I propose to take Questions Nos. 14, 18, 19 and 22 to 24, inclusive, together.
On 5 April, 2020, the United Nations Secretary General directed the suspension of all rotations and leave for military personnel serving in United Nations (UN) missions until 30 June, effective immediately.
The UN directed that only in certain very limited and extenuating circumstances would any exemption be allowed, and only where a rotation was vital to maintain a critical operational capability and where the requisite quarantine requirements for incoming and rotating contingents required by the UN and the host state can also be guaranteed. Any such exemption was subject to a decision by the UN Headquarters in New York on a proposal from the Force Commander.
The UN direction impacted over 100,000 UN uniformed personnel from over 120 countries serving world-wide, including Ireland and Defence Forces personnel serving with UN missions. The suspension was based on the protection of local communities as well as that of the peacekeepers during the Covid pandemic.
Immediately upon the direction of the UN Secretary General, the Defence Forces, the Department of Defence and the Department Foreign Affairs and Trade engaged with the UN in the mission areas and at UN Headquarters, though both informal and formal contacts to ensure that the rotation of Irish personnel would be achieved as close as possible to the scheduled dates.
On foot of these efforts, rotations to UNDOF, MINUSMA, KFOR and EUTM Mali have been successfully concluded to date. However, from the outset, the key focus has been on UNIFIL. As our largest mission, it involves the rotation of a significant number of personnel in two stages, two weeks apart and is thus more complex, and requires approvals and permissions from both the UN and from the Host State, not least in terms of their health status and that of the local population in a time of a global pandemic health restrictions.
The UN has agreed to a partial exemption of the suspension for Ireland. This flexibility from the UN resulted from the immediate and coordinated case advanced at mission level, by the Chief of Staff and at UN Headquarters, by the Department of Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Given the size of the contingent and the requirements of the mission, the UNIFIL rotations take place in two stages, (commonly known as “chalks”).
I am advised that the indications at present are that the first chalk will take place in the latter part of June and the second in early July. However, contacts with the UN in New York are continuing.
I am acutely aware of the impact the UN decision is having on Defence Force members, as well as the anxiety that this has caused for families. In this connection, I am advised by the military authorities that personnel in mission areas are being briefed as information comes to hand. Personnel and families will continue to be advised and updated by the Defence Forces as further information becomes available.