Thursday, 18 September 2014

Questions (1, 2)

Seán Ó Fearghaíl

Question:

1. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Minister for Defence his plans for Ireland's participation in the UNDOF mission on the Golan Heights; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34810/14]

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Pádraig MacLochlainn

Question:

2. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Minister for Defence his views that the UNDOF mission in the Golan Heights is still viable in its current format; his further views that the UN should review its mandate in this regard; and if Irish troops will be withdrawn from serving on this mission considering that the Golan Heights is now a conflict zone in Syria's civil war. [34812/14]

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Oral answers (18 contributions) (Question to Defence)

I hope Members will take note of the Ceann Comhairle's reminder about time keeping because we have lost valuable time this morning. I congratulate the Minister on his appointment to the Department of Defence. I am not sure about the combination of agriculture and defence but, no doubt, we will have an opportunity to discuss that issue later.

This is the vital question of what is to happen in respect of Irish participation in the peacekeeping-peace observation mission on the Golan Heights. It is something about which everyone with an interest in the work of the Defence Forces is concerned. I know that since his appointment the Minister has given very considerable time to this issue.

I seek guidance from the Ceann Comhairle. The second priority question is also about the same issue and simply I do not want to repeat myself. Does the Ceann Comhairle want me to answer both questions at the same time?

If Deputies are agreeable, we can take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together but separately, if the Minister understands me.

I will answer detailed questions from both Deputies, but-----

We will take them as if they are separate.

I thank Deputy Séan Ó Fearghaíl for his good wishes and look forward to working with Opposition colleagues on this brief. As Deputies know, there has been a lot of media coverage of the changing circumstances on the Golan Heights in recent weeks. We decided, at the invitation of the United Nations, just over a year ago to participate in this mission when the Austrians decided that it was no longer for them. We have 133 peacekeeping troops there - men and women - as part of the UN peacekeeping and peace observation mission. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, mission has been in place since 1974 and the United Nations considers it to be a hugely important and very successful mission, essentially keeping apart Syria and Israel, which were at war in the period prior to the putting in place of the mission.

In effect, since the 1970s, the mission has been about observing a demilitarised zone, a narrow strip of land about 75 km long on the Golan Heights, with Mount Hermon at the top. This strip has been respected by both the Syrians and Israelis and there has been little or no military activity or fighting there. The United Nations has supervised it and the mission has been very successful. However, in the past few months and, in particular, in the past few weeks, that has changed.

There has been fighting in the region in recent weeks between Syrian Government forces and rebel forces, primarily the al-Nusra Front. The position changed dramatically some weeks ago when Syrian rebel fighters attacked United Nations posts, resulting in 45 Fijian peacekeepers being overrun and captured at their post and effectively kidnapped. Two other posts manned by Filipino troops were surrounded and attacked. I am proud that the Irish element of the mission, a mobile armoured unit, acting in a highly professional manner secured the release of 36 Filipino troops whose post had been surrounded. This has been a tense and difficult number of weeks.

The UN commanding officer has since deemed it appropriate to redeploy troops from all UN posts south of Mount Hermon because it is no longer safe to have troops stationed in the area. They have been redeployed behind the Alpha line, which is the Israeli line. Almost all UN troops in the region are now deployed in the Israeli controlled area on the Israeli side of the Alpha line, with the exception of Nepalese troops on Mount Hermon, a strategically important location in terms of UN control.

Since this dramatic change in circumstances on the ground, I have been working to ensure the management of the mission responds appropriately in terms of managing risk and the exposure of our peacekeepers to the changing circumstances on the ground. This has been happening. Last week, at a meeting in Milan with the UN head of peacekeeping mission, I made clear that Ireland wanted a statement from the UN Security Council confirming the structural changes to the UNDOF mission if we were to continue to participate in it. We need an assurance that structural change is being made and while this change is taking place out of necessity, it must be confirmed by the UN Security Council. The Security Council met yesterday and I am pleased in principle with the draft statement that has been doing the rounds. Discussions are ongoing and amendments are being made to try to secure agreement on the text today. That is the updated position. If Deputies have questions, I will provide detailed replies.

I thank the Minister for his response and acknowledge again the work he has been doing on this matter. Many families are deeply concerned about their loved ones who are providing distinguished service on behalf of the country in this particularly difficult theatre. The families of troops who may participate in the next rotation are equally concerned.

Ireland committed to a Chapter VI mission to a demilitarised zone, which is clearly no longer relevant. The United Nations must make significant changes to address this issue. Has the Minister demanded that additional UN helicopters be positioned close to the area of separation to increase the lift and recovery capability of the UN force? Has consideration been given to strengthening the armed elements of other contingents in the region? I understand the Irish contingent is providing security for the 1,200 strong force. Should we not ensure the other contingents are armed to the same degree?

To respond generally to the Deputy, I have questioned the mandate, as has the Taoiseach. It is intended to maintain this mission as a Chapter VI mission. We will not move into the territory of peace enforcement and I will not, under any circumstances, send Irish troops on a peacekeeping mission to become involved in a civil war or trying to enforce peace in a civil war. That is not what we are doing. The purpose of the mission is to observe the 1974 armistice between Israel and Syria and it will continue to be to observe adherence to that armistice. The mission has been significantly complicated by the civil war in Syria. Most of the Golan Heights which was a demilitarised, supervised zone is now in the hands and under the control of rebel forces, which significantly complicates the position.

The Minister is over time.

We have asked for a review of weaponry.

I will allow the Minister to contribute again.

We have moved our troops west of the Alpha line to Camp Ziouani. The question that arises is whether it will be possible for them to fulfil any mandate from that location. This poses a serious problem because they will be dependent on the capacities of other forces to support them in any endeavour in which they may engage.

Another issue that arises is the extension of the deployment of the current contingent of men and women who are serving in the region. It has been suggested they will remain in place for another fortnight or thereabouts. Will the Minister give an absolute guarantee that their stay in the region will not be extended beyond a fortnight? There is a desire to have them return home safe and sound as soon as possible. Can we continue to regard this as a Chapter VI mission in circumstances in which the area in question is heavily militarised?

To respond first to the Deputy's final question, I believe it can continue to be regarded as a Chapter VI mission. The medium to long-term goal will be for the troops to return to what was previously a demilitarised zone and observe the armistice, as was done in the past. There has been a temporary and significant setback arising from events in Syria.

Ireland has not yet made a definitive decision to proceed with the rotation. We are preparing, however, on the basis that it will proceed and the troops in question will continue their training. I visited Custume Barracks the other day and spoke to our troops. They are a fantastic group of people who have considerable experience. Of the 130 troops who will travel, only 33 are going on their first peacekeeping mission, with many about to participate on their second, third or fourth mission abroad. They are great people who are experienced, well trained, highly professional and up for the mission. I must ensure, however, that we are sending them on a mission that is being managed appropriately in terms of the risk levels to which they will be exposed.

We have extended the period of the current deployment by two weeks because significant structural change is taking place on the mission and it is deemed appropriate that the troops currently on the ground should make these structural changes as they are much more familiar with the area. This means that the new structure will be in place by the time the new troops arrive.

We are very proud of the role the Defence Forces have played across the world under the United Nations and owe them a debt of gratitude. The problem with the UNDOF mission is that we had a debacle in the UN Security Council in issuing a response to the Syrian conflict. Moreover, the European Union's decision to remove the arms embargo on Syria created a serious difficulty. For this reason, Sinn Féin opposed the decision to deploy Irish troops to the region in the first instance. Unfortunately, it has since transpired that they have been exposed to the civil war in Syria. A number of the countries contributing forces to the mission are part of a European Union structure that has not been neutral in the Syrian conflict. One also has the unravelling scenario in respect of Islamic State. The situation is a mess. Will the Minister ensure our soldiers are not placed in harm's way unnecessarily in a mission that has become highly complex?

The Deputy asks a fair question. My role is to ensure we get the structures right and the change that is appropriate to reflect the highly complex realities on the ground.

Even though our troops are highly trained, really professional and are able to manage very difficult circumstances, which they have proved over the past number of weeks, it is not responsible to send a new rotation of troops unless we are satisfied that the management of risk in this peacekeeping mission is being done appropriately, but I think it is. A significant effort is being made on the ground in Golan and in UN headquarters in New York to ensure this mission continues because it is the strong view of all stakeholders in the Middle East that keeping a UN presence in the Golan Heights significantly reduces the risk of a significant conflict developing there again. Ireland is a key part of that mission, given the role we have played over the past number of weeks. I am committed to the UNDOF mission but I want to see structural changes and the approval of those changes at UN Security Council level, if it is possible to get that.

A number of issues have arisen in the media reporting of this in recent times which I have to put to the Minister. It has been reported that in one of the operations, but for the intervention of the Israeli Defence Forces, our troops would have been in a very dangerous situation. Will the Minister clarify what happened in that regard? It has also been reported that it was a United Nations requirement that the Fijian troops surrender, and this has caused huge concern in their home country. Will the Minister clarify whether troops are expected to surrender in those circumstances?

I do not think it is appropriate for me to go into the detail of decisions taken by the force commander and the reasons behind those decisions. General Singha, the force commander, who is an Indian officer, has had to make very difficult judgments over the past number of weeks. His primary focus has been the safety of UN troops in the face of some very difficult situations which he has had to manage. In my view and in that of Irish officers who are there, he has made the right decisions. That is all I will say on that.

In terms of the involvement of Israeli troops in supporting, rescuing or coming to the aid of Irish troops, there was a misleading report in the Irish media that somehow Irish troops were rescued by Israeli forces. That is simply not true and I am glad to confirm that. The Irish forces' engagement here, which has got some accurate coverage, was that they were asked by General Singha to go in and, effectively, evacuate Filipino troops who were under huge pressure and were surrounded by rebel forces. They did that in a very professional way. They took some fire and returned some fire and they successfully helped their colleagues to get out of a very difficult situation.

Another UN post was surrounded, which had a different outcome, but it was also a solution that resulted in protection of the lives of peacekeepers. However, there was no incident in which Israeli troops had to rescue Irish troops.

There is a time limit of six minutes per question.