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.