Defence Forces Service with the United Nations: Motion

I move:

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 7th February, 2019, in accordance with section 13 of the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to report to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence earlier this morning on Irish Defence Forces participation in United Nations missions in 2017 and 2018. In commending the motion, I will summarise some of the key aspects of Ireland’s involvement with the UN in 2017 and 2018. Irish Defence Forces personnel have served in peace support missions all over the world in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America, completing over 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 of our commitment to the UN and to multilateralism.

Ireland’s main commitments during 2017 and 2018 were to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, and the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, in 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 in UNIFIL. From 2015, a number of Estonian personnel were also deployed with the Finnish contingent. Due to other national commitments both Finland and Estonia withdrew from the Irish-Finnish battalion, UNIFIL, in November 2018. As an interim measure, an additional contingent of approximately 106 Defence Forces personnel were 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 personnel, together with a contribution from Hungarian defence 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.

Ireland’s second largest overseas deployment in 2017 and 2018 was to UNDOF in the Golan Heights. The Defence Forces contribution to UNDOF comprised approximately 136 personnel over this period. Since its establishment in 1974, UNDOF has been a successful mission in supporting the efforts of the international community in the Golan Heights and the Middle East in general. 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 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. Throughout 2017 and 2018, Ireland continued to contribute military observers and staff to various United Nations missions such as the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation, UNTSO, the UN mission for the referendum in Western Sahara and the UN stabilisation mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2017 and 2018, the Defence Forces were deployed on a number of other UN-mandated missions such as EU training mission, EUTM Mali, EUFOR in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Operation Sophia and the NATO-led international security presence in Kosovo.

The Government is very aware that participation in peace support missions comes at a personal cost for individuals who must be away from families and friends for extended periods. I commend our Defence Forces personnel on 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 safety of our personnel is of paramount concern to me when considering participation in any mission. Ongoing threat assessments are carried out in mission areas and we continually review personal equipment and Defence Forces assets in order to ensure that personnel are appropriately equipped to fulfil their roles. The safety of our peacekeepers is of the utmost importance.

Ireland is making a very significant contribution in the context of the overall strength of our Defence Forces and the resources available for defence. The Government is committed to ensuring that the Defence Forces will continue to contribute in a meaningful way to overseas operations into the future. I commend the motion to the House.

As we assess Ireland's involvement in UN peacekeeping missions over the past two years, I take the opportunity to commend the men and women of our Defence Forces who serve the State with such distinction. We have a long and proud history of peacekeeping, dating back to 1958, and this is a record and tradition we should not take lightly or for granted.

The reports before the House lay out Irish involvement in UN Missions in 2017 and 2018. I am pleased that what was at the core of the first missions in 1958 remains today, namely, to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security. We have now amassed almost 70,000 individual tours of duty and last year we celebrated 60 years of unbroken duty in UN peacekeeping. In so many ways, and as a small country, we punch well above our weight in this regard and this is down to the professionalism and dedication of our Defence Forces members who serve in the world’s most dangerous places and harshest environments with the greatest of courage and conviction. The men and women of the Defence Forces are a credit to all of us and they are the reason Ireland is so highly regarded and renowned as a country committed to peacekeeping across the globe.

In light of this, it is so hard to comprehend why Defence Forces personnel are still awaiting a decision from the Government on the Public Service Pay Commission's report. There is a reason we are in the midst of the largest retention crisis we have ever seen among Defence Forces personnel and cannot get close to the permanent strength of 9,500 as laid out in the White Paper. The reason is that Defence Forces personnel are tired of committing themselves so selflessly only to be treated so badly and paid so poorly. The Defence Forces continue to be the worst-paid workers in the public sector. Despite the high-profile recruitment campaigns, we are still losing more personnel than we are gaining. In the context of our UN involvement, this is resulting in a huge capability drain. The ongoing retention crisis is leaving units with limited or inexperienced instructor staffs to provide essential weapons or vehicles training. These are exactly the kinds of skills and expertise required for overseas deployments. This is now leading to a situation where those with certain skill sets are being mandatorily selected having only returned from overseas less than 12 months previously. The implications of this drain in experience is having such knock-on consequences for remaining soldiers, who now are themselves looking to leave, or their peers are avoiding pursuing certain courses as they know they will become the next flogging horses. This is not a way to treat Defence Forces personnel in the 21st century.

For example, a lack of vehicle gunnery instructors is affecting the ability to train crewmen within the corps. This is compounded by a lack of suitable ammunition to conduct range practices to enable personnel to qualify in weapons systems, as stocks are being withheld for overseas mission readiness exercises. The retention and recruitment crisis is having a direct impact on our peacekeeping abilities. There has been an increase in the budgetary allocation for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade while at the same time, according to the internal unit of the Defence Forces, the allocation for the Defence Forces is stagnant. In the context of the Department's pursuit of a seat on the UN Security Council, investment in our capabilities and capacity around equipment and training is extremely important. The Government needs to match what is says with investment. If this matter is not properly addressed without further delay, the reports the Minister for Defence will bring to the Dáil in the coming years will be much shorter because we simply will not have the personnel to continue our peacekeeping at the level we have done for so long.

I noted recent news reports on the Public Service Pay Commission, which is due to report shortly. I hope there is much more to come for Defence Forces personnel then was reported, as otherwise the problems will not go away. When does the Minister of State propose to introduce an overseas establishment for officers and non-commissioned officers, NCOs, to allow vacancies to be filled while people are overseas? In committee earlier today, I outlined the need for intervention at the levels of captain, corporal and sergeant, where there are major capability gaps. The Minister of State responded that there was an allocation available for those above that threshold but not at the levels where there are serious capability gaps. He also mentioned that a number of gap analyses had been undertaken. We need to see the outcome of that analysis in order that we can address the shortages.

The 700 personnel overseas are factored into the current strength of the Defence Forces. This is misleading and those left behind are plugging the gaps, often by double and treble jobbing which is causing huge increases in stress for overworked personnel. When will the policy of personnel acting up a rank to fill overseas gaps be reintroduced, such that detailing officers, as currently happens, is done away with? This kind of penny-pinching is forcing people out of the Defence Forces and ultimately undermines and destabilises our peacekeeping operations as a whole. We need to treat Defence Forces personnel with respect and pay them properly for their selfless dedication and commitment to our country and peacekeeping around the world.

I welcome both reports and I acknowledge, once again, the tremendous role of Irish Defence Forces personnel in UN-led operations overseas. The bravery and commitment of these soldiers, including Naval Service personnel, are a credit to them and are recognised and appreciated throughout the world. As a small country with, rightly, a small Defence Forces, our contribution of almost 10% of the entire peacekeeping effort overseas at any given time has gained us many friends on the international stage. For this reason, I have appealed to the Minister of State - perhaps ad nauseam in his eyes - as well as to the Government and previous Governments not to align Ireland with international policies or those who are warmongers and seeking to increase the militarisation of the world and those who would wish to exert influence and control once again over their former colonies, in many cases in the guise of peacemaking.

I have also repeatedly tried to have Ireland's neutrality enshrined in the Constitution so that we can continue with the honourable tradition of Irish deployment to UN missions, as we have done since the late 1950s. I will continue to question why Ireland is involved in or trying to involve itself in missions which are not blue hat UN missions, which are of dubious origin in some cases or are specifically intended to have the EU or other supposedly developed countries at odds or taking sides in a conflict rather than in the honourable tradition of peacekeeping. With this in mind, it is time the Government lived up to its constitutional obligation to hold a Dáil debate on the deployment to Mali of 20 personnel, which is more than the 12 personnel provided for in the triple lock. As this is, supposedly, a training mission, the Government believes it does not need the assent of the Dáil, but it does. There is no ambiguity in this regard. During the second Lisbon treaty campaign, Irish people were promised that, at the very least, the Dáil would have to give such a sizeable deployment its imprimatur. I found that promise dubious at the time and it remains so. This is more of the doublespeak in regard to the State's neutrality that has become commonplace under this Government and previous Governments. The Government would gain a lot more respect if it stood firm and became a champion for neutrality, rather than involve itself in operations that would seek to reinstate the exploitation of former colonies. We have much more in common with the countries in which UN troops have served than we do with those countries now trying to impose their rule in a different way.

On the related matter of UN duties in the past, I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to ensure that Irish soldiers who served in past UN missions and were gallant and brave in their actions are properly honoured. It emerged recently that there is documentation which recommends the award of five military medals of gallantry and 29 distinguished service medals to those who stood against 5,000 soldiers in Jadotville in 1961. I ask the Minister of State to ensure that the regulations which prevent him doing so are changed. I acknowledge the recent award of a medal by the Minister of State to the family of the late Joe Murphy in respect of his service during the War of Independence, which was greatly appreciated. I guarantee the Minister of State that the award of medals in respect of those who served in Jadotville would be likewise greatly appreciated, not only by their families but also by the serving members of the Defence Forces who would know that if they are put in danger and if they are gallant and brave, as were those who went before them, they would be duly recognised for doing so. Some of those who were involved in Jadotville died from suicide, including a young man from Carrick-on-Shannon who was 16 years old at the time. Those people deserve much more recognition than we have given them thus far. At that time, people such as Conor Cruise O'Brien prevaricated and did not give the support and protection that the Defence Forces needed such that they were left to their own devices. Thankfully, many of them came home but many were affected by what they had seen during that fateful week in 1961. I urge the Minister of State to act on the Mali issue and in regard to the award of medals.

These reports highlight one element of Irish foreign policy which I believe we can take the most pride in, namely, the work of our approximately 600 Defence Forces personnel in peacekeeping missions throughout the world. Our Defence Forces are helping to maintain peace and security in Lebanon, the Golan Heights, Western Sahara, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Mali and they continue to serve with distinction in the Mediterranean as part of Operation Sophia. We are proud of the work we do, the lives we protect and the peace and security we provide. As stated in the report's conclusions, this is a very practical expression of the values which we hold dear as a nation and of our commitment to the UN and multilateralism.

The Army is recognised as having world class expertise. As part of UN peacekeeping work, Ireland has been involved in the destruction of mines, the removal of dangerous chemicals and the destruction of ammunition for small arms in the Balkans and Ukraine. However, our Defence Forces serving in the UN, particularly in Lebanon and on the Golan Heights, are facing increasing challenges due to the rapidly changing geopolitical situation in the region. Prior to the outbreak of war in Syria, this was a relatively uneventful UN mission, but it has now changed dramatically as the war has spilled over into the UN zone on a number of occasions. As Irish troops continue their deployment, the possibility of military action by Israel in the Golan also remains a serious threat. President Trump’s decision to approve US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights will only serve to further heighten tensions.

Likewise, under the Trump administration, the US has publicly criticised UNIFIL and pushed for a more robust response from UNIFIL to the perceived threat from armed groups. This criticism is unfair and unwarranted, and only serves to undermine the positive role UNIFIL plays in maintaining peace in the region. It also raises important questions for UN peacekeeping in general, as a recent UN-commissioned report also advocated a more proactive UN posture in the region.

The Labour Party believes that a clear distinction between traditional peacekeeping and operations involving some degree of enforcement is needed, and these lines should not be blurred to serve the foreign policy agenda of others. This is not just important for the UN, but also for contributing states like Ireland, if our hard-won reputation as an impartial and neutral actor is to be maintained.

Participation in UN-mandated peacekeeping operations does not and should not challenge our military neutrality. What these peacekeeping missions show is that there is another way to enter into military engagements, and PESCO is not the answer. We have spoken in this House many times in recent years about the fragility of the global order. The rise of the right and the chaotic breakdown in some parts of previous norms means that the immediate future is uncertain and unknown. However, now is not a time for Ireland to jump into that unknown space. Our tradition of working within UN parameters is one that Irish people trust and believe in. We must protect it and strengthen those global peacekeeping links. We believe the triple lock approach with a UN mandate is the right approach for Ireland. It allows us to express our values of peace-building and peace-making in a practical and active manner, but guards against any creeping militarisation which may emerge in Europe.

Our own region in Europe is going through its own political instability at this time. We need to work with our European partners to deliver a social and just Europe politically. However, there is no need for us to pursue closer and costly military relationships, as some have recently suggested. Defence spending in Ireland is currently the lowest in the European Union, at around 0.3% of GDP in 2017, compared to an EU average of 1.3% and spending is as high as 1.8% in France or 1.9% in the UK. That is as it should be. We should not be spending a lot of money on defence, although I would like to see us spending more when it comes to the pay and conditions of our Defence Forces personnel.

As the Labour Party has stated many times in this House, many serving members are on shockingly low wages, and last year it emerged many are on family income supplement. The Defence Forces' members are the lowest paid workers in the public service, and this simply needs to change. Continued supports are also needed for our soldiers post-deployment. This morning, it emerged that five soldiers who survived the siege of Jadotville during a UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo in 1961 tragically took their own lives in later years. Although times have changed, the risks, both physical and psychological, that our soldiers face are not. To date, a total of 86 members of the Defence Forces have died while on missions, with many more injured physically or mentally. It is scandalous that the Defence Forces have been without an in-house psychiatrist since May 2018, and an appointment is unlikely to be made until almost 2020. Up to 50 Defence Forces personnel remain on a months-long waiting list for psychiatric appointments due to the Government’s failure to find a replacement for the military’s retired in-house clinician during the past year. This is not good enough.

I thank all the Deputies for their comments and contributions, both earlier this morning at the select committee and here in the Dáil this afternoon. I strongly believe that it is very valuable to highlight through these reports the important overseas UN peacekeeping role the Defence Forces have undertaken over the decades. Last year, 2018, was a very significant year for United Nations peacekeeping. The UN celebrated the 70th anniversary of UN peacekeeping operations, and Ireland marked its own significant milestone as a long-standing contributor to UN peacekeeping over a period of 60 years. Since our first contribution in 1958, not a day has passed when a member of our Defence Forces, Óglaigh na hÉireann, was not deployed in peacekeeping operations in support of the United Nations. As Ireland seeks election to the UN Security Council, we can be rightly proud of this long and honourable record of service in the cause of peace and security.

I visited the Irish troops in Lebanon in March 2018. This trip coincided with the official UN commemorations in Naqoura to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of UNIFIL and of Ireland's participation in the mission. It was a very proud moment for me to be there representing Ireland as Major General Mick Beary of the Irish Defence Forces led the commemorations as United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, force commander and head of mission at the time. Separately, in June 2018, I hosted an official State ceremony in Dublin Castle, which was attended by President Michael D. Higgins and An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, 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 in UN headquarters in New York in July 2018. This 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 UNTSO was marked with a commemorative ceremony held in UNTSO headquarters in Jerusalem.

Deputy Jack Chambers, at this morning's meeting of the select committee, spoke about a lack of ammunition. Ammunition for all aspects of the Defence Forces, including training and for missions, is available. I have not been told that there is a lack of ammunition. If the Deputy has proof of this perhaps he could provide me with it, and I will gladly take it and follow up on it.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh referred to another issue. The UN has asked regional organisations, such as the African Union, the EU, NATO and others to mount operations on its behalf. All these missions are approved and supported by the United Nations. In Mali, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina we are responding positively to the UN request. I regularly meet with Undersecretary Jean-Pierre Lacroix to discuss UN missions. It is very important that we meet. I met him in New York earlier this year, and intend to meet him later this year again.

Deputy Brendan Ryan asked what Ireland's position is on the Golan Heights following the recent statement made by the President of the United States of America. Ireland very much regrets the decision of the United States to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the territory captured in the 1967 war. This is a breach of a central principle of international law and the rule of law, which will have unfortunate repercussions well beyond the immediate context of the Golan Heights. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade made it very clear in a statement of 25 March of this year that Ireland, along with the rest of the international community, continues to regard the Golan Heights as Syrian territory, occupied by Israel, and there is no reason to expect that this decision by the United States should affect the position of the Irish troops in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, mission area around the Golan Heights. The supposed annexation by Israel, which the United States is now recognising, took place in 1981. There has been no change in support within the United Nations for UNDOF.

There are currently 670 members of the Irish Defence Forces serving in nine different missions around the world. Ireland has a battalion comprising 460 in UNIFIL, as well as a company in the UNDOF mission in the Golan Heights and other significant postings in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. For these Irish men and women, service with the UN is rightly regarded as noble and important.

I thank the Deputies both at the select committee this morning and this afternoon in the Dáil for their recognition of the work of Irish Defence Forces personnel. They can be assured that I will pass that on to the Chief of Staff.

Question put and agreed to.