not here today to dwell on those historical reasons; that is for others to decide upon and it is in the past. I am focusing on the present and what we can do to try to bring a measure of justice to this debate. I want to be clear, and Senator Craughwell was even clearer about this, that awarding medals is not in the personal gift of the Minister. It would be wrong if that was the case, because then we would be bringing politicians into military affairs. That would be wrong, and it would be wrong for anybody to suggest otherwise, although nobody has. It is easy for that point to get lost in the emotion of the debate. It is not the role of the Minister, and it is not in his gift or ability, to award military medals.
What we can do, and what I think is simple enough to do, is request the Chief of Staff of the Army to convene a medals board, as has already been outlined. We should let that medals board examine the whole issue again, in light of new information that I have no doubt will be supplied when the expert group meets. If it is decided that there is nothing to be decided here, which I do not think they will, then that is fair enough because we will have asked for that medals board to be reconvened to examine this issue in greater detail. I acknowledge there are technicalities involved and stumbling blocks concerning Defence Forces' regulations. If we must amend them slightly so that we can look at something like this case of Jadotville, then let us do that. I believe the Minister is genuine in his desire to resolve this issue and we saw that in his opening statement. Several Members will be aware of the work that has been done by the Minister's office in recent weeks on this issue. I will not say that was done to bring a successful conclusion, but to try to move the matter forward as much as possible. I cannot speak for other Members but I would like to think we are all grateful for that, especially when so many of us have been raising this issue in recent weeks, or years in the case of Senator Craughwell and others.
I am a firm believer that it is never too late to do the right thing, no matter what the issue is in life. It is never too late, whether something happened ten years ago, 20 years ago or, in this case, on the 60th anniversary, which will fall in early September. If we allow this debate to continue and rumble on over the next year or two, we will end up in a situation where more of the surviving eight veterans will, sadly, have passed away. We will then look back at this moment and ask ourselves how foolish we were to not try and fix this issue now. There is no point trying to do that after these people have passed away by making awards posthumously. That is pointless.
When we think about it, it is amazing that these surviving men were just boys when they came under enemy fire in sub-Saharan Africa. There were only boys aged 15 or 16 years old. They survived, however, and they need to be recognised. I am thankful the Minister has come to the House with a clear outline of what he intends to do. He has not come here, paid us lip service and walked out. He came here with a clear and definitive plan concerning how he wants to make progress on this issue. My only request is for the Minister to set very clear time limits, of which every Member is aware, regarding when the expert group will report back to the Chief of Staff and when he will then report back to the Minister regarding any potential decisions. A clear timeframe would calm many of the fears among the military community and many Members of the Oireachtas.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and other Senators for listing the names of the members of A Company. It is always important to remember them and that was a poignant moment at the start of the debate. I welcome the Minister to the House. As others have noted, it is the first time he has joined us as Minister for Defence. I look forward to working with him as the Labour Party spokesperson on defence on the future of the Defence Forces. I thank Senators McGahon and Craughwell and others who noted that this issue has seen agreement across the House, which is very important. It is heartening to hear the support for these heroes throughout the House. It is important also to thank the Leader for allowing us time today to discuss this important matter.
The siege of Jadotville was, as has been described by the Minister's Department and again during the debate, a prominent event that occurred during Ireland's peacekeeping mission in the Congo in September 1961. A Company, 35th Infantry Battalion, took responsibility for the UN post at Jadotville on 3 September 1961. On 9 September, a large, hostile force of locals and international mercenaries surrounded them and began monitoring their every move. At 7.48 a.m. on 13 September, A Company came under attack from far superior numbers. From 13 to 17 September, they endured an almost continuous and sustained attack. They were taken into captivity on 17 September and remained there until finally being released on 25 October 1961.
In replies to my Labour Party colleagues over recent months, including most recently in September, the Department stated:
Over the past number of years various representations have been received in my Department outlining the courage and bravery of "A" Company. All representations have been considered and responded to acknowledging their valiant actions while under siege in Jadotville.
With regard to enquiries about any additional medals, it has been previously indicated that any additional documentation, information or evidence to support the request to award such medals will be considered. At this juncture, no new information has come to light.
It is my understanding that the documentation referred to exists and has been presented to the Department. This information explains why medals were not given at the time and why this heroic episode in Irish military history was, effectively, swept under the carpet. I am informed the documentation goes on to outline that a recommendation was made by the commanding officer at Jadotville, Commandant Pat Quinlan, to award 28 distinguished service medals to those who served, and a distinguished service medal and a military medal for gallantry - our highest award for valour - to five more of the men of A Company after the siege. It is also my understanding that the UN is considering recognising the gallantry of these men, a timely reminder, as I am sure we can all agree, that our country must finally award the medals previously mentioned.
The Minister agrees we should all be very proud of these men; he stated as much here earlier today. The engagement in which the soldiers were involved at Jadotville is held up by many military armies and educators as a prime example of perimeter defence. It is taught and studied by many military colleges throughout the world, a lasting legacy to Commandant Quinlan and his men but also to the Defence Forces. Unfortunately, as we all know, it was not always like this. Many of these men were scorned and ridiculed on their return home following the engagement in the Congo. The term "Jadotville Jack" was used against these men and held against our Defence Forces by those who were simply uneducated about what the men of A Company had faced and achieved in defending their post for five days against a force more than 20 times the size of their unit. These men were, and have always been, proud standard-bearers of our State's exceptional service to the UN as peacekeepers throughout the world. Their service, loyalty and bravery are, thankfully, now recognised by all those who have studied the engagement.
Over recent months, and since we returned to the Seanad Chamber, all political groups have referred to the bravery of Commandant Quinlan. During this time, there have been a number of campaigns promoting recognition of these men and, one hopes, ensuring that every Irish person will get to know of their bravery. One such campaign by the South East Military Veterans has, along with a large number of county councillors, co-ordinated a motion passing in support of this recognition in more than 18 local authorities, with more motions to come.
I am sure many Senators have spoken to and received correspondence from those who have recently watched the 2016 film "The Siege of Jadotville", directed by Richie Smith and based on the book by Declan Power. The one aspect that is continually noted by people who have seen the film is the bravery of the young men, but just as important is the pride that people feel in the fact the men were Irish, representing this country and our Defence Forces. Like many Senators, I grew up watching war action films, which depict great armies with great victories or historic defences. This film showcases Irish heroes on an international stage, and pride is the overwhelming emotion felt by anybody who has seen the action depicted on the small screen.
Over recent months, I have spoken to many family members whose loved ones fought at Jadotville. They have lived their lives through stories of what happened over those five fateful days in September 1961 and the subsequent months. Inaccurate reports of mass Irish casualties, I am sure, haunted them in the early stories of the battle. Thankfully, all those involved in the siege survived and have all acknowledged their commanding officer, Commandant Quinlan, in achieving this. I have asked a number of them what it would mean to see their loved ones honoured in the way that Commandant Quinlan requested and they replied, variously: that it would mean everything to the person and their family and that all the hardship their dad went through would finally be recognised; that it would be a right finally done; and that it would be wishes finally carried out.
One hundred and fifty-five men were involved in this engagement on the Irish side. Those men continued to serve their country in further engagements before they arrived home. It is incredible that these men came from throughout Ireland but quite remarkable that Assumption Road in Athlone provided 13 of these gallant soldiers. Some of the soldiers were just 16 years old and, unfortunately, this engagement had very sad consequences for their lives following their return home from the Congo. Only eight of the men are still alive but generations of Irish people are alive because of the historic defence of their position by Commandant Quinlan and his men. Often referred to as "Jadotville babies", they have grown up with stories of their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers.
Unfortunately, they are waiting, as are we all, for the medals to be awarded. It is never too late to do the right thing. Next year will be the 60th anniversary of what has been described by many as one of the greatest events in Irish military history. It is important to acknowledge that a special medal was awarded in 2017 and that on the 55th anniversary, there was a unit citation. Nevertheless, the awarding of the distinguished service medals and the military medals for gallantry is, in my opinion but more importantly in that of relatives and loved ones of those who fought at Jadotville, the right thing to do. It would, as relatives have said, mean everything to them.
I welcome the fact the Chief of Staff will set up an independent group of external experts. That is the way to go. While I support the Minister's comments that politicians should not award medals, I am sure he will agree that when we are brought information about incidents such as Jadotville and our heroes, we should bring it to his attention as the Minister for Defence in order that we can go through the due process of awarding those medals.
I welcome the Minister to the House. His presence is a sign of how seriously this matter is being taken. It is a good day for the Upper House, Seanad Éireann, that we can come up with an initiative such as this, ventilate our views and have such a constructive, positive debate, shining a light on this in a way that might not always be open to the Lower House. It is fitting that we acknowledge the courageous efforts of A Company, 35th Infantry Battalion, and it is only right that the House acknowledges the valiant defence of Jadotville in September 1961. I am sure my colleagues in the House will also join me in thanking them but also the thousands of members of the Defence Forces and the Garda Síochána who have served this country and the United Nations with honour since 1958. During this debate, I think especially of those Defence Force personnel and their Garda colleagues, who also have seen service abroad, who have died overseas in the cause of international peace and security. We should not let the debate pass without remembering the members of An Garda Síochána and Óglaigh na hÉireann who have given their lives at home for the people to have a safer place.
This week also marks the 60th anniversary of a tragic incident, referred to by the Minister, involving the men of another A Company.On 8 November 1960, an 11-man patrol from A Company of the 33rd Infantry Battalion departed its base at Niemba under the command of Lieutenant Kevin Gleeson. Unfortunately, Lieutenant Gleeson and eight brave souls never came home. They perished after being attacked without warning by a large number of Baluba tribesmen. These deaths were the first operational casualties suffered by the Defence Forces since the Civil War and make up the highest death toll from a single action suffered by the Defence Forces in the cause of world peace. That ambush brought home immediately to this country the harsh realities and challenges facing our peacekeepers when we choose to send them abroad. In total, 26 members of the Defence Forces would die while serving in the Congo.
I mention the Niemba ambush during today's discussion because I would like to acknowledge that the actions of Jadotville were neither the first nor the last episodes of exceptional bravery and gallantry by our soldiers, sailors and air crew. They are, however, a very important exemplar of the fine traditions of loyal, selfless service we have come to associate with Óglaigh na hÉireann. While the siege of Jadotville and the sustained assaults they suffered from air and the ground are widely known and, as Senator Wall noted, documented in "The Siege of Jadotville" movie on Netflix, it is often forgotten that these men not only faced the horrors of the battlefield for those five heated days, they also endured more than a month of gruelling captivity, a captivity they could not be sure they would come through alive, and after being released faced another military engagement prior to returning home.
Many more served again in the Congo, Cyprus, on the Border of the island of Ireland and, of course, in Lebanon. These men are the personification of the finest ideals of our foreign policy and the national spirit. It is due to their actions and the actions of their colleagues that this country is held in the highest esteem around the globe, particularly in the UN General Assembly. As we take our seat on the UN Security Council in 2021, let us remember that the blood, sweat and tears of our Jadotville veterans and many others form the tangible bedrock of our continued commitment to the founding ideals of the UN. During their service and in their retirement, these men have demonstrated their commitment to the Defence Forces' values of respect, loyalty, selflessness and physical and moral courage, and it is time that we in this House gave them the respect and loyalty they are due by supporting this motion.
To paraphrase Leo Quinlan, son of Commandant Pat Quinlan, speaking in 2019 on the tragic legacy of Jadotville, he said that every battle has to be fought twice, first on the field and second with historians. I think we can all agree that a third unfortunate battle between the State and the survivors needs to end with the recognition that these men deserve. I welcome what the Minister of Defence said today and call on him to do all in his power to ensure that the medal recommendations made by Colonel Pat Quinlan - he was a commandant at the time but retired a colonel and has now passed away - are reviewed by a competent military board, which I am sure this external expert board will do. While I am aware that the military board sat in 1965 and considered some of Colonel Quinlan's recommendations, we must acknowledge that official attitudes, culture and biases at the time may have significantly hampered the work of that board.
As Senator McGahon said, many of these soldiers were mere teenagers, but regardless of their age, all of their lives were changed irreparably by their service in the Congo. In addition to the physical scars, many of these men brought home a significant number of unseen scars for the remainder of their lives. These traumas were undoubtedly exacerbated by the lack of recognition of their deeds at the time and their shameful abandonment in retirement. Men may not have died on the battlefields of Katanga that week, but let us be under no illusion that men changed irreparably and for the worse as a result of that siege. Lacking proper recognition during service and care and support during retirement, many of these heroes turned to alcohol, which is documented in published reports, while others tragically ended up taking their own lives according to a piece published in The Irish Times. This is what we are dealing with here. They were changed forever through serving for peace.
Military medals are highly valued and regarded as representing all that is best in the field of human endeavour. Medals in themselves cannot be a starting point or finishing line when it comes to the State engaging with its faithful servants. All members of the Defence Forces swear an oath of fidelity to Ireland and loyalty to the Constitution. They commit to serving the State and the cause of international peace and security at any time or place in the world. They take on the responsibility willingly and this commitment cannot be one sided. This places a reciprocal onus on us to support them. In putting the needs of the nation, the Defence Forces and others before their own, they expect to be treated fairly by the State and the support of society and all of Government. I, along with two of my colleagues here from south Kildare, am a public representative from Kildare, which has such a fine military tradition. It is not just about Kildare; this is an Irish issue. It is felt so strongly in Kildare. In Waterford, Councillor Jody Power from the Green Party tabled a motion to support and promote recognition. I know many other county councils would join with us. I welcome the fact that the Minister is advancing matters today. Of course, there are boundaries. There is only so much the Minister can do but he has done as much as he can on this occasion. We really look forward to this being moved on swiftly.
I welcome the Minister. I add Sinn Féin's voice to this motion to recognise the sacrifices of the soldiers at the siege of Jadotville. September 2021 marks 60 years since one of the most remarkable and some would say miraculous sieges in military history. During what was known as the Congo crisis of 1960 to 1963, a contingent of 155 Irish UN troops, designated A Company, commanded by Commandant Pat Quinlan were sent to the mining town of Jadotville, now known as Likasi, ostensibly to assist in the protection of its citizens following a request by the Belgian ambassador to the UN. A Company found itself in hostile territory from the beginning, with the locals distrustful to the point of resentment of the UN presence.
At 7.40 on the morning of Wednesday, 13 September 1961, the Katangese attacked while many of the Irish UN troops were attending an open air mass. Expecting to take the men off guard, the first attackers moved in rapidly but were spotted by an Irish sentry and a warning shot by Private Billy Reidy alerted the company to the threat. Reidy was wounded in a later exchange. The attackers had a strength of 3,000 to 5,000 men, mostly Katangese and settlers but with many Belgian, French and Rhodesian mercenaries, armed with a mix of light and heavy armament and with air support. For the most part, the Irish UN soldiers were armed with only light personal weapons, a small number of machine guns and mortars. A Company, 35th Battalion suffered five wounded in action with no fatalities during the siege. The Katangese, on the other hand, suffered heavy losses. Up to 300 were killed, including 30 mercenaries, and an indeterminate number were wounded with figures ranging to from 300 to 1,000.
In the end, with his position untenable, without any clear orders or promise of assistance, having run out of ammunition and food and running low on water, Commandant Quinlan accepted the second offer to surrender to the Katangese on the afternoon of Sunday, 17 September 1961. Those Irish soldiers were then held as prisoners of war for approximately one month while the Katangese negotiated terms of release that would inflict the greatest embarrassment on the UN. Although A Company 35th Battalion had tactically defeated a larger enemy at Jadotville, the Irish Defence Forces leadership did not overtly acknowledge the battle. There may have been perceived shame that A Company had surrendered or because of political and strategic errors at higher levels. It is important to put into the record what happened over those days. Since the incident no Irish soldier has received any decoration for his actions at Jadotville even though Commandant Quinlan recommended 33 of his men for the military medal for gallantry.
In 2004, the then Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, agreed to hold a full review of the battle. A Defence Forces inquiry cleared Commandant Quinlan and A Company of an allegation of soldierly misconduct. Commandant Pat Quinlan, whose actions are cited in military textbooks worldwide as the best use of perimeter defence and who died in 1997, only had his public reputation restored nine years after his death. In 2005 a commemorative stone recognising the soldiers of A Company was erected on the grounds of Custume Barracks in Athlone, the barracks from which A Company departed for its mission. A commissioned portrait of Commandant Quinlan was installed in the Congo room of the Irish Defence Forces UN school. In October 2017, a plaque commemorating Commandant Quinlan was unveiled in his native County Kerry by the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. They were presented with special medals, An Bonn Jadotville, at a special ceremony.
The Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, said the matter of bravery medals was considered by a properly constituted medals board in 1965 and that no awards were made for Jadotville. The decision was approved by the then Chief of Staff. A later Chief of Staff ordered a review of the decision and it was upheld. The Minister said that both medals are time bound - two years in the case of the military medal of gallantry and four years for the distinguished service medal.
I believe that all the honours that have been bestowed on the members of A Company show that there is an appetite among the public and across the political divide to recognise appropriately the sacrifice made. I add Sinn Féin's voice to today's motion. We are legislators and nobody is suggesting that politicians should be awarding military medals, but we need to fix this before the men pass on. It is in our gift to do that as legislators. This House speaks with one voice in saying to the Minister that while we recognise the complications, it should not mean that we will not try to fix it.
I welcome the Minister to the House. Members of the Civil Engagement Group wholeheartedly support this motion to recognise the gallantry of the soldiers of A Company who fought bravely and professionally in the siege of Jadotville in 1961. It is paramount that after 59 years we finally recognise and honour the bravery, professionalism and gallantry of the 155 Irish soldiers who fought and defended themselves during this failed peacekeeping mission in Katanga. I cannot begin to imagine the fear and terror experienced by those young men when they had to fight for their lives for five days straight. These men were as young as 15 years old having to fight to survive against 4,000 soldiers until they had no choice but to call for a ceasefire when they ran out of water. We are all family members, and as a mother, I shudder to think of the poor families suffering at home knowing that once the siege had finished, their sons, brothers and husbands were held captive in prisoner of war camps for six weeks. The soldiers were at the mercy of others until the UN could finally negotiate their release.
It is a story of profound trauma that nobody should ever have to experience. I cannot begin to imagine the panic and hopelessness that they must have felt at the time. It is essential that we not only recognise their struggle today but also recognise the masterful skills of Commandant Pat Quinlan, under whom the men of A Company fought valiantly. He has since been referred to as a masterful tactician. His foresight allowed them to prepare defences and dig trenches for an anticipatory attack that would ultimately ensure the survival of all 155 peacekeepers.
It is high time that they be awarded distinguished service medals. The siege of Jadotville is a major part of Irish history and we must treat it and remember it as such. More has been done in recent years to honour and remember the heroes, but these medals would signify a deep mark of respect and gratitude with the highest of Irish military awards and decorations. I believe with every fibre of my being that these heroes are more than deserving of such an accolade.
Noel Carey was only 24 years old and he remembered thinking to himself on 13 September as the battle broke out, "As the shells and bullets rained down on us, I just thought ... we were supposed to be peacekeepers, now we’re all going to get killed.” The men spent the following six weeks in captivity where Irish men as young as 15 were held in camps until the United Nations negotiated their release.
Perhaps the most painful part of this history is how the men of A Company were treated when they returned to Ireland. They were publicly condemned and referred to as cowards for calling for a ceasefire. They were viewed as weak by the press and media. Their bravery, masterful tactics and gallantry were all forgotten and pasted over with shame. For that I feel deep regret. The most heartbreaking part of the story is that from the group of 155 soldiers, five of them took their own lives after the trauma they had experienced and the public condemnation. This shows me that we failed them. These men could not get the help they needed in a mental health crisis. The trauma they carried was too heavy to live with. We failed them. We cannot fail them again. This deeply upsetting and unfair part of our history needs to be remembered, as does their pain and suffering. We simply cannot allow these heroes to be forgotten.
I am very glad to hear that this issue is receiving further consideration. I am sure we would all agree that it would be great to see these men receive the distinguished service medals and military medals for gallantry, which would show a sincere mark of respect and gratitude to the men of A Company and acknowledge the siege of Jadotville as a cherished part of our Irish history.
Under the order of the House, the Minister is to reply by 2.39 p.m. and we are supposed to finish at 2.45 p.m.. However, I want everybody to get in. Everybody will get to speak, but it is one minute each. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the Minister's saying that a review board is to be set up. I commend Vice Admiral Mark Mellett on his flexibility in this regard. I agree with the Minister's position that it is not for politicians to award medals; it is for the military to do so. I think there is something special about the siege of Jadotville. That is why it has exercised us for so many years and why there is such emotion in this House and beyond. Former military personnel have spoken in this House from personal experience. Something makes this different from other instances. I take the Minister's point on board.
I wish to make a wider point while the Minister is present. We have a strange relationship with our Defence Forces. We do not do enough to acknowledge the Defence Forces' role and their special place within our society. We need to do more on promoting the Defence Forces. The loss of so many members of the Reserve Defence Force is particularly regrettable because they were the personal connection in each town and village in Ireland with the Defence Forces and with the uniform. That link has been broken and is gone. Work on promoting our Defence Forces more broadly would be very welcome.
I welcome the Minister here today. I certainly welcome the promised review. It is imperative that the committee is given a free path to make its own findings and recommendations. As the Minister mentioned, the composition of the committee is most important.
As the Minister stated, two reviews where held in 1962 and 1965. In the fullness of time the narrative and perspective can change.
I commend several local authorities, including my own one, Westmeath County Council, under the stewardship of the cathaoirleach, Ken Glynn. I know Joe Carroll in Cork, and several different local authorities had this on their agenda, which helped to speed this up. The A Company leader, Commandant Quinlan, had recommended that 27 of his men be awarded distinguished service medals and five received the military medal of gallantry.
Tom Gunn from Mullingar served in Jadotville.I recommend that all the serving members are interviewed as part of this process.
I welcome the Minister and I acknowledge his real engagement on this matter. Given the shortness of the available time I will quote Commandant Quinlan, who ruefully stated that if one had men killed, it may be seen as victory, but if one saves those men in a good defence, it is a defeat. There is context in that interpretation. I welcome that the commission has been set up and I hope it reports quickly. I also hope it looks into the historical context, the culture of the time and the direction the men were sent, including whether they should have been sent to Jadotville in the first place. It is a questionable proposition. Therein may lie the fault and a kind of historical cover-up. They should not have been directed there.
I welcome the commission and we should be very proud of our Defence Forces. We should be retrospectively proud of these men and the survivors, and they deserve recognition. I am impressed by the real engagement with it now and if a proper historical analysis is taken, the case would stand for recognition of these men.
I welcome the Minister and compliment the Cathaoirleach on reading the roll of names into the record of the House. I fully support the campaign by the former members of the Defence Forces, and particularly Senators Craughwell, Wall and McGahon, who put this matter on the agenda.
I spoke this morning to a survivor who lives in my native parish, Private John Dowler, or Seán as he is known to me, about this. He said they were treated like lepers and they were told not to speak about it. In 2017, the Government decided, as an exceptional step, to award a medal to each member of the battalion to recognise their courageous actions. The ceremony took place in Athlone, which is considered the home of the company, and that was correct. It was the first step taken by the State in recognising these men.
I welcome that the Chief of Staff is currently considering the matter in the context of awarding medals. An independent medals board has been set up to consider the case. I agree with a number of comments here that it is up to the military to decide the matter of who is to receive medals and not politicians. We need to right a wrong. It is as simple as that.
I welcome the Minister here today. We must recognise the heroic nature of this unit and Commandant Pat Quinlan, who kept his team alive. We have the barracks in Athlone and many families in Roscommon and Galway have served with distinction in the Army. We have generations of families whose lives are intertwined with the Defence Forces. As Senators, including Senator Carrigy, have mentioned, the An Bonn Jadotville medal was awarded at a special ceremony in Athlone and it is considered the spiritual home of A Company.
The importance of the peacekeeping role of Irish soldiers since 1955 is a key reason Ireland has been so successful in winning the observer role we now have in the UN. The Army, in helping healthcare services through this Covid-19 pandemic, is again proving crucial in how it has come to help our country in a time of need.
What is the timeline for the independent group to give recommendations, particularly for the eight living heroes and veterans of A Company? It is time, as a country, for us to look at the definition and qualities of leadership. What do we consider as leadership? I acknowledge the bravery and honour of the soldiers who endured shame when they returned to Ireland. Will the Government consider Commandant Quinlan's recommendation of the 30 members for medals? For the soldiers of Ireland and their families, it is time to recognise the bravery of A Company in Jadotville and our failure in the 1960s to the veterans of this battle.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. This has been a really useful debate and I hope the families watching get some solace from the fact that the Seanad has decided to prioritise this debate, spend as much this much time discussing the matter and that the debate had so many contributors, which is not always the case. I congratulate the Senators who have made this happen through the Cathaoirleach's actions, and they include Senators Craughwell, McGahon, Wall and others, who have taken a real personal interest in the matter.
Senators have asked me for timelines and my commitment is that we want the review to be concluded, with a recommendation to me from the Chief of Staff by the end of next March. It is important we give some time for this but not too much time, as many people will be waiting. The end of March is a reasonable timeline. It gives the review group a number of months to produce a report for the Chief of Staff upon which we can make informed decisions.
I have not announced a medal review board today. The Chief of Staff has committed to putting in place an independent review group that is external, so it does not comprise serving personnel per se. That will result in an independent and open-minded review. It is a matter for the Chief of Staff to appoint people but we will certainly make sure it is a credible review group that will produce a report that can allow us to make decisions I hope will be welcomed by this House.
I recognise how responsible this debate has been in the context of the politics of this matter. It is important that it is recognised here and in other fora how medals are awarded and how people are recommended for those awards. When someone commits a career to the Defence Forces, medals really matter, along with the recognition that comes with them, the precedent set and how they compare with others who have also been honoured with medals. We need to get this right and this must happen on the basis of a military assessment.
What politicians can do, and what I will do as Minister for Defence, is ensure we put the political context in place for this review. It must be done in an open-minded way that takes account of history and attitudes of the time and today. The recognition of courage, skill and the extraordinary contribution and sacrifice made by those involved at the time should get the review it deserves and we should be able to move on and make decisions on the back of it. If I need to change regulations to facilitate it, we will do that. There shall be no process barriers in place.
There must, however, be integrity in a medal system and the ownership of that must stay within the military and medals boards to assess these issues. We should not forget that the majority of people who get nominated for consideration for medals do not get awarded those medals. Medal assessment boards are a tough process and Senator Craughwell and others who have served in the Defence Forces know this. Many people get nominated and it is an honour to be nominated but getting awarded a medal is a big deal. It should always be a big deal because of the recognition it represents. I hope we can progress the matter. As I have said, I would be more than happy to return to the Seanad at the end of March or the start of April when we have a review completed for the Chief of Staff. On the back of that he can make recommendations to me and I assure Members we will act on those quickly if a political process is required to facilitate the recommendations.