Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 30 Jun 1999

Vol. 507 No. 3

Priority Questions. - Overseas Missions.

Frances Fitzgerald


15 Ms Fitzgerald asked the Minister for Defence the military, political and diplomatic initiatives undertaken by the Government following the death of an Irish soldier in South Lebanon following an attack on a UNIFIL post; his views on the continuation of the Irish peacekeeping mission in South Lebanon; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16772/99]

Jack Wall


16 Mr. Wall asked the Minister for Defence if he has satisfied himself with the safety precautions provided for Irish members in the area of conflict following his recent visit to Lebanon. [16671/99]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 15 and 16 together.

As I indicated to the House on 1 June, the death of Private William Kedian and the injuries to Private Ronald Rushe and Private Darren Clarke on 31 May while serving with the 85th Irish Battalion in Lebanon were the subject of immediate protest by UNIFIL Headquarters, Naquora to the Israeli Defence Forces who undertook to conduct an investigation at the highest level. A formal letter of protest was lodged by UNIFIL with the Israeli Defence Forces on 2 June. A preliminary report was also forwarded immediately by UNIFIL Headquarters to United Nations Headquarters, New York. The United Nations Secretary-General condemned the attack. The United Nations Headquarters conveyed a strong protest in the matter to the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations who had been summoned to United Nations Headquarters. A letter was also sent to the President of the Security Council with the details of the incident.

At my request the Minister for Foreign Affairs summoned the Israeli ambassador to Ireland to Leinster House on 1 June to protest the matter to the Israeli authorities. The Minister for Foreign Affairs expressed great concern at the loss of life and serious injury to Irish peacekeeping personnel and, on behalf of the Government, protested the incident of 31 May in the strongest possible terms. He also expressed the Government's grave concern at the pattern of recent incidents involving firing close to and at IRISHBATT positions. He insisted that there must be an immediate cessation of such incidents and demanded that the Israeli Government take firm action to prevent such targeting of the UNIFIL contingent. In response, the ambassador regretted the loss of life and injury and undertook to report to his authorities.

In view of the continuing escalation of hostile activity in the UNIFIL area of operations and the risks which this posed for Irish personnel serving there, I decided to visit the area from 20 to 22 June to see the situation for myself and, more importantly, to raise the seriousness of the situation with both the Israeli and Lebanese authorities and to seek assurances that the recent reckless shelling of IRISHBATT positions by the Israeli Defence Force/ de facto forces and the armed elements (Hizbollah) would not recur. During the course of my visit I met both the Lebanese Minister of Defence and the Israeli Minister of Defence. I sought assurances from both my Lebanese and Israeli counterparts that there would not be a recurrence of these recent serious shelling incidents. I indicated to both sides that, while Ireland is committed to the UNIFIL mission, should there not be a cessation of such incidents, serious consideration would have to be given to the withdrawal of the Irish contingent.

Arising from an incident on 20 May, involving an IRISHBATT position which resulted in extensive damage to the post, including the destruction of a UN truck, I requested that the Department of Foreign Affairs protest the matter to the Lebanese authorities and on 3 June the Irish ambassador at Cairo, who is accredited to Lebanon, had lodged an official protest with the Lebanese ambassador to Egypt. The Lebanese Minister for Defence expressed regret at the recent incidents and reaffirmed the gratitude of the Lebanese Government and people for the presence of the Irish UNIFIL troops. He assured me that the grave concern expressed regarding the present situation would be raised at Cabinet and with other contacts.

During my meeting with the Israeli Minister of Defence I stressed to him the utmost gravity with which the Government regard the recent incidents involving Irish troops, including the death of Private Kedian and the critical wounding of Private Rushe. As the House will be aware, in an earlier incident in February last, Corporal Noel Roche and Private John Flaherty were injured when their post was fired on. Further heavy shelling on 10 June resulted in damage to Irish positions but, fortuitously, there was not loss of life on that occasion.

On 11 June, at my request, a further strong protest was lodged by the Department of Foreign Affairs with the Israeli ambassador, following which the Irish ambassador to Israel also lodged a protest with the Israeli Minister for Foreign Affairs on 15 June. In response to the very strong protest which I made, the Israeli Defence Minister said he was very disturbed by recent events in South Lebanon but that the situation was very difficult and complex there. Referring to the Southern Lebanese Army, the Minister said that while they were trained, equipped and paid by Israel, they did not take their orders from Israel. He undertook that explicit instructions would be given to the SLA arising from my protest but that it was difficult to give full assurances regarding a cessation of firing incidents such as I had sought.

Additional Information.

The safety of Irish personnel serving overseas is always of paramount concern to me and the Government. While absolute guarantees cannot be given with regard to the safety of troops serving in missions such as UNIFIL, it is my policy to ensure that Defence Forces personnel are adequately trained and equipped to carry out their mission. Each post within Irish UNIFIL area of operations has reinforced concrete bunkers specifically designed to withstand direct and indirect fire from heavy weapons. Rigorous operational procedures are in place to ensure that personnel occupy these bunkers in a timely fashion should the need arise. In such an eventuality, protected minimum duty personnel remain in place to ensure that operational activity is observed and reported. Physical security in the form of equipment and engineer works at posts and checkpoints is continually being improved. Irish troops are issued with a modern range of weapons and equipment.

I welcome the range of initiatives which the Minister and the Government have undertaken with regard to this issue. Our thoughts are still with the families affected by the loss of life and serious injuries. Has there been a reduction in the number of assaults and attacks on the UNIFIL positions? When I visited Lebanon some weeks ago it was clear that serious attacks were being made and that dangers were being posed. Has there been a reduction in the number of attacks since this range of initiatives has been undertaken?

There were a number of incidents which I outlined in my reply. Since my visit we have not received a report of further incidents close to the Irish positions. The Government is treating what happened with the utmost gravity and matters will continue to be monitored and will be kept under constant review.

The Prime Minister-elect of Israel, Mr. Barak, has suggested he will be withdrawing troops from the area. The peace process in the Middle East is at a very delicate stage. Will the Minister put his threat to withdraw Irish troops into context? While safety and security must be the first consideration, I am sure that given the delicacy of the peace process, it is the wish of the public and the Minister not to engage in a hasty withdrawal. Given that the situation is very volatile and dangerous, is the Minister seriously suggesting withdrawing troops in the short-term?

The safety of Irish troops serving in the United Nations and in UNIFIL is of para mount importance to me as Minister for Defence, to the Government and to the people. One only had to visit Ballyhaunis and meet Private Kedian's family to appreciate the impact of his death and to recognise the impact further tragedies of that kind would have. In such circumstances serious consideration would have to be given to the withdrawal of the troops, especially in view of the nature of these incidents. We are a peace keeping force under a UN mandate and we should not be deliberately targeted by either side. I wanted to stress this aspect to the Lebanese and Israeli authorities.

However, the Deputy is right that it is a tense time there. It is hoped to achieve the ultimate withdrawal of Israeli troops under UN Resolution 425 in a peaceful way. We will stay as long as is necessary to achieve that goal provided the authorities on both sides respect our position. In recent times that position was not respected and I made it absolutely clear that our troops will not be a target for the Hizbollah or SLA forces. As the Deputy is aware, one specific incident, in addition to the others which occurred, could have gone dangerously wrong.

We were extremely lucky not to have major casualties on one occasion and there was no option open to me at that time other than to reinforce the Government's view that should Irish positions continue to be targets of indiscriminate, deliberate firing, it will not stand idly by without seriously looking at our position there.

I welcome the Minister's initiatives and thank him on everybody's behalf for his efforts to assist the two unfortunate families. What was the reaction of the UN Security Council to the Minister's request? Since he returned from the Lebanon, has he updated the UN on his views about the very dangerous situation that pertains there for our troops?

On leaving south Lebanon I made it clear to the commanding officer at UNIFIL headquarters in Naquoro that I would continue to review the position. I was extremely anxious that there would be a cessation of those incidents and that we could continue to do the work for which we went to south Lebanon, namely, to help to finalise the peace process so that people there could return to living normal lives as far as possible.

I have not been in contact directly with UN headquarters but my Department constantly liaises with the UN and every action will be taken in this regard to maintain the safety of the troops. However, we will not let it rest at that. Monitoring continues daily and I want to see a period of peace during which our troops will not be assaulted in the manner in which they have been up to now.

I thank the Deputy for his comments on support for the families. We were happy to be able to help them at such an extremely difficult time and look forward very much to the return of Private Ronnie Rush to continue his recovery programme. It was as close to a miracle in medical terms as one could imagine and I hope his recovery continues.

Frances Fitzgerald


17 Ms Fitzgerald asked the Minister for Defence the contribution the Defence Forces will make to the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo; the number involved; the requests, if any, which have been made; his response to these requests; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16773/99]

Billy Timmins


19 Mr. Timmins asked the Minister for Defence the preparation, if any, Irish troops have carried out with a view to participating in KFOR. [16776/99]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 and 19 together.

The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1244 on 10 June 1999 which, among other things, authorised the establishment and deployment of an international security presence in Kosovo – KFOR. The Security Council resolution established KFOR for an initial period of 12 months from June 1999 and it will continue thereafter unless it decides otherwise.

Following discussions between the Department of Foreign Affairs and my Department, the Secretary General of NATO was informed on 9 June that Ireland would be interested in participation in KFOR, subject to approval by the Government and the Dáil. The NATO secretariat identified a KFOR requirement for a transport unit, in line with what Ireland could contemplate providing to the force. A formal invitation to participate in KFOR is expected.

Following consideration by the Government yesterday of the request, it has been decided, subject to the approval of the House, to agree to the dispatch of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force comprising a transport group estimated at between 80 and 100 personnel, equipped with 32 vehicles, for an initial period until June 2000, for service with KFOR. The necessary enabling motion will be brought before Dáil Éireann by the Minister for Foreign Affairs before the House rises for the summer recess.

It is envisaged that it would take a minimum of six weeks from the date of approval by the House to the commencement date of deployment of the contingent. A military fact finding mission to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe – SHAPE – Mons, Belgium, is today seeking clarification on a number of practical matters in regard to the proposed participation in the force.

Should Dáil approval to participate in KFOR be forthcoming, it will be necessary to send a Defence Forces reconnaissance party to the mission area prior to deployment and before a final decision is made on the composition of the transport group. In the meantime, all necessary forward planning in relation to the recruitment of personnel, the preparation of vehicles and equip ment etc. is ongoing within the Defence Forces in anticipation of approval by the House to participate in the mission. It is intended that Defence Forces personnel would undergo specific KFOR training prior to their departure for Kosovo and in this regard a training syllabus is being prepared by the military authorities.

I welcome the participation of our Defence Forces in KFOR but it is extremely important that the Minister reassures the public that the Defence Forces will have the necessary equipment, training, information and logistical support to participate effectively and safely. It will be a difficult mission which will go on for a long time. It is indicative of the changing peacekeeping role in which our Defence Forces will be involved. I understand that new APCs will not be available for at least another year or two. Must Ireland supply all its own equipment for the mission? Is it up to standard?

A Defence Forces reconnaissance group will look at and tease out all the practical issues associated with the success of the mission and one of the primary aspects of that will be the safety and security of the troops. We expect to form part of a battalion comprising 400 personnel, which will probably involve the British and Norwegian Defence Forces. We will supply our own vehicles and will not have the new APCs on stream for this mission. However, this is primarily a transport mission which will be involved in humanitarian tasks and, of course, the transport of equipment, particularly for infrastructural development. A great deal of damage was done and it will be necessary to support efforts and initiatives to restore some sense of normality for the refugees as they return to Kosovo. I assure the Deputy that the training programme and reconnaissance effort is geared towards making sure that planning, training, equipment and support is sufficient to guarantee the safety and security of the troops who are deployed on the mission as far as that can be done.

I welcome the Government decision to make that number of troops available. Did the Government indicate to the UN that it could supply a transport group or did the UN make a specific request for the group?

Early in the play, I publicly indicated, largely because of what I saw on television, the unspeakable atrocities carried out against these people, that when a UN decision to send an international force to Kosovo was taken, Ireland would be ready to play its part with a transport company. We took the initiative by saying that we would be prepared. This is consistent with the policy of previous Ministers so that we would always be seen to try to work out to what extent we could help. That was done on this occasion.

The formal request from the UN has not been received yet. The UN resolution has been adopted and we expect the formal request any day now. We took the initiative, which was consistent with what was done in similar circumstances in the past.

While I acknowledge that there are limited resources, does the Minister agree that this is a significant opportunity for Ireland to re-examine its commitment to peacekeeping? Earlier questions related to our interim force in the Lebanon, which has been there for 21 years. Does the Minister agree it would be more beneficial for Ireland to make a major contribution to KFOR and to downsize our commitment to UNIFIL? If the programme for the purchase of APCs was condensed into 18 months instead of six years and the feasibility of leasing equipment from other countries was considered, does the Minister agree Ireland could supply a battalion to KFOR?

Ireland has been part of UNIFIL for 21 years and while I appreciate that good work has been done, we are one of the few remaining countries from the initial group involved in the mission. It is time to consider pastures new, particularly in light of the disdain the Israeli Government appears to have for UNIFIL. Since the start of the year, five protests have been lodged by the Government, including one on 11 June following the tragic death of Private Kedian.

The Deputy appears to be giving information. The purpose of Question Time is to seek information.

Will the Minister respond to my comments? Does he agree it would be in Ireland's interest in terms of our contribution to European security to downsize our participation in Lebanon and to make a major contribution to KFOR?

Deputy Timmins is always in a position to impart information on these matters because of his experience. I am anxious to reach the day when we can substantially reduce our commitment to UNIFIL in South Lebanon. I have consistently indicated this position. However, the scenario there is still difficult and we are prepared to stay and to try to finish the job. It may be possible to reduce our commitment within a short time if Prime Minister-elect Barak is able to complete the withdrawal of Israeli troops under the terms of the resolution. This would provide an opportunity to deploy a much larger contingent in Kosovo. I look forward to that happening as quickly as possible.

I am also anxious to accelerate the acquisition programme for APCs. I will consider every avenue open to me to accelerate the programme because it presents a different opportunity which Ireland could follow in terms of the location of future missions. It is not easy to give a definitive answer on whether I will be successful because it involves substantial money and major investment is being made in other equipment, vehicles and general infrastructure in the Defence Forces. The figure this year of approximately £57 million is an all time high in terms of investment across the board. I cannot give an absolute guarantee but I am considering how the period during which the APCs will be acquired could be condensed.

Does the Minister agree that Ireland's response of approximately 100 troops, which is not overgenerous but probably the maximum which can be offered at present, places the Department of Finance's memo on downsizing the Defence Forces into context? It shows that if Ireland wants to continue to make a contribution at an international level, the approach of the Department of Finance to the Defence Forces in terms of downgrading and suggested reductions in the number of battalions and troops is not the way forward.

Is Ireland in a position to supply technical or specialist staff? For example, how many of our troops have been trained in mine clearance? This is one of the most urgent and demanding needs in Kosovo at present. How many have been trained in mine clearance? Is Ireland able to supply any technical, medical, engineering or other specialist members of the Defence Forces to Kosovo? As I said previously, international publications on the defence forces have said that there is an enormous need in these areas in Kosovo at present.

As far as Kosovo is concerned, the indications were that a transport unit was required. People will also be sent to work in the administrative area under the interim arrangements in Kosovo regarding the preparations for democratic institutions and the greatest possible autonomy for Kosovo within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

At present, Ireland is participating in 13 different missions. A considerable number of specialists is involved in the smaller missions and to date we have not received a request for those specialists to go to Kosovo. However, they will be supplied to wherever they are needed in so far as the commitments can be met.

The time allocated for these questions has expired.

We are already engaged in mine clearance activities in South Lebanon.

We must proceed to Question No. 18.

There are specialists with such training and if personnel are requested and available, those commitments will be met in so far as that is possible.