Dáil Éireann - Volume 483 - 25 November, 1997

Defence (Amendment) Act, 1993: Motion.

Minister for Defence (Mr. M. Smith): I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the report by the Minister for Defence pursuant to section 4 of the Defence (Amendment) Act, 1993.

In accordance with section 4 of the Defence (Amendment) Act, 1993, I wish to report to the House on Irish military participation in United Nations missions in 1996. The compilation of this report has afford me a welcome opportunity to put before the House the contribution made by our troops in the various UN missions around the world, a contribution of which we are all immensely proud.

I would like to speak about the United Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, which is our largest single overseas commitment and which has been much to the fore in the light of tragic events in south Lebanon earlier this year. I refer to the incident when a landmine exploded injuring a number of Irish troops. I wish Private Gary Moloney, who was seriously injured in the explosion, a speedy recovery and every success in the future which lies ahead of his young life. Those soldiers who were injured were able to return to duty shortly afterwards. I propose to speak later about the general issue of landmines and our efforts to secure a global ban on landmines for all time.

Shortly after the landmine incident came the tragic death of Sergeant John Lynch in a helicopter crash in which four Italian peacekeepers were also killed. I convey my deepest sympathy to the bereaved Lynch family. On behalf of the Government [559] I also convey our appreciation of the tremendous job done by our troops in a very trying and hazardous environment in south Lebanon.

For most of 1996 the contingent strength was 624, consisting of a battalion of 542 personnel and 82 personnel at UNIFIL headquarters. As part of a UN decision to reduce the overall strength of UNIFIL, in which eight other countries participate, the Irish contingent strength was reduced by seven in October 1996 when the 80th Battalion took up duty.

The Irish Battalion is deployed in south Lebanon near Tibnin. Irish troops have served there since 1978. During 1996 the battalion continued to carry out its mission by operating observation posts and checkpoints, conducting extensive patrolling, maintaining a village presence and providing humanitarian assistance to a variety of worthy causes such as the Tibnin orphanage and medical clinics in the local villages.

The earlier part of the year was generally quiet but the situation became tense during April 1996 because of an upsurge in activity by armed elements and an escalation in retaliatory fire by the Israeli defence forces and Israeli backed de facto forces. The upsurge in activity was as a result of a roadside bomb in Brachit village, in which one young person was killed and three children injured. There was also an incident in Yatar where two civilians were killed. The Hizbollah accused the Israelis of carrying out these attacks and of breaching the July agreement with the Hizbollah which stated that, if the Israelis did not attack civilian targets in south Lebanon, the Hizbollah would not fire Katyusha rockets into Israel.

As a result, the Hizbollah resumed the firing of Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. One of these landed in the town of Qiryat Shemona injuring a number of civilians. The Israelis responded with heavy artillery and air attacks on south Lebanese villages including villages inside the Irish Battalion area of operation. They warned the civilian population to leave their villages as they were likely to come under attack. They also ordered the population of Tyre to evacuate and move north. This meant the eventual displacement of up to 400,000 people. The cities of Tyre and Sidon were attacked as well as specific targets in southern Beirut including electricity stations and targets in the Bekaa Valley. Cross-border hostilities continued until the ceasefire came into effect on 27 April.

Throughout the April Offensive or, as it was commonly known by the Israelis, Operation Grapes of Wrath, Irish Battalion personnel continued to carry out their duties of manning observation posts, patrolling, reporting and rendering humanitarian assistance to the local population. An Irish medical team and Irish members of the force mobile reserve were involved in the recovery operation in Qana, when the Israeli defence forces shelled the battalion headquarters of the [560] Fijian contingent on 18 April 1996 killing 85 Lebanese refugees and injuring approximately 100 more. Some four Fijian Battalion personnel were seriously injured in the incident. The horror of this incident shocked the world. No Irish personnel were injured during this troubled period. The Irish Battalion troop rotation was delayed by one week due to the security situation in south Lebanon arising from the April Offensive. The rotation commenced on 23 April 1996 and was completed on 7 May 1996.

During this period Irish troops were heavily engaged in humanitarian tasks in the area giving much needed relief to the local inhabitants. These humanitarian missions included searching for missing bodies and participating in the destruction of unexploded war debris. They were also involved in collecting essential hardware such as tents, containers, pumps and blankets from Tyre and delivering them to villages within the Irish Battalion area of operations. An Irish Battalion convoy, which included a Lebanese Red Cross ambulance, distributed food to villages within the area. The convoy also successfully evacuated injured civilians from Shaqra village despite an Israeli defence forces shell warning for the village.

While many of the population in the Irish Battalion area of operations evacuated, a considerable number took refuge in Irish posts. At one time there were as many as 1,000 civilians sheltering in Irish positions. Each battalion is given an allocation of £20,000 for humanitarian assistance during its tour of duty. Following Operation Grapes of Wrath, the Department of Foreign Affairs allotted an additional £75,000 from Ireland's overseas development aid budget to Irish battalions for humanitarian assistance during that difficult period.

Ireland provides 30 military personnel to UNFICYP. Six officers and 24 NCOs have been serving with the contingent. Three officers and five NCOs are filling staff appointments at force headquarters and a camp command component of three officers and 19 NCOs has been serving with the mission since February 1994.

The UNFICYP mandate is “to use its best efforts to prevent a recurrence of fighting and, as necessary, to contribute to the maintenance and restoration of law and order and a return to normal conditions”. The principal task of UNFICYP is the maintenance of a buffer zone between the line of the Cypriot National Guard and the Turkish-Cypriot forces. The force is also involved in humanitarian activities. In August 1996, Greek Cypriots organised political demonstrations against the division of Cyprus, which also involved participation from European countries. The demonstrations were held near the UN buffer zone and resulted in confrontations within the buffer zone between Greek Cypriots and others and Turkish Cypriots and Turkish military personnel. The disturbances resulted in the deaths of two Greek Cypriot civilians; one was beaten to death, the other shot. No member of [561] the Irish Defence Forces contingent was involved. There are 15 members of the Garda Síochána attached to this mission. Garda members sought to rescue the civilian who was beaten to death.

Our commitment of 14 officers to UNTSO was reduced to 12 in September 1996 in line with a strength reduction programme being implemented by the UN. We have participated in this mission since 1958.

There are a number of other missions including an observer force, UNDOF, of which Major General David Stapleton, from Tipperary, is commander. There is also UNSMA, a senior military adviser to the Secretary General's special representative. This mission is concerned with confirming violations of the Geneva accords on the settlement of the situation relating to Afghanistan.

Ireland provided five officers to UNIKOM.

UNIKOM's mandate involves monitoring the demilitarised zone established on the Iraq-Kuwait border following the Gulf War.

Ireland's commitment of two officers to UNMIH ended in March 1996. In 1996, we provided eight officers for MINURSO. During the year the officers continued their tasks at the force headquarters in Laayoune.

A number of missions were created in the former Yugoslavia following the closure of the UNPROFOR mission in January 1996; the UN Transition Administration Eastern Slavonia, UNTAES, to which Ireland supplied three officers in 1996; and UNMOP, to which Ireland continued to supply one officer in 1996. Two lieutenant colonels continue to fill the appointments of Personnel Officer and Supply Officer in the United Nations headquarters, New York. Ireland is currently contributing to the stabilisation force, SFOR, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We are also contributing the services of one officer for a three month period as an inspector with UNSCOM.

The amount owed to this country by the UN is £12 million, approximately. Arrears totalling £4.8 million, approximately, were paid in 1996, leaving a total of £12 million, approximately, owed at the 31 December 1996.

I would like to mention the subject of landmines. As the culmination of a year long process known as the Ottawa process, a diplomatic conference in Oslo at the beginning of September 1997 adopted the text of a convention banning the production, stockpiling, transfer and use of anti-personnel landmines. This country has called for a global ban on anti-personnel landmines as a matter of priority and Ireland was closely involved with the efforts to conclude this convention. The convention will be opened for signature on 3 December 1997. The Minister for Foreign Affairs intends to travel to Ottawa to sign it and in this regard he has moved a motion before the House to approve its terms. Following [562] signature of the convention, Ireland will proceed to ratify it.

As part of Ireland's commitment to this process, policy in relation to the use of antipersonnel landmines by the Defence Forces has been reviewed. While the Defence Forces have never used landmines either for offensive or defensive purposes, it is now stated policy that they will not use antipersonnel landmines operationally. They will, however, continue to hold a small quantity for the purposes of training and research which are important factors in ensuring the protection and safety of Defence Forces personnel serving on overseas missions. Article 3 of the Oslo Convention provides for such an exemption.

Ms Fitzgerald: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the work of the Defence Forces overseas. The Minister outlined the impressive international peacekeeping record of the Defence Forces. It is striking how difficult, dangerous and demanding are the tasks our Defence Forces are undertaking abroad.

It would be good for us to discuss this report in our committee on defence and I hope we will have a further opportunity to further examine some of the details outlined by the Minister. This is the first time I have seen this report and I know the Minister and others when in Opposition made the point that it would be helpful to have a detailed report circulated to Members before debates on this issue. The issue is worthy of this and of spending time on discussing it and the committee is the place we can do that in an ongoing manner.

I join the Minister in his focus on banning landmines and I applaud the Government's intention to sign the convention later in the year. It will have the support of Fine Gael in so doing.

There are strategic issues in relation to peacekeeping missions undertaken by our Defence Forces which must be addressed. It is important that Ireland in a changing world environment of peacekeeping and peace enforcement is in a position to remain involved in a range of peacekeeping missions and that the Defence Forces be provided by the Minister with a defence policy that encourages these developments to take place and makes them strategically possible. We do not want to become the carriers of an old-fashioned peacekeeping no longer suited or needed due to changing world events and the increasing incidence of intra-state rather than inter-state conflicts and the very different demands these make on defence forces and peacekeepers.

An examination of our involvement in SFOR in the former Yugoslavia will reveal interesting lessons on how we have coped with the transition to this type of work. It would appear that our experienced staff who have been sent there have coped well and made a major contribution in running a successful mission. The demands of the winter will now become relevant and that force will have to get the proper equipment to deal with conditions there. I am sure the necessary [563] support will be forthcoming from the Defence Forces and the Minister, including backup resources and proper remuneration.

Taking part in Partnership for Peace initiatives needs to be examined further if we are serious about developing the peacekeeping role. We could determine how and to what degree we would like to be involved in missions under the Partnership for Peace. The important issue is that the opportunities are not limited because taking part in peacekeeping missions plays a very important role in our Defence Forces. It is very important for the experience it offers, the contribution people can make and the boosting of morale.

Our record in peacekeeping missions has been second to none, something which is clear from the description given by the Minister. This has been seen in the field and in UN headquarters over many years and the reputation of Irish soldiers abroad is that of professional soldiers carrying out their job in an impartial manner. Ireland has been a member of the UN since 1955 and first contributed to peacekeeping in 1958 when 50 officers were assigned to the UN observer group in Lebanon. Since then, there has been a continuous Irish Defence Force presence on peacekeeping missions throughout the world. Unfortunately, a total of 75 Defence Force personnel have died to date while serving overseas on peacekeeping missions. We should pay tribute to the families who have lost loved ones in the service of peace. Tribute must also be paid to the families of those currently serving overseas. Overseas service is very demanding on families and when things become difficult, as they have done on occasion, it can be a time of great anxiety for them. I join the Minister in wishing Private Gary Moloney, who was seriously injured in the recent explosion, a speedy recovery and success in his future life.

A debate such as this raises a range of questions about the developing role of peacekeeping and peace enforcement throughout the world. It also raises the issue of conventions; I am glad the Minister addressed the issue of the Convention on the Safety and Security of UN Personnel. When does he intend to introduce legislation in order that we can sign up to that convention? This debate also raises questions about the safety of our troops and the resources our Defence Forces require in the areas of personnel training and equipment to tackle the tasks allocated to them. If we do not tackle the issue of resources for the Defence Forces, participation in international peacekeeping missions will be jeopardised. If the UN does not reassess its approach, only richer countries will be able to engage in peacekeeping. That is something we must consider.

Peacekeeping is expensive and places demands on resources. It is essential that provision is made in this year's budget for ongoing recruitment and updating of equipment. If the issue of recruitment is not tackled seriously we will experience difficulties [564] in having the required personnel for overseas missions. I am sure the Minister will agree that some strain has been experienced in providing the numbers demanded for some operations recently. We must be careful not to place overly onerous demands and tours of duty on personnel. Some of the concerns expressed at home about morale, stretching resources and low numbers to carry out the tasks allocated to the Defence Forces will affect overseas work if not tackled properly.

We must look in detail at our experience in the former Yugoslavia. We must have a debate on the changing role of peacekeeping and the changing implications that has for training within the Defence Forces. There are many such implications as the new type of peacekeeping demands a range of skills such as supporting humanitarian efforts, linking with NGOs, placing emphasis on human rights training, interaction with the local legal system and aiming to create a secure environment leading to long-term solutions to problems.

I congratulate the Defence Forces on the work which has been undertaken and I urge the Minister to provide the ongoing environment, by way of defence policy and support, which will enable the Defence Forces to continue to make the contribution he has outlined tonight.

Mr. O'Shea: When one considers that Ireland has been involved in peacekeeping operations since 1958, including some 30 UN missions and missions for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the EU, one can see very clearly that we have a great deal to be proud of. During the period of our involvement in the UN, 75 people died on peacekeeping missions during overseas service. I, too, wish Private Gary Moloney a full and complete recovery and I sympathise with the family of Sergeant John Lynch on his untimely death in very tragic circumstances during the year. During the short time I was spokesman on Defence I realised this is a very exciting time for the Army. It is a time of change, of gearing up the Army to be a more effective and modern unit and of equipping it to take on further peacekeeping tasks. The involvement of the Irish forces in the SFOR operation in former Yugoslavia, although the operation is at military police level, involves a new and wide-ranging approach which has had very good effects on what was a very dire and difficult situation.

I compliment the Government on its support of the convention on the banning of the production, stockpiling, transfer and use of anti-personnel landmines. It is good the world is moving in that direction. We have seen how people, often children, can be maimed or suffer the loss of limbs as a result of those horrible devices.

On behalf of the Labour Party, I compliment the Defence Forces on representing this country so well in very difficult situations throughout the world.

[565] Minister for Defence (Mr. M. Smith): I thank Deputies Frances Fitzgerald and Brian O'Shea for their complimentary remarks, particularly those directed at our Defence Forces and the number of missions so ably served by our troops in many parts of the world. I accept we have very limited time to discuss such a wide-ranging matter and I hope one of the Dáil committees will have the opportunity to discuss in greater detail our involvement in United Nations spheres generally.

We have already made the announcement in regard to recruitment which will take place in two tranches in March and June 1998, at which time I will review whether maintaining our full complement requires additional numbers due to the voluntary early retirement scheme and other retirements.

We are constantly improving equipment. There has been major investment in systems of communications for the Army so that we can be better placed to identify problems and reduce the risk to our troops to a minimum. I accept that more could be done and I hope over time, as resources are made available, to tell the House of further positive developments in these areas.

I am glad both Deputies, even in the short time available, paid some attention to what is happening on the landmines issue. There are 100 million landmines in 60 countries lying treacherously in wait to carry out the most inhumane acts one can imagine on innocent and other peoples. I am grateful for the compliments paid to the Government but, to be honest, nobody should have to be complimented on ratifying conventions and introducing other measures to safeguard innocent people from the ravages of landmines. We are glad to have the opportunity shortly to sign the convention and to fully ratify it two days later. In so doing we will join a number of countries which are tackling the issue, once and for all, and mobilising world opinion against countries which still have a distance to come in terms of banning outright the use and manufacture of landmines.

Question put and agreed to.