Thursday, 21 June 2012

Questions (15, 16)

Mary Lou McDonald


10Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Minister for Defence if he will provide an update on the joint Irish-Finnish UNIFIL mission. [30062/12]

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Willie O'Dea


19Deputy Willie O’Dea asked the Minister for Defence the current situation in Southern Lebanon; the role of Irish Forces there; the evolving challenges they face; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29969/12]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Minister for Defence)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 19 together.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, mission is the main overseas mission in which Defence Forces personnel are currently deployed with a total of 356 personnel. The 106th infantry battalion, comprising some 332 personnel, deployed to UNIFIL in May 2012. The Irish battalion has been working alongside a contingent of 170 personnel of the Finnish Armed Forces as part of a joint Irish-Finnish battalion with effect from 1 June 2012. Both Ireland and Finland previously served together in the Lebanon mission in 2006-2007 and more recently in the UN operation in Chad.

The joint Irish-Finnish battalion is based in sector west of UNIFIL's area of operations, currently centred on the major towns of Tibnin and Bint Jubayl, and with two posts on the Blue Line, which separates Lebanon and Israel. The battalion is tasked primarily with patrolling, reconnaissance and occupying static posts while operating in close co-ordination and co-operation with the Lebanese Armed Forces in sector west of UNIFIL's area of operations.

At present the security situation in the UNIFIL area of operations in southern Lebanon, including the area in which the Irish-Finnish battalion operates, remains calm but unpredictable. I welcome participation by the Armed Forces of Finland in this mission with Ireland. I am confident the joint deployment with Finland will further support interoperability, build experience and deepen further the excellent bilateral relationship between both our countries.

Is there a prospective change in regard to the mission? When a mission starts, it has a concluding date, but coming up to that date one finds it is extended or that additional personnel are required. Has there been a request from the UN for an expanded or extended mission in this region? If so, what is the view of the Minister and the Defence Forces in that regard given the large commitment of approximately 330 to the region?

The Defence Forces have a very important role to play in this area. I visited them and know the work they are doing is greatly appreciated by the local community. In addition to fulfilling their UN mandate, they engage with the local community and provide assistance where they can on community matters.

I do not envisage that the UN's commitment to UNIFIL will finish any time soon. I intend for the Defence Forces to continue to participate in this mission and contribute to maintaining peace in a region that is particularly troubled. I pay tribute to the work being done by our forces there. A third contingent has now gone to the region from this State since I was appointed Minister. The personnel are doing extraordinarily important work.

My concern, which is shared by many, is that the difficulties in Syria could flow over the border into Lebanon. There is relative calm in the area but there have been difficulties in the city of Tyre where some fighting has broken out that reflects some of the difficulties in Syria.

It is important that Ireland continues to play an active role in the United Nations and contributes to peacekeeping in various parts of the world. It is important that the considerable experience of our Defence Forces in this area is utilised and that they feel their training is put to good use on the international stage.

The Minister touched on my point towards the end of his contribution. Given the very malignant influence Syria has had on the Lebanon on over the years, has there been any change in the method of appraisal of security over recent months to reflect the insecurity in Syria? If so, have we at home enhanced our evaluation of the security situation in the Lebanon to reflect that change?

There is constant reassessment of security issues in the area where our troops are based. Everyone is very conscious of what is happening across the border in Syria and the crimes against humanity that are being committed there. There is a great need to bring an end to the barbarity and destruction in Syria, where it appears the Government has turned on its own people in a manner that is completely unacceptable and which may result in some individuals at a future time being brought before the International Criminal Court for the manner in which they have conducted themselves.

Southern Lebanon remains reasonably calm, as I stated. Our Defence Forces have a great deal of knowledge of that region. The general conditions are under constant assessment by the United Nations and our own forces. I hope the current calm will continue to obtain.

The House may be interested to know that Brigadier General Patrick Phelan was appointed deputy force commander of UNIFIL on 28 April 2012, for an initial period of one year. His appointment to the position is in due recognition of the very substantial role we play in the area and the professionalism of our Defence Forces.

I welcome the Minister's continuing commitment to the mission. I welcome the appointment of Brigadier General Patrick Phelan. As the Minister stated, it is in recognition of the professionalism and expertise of the Irish Defence Forces in the region and in the UNIFIL missions.

Does any issue arise regarding the equipment and resources required to complete the mission, especially given what Deputy Calleary stated about a possible change in the circumstances in the region?

I am satisfied that we have the required equipment. While I said to the Deputy that the area is generally calm, circumstances continue to be unpredictable in the context of the security situation in the UNIFIL area of operations in southern Lebanon, including the area in which the Irish-Finnish battalion operates. The threat level to Defence Forces personnel serving in the Irish battalion area of responsibility is currently assessed by the Defence Forces as substantial. While there is calm, the assessment is based on occurrences across the border and some of the general difficulties that have arisen in Syria. Improvised explosive device attacks from militant extremists remain the most significant threat to security in the Irish area of operations and along the blue line separating Lebanon and Israel and its vicinity. Irish personnel have adjusted their force protection measures accordingly. In other words, extra care is being taken, to move away from the technical jargon, by comparison with the position 13 or 14 months ago. The conflict in Syria was starting at that stage but had not escalated to its current level. There had not been any outbreaks of any description in Lebanon at that time reflecting some of the differences in Syria. By increasing the threat level, one ensures that all necessary precautionary steps are taken in the interest of the safety of members of the Defence Forces. Having said that, I do not want to cause undue alarm. I repeat that, as matters currently stand in the area of operations, there is relative calm.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.45 p.m until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 26 June 2012.