I am pleased to report to the select committee on Defence Forces' participation in United Nations missions in 2017 and 2018. The reports were laid before Dáil Éireann on 7 February 2019. The following motion is before the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence for approval:
That Dáil Éireann approves the reports by the Minister with responsibility for defence regarding service by the Defence Forces with the United Nations in 2017 and 2018 respectively, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 7 February 2019, in accordance with section 13 of the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006.
In commending the motion I will outline some of the key aspects of Ireland’s involvement with the United Nations in 2017 and 2018.
Irish troops were first deployed on UN peacekeeping operations in 1958 and not a day has passed since without Irish participation in UN peace support operations. This is a unique record, of which we can all be very proud. Defence Forces' personnel have served in peace support missions all over the world, including in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America, completing more than 68,000 tours of duty. This commitment to international peacekeeping is a very practical expression of the values we hold dear as a nation and our commitment to the United Nations and multilateralism. There are some 670 Defence Forces' personnel, of whom approximately 5% are female, serving overseas in nine missions around the world. Ireland has a battalion, comprising some 460 troops, with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL. We also have a company with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, mission on the Golan Heights, with other significant postings in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. For these Irish men and women, service with the United Nations is rightly regarded as noble and important.
Ireland’s main commitments during 2017 and 2018 were to UNIFIL and the UNDOF mission on the Golan Heights. The UNIFIL mission was Ireland’s largest overseas deployment during 2017 and 2018. From June 2012 to November 2018 Irish troops served as part of a joint Irish-Finnish Battalion with UNIFIL. From 2015 a number of Estonian personnel were deployed as part of the Finnish contingent. Owing to other national commitments, Finland and Estonia withdrew from the Irish-Finnish battalion with UNIFIL in November 2018. As an interim measure, an additional contingent of approximately 106 Defence Forces' personnel was deployed to the UNIFIL mission to cover the backfilling of the Finnish contingent for a 12-month period. Ireland assumed the full duties and responsibilities of the Irish battalion in November 2018 and will continue in this role up to November 2019.
It has recently been agreed that a contingent of Polish armed forces and a contribution from Hungarian forces will join our UNIFIL contingent from November 2019 as part of a joint battalion. In 2018, for the first time, two Maltese personnel deployed to UNIFIL as part of the Irish battalion. The Defence Forces have had an ongoing relationship with the armed forces of Malta since 2009, providing both cadet and officer training. To date, 38 Maltese cadets have completed their training in the Defence Forces training centre. Partnership with other states committed to UN peacekeeping has become an increasing element of our overseas peacekeeping operations. Working with other such states is critical to overcoming the new and ever emerging challenges we face.
My last visit to UNIFIL was in March. With my Secretary General and the Deputy Chief of Staff Operations, I saw at first hand the commitment of Defence Forces' personnel to the UNIFIL mission. I was impressed by the strong relationship forged between our personnel and the local communities in which they served. Liaison with the local population and the provision of support and humanitarian assistance is one of the hallmarks of Ireland’s approach to involvement in peace support operations. This is something I was proud to highlight in my address to the UN peacekeeping conference in New York later that month, when I spoke about the necessity of all peacekeepers being trained to engage proactively with the local population, including women, and to deliver more effective peacekeeping operations on the ground.
Ireland’s second largest overseas deployment in 2017 and 2018 was to UNDOF on the Golan Heights. The Defence Forces' contribution to UNDOF comprised approximately 136 personnel in this period.
Since its establishment in 1974, UNDOF has been a successful mission in supporting the efforts of the international community on the Golan Heights and in the Middle East region. In March 2018 the UNDOF headquarters returned to Camp Faouar on the Syrian side of the area of separation and the then Chief of Staff of UNDOF, Colonel Michael Dawson, together with seven other members of the Defence Forces, moved with the headquarters. The main Irish contingent, comprising a force reserve company of 130 personnel, completed their relocation to Camp Faouar in September 2018. The security situation in UNDOF's area of operations is reviewed continually by the United Nations and the Defence Forces. The continued presence of the UNDOF mission remains an important element in ensuring stability on the Golan Heights and in the Middle East region and is supported and welcomed by Syria and Israel.
Ireland continued to contribute military observers and staff to various United Nations missions such as the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation, UNTSO, throughout 2017 and 2018. In addition, a small number of Defence Forces' officers continue to serve with MINURSO, the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, and MONUSCO, the UN stabilisation mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The United Nations has come to rely increasingly on regional organisations, including the African Union, the European Union and NATO, to provide forces to implement and support UN Security Council resolutions. In 2017 and 2018 the Defence Forces were deployed on a number of such UN mandated missions.
Ireland has participated in the EU training mission in Mali, EUTM Mali, since it was launched in 2013. At present, 20 Irish Defence Forces' personnel are deployed to EUTM Mali. I was delighted to visit the mission in January, with the Taoiseach, the Secretary General and the Chief of Staff. The objective of the mission is to improve the capacity of the Malian armed forces to maintain security in Mali and restore the authority of the Malian Government and the territorial integrity of the Malian state.
In July 2017 Government and Dáil approval was secured for the deployment of a Naval Service vessel as part of the EU naval mission Operation Sophia. Participation in Operation Sophia represented the first involvement by the Naval Service in a multilateral security operation under a UN mandate. In February 2018 the Government approved a further Naval Service contribution to Operation Sophia. It involved a total of two Naval Service vessels deployed consecutively during the year from April to October 2018. In addition, five members of the Defence Forces were deployed in the operation headquarters over the course of 2018. The objectives of Operation Sophia have been not only to disrupt the activities of smugglers and traffickers but also to prevent loss of life at sea and reduce the suffering and exploitation of migrants by countering and challenging the criminal organisations engaged in such activities.
Other UN mandated missions in which Defence Forces personnel were deployed in 2017 or 2018 and are still serving are the EU-led mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, EUFOR, and the NATO-led international security presence in Kosovo, KFOR.
The year 2018 was particularly significant for United Nations peacekeeping. The United Nations celebrated the 70th anniversary of UN peacekeeping operations and Ireland marked its own significant milestones as a long-standing contributor to UN peacekeeping. In March 2018 my visit to Irish troops in Lebanon coincided with the official UN commemorations in Naqoura to mark the 40th anniversary of the UNIFIL mission's establishment. It was an occasion on which to pay tribute to the tens of thousands of UN peacekeepers who had served together with local communities for peace and security in south Lebanon.
Separately, in June 2018, I hosted an official State ceremony in Dublin Castle which was attended by President Michael D. Higgins and the Taoiseach to mark the 60th anniversary of Irish involvement in UN peacekeeping operations. The Government was also very proud to mark this significant anniversary internationally, when we hosted a ceremony at UN headquarters in New York in July 2018. The ceremony allowed us to recognise the contribution of Irish men and women from the Defence Forces, An Garda Síochána and the wider public service to international peacekeeping. In addition, in December 2018 the 60th anniversary of Ireland's deployment with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, UNTSO, was marked with a commemorative ceremony held in UNTSO headquarters in Jerusalem.
Participation in peace support missions comes at a personal cost for individuals who must be away from families and friends for extended periods of time. I commend Defence Forces' personnel for their commitment and dedication to overseas service, without which Ireland’s strong tradition of peacekeeping under the auspices of the United Nations would not be possible. Our ability to protect the health and safety of our personnel is of paramount concern when considering participation in any mission. Ongoing threat assessments are carried out in mission areas and we continually review personal equipment and force protection assets to ensure Defence Forces' personnel are appropriately equipped to fulfil their roles. The safety of our peacekeepers is of the utmost importance.
Ireland’s contribution, on aggregate, to overseas missions of 1,639 personnel, or 18% of Defence Forces' strength, in 2017 and 1,696 personnel, or 19%, in 2018 is a significant contribution in the context of the overall strength of the Defence Force and the resources available for defence. I assure the committee that the Government is committed to ensuring the Defence Forces will continue to contribute in a meaningful way to overseas operations. I commend the motion to the committee.