Thursday, 5 February 2004

Ceisteanna (1, 2)

Dinny McGinley

Ceist:

1 Mr. McGinley asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on his recent visit to Liberia and the meetings attended while there; and if he has satisfied himself with conditions, including health and safety, under which members of the Irish peacekeeping personnel are operating. [3519/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

54 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence if he has satisfied himself that adequate medical and military supplies are available to the Irish troops serving in Liberia; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3529/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (5 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Defence)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 54 together.

I visited Irish troops serving with the United Nations Mission in Liberia, UNMIL, from 21 to 23 January of this year. During my visit, I was accompanied by the Secretary General of the Department of Defence, the Chief of Staff, the PSO to the Chief of Staff, my private secretary and a senior civil servant of the Department of Defence.

The main purpose of my visit to Liberia was to observe at first hand the work of Irish military personnel serving in the area and to convey to them, on behalf of the Government and the people, our deep appreciation for the outstanding manner in which they continue to perform their duties on overseas service. UNMIL is a challenging assignment and the Defence Forces are to be congratulated on the expeditious manner in which they planned and undertook their first deployment to this mission.

During the course of my visit to Liberia, I met Mr. Wesley Johnson, vice-chairman of the national transitional Government, Mr. Jacques Paul Klein, the special representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Major General Owonibi, acting force commander UNMIL, and Brigadier General Robert Fitzgerald, chief of staff, UNMIL.

I had a very positive exchange of views with vice-chairman Johnson. He thanked Ireland for the Defence Forces presence in Liberia and acknowledged the contribution of the 430 Irish personnel to conflict resolution. He said that the transitional Government will be in place in two weeks, ready to begin the process of reform. He admitted that true democracy would only return if the civil war divisions and corruption are eliminated and human rights are guaranteed. He highlighted the importance of getting normal civil society operating again and, in particular, of education. He informed me that one of the great difficulties faced is that the current young generation is less well educated than their parents. For all of us, that is surely a sobering thought.

During my meeting with special representative Klein, he acknowledged the enormous contribution the Irish troops are making to stability in Liberia. He outlined the difficulties facing the chairman of the transitional Government in co-ordinating the three factions — the former Taylor Government, LURD and MODEL — comprising the new transitional Government. Elections are planned for 2005 and Mr. Klein emphasised the importance of preparing for this now. He also outlined the importance of quickly getting in place effective disarmament, demobilisation, reconciliation and reintegration and placing it on a firm and sustainable footing. A UN fact-finding team was in Liberia while I was there, examining and advising on this issue.

I raised with him the Government's concern regarding health facilities for UN troops, particularly level three hospitalisation and the planned pull-out of the Dutch hospital ship, theRotterdam, on 18 February 2004. The Rotterdam is currently the provider of the level three medical cover to Irish personnel.

Additional Information not given on the floor of the House

Efforts are being made to secure an extension from the Dutch, while at the same time all other options are being examined. I assure the House that my Department, as well as the Department of Foreign Affairs, through Ireland's mission to the UN in New York, has been, and will continue to be, actively engaged with the UN to ensure that the medical cover available to the Irish contingent is at an appropriate level.

On the second day of my visit, I visited the Irish troops at Camp Clara, headquarters of the Irish troops serving with the 90th Infantry Battalion, UNMIL. The camp, which is situated on a site of about 25 acres, had originally been a holiday resort, containing a number of chalets most of which have been looted and destroyed. The camp is a credit to the Irish Army engineers who have rebuilt some of the chalets, cleared the site and erected tents. I also visited the special operations task group, SOTG. I found morale among troops to be very high. I congratulated the Irish personnel on the success of their mission so far and observed the positive effect which their presence is already having in Monrovia and other areas since their arrival. I also sympathised with the troops on the death of their colleague, Sergeant Derek Mooney and the injury of his colleague in a motor accident on 27 November 2003.

During the course of my visit, I also met Major General Owonibi, acting force commander, UNMIL. I also met Irish missionaries who were present in Liberia during the fighting while I was visiting a hospice for HIV/AIDS victims run by the Missionaries of Charity — the Order of Mother Theresa.

I am happy to say that Development Co-operation Ireland has allocated a sum of €15,000 to the current Irish contingent to help support its particular efforts in humanitarian aid in the contingent's area of operations. To assist this work further, I have allocated an additional sum of €10,000 from this year's Defence Vote.

The safety and health of Irish personnel serving overseas is always of paramount concern to me. While no absolute guarantees can be given with regard to the safety of troops serving in missions it is my policy and practice to ensure that Defence Forces personnel are appropriately trained and equipped to carry out their mission.

In regard to the equipment being provided, a wide range of equipment and force protection assets has been deployed with the contingent. This equipment is of the highest quality. Indeed, the Mowag APC's were deployed with the Defence Forces when they served in UNMEE, where they performed very effectively. We have also deployed armoured vehicles and support weapons, heavy machine guns and a mortar platoon. Due to the equipment modernisation programmes that have taken place in the Defence Forces over the past few years, UNMIL will be the best equipped battalion ever to serve overseas.

From a health perspective, I am confident that we have taken every reasonable step to ensure the good health of our personnel on this mission. I am advised by the military authorities that the health of the Irish contingent is excellent and that there have been no serious illnesses to date. I am satisfied that all medical supplies appropriate to level one — contingent level — medical support have been deployed with the Irish troops in Liberia. The level of medical equipment deployed is superior to any previously deployed with any Irish contingent on UN service and is considerably more sophisticated than the UN requirement. I assure the House that the Government will do whatever it can to protect personnel and return them safely to their families.

The camp, located ten kilometres from the main town of Monrovia, is very secure from both an operational and safety point of view. Extensive standard operating procedures have been put in place to ensure the health of personnel, in particular, procedures for personal hygiene, covering up fully at night to avoid insect and mosquito bites, use of repellents, maintaining hydration, etc.

What we hope to bring through our engagement with Africa is openness and understanding and a desire to support and encourage individual and societal growth. By this means, the people of Africa can have the opportunities they deserve and can strive to achieve their full potential so that the nations of Africa can take their place among the developed countries of the world. This is our objective and this is what we strive for. However, for this to happen will require ongoing political, economic and social development and support on a substantial scale from the developed world as a whole. Ireland stands ready to contribute in whatever way it can to support this development, through the provision of political, economic and social support and through its membership of and influence within the EU and the UN.

I welcome the Minister back from his visit to Liberia with no visible signs of ill-effect. I am sure he will concur with what is commonly understood that our Defence Forces are operating in primitive conditions in Liberia. I am sure he will agree he was in Liberia during the dry season and that most of our forces there are either under canvas or in tents. Is the Minister happy with the accommodation provided? That country is heading into the rainy season. Are provisions being made to address that problem? The rains, whether monsoon or otherwise, can be very heavy. What are the arrangements or provisions for that type of season and weather?

I understand that the relatives of the troops have been busy collecting parcels and other requisites to send to their sons, daughters, husbands and so on in Liberia and that one of our naval ships was to leave Cork within the next few days. Is that still the case or has that trip been cancelled? If so, it would be very serious because so much effort went into collecting parcels and other requisites to send.

Have arrangements been made to enable troops to maintain contact with people at home as often as possible? Liberia is almost on the other side of the world and it is the most dangerous peace mission in which our forces have been engaged. Can troops contact people at home? Are there regular mail deliveries? I understand that on such tours of duty, home leave is always arranged. Will troops have the opportunity to come home or will they have to stay there during their few weeks off?

The accommodation the Defence Forces have is excellent. It may well be the case that when tried under different conditions, we will have to examine the matter again and we would then have to consider, in a longer-term commitment to Liberia, the cormex. We would only address that question if it proved necessary. As we understand it, the resistance of the existing accommodation will be well able to cater for whatever is likely to happen in terms of a change in weather conditions over a period of at least two years. If anything changes in the meantime, I will address it.

I heard no complaints from the military — as the Deputy knows, I interviewed a number of them — about the facilities, the telephone arrangements for telephoning home, the free telephone service available once a month for up to ten minutes and the free postage home once a week. There was high morale across all fronts. It is probably the best equipped mission in the world. It was interesting to see the medical facilities there and the equipment which has been arranged. I assure Deputy McGinley we will keep a watchful eye on all these developments. As we see it at the moment, nothing is happening that would raise our fears about the accommodation and so on.

Has the ship been cancelled?

I have no knowledge of that. I will check it immediately following questions.