Service by the Defence Forces with the United Nations in 2016: Motion (Resumed)

Debate resumed on the following motion:
That Dáil Éireann approves the report by the Minister with responsibility for Defence, regarding service by the Defence Forces with the United Nations in 2016, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 5th October, 2017, in accordance with section 13 of the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006.
- Minister of State at the Department of Defence

Ar dtús báire, ba mhaith liom mo bhród a chur in iúl as an obair atá Fórsaí Cosanta na hÉireann tar éis a dhéanamh thar na blianta leis na Náisiúin Aontaithe agus thar ceann na Náisiún Aontaithe. Is obair ríthábhachtach é agus tá siad tar éis clú agus meas a tharraingt ar Éirinn atá as cuimse don oileán beag sin. Tá sé tábhachtach go leanfaimid leis an obair sin agus go ndéanann muid é sin seachas bogadh i dtreo airm Eorpach ar aon bhealach.

The Irish Defence Forces have been involved in UN operations for many generations and their contribution constitutes a very honourable tradition. The reputation and goodwill they have brought to Ireland is well beyond the size of the country. We should never do anything that would endanger this, and I will return to the specifics on this.

The report details a number of areas in which Irish troops are still involved in UN missions. UNIFIL in Lebanon is one of these, and it is one with which Ireland has been longest associated. As I said, it stands to our credit and, in particular, I credit those soldiers who have stood as peacekeepers in the face of provocation, often by Israeli soldiers and others in the area. Regrettably, Irish soldiers have died in the course of their duties in the area in question.

There are other areas where Irish soldiers are still helping the UN, including the Golan Heights, which the Minister of State has visited. Another area, and a mission about which I have concern, is in Western Sahara. One of the problems I have with the mission there is that it does not have the same human rights role as other UN missions. Only recently, I was contacted about a delegation from one of the committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas visiting Morocco. I stated that my party could not take part in such a delegation if the visit did not have a component of reaching out to talk to representatives from Western Sahara and some type of connection with the Irish soldiers who are still stationed in the area. Regrettably, it could not be accommodated so we will not be taking part in any such delegation at the behest of the Moroccan Government. I do not think we should do so unless an outreach to Western Sahara is a component of it. The President has done this in the past by meeting representatives from Western Sahara.

There are other areas about which I have major concerns where the missions are basically sponsored by NATO, such as that in Afghanistan. I do not think Ireland should play any role in it. In terms of the mission in Mali, I have major concerns about the exact nature of the role involved. Some of these missions have some type of UN imprimatur, but it is not in the proud honourable tradition of UN missions we have been involved in, such as that in Lebanon.

Other issues, which I do not have time to discuss and on which the Minister of State and I have argued previously, include the move towards sending Irish troops on European missions by means of the European battle groups rather than as part of UN operations. I hope this will not come to be in future.

I echo the sentiments of the Minister of State to the effect that 2018 is an opportune time to acknowledge the six decades of commitment to Irish Defence Forces participation in UN missions. Our tradition of peacekeeping is rich and proud. Ireland has always been a staunch supporter of the United Nations peacekeeping philosophy and has played a primary and active role in keeping vulnerable people safe around the world.

In 2016 alone, our forces were involved with the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon, a United Nations disengagement observer force in the Golan Heights and a UN truce supervision organisation in Syria, Golan and Israel. Our troops also took part in the UN mission for the referendum in Western Sahara, a stabilisation mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo and as observers to the Ivory Coast. We had people in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Mali and, while not UN mandated, we continued to lead in the protection and rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean.

We are present at all levels of the Defence Forces, from troops to military advisers, in many of the conflict and post-conflict theatres around the world.

Our record is superb and our international reputation is as good as that of any other country. I am proud that we have Defence Forces representing Ireland which promote, protect and deliver peace in some of the most dangerous and vulnerable places on Earth. We are proud of our Defence Forces' relationship with the United Nations for 60 years and I know we will continue to experience that pride for another 60. However, the men and women who serve in our Defence Forces are not fatigue-wearing superheroes. They are ordinary individuals who have families and commitments and many of them are suffering through financial hardship. That needs to be remedied.

It would be remiss of me not to state that, along with rightly commending the Defence Forces on their work, commitment and excellence on these missions, the Government needs to improve the conditions of serving personnel. The Government needs to improve their pay and to ensure that the standard of barracks accommodation and quarters is of an acceptable level. The Minister can start this process by enforcing the European Committee of Social Rights ruling which upheld the entitlement of the Irish armed forces to better collective bargaining and negotiating rights. The work of the Defence Forces is unique. Peacekeeping missions abroad are not the average day's work for the vast majority of people but it is the job of these workers. Defence Forces personnel should not have the unique nature of their work used as a reason to not allow them bargaining rights to improve their conditions. We need to review the allowances Defence Forces personnel are paid for their overseas tours of duty. These tours take them away from their families and loved ones for months at a time, at great sacrifice to themselves and their families; they put them in harm's way and in very real and, sometimes, mortal danger and, as the Minister said, they make us very proud of our Defence Forces.

Let the 60th anniversary of our work with United Nations be the real starting point for the Government to modernise its approach to our Defence Forces personnel. Let us value them with more than statements and platitudes in the Dáil. After all, such things do not protect our men and women when they are abroad and they do not pay their light and heat when they are at home.

The UN forces are deployed on nine missions in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, the Golan Heights and Lebanon. When travelling abroad, I am often struck by the sense of pride people have in Irish troops and members of the Defence Forces in general. I want to acknowledge the role of many soldiers from Ballyfermot, where I live, in Lebanon. I have often heard them talk warmly about their experiences there. People in the area are very proud of them.

It must be acknowledged that many of the missions undertaken by the United Nations in the name of peacekeeping and humanitarianism are often problematic interventions that back-up the imperialist ventures of one or other country. It strikes me as ironic that we send our Defence Forces to places such as Lebanon and the Golan Heights while, at the same time, we, as a Parliament, sit back and allow the Israeli state to continue illegal settlements and annexations. With their malign influence in the region, the Israelis continue to inflame matters and cause instability and conflict. The greatest thing we can do to support our troops who are at the heart of peacekeeping missions is to support the Palestinian people. I would like to put on the record that People Before Profit Alliance will be supporting the Great March of Return in Gaza which commences on 30 March and finishes on 15 April. During this time Palestinians from all regions of the Middle East will go to Gaza with the keys to their homes. I have one such key in my home which was given to me by a Palestinian family I helped. It is a big, rusty key and on it is written "This is the key of my home in Palestine". Many Palestinians had to flee their homes under persecution and they took their keys with them. The keys are symbolic. The march, too, is symbolic but it is also about standing up to forced settlement in the Israeli occupied territories.

On the report, our Defence Forces comprise many magnificent men and women who have been doing a great job in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean. We are very proud of them but they are some of the lowest paid public sector workers in this country. During the recession, they were subjected to many cutbacks and many of them are still claiming family income supplement owing to poor pay levels. As set out in the report compiled by the University of Limerick, members of the Air Corps and the Naval Service are subject to the same pay and conditions. This report looked at a sample of 603 officers, non-commissioned officers and lower ranks and it shows that poor pay is the key issue. Poor working conditions and low morale is a brain-drain within our Defence Forces. Soldiers have nicknamed Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines "Hotel Rwanda". However, I welcome the announcement that the barracks is to be refurbished.

After ten years of pleading and fighting and more years of families campaigning for increased pay, we must address this issue. We should allow men and women of the Defence Forces to join legitimate, collectively-organised trade unions in which they are given the power, freedom and recognition to bargain with the Government on their terms and pay and conditions. I look forward to the next report having written into it some progress on this issue. The hands of the Defence Forces are tied behind their backs. They cannot fight for these rights or protest but their families, wives and husbands, and retired officers and soldiers are to the fore in saying to the Minister of State and the Department that they deserve trade union recognition and the right to decent pay and conditions. To get those decent pay and conditions they have the right to organise collectively.

I welcome the report and I look forward to better news being contained in the next and future reports.

I welcome the opportunity to debate the report on Ireland's Defence Forces' involvement with UN missions. Our peacekeeping forces have a great reputation internationally and we are supportive of their work. However, concern has been growing in recent years regarding how and where they are being deployed. We now often find that the diplomatic alliances and decisions of the Government work against the stated spirit of some of the missions and in some cases contribute to the danger in which our forces sometimes find themselves.

First, there is the vexed issue of the mission in the Golan Heights, which the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, is at pains to point out is an observer rather than a peacekeeping mission. The rationale behind the original UNDOF deployment to the Golan Heights in 1974 was to maintain the ceasefire between the Israeli and Syrian forces and to supervise the implementation of the disengagement agreement. Today, we are facilitating the ongoing illegal occupation of the Golan Heights by Israel. The Israeli Government recently called for an increase in settlements by 100,000 over the next five years. In September 2016, the Israelis began demolishing houses in the town of Majdal Shams near the Golan Heights for the first time since Israel occupied the Syrian territory following its capture in 1967. Syrian communities in the Golan Heights are also being squeezed by Israel’s expansion of Hermon National Park. Authorities have moved to appropriate 20,000 acres of land used by Majdal Shams and other communities for agriculture and housing.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia published a report which concluded that Israel is guilty of the international crime of apartheid against the Palestinians and that many of the report’s findings could equally apply to Israeli policy in the Golan Heights and be consistent with apartheid, as Israel has used Jewish settlement to stake a claim to the land and the population of the four Druze villages there live in conditions of relative deprivation. At the same time as we are observing this illegality in action, our forces are in increasing danger from extremist jihadi militias that are being armed by Israel.

The Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reported last month that at least seven, "Sunni rebel organizations in the Syrian Golan are now getting arms and ammunition from Israel, along with money to buy additional armaments". We are overseeing the establishment of another illegal apartheid regime by the Israelis, while they arm anti-Assad forces and ensure that the war in Syria is prolonged for as long as possible.

There are planned consecutive deployments this year of two Naval Service ships as part of Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean. Last year, a House of Lords inquiry found that Operation Sophia's policy of destroying smugglers' boats has meant that refugees go to sea in unseaworthy vessels, leading to more deaths. On top of this, as part of Operation Sophia the so-called Libyan coast guard is being trained to intercept refugees at sea and bring them back to Libya. We know from multiple reports from aid agencies that these are nothing short of pirates and have been responsible for increasing the number of refugees drowning at sea. The refugees who are intercepted are brought back to the place of violence and human rights violations that they fled, where they face arbitrary detention, torture and rape, often to extract a ransom from them when they are detained in detention centres run by the Government. Last year, Amnesty International called out the EU for its complicity in the evolving Libyan slave trade, where people are being sold at public auctions. That we would take part in and facilitate this criminal enterprise through our role in Operation Sophia is to undermine the reputation of our peacekeeping forces. Nothing but human suffering will come of this mission.

If Ireland really cared for the refugees we would stop allowing Shannon to be used as a US military air base from which untold destruction emanates. This is 2018 and after the invasion of Afghanistan, which was followed by the invasion of Iraq 15 years ago last week, it beggars belief that we still see fit to allow any military nation to use an airport in Ireland to cause destruction in another country. We are throwing out a Russian diplomat yet we are still prepared to allow the US military use one of our airports for this. It is too bad.

I welcome the opportunity to have this debate on the participation of our Defence Forces with the United Nations in 2016. It is important that we regularly have debates in the House on the activities of our Defence Forces, what they are doing and why they are doing it. We have a job to do in terms of keeping our citizens informed of the value of our Defence Forces and the fantastic work they do, as well as showing our appreciation and support for those serving in the Defence Forces.

Yesterday, I and a number of other members of the committee on foreign affairs and defence visited the air base in Baldonnel. We met Brigadier General Seán Clancy, the General Officer Commanding of the Irish Air Corps. I commend him for the fantastic work he and the men and women serving with the Air Corps are doing. The base is in tiptop condition. We visited the workshops and saw where the parts are sprayed and where parts of the aircraft are fixed and maintained. We visited the hangars and saw the aircraft. We also visited the stores and looked at the personal protective equipment, PPE. We saw and discussed the systems in place for health and safety. We had PowerPoint presentations and discussions with the safety officers regarding the work they are doing to continue to improve health and safety practices at the Air Corps base in Baldonnel.

I am sure this was also true for the others present but I was very impressed by the work they are doing. I was very impressed by the equipment, the state of the base, the practices and procedures in place and the fact that they are continuously checking, assessing and rechecking themselves. There is encouragement of what they refer to as a just culture. Serving members are encouraged to come forward when they identify possible breaches or areas for improvement, and the officers will work with those members to try to make those improvements. We have come a long way when one considers the debates that were held in the House on health and safety legacy issues in the Defence Forces. We are still dealing with them and they have not been dealt with fully, but we have come a long way in terms of making the Air Corps a safer place to work.

Our participation in the United Nations represents collective security. We are part of a team and proud to be part of that team. As has been mentioned by other speakers, people in this country are proud of the participation of our soldiers in overseas missions for peacekeeping and peace enforcement. We are very proud of the work our soldiers do and the huge sacrifice they and their families make when working in our Defence Forces and going on overseas missions. It is important to appreciate that when our troops go overseas they are putting their lives at risk. They do so to help some of the most vulnerable people across the globe in the most heinous conditions. They represent our country with distinction every time they do so.

The UN force in Lebanon was established in 1978. The Irish Defence Forces served there until 2001, from 2006 to 2007 and again since May 2011. It is a long-standing overseas mission in which our forces have participated with distinction. The Defence Forces also serve in the Golan Heights. I am glad the Minister of State referred to Operation Pontus. While it is not an operation with the UN it is important to note the participation of our Defence Forces in it. Defence Forces personnel also operate in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mali, Western Sahara, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Côte d'Ivoire. We have a permanent mission in New York as well. There are many ongoing missions across the globe which perhaps our citizens are not fully aware of, so Members of this House can do a great deal to highlight the fantastic work of our UN peacekeepers and peace enforcers.

Participation in overseas peacekeeping missions is a key element of Ireland's foreign policy and has been for many years. I hope it will always be a key part of our foreign policy. We must meet our international obligations as members of the UN, members of the EU and members of the global community. This is about collective security and working with other like-minded countries and member states to ensure peace and security across the globe. We depend on the ongoing commitment of our Defence Forces personnel to serve to allow our country to contribute to international peace and security. This makes a difference to the lives of many people across the world who are living in extremely hostile and dangerous conditions. We must do all we can to value our personnel. In that regard, as has been said many times in the Chamber, we must examine the pay and conditions in the Defence Forces.

It might also be worthwhile, as I mentioned to the Minister at the committee, to consider erecting a monument in the capital to our UN veterans. We should consider what type of monument we could erect, possibly incorporating the blue helmet which is easily identifiable. It would be a monument to those who have served and will serve. It might serve as a focal point for our communities and help us to better inform our citizens about the fantastic work our Defence Forces have done, continue to do and will do in the future.

I am happy to speak on this motion. I welcome the annual report on the Defence Forces activity with the United Nations. My home town of Clonmel has a long and noble tradition of having Defence Forces members on active duty overseas. It was a tradition we were all sad to see end with the closure of Kickham Barracks some years ago by the Government. That barracks was a prime location in Clonmel and people took pride in driving up to it to see the Tricolour flying and the troops on duty. Indeed, any time they were called on to help with an emergency due to snow, flooding or anything else, not only in Clonmel but throughout the county and into County Waterford, they were always ready, willing and available.

Like the Minister, I acknowledge the sheer professionalism and bravery of the Irish Defence Forces personnel who deploy with UN missions. Indeed, Deputy Grealish referred to Jadotville on Leaders' Questions in the House some time ago. I was proud to attend five or six St. Patrick's Day parades and every one of them included retired veterans. They are so proud of their flag and their country. They added panache and military style to those parades in Tipperary and probably throughout the country as well. I specifically salute the work of the Defence Forces personnel who are deployed on humanitarian missions and those involved with the three Naval Service vessels in the Mediterranean.

Almost every night on our television screens we see the heroic work they do, the desperately dangerous situations for them and the perilous situations that unfortunate refugees find themselves in. These refugees scrape together some savings to pay people, many of whom are gangsters, to get passage on all kinds of unsuitable vessels, and then tragedy occurs. Thankfully, our vessels and personnel were there to rescue some of them. They should be rewarded for that. Every day we see the great work they are doing to assist the Italian authorities with the migrant crisis in their seas.

As the Minister of State has previously noted, Irish participation in the humanitarian missions has resulted in the rescue of more than 8,500 migrants, which clearly demonstrates the value of Ireland’s involvement in this important humanitarian response. Unfortunately, there were many more who were not saved, but it was not for the want of heroic effort by our personnel.

The Minister of State has also noted that Naval Service crew on the LÉ James Joyce played an outstanding role in saving the lives of so many men, women and children, many of whom were fleeing desperate circumstances. I spoke today about the persecution of Christians and minority Muslim sects in the Middle East, and we have refused to have a proper and meaningful debate in the House over the years. In fairness, tomorrow - Holy Thursday - it is 12 months since the Ceann Comhairle gave Deputies Noel Grealish, Kevin O'Keeffe and me a double Topical Issue debate to discuss the issue. That is all. We are denying it. The Minister was also in the House to listen to that today.

Defence Forces personnel have also served as part of a UK-led joint inter-agency task force that is tackling Ebola in west Africa. Ireland is up for any challenge and is ready, willing and able.

I was surprised to read that the current contribution to overseas missions is a very significant 585 personnel. This is a huge number. We are punching above our weight, as we always are in Éire. This demonstrates Ireland, relative to its size, is making a very large contribution to the international peacekeeping effort. This should be noted.

It is my concern, and hope, that we can maintain that noble tradition without risk to the integrity of our neutrality and that we will not end up being drawn into armed deployment either through the back door or the front door of a broader EU policy of increasing militarisation. We must guard against that outcome. I am aware the Minister of State appreciates this, but then we see our Taoiseach acting as Leo the lion with the French Prime Minister. He had a rush of blood to join up with his friends, counterparts and Germans to blame the Russians without any investigation or knowledge or proof of anyone being tried. It was a case of being guilty before anything is proved. We had a premise of being innocent until proven guilty. This is also damaging to the morale. I am aware that the Minister of State has visited the personnel during St. Patrick's Day. I wish the forces a safe Easter - I cannot say enjoyable - away from their loved ones. I salute them and their families. I hope they will have a peaceful Easter, although not at home with their families. Go n-éirí an t-ádh leo go léir.

Question put and agreed to.