Proposed Deployment of the Permanent Defence Force to UNDOF: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the despatch, pursuant to section 2 of the Defence (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1960, as applied by section 2 of the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006, of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for service as part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in Syria, established under United Nations Security Council Resolution 350 (1974) of 31st May, 1974 and extended in subsequent Resolutions, most recently through Resolution 2108 (2013) and subject to renewal of the UN mandate/authority for UNDOF thereafter."

May I share my time with the Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore?

I propose to introduce the motion and provide some brief information on the reasons the Government is responding positively to the United Nations request to provide a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF. On 16 July 2013, the Government authorised the Minister for Defence to arrange for the despatch of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force, for a period of one year, for service with UNDOF, and to move the necessary enabling resolution in Dáil Éireann.

In commending the motion to the House, I would like to thank the House for the opportunity to briefly outline the background to UNDOF and to the UN request to Ireland for support in enhancing the capabilities of UNDOF to continue implementing its mandate. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, was established on 31 May 1974 by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 350 (1974). The force was established following the agreed disengagement of the Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights in May 1974. Since 1974, the mandate of UNDOF has been renewed every six months, most recently on 27 June 2013.

UNDOF supervises the implementation of the disengagement agreement, maintaining an area of separation between the forces which is over 75 km long. While the area of separation is governed and policed by the Syrian authorities, no military forces other than UNDOF are permitted within it. UNDOF remains an important element in ensuring some level of stability in the region.

The escalation of the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic has significantly and adversely affected the UNDOF area of operations in recent months. The armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic have deployed and carried out military activities and security operations in the UNDOF area of operations. This is a violation of the 1974 disengagement agreement. There has also been an increase in the number of incidents involving United Nations personnel on the ground. The safety and security of UNDOF personnel and Observer Group Golan military observers remains essential for enabling UNDOF to continue to implement its mandate under these difficult conditions. Given the deteriorating security situation, the mission has had to reconfigure its operations so as to ensure the safety of personnel while continuing to implement the mission’s mandate.

The UN Secretary General has called on all parties to the Syrian domestic conflict to cease military actions throughout the country, including in the UNDOF area of operations. On 6 June 2013, the Government of Austria announced its decision to withdraw its contingent of 341 personnel from UNDOF. This followed extensive fighting between Syrian armed forces and opposition forces around the area where the Austrians were based. The withdrawal, to be completed on 31 July 2013, has significantly affected the efforts of UNDOF to continue to implement its mandate. Austria has been a long-standing troop-contributing country, of almost 40 years, to UNDOF. The United Nations has approached a range of member states in an effort to urgently identify additional contributions from former and new contributors to UNDOF. Fiji, India and Nepal are understood to be sending troops.

On 1 July 2013, Ireland received a request from the UN to consider contributing a mechanised infantry company as a Force Mobile Reserve to UNDOF. The concept is to provide a mobile, protected and capable independent company to undertake reinforcement, reaction, escort and other operations throughout UNDOF’s area of responsibility. The UN has requested that the Force Reserve Company should be available for deployment by 1 August 2013 and be deployed no later than 1 September 2013.

The mandate for the UNDOF mission was developed in a very different security situation to that which pertains today. The mandate provides for the policing of a voluntary ceasefire and separation agreement between two sovereign states which had full control and were secure within their territorial boundaries. The separation agreement, on which the mandate is based, did not contemplate the current volatile environment and internal conflict in Syria and the threat this poses to UNDOF personnel or to the local population. As such, it is vital that the mission be reinforced with additional and more robust capabilities so as it can continue to discharge its important mandate in this troubled region and in the current difficult circumstances.

The deployment of the Force Mobile Reserve from the Defence Forces will significantly enhance the capability of the UNDOF mission and the protection of UNDOF personnel. The Chief of Staff has advised that the tasks outlined for the Force Mobile Reserve are within the means and capabilities of the proposed Defence Forces contingent. Having considered all the risks and threats associated with the proposed deployment, the Chief of Staff has advised the Minister, Deputy Shatter, that he is satisfied that the proposed Defence Forces contingent, operating within the numbers and the weapons constraints imposed by the UN, have the capability to operate effectively as a Force Reserve to UNDOF and discharge the mandate. He has recommended the deployment of a Defence Forces contingent, as proposed by the UN, subject to confirmation of the situation on the ground by an operational reconnaissance, to be undertaken later next week.

The overall threat to Defence Forces personnel on the Golan Heights and within the UNDOF area of responsibility is assessed as substantial. This is similar to some other theatres in which the Defence Forces are currently deployed.

Following the Defence Forces operational reconnaissance in the mission area, my colleague, the Minister for Defence will consider detailed threat assessments from the Defence Forces to ensure the security of personnel before any deployment to UNDOF.

Subject to Dáil approval, it is proposed to deploy a force reserve company which will primarily be deployed and operate on the Syrian side of the UNDOF area of responsibility. The company will consist of a headquarters commanded by a lieutenant colonel, two mechanised infantry platoons, one reconnaissance section and a logistics group including a forward medical team. The final organisational configuration of the Defence Forces contingent to UNDOF will be determined following a detailed reconnaissance by a Defence Forces team to the mission area. If participation in UNDOF is approved, initial deployment will be for one year, subject to the renewal of the mandate. The Minister for Defence estimates that the additional costs of deployment and sustainment in 2013 will be approximately €2 million and the additional cost for a full year will be approximately €5 million. Approximately three quarters of this will be recoverable from the UN. The Minister for Defence is satisfied that the costs of the mission can be absorbed for the balance of the current year. The costs for 2014 will have to be addressed as part of the Estimates process.

The Government has approved participation in UNDOF, which remains an important element in ensuring there is a level of stability in this region. The proposal to deploy Defence Forces personnel to the mission is supportive of Ireland’s ongoing obligations to international peace and security and the Government’s commitment to maintaining the Defence Forces capabilities in international operations. Like my colleague, the Minister for Defence, Deputy Shatter, I am confident that the Defence Forces will play a real and substantive role in supporting the UN's efforts to enhance the capabilities of UNDOF. The deployment of the force mobile reserve will help to ensure the mission can continue to implement its mandate. I believe the Defence Forces contingent can make an important contribution to the success of the UNDOF mission, as the Defence Forces have done throughout the world on many occasions in the past. I commend the motion to the House.

As Members are aware, the resolution before the House is part of the triple lock system, under which overseas deployment of the Defence Forces depends on a UN mandate, a Government decision and a resolution of the House. I strongly support the approval of the resolution before the House. I have been working closely with the Minister, Deputy Shatter, on this request. I fully support the proposed deployment of a contingent from the Defence Force to UNDOF. It will enable Ireland to make a major contribution to peacekeeping in a region of the world which is experiencing significant unrest and in which we have considerable experience over many years. In deploying to UNDOF at the Golan Heights area between Syria and Israel, we continue a proud tradition of answering the UN's call for service with UN peacekeeping missions and we consolidate our global reputation in this field. We also extend significantly the contribution Ireland is making to the search for peace and stability in Syria and the surrounding regions. For many years, UNDOF has managed successfully the tensions between Syria and Israel in this sensitive area and made a notable contribution to regional stability. The addition of a contingent of members of the Defence Force will assist UNDOF at a time of particular challenge and help it to take forward and reinforce its vital work.

The reports given to the UN Security Council this week on the situation in Syria and its impact in the region are deeply disturbing. The region is struggling to deal with the influx of an alarming number of refugees - estimated at 6,000 a day - and the extension of violence beyond Syria's borders. The Government has been actively responding to the conflict. My Department has overseen the provision of humanitarian assistance of almost €10 million through the UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Irish non-governmental organisations like Concern and GOAL. Following the spillover of the conflict beyond Syria’s borders, the UN’s priority is to ensure its peacekeeping missions can deal with the consequences of the Syrian conflict and operate safely in a changing and increasingly challenging environment.

UNDOF, which has operated in the Golan Heights area since 1974, is now particularly exposed to the confrontation between the Syrian Government and opposition forces, which has spilled over into the Golan Heights area. Regrettably, the escalation of the conflict has had a direct impact on the operation of this peacekeeping mission. In response to this, the UN has sought to strengthen UNDOF's capacity and has undertaken a number of measures to strengthen the security and safety of the personnel serving with UNDOF. The security and safety of UN personnel was an issue of particular concern for the Government in considering this request. I have discussed this matter with the Minister, Deputy Shatter. We have raised our concerns with the UN, which has been forthright and flexible in responding to them. Through our diplomatic mission in New York, we will continue our dialogue on these important issues with a view to ensuring everything possible will be done to ensure the security of our personnel and the success of their mission.

The UN's objectives in making this request to Ireland are to increase the resources of the mission and to strengthen confidence in UNDOF. When I discussed the request with the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, he emphasised the importance of having a highly regarded peacekeeping country at UNDOF to ensure the UN has a credible presence in this area. This is why the UN looked to Ireland. Mr. Ban’s confidence in our peacekeepers is shared by a number of countries that have expressed their support for this deployment. They have indicated they will increase their support for the UN missions in the area if Ireland provides the mobile force reserve for UNDOF. Their confidence in Ireland is a result of our long and distinguished history of peacekeeping and our willingness to take on challenging peacekeeping missions. Peacekeeping is an integral part of our foreign policy. It underpins Ireland's strong commitment to multilateralism and the UN.

This is an important opportunity for Ireland to contribute to stability in a region where the Defence Forces have supported the UN for just over 55 years and where we are already contributing to three UN peacekeeping missions - UNDOF, UNTSO and UNIFIL. It is also an important opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to the United Nations which, like all multilateral organisations, is only as strong and effective as its members enable it to be. I hope that with the support of this House and the approval of this resolution, Ireland will again be able to demonstrate that it can and does deliver on its commitment to the UN. I extend my good wishes to those members of the Defence Forces who will deploy on this mission. I thank them for their service to our country, the United Nations and the cause of peace.

I welcome the presence of the Tánaiste in the Chamber. It is reassuring for us all that the Government is adopting an integrated approach to this issue. In his role as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Tánaiste has played a pretty leading role in trying to address the dreadful crisis that exists in Syria. We are reassured by the integrated approach that is being adopted by the Government.

The Tánaiste referred at the outset to the triple lock. I am a little disconcerted by the manner in which today's debate has been organised. We were initially told that each of the parties would get just five minutes. I think that increased to ten minutes earlier. Someone has mentioned that it has now increased to 15 minutes. I say that in the context of the Tánaiste's remarks about the triple lock. While we welcome the publication of the Green Paper on Defence, there is a certain irony in the fact that it opens the possibility of the triple lock issue being examined. Clearly, it was the Government's intention to give each of the political groupings just five minutes to debate this matter, which involves the dispatch of our troops to what is currently the most troubled part of the world. To my mind, that does not indicate a level of commitment to the triple lock process.

I would like to believe that all of us share a commitment to that process. Having said that, obviously Fianna Fáil will support the deployment of the Defence Forces for service in Syria. I know from the discussions I have had with military personnel - officers and serving soldiers - that they are looking forward to the challenge this deployment will present for them. As the Tánaiste and the Minister of State have said, our Defence Forces have distinguished themselves in many locations throughout the world. I am sure they will distinguish themselves in this context as well.

The role of the Defence Forces contingent will be to provide a mobile company as force headquarters reserve in UNDOF to cater for reinforcement, escort and other operations in UNDOF's area of responsibility. I agree with the Minister that it is important that UNDOF has at its disposal all necessary means and resources to carry out its mandate safely and securely. I understand that a 114-strong mechanised infantry unit is to be deployed and that our troops would not be acting as peacekeepers or peace enforcers but would act in an observer capacity.

However, in supporting the motion, I would like some reassurances from the Minister. As has been pointed out, the escalation of the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic has affected the UNDOF area of operations very significantly in recent months. The escalation of the conflict has resulted in other countries withdrawing from the UN mission and that is where we have particular concerns. On 6 June, the Austrian Government announced that it was withdrawing its 380-strong force from the Golan Heights because the area had become "far too dangerous." Croatian troops were also withdrawn last March because their government feared that troops would be targeted. Japan has also pulled its contingents out. We know Fiji agreed to contribute a contingent of 171 military personnel to the UN disengagement observer force to replace the Croatian and Japanese contingents.

Clearly, any involvement in a UN mission axiomatically involves a degree of risk but it is important that we are fully conscious of the situation out there. Last month, the Syrian civil war spilled over as forces opposed to President Assad overran the UN position at the border post near the abandoned town of Quneitra. They held it for several hours before Syrian Government troops retook it. During this time, several shells exploded inside a UN compound within the demilitarised zone and three mortars reportedly exploded inside Israeli-occupied territory. The international peacekeepers who maintained the truce received most of their supplies from that position from Israel. The gun battles forced the peacekeepers to seek shelter in a nearby base and the Philippine military said that one of its peacekeepers was wounded when a mortar or artillery shell struck the area. The UN diplomat said an Indian peacekeeper was also injured on that day. It would seem that during this time, the possibility of Israeli forces entering Syrian territory to secure their border was higher than at any time since 1974. It would appear that Israeli military action was prevented because the Assad forces regained control of the crossing.

The incidents last month followed from other disturbing events. On 21 March, UN peacekeepers from the Philippines were abducted for five days by militants in Syria. Four more were seized by the militants in May before being released on 12 May. The Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario has said the country's contingent could be withdrawn due to such incidents. In withdrawing his country's troops, the Austrian Chancellor said his country's soldiers were "not trained or deployed for a military operation." He also said that "Austrian soldiers face an uncontrollable and direct threat, which has increased to an unacceptable level" and that "freedom of movement in the area de facto no longer exists." I am seeking some reassurance from the Minister. Is he confident that there is no "uncontrollable and direct threat" to our force? Is he satisfied that there will be freedom of movement for those we send on this particularly dangerous mission? Forty-four members have died since UNDOF was set up in 1974, some in accidents but until the Syrian conflict erupted, it has to be acknowledged that the ceasefire had proved itself of the most resilient in the Middle East. We have to realise that if the peacekeeping mission was to be weakened or disbanded completely, it would have a serious and negative effect on the area.

The UN Secretary General has expressed his deep concern "about the deteriorating security situation in the Syrian Arab Republic, its impact on the Syrian population and its potential implications for the stability of the region." He said the situation has affected the UNDOF area of operation significantly and that the ongoing military activities in the area of separation continues to have the potential to escalate tensions between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic and to jeopardise the ceasefire between the two countries. He also said that "given the evolving security situation in the UNDOF area of operation, it is also necessary to consider further adjustments to the posture and operations of the mission, as well as additional mitigation measures." He said that these include, as a matter of priority, enhancing the self-defence capabilities of UNDOF, including increasing the force strength to about 1,250 and improving its self-defence equipment within the parameters set forth in the protocol to the disengagement agreement. He said that in addition, UNDOF continuously reviews and updates its contingency plans and that the support of the parties and the Security Council is critical as UNDOF continues to make these critical adjustments.

In conclusion, I wish all the personnel who will take on this mission well. Can the Minister tell the House if the self-defence capabilities of the group exist, as has been indicated by the UN Secretary General and can he address the other concerns people have about the safety of our troops in his response? Again, I compliment the Government on the integrated approach between foreign affairs and defence and wish all those who will participate in the mission well

Can I share time with Deputy Wallace?

Members can share time.

I was asked to speak here today. Deputy Mac Lochlainn sends his apologies as he is chairing the Oireachtas Joint sub-Committee on Petitions. He would normally speak about this proposal. The proposal to send up to 150 Irish Defence Force members to the Golan Heights as part of UNDOF was approved by the Cabinet. Due to the triple lock mechanism, it has to be approved by the UN, the Cabinet and the Dáil. It has been reported that troops will be sent as soon as September.

The Irish troops will be given the role of acting as the force mobile reserve and will be called in as reinforcements as well as carrying out escorts and taking part in other operations. UNDOF was established by the UN Security Council in 1974 to maintain the ceasefire in the area. It continues to liaise with both parties - Syria and Israel. The agreement provided for an area of separation and for two equal zones of limited forces and armaments on both sides of the area and called for the establishment of a UN observer force to supervise its implementation.

There is another so-called sister force in the area - the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, UNTSO, Observer Group Golan - which contains more than ten members of the Irish Defence Forces but is unarmed while UNDOF is armed. Three Defence Force members were also deployed to UNDOF mission headquarters at Camp Faouar earlier this month, with a fourth to be deployed to the mission HQ shortly.

Due to the ongoing civil war in Syria, the situation in the UNDOF area has been incredibly volatile over the past few months. It has seen rebels attack the area and try to gain control of the strategic post and the wounding and kidnapping of UNDOF soldiers and UN observers. Stray shells have previously fallen in the Golan Heights.

Israel has also settled 20,000 of its citizens in the Golan Heights in breach of international law and is willing to use and capable of using deadly force to defend them and their illegal settlements. There are Defence Force troops in Lebanon at the minute but Irish participation is set to be downsized in the autumn as Finland makes up the bulk of the battalion they serve in so it is likely these troops would be moved to the UNDOF mission.

This situation has arisen because Austria has recently redrawn its 380 troops from the 913-strong UNDOF force in protest over the EU's decision not to renew its embargo on sending arms to Syria and because it feels its troops are no longer safe there due to the decision. This has left them with a shortfall. However, reports are that the UN wants to increase the force anyway up to the authorised level of 1,250.

Austria, along with India and the Philippines, has provided a critical portion of troops to UNDOF, which has been charged with ensuring quiet on this sensitive border since it was established in 1974. The Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, stated the separation agreement did not foresee the current conflict. Neither did it foresee that Israel would not be a neutral observer of the conflict. It has taken part in a number of operations against Syria and its armed forces.

Croatia, Canada and Japan have already withdrawn their observers. Ireland was likely asked by the UN to supply troops because of our perceived neutrality and knowledge and experience of UN missions in the region. The Austrian Vice-Chancellor stated Austrian soldiers face an uncontrollable and direct threat, which has increased to an unacceptable level.

Sinn Féin is committed to positive Irish neutrality and an independent foreign policy. We believe Ireland should actively work to promote conflict resolution, peaceful democratic settlements and pathways and mechanisms to facilitate self-determination of peoples throughout the world. Our background in conflict resolution means Ireland can draw on many lessons which could be applied to other conflict situations. The State's history of serving in UN blue helmet peacekeeping missions is a matter of pride and enhances our standing as a neutral state. However, sending troops to the UNDOF mission is not a simple or straightforward decision.

The Government has been asked to send troops to the UNDOF mission to help fill a shortfall in troops caused by the Austrian Government's decision to withdraw its troops because of safety concerns over the deteriorating security situation due to the ongoing war in Syria and because the EU failed to renew its arms embargo on Syria in May. We share the concerns of the Austrian Government. The lifting of the EU arms embargo has robbed Irish troops of their neutrality in a Syrian conflict which has already seen foreign peacekeepers come under fire and some even held hostage. In essence, the EU's decision, led by Britain and France, means the impartiality of the peace mission is no longer maintained. Although no EU state has formally sent weapons to the rebel groups in Syria, they could conceivably do so while Irish troops are there and this would seriously threaten the lives of our Defence Force troops.

Irish soldiers have played a very honourable role in many similar missions and Sinn Féin believes they can play an important role in this type of mission. If the EU renewed its arms embargo Sinn Féin would support this deployment of troops to the UNDOF mission, but unfortunately this is not the case and therefore we are against this deployment. For Sinn Féin the safety of Irish Defence Force troops is the most important issue. We fear they will come under intense risk due to the failure of the EU to maintain a neutral stance in the Syrian war.

It is also important the deployment of Irish soldiers is done in a context where Ireland's position of positive neutrality is clear. Due to the EU's failure to play a positive role in resolving the conflict in Syria, and the likelihood that some large member states will start shipping weapons to the rebels, there is a danger Ireland's position will not be clear and the deployment of troops will be misunderstood in the region. The track record of the Government in remaining silent in the case of other military misadventures by our fellow EU member states does not give Sinn Féin confidence the Government would articulate a strong position.

Sinn Féin fully supports the Government's humanitarian support to the vulnerable and impoverished Syrian population and refugees, and we would support Government initiatives to increase the humanitarian aid and support supplied by the State. We continue to believe that the all sides in the Syrian conflict need to begin immediately a negotiated cessation of violence and enter into inclusive peace talks. Although Sinn Féin is against this deployment, if the Government gets Dáil approval to deploy troops, we will use all opportunities to ensure the Government provides all the resources and support needed to carry out their mission safely, without injury or loss of life.

I am in agreement with Deputy Crowe. I am very concerned about Irish troops taking up positions in Syria at present. If the Austrians think it is not safe for them they must have good reason to do so.

I also agree with the point made by Deputy Crowe that the EU seems to be taking sides, particularly with France and Britain so eager to take up the side of the rebels. It is concerning given that Israel is part of one side of the buffer. If it were to escalate into a full conflict with the United States getting involved, Israel would also be involved, along with the Russians on the other side. I am concerned about how neutral we would be perceived at that stage.

There are no rules or restrictions on what is happening in Syria. The conflict is escalating and becoming more deranged. I am very concerned things might turn out poorly. It is very dangerous and it would be good if the UN could progress matters and get Russia and the United States to the table, because at present we were looking at a Shia-Sunni civil war in Syria, and the United States and Russia are content enough for it to operate almost like a playing field and see what will come out of it. They are both eager to strengthen their position in the area and in the meantime we are looking at thousands of people dying and bigger numbers being displaced. It is a very sad episode. The world community can take no credit or pride in what is happening. It is shameful the war is being allowed to continue in the manner it is. Only the United States and Russia can do anything about it. France and Britain throwing their spoke in the wheel is a negative in the entire situation and is only throwing more diesel on the fire.

Apparently I can give the Deputy more speaking time. I must apologise because we were given three different figures with regard to speaking time, but it is 15 minutes.

The Minister of State mentioned the issue of costs in his opening statement but I missed the figures. Do I understand that for 2013, 75% of the costs are being covered by the UN with the Irish State picking up 25%? Will the same formula apply in 2014? In the past was it the case the UN picked up the tab for Irish peacekeeping missions or is this split normal?

I will come back to the Deputy with the exact percentages.

I thank the Minister of State.

I call Deputy Mattie McGrath who is sharing with Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett and both Deputies have seven and a half minutes.

Confusion reigns again, and while I want to be positive and I want the Government to be positive in responding to a request, it is typical. We are in the last day of this Dáil session. One month ago a request was made but, typical of the Whip, confusion abounds. People have been denied speaking time because the officials were confused. First Deputies were given five minutes each and then parties were given ten minutes. It is typical of how the Whip handles all issues. I went down this morning to wish his staff a happy break because I do not know how they manage with him. If he was not so busy running into the Seanad Chamber yesterday with letters of dismissal for his colleagues he might have got this one right. It is always the same with bully boy, boot boy and jackboot tactics. This is how the Whip has operated since he took office, as has the Government with guillotines. I condemn it as a shambolic way for the Government and Chief Whip to handle this issue.

I ask the Deputy to withdraw the remark.

I ask Deputy McGrath to stick to the motion.

I am doing so, but it is very hard to prepare to speak on a motion when one does not know whether one has five, ten or 15 minutes speaking time. The Whip likes to keep matters confused.

We have dealt with this issue.

Deputy McGrath cannot call me a bully boy or a boot boy and I ask him to withdraw it.

I want to say-----

The actual phrase "boot boy" is not parliamentary language.

It fits the way the Chief Whip is behaving so I have no notion of withdrawing it.

The Deputy must withdraw the phrase.

I have to withdraw it, but that is the way he behaves. He arrived into the Seanad when a Senator was speaking with an envelope of dismissal. I have never heard the like of it in my life.

That is a different issue altogether. It is a different House.

I condemn the shambolic way in which he-----

I want the Deputy to withdraw the phrase. Of course he can talk about-----

I never saw that term on the list.

I am advised by the Clerk that the-----

Is it new advice?

It is not a parliamentary term so I ask Deputy McGrath to withdraw the words "boot boy".

I will withdraw it if that is the position-----

Let us get on with the debate.

-----but the situation is totally shambolic.

The UN blue helmet soldiers have given huge commitment through the decades to peacekeeping all over the world. I had the privilege of knowing many of them in my area who were based in Kickham Barracks. They are no longer with us. They did outstanding work. Irish peacekeepers are highly respected anywhere they have gone. It is important that we are in a position to fulfil the request from the UN. We must keep in touch with Mr. Ban Ki-moon and the officers on a daily basis to ensure the respect and safety of the members of the force that will be mobilised in Syria. We have already seen worrying threats to peacekeepers in Syria. Other countries have withdrawn peacekeepers because they have come under attack. Some peacekeepers were kidnapped and held for a number of days. That is a totally unacceptable way to treat peacekeepers. Austria, Japan and Croatia have withdrawn their troops. Ireland has a strong past record in peacekeeping. I made inquiries of Defence Forces personnel and they are eager, ready and willing to accept the challenge and to serve in Syria, as they have done for as far back as I can remember in the Congo and many other areas since then.

Are their families as eager for them to go?

Our families might not be as eager for us to be in this House either. I will not take any lectures from Sinn Féin about protecting and respecting soldiers and everyone else.

I am not lecturing.

Sinn Féin’s record has not been as wonderful as Deputy Crowe suggested. I did not interrupt him. The conflict has escalated and it is bordering on being out of control. Given the commitments on the mandate and the continuous contact with the United Nations we must ensure the safety of Irish troops who are ready, willing and able and are properly equipped for the job they do. They have done it all over the world in many conflicts and have been recognised for it. I also salute the NGOs who have done such great work and who are widely recognised for the proud supportive role they play in conflict zones and areas of famine. A total of 114 personnel are going to Syria. I am sure there will not be a problem in getting that number of volunteers. I do not know whether they will be transferred from other peacekeeping duties abroad or if new people will go to Syria.

I have always found Defence Forces personnel to be anxious and willing to serve. We have lost approximately 40 lives since we became involved in peacekeeping duties. One life lost is one too many. The soldiers died in various circumstances. I salute their bravery. When conflicts arise that appear to be insurmountable, as this one is, it is important that a buffer is provided and that a recognised body such as the United Nations can give hope to the people who are not involved in the conflict in any way but are innocent observers trying to live their daily lives. Many such people have had to flee their homes and become refugees in neighbouring countries. The Middle East is a volatile area. I accept there are threats from the Israeli regime. Nobody knows what might happen.

I speak on my own behalf as an Independent Deputy in support of the Government being willing to send troops on this mission, with the assurance from the Army Chief of Staff and from Mr. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, that they will keep an eye on the escalating conflict and above all protect the security and safety of our personnel at all times. That is the bottom line. The Tánaiste indicated that we would keep in constant contact to ensure that is the case. I do not have any difficulty with sending the force to Syria but I object to the shambolic manner in which the situation has been handled. One wonders whether any Minister is available to discuss the issue.

I must call Deputy McGrath’s colleague, Deputy Boyd Barrett, to speak now.

That is fine. Thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I support the mission.

I oppose the Government’s proposal to send Irish troops onto the Syrian border. Anybody looking at the situation in Syria is appalled and anybody with an ounce of human decency would want to do anything that could be done to try to assist with the growing humanitarian crisis that is developing there. Millions of refugees have led to a crisis that is worse than that in Rwanda. Tens of thousands of ordinary people have been killed and the country is being destroyed in front of our eyes. It is a desperate situation but the first rule in appalling situations such as this is not to make it worse. We must be careful that what we do does not in any way assist in making the situation worse. That is important for our own troops, their well-being and the credibility and reputation of the State. It is also very important for the suffering people of Syria.

I know that any Irish troops deployed in Syria would not in any way wish to make the situation worse and I am well aware of the proud record of our troops in peacekeeping, in particular in Lebanon. This is a dangerous and volatile situation and in order to make an assessment on how or if we should be involved in any deployment of troops in this situation we must understand what is going on, which is difficult to do. The first reason I am concerned about making the decision now is because it requires more debate. Such a decision must not be rushed.

What is happening in Syria is a terrible example of the chickens coming home to roost for the utterly cynical, amoral policies of the big powers in the Middle East. I stress that all of the big powers are involved. In the case of the repulsive regime of Bashar al-Assad, the big culprits are obviously Russia and China who have armed that regime and continue to support it and who are just playing for influence in the region. The reason they are doing that is because the Middle East, which is a strategically important region for reasons of which we are all aware, namely oil, has been a theatre for the competing interests of the big powers where Russia and China back one gang of despots and the western powers back other gangs of despots and tyrants. All of them, when they see crises such as this emerge, seek to play for the advantage of their own interests in the region not the interests of ordinary citizens. That is exactly what is going on now. The people we must support and take into consideration are the ordinary people of Syria who rose up against the rotten al-Assad regime to overthrow it. Those people were inspired directly by the Egyptian revolution, one that continues. It has thrown out one despot and has more recently thrown out another leader who promised change but within a year was acting just like the despot, Mubarak, that he replaced. He cuddled up to the Egyptian military only a year after being brought to power by the people.

The Egyptian people - Copts and other Christians, men, women and the poor - have risen up and shown that they are the power that can challenge despotic and tyrannical regimes.

This is also true in Syria. The ordinary people are the key to the situation. We should not in any way be associated with forces that are cynically manipulating the situation for their own strategic interests. Unfortunately, this is what the US and some of the European powers are doing. They are trying to insinuate their influence by backing certain elements of the opposition to Assad at the expense of other elements that more genuinely represent the ordinary people on the ground.

The situation has become difficult. The real popular movement that opposed Assad did not want to take up arms. It wanted to defeat Assad through peaceful protest, mass action and so on, but the situation was militarised by Assad and Gulf states backed and armed by the West that sent Islamist militants and so forth to push sectarian agendas. The Free Syrian Army is essentially an agent for some of the Western powers. The West wants to arm it at the expense of some of the brigades on the ground that are uniting the ordinary people in a popular movement of resistance against Assad.

It is messy and complicated and we should not pour petrol on the fire. It could damage our reputation. We have a good reputation in the Middle East among ordinary Arabs because we are seen as people who have not taken sides in backing imperial manipulations of or designs on the region. It is important that we not slide into being involved or being perceived to be involved with forces that are not intervening in the best interests of the ordinary citizens.

I oppose this deployment. It is in line with Fine Gael's overall policy of moving away from military neutrality and towards Irish involvement in military alliances, but it is not a direction in which we should be going. It is dangerous for the people of Syria and for our troops.

Question put:
The Dáil divided: Tá, 95; Níl, 17.

  • Breen, Pat.
  • Browne, John.
  • Burton, Joan.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Byrne, Eric.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Cannon, Ciarán.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Conaghan, Michael.
  • Conlan, Seán.
  • Connaughton, Paul J.
  • Conway, Ciara.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Coveney, Simon.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Daly, Jim.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deering, Pat.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Doyle, Andrew.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Ferris, Anne.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Flanagan, Terence.
  • Fleming, Tom.
  • Gilmore, Eamon.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Halligan, John.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Harrington, Noel.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • Healy-Rae, Michael.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Hogan, Phil.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Keating, Derek.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kenny, Seán.
  • Kitt, Michael P.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lowry, Michael.
  • Lynch, Kathleen.
  • Lyons, John.
  • Mathews, Peter.
  • McEntee, Helen.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • McNamara, Michael.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Mitchell O'Connor, Mary.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Murphy, Eoghan.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Nolan, Derek.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • O'Donovan, Patrick.
  • O'Dowd, Fergus.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Sullivan, Jan.
  • Penrose, Willie.
  • Perry, John.
  • Phelan, Ann.
  • Quinn, Ruairí.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Wall, Jack.
  • Walsh, Brian.
  • White, Alex.

Níl

  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Colreavy, Michael.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Daly, Clare.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Ferris, Martin.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McLellan, Sandra.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O'Sullivan, Maureen.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Tóibín, Peadar.
  • Wallace, Mick.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Paul Kehoe and Emmet Stagg; Níl, Deputies Richard Boyd Barrett and Aengus Ó Snodaigh.
Question declared carried.