Speech by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence,
Mr. Alan Shatter, T.D.,
at the review of the 43th Infantry Group - leaving Ireland shortly for Peacekeeping Duty with UNDOF in Syria
Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin, 3rd September 2013.
Minister Quinn, Deputy Lord Mayor Upton, Councillors, Secretary General, Chief of Staff, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen; I’m delighted to be here in Cathal Brugha Barracks to review personnel of the 43rd Infantry Group, who will travel to Syria later this month for service with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).
The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was established on 31 May 1974 by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 350 (1974). The force was established following the agreed disengagement of the Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights in May 1974 following the Yom Kippur war. Since 1974, the mandate of UNDOF has been renewed every six months, most recently on 27 June 2013.
UNDOF supervises the implementation of the disengagement agreement, maintaining an area of separation between the Israeli and Syrian forces which is over 75 kilometres long.
UNDOF is assisted by 80 military observers from the United Nations Supervision Organisation’s (UNTSO) Observer Group Golan, which currently includes ten (10) Irish Officers.
Ireland’s substantial contribution to international peace support operations depends on the ongoing commitment of Defence Forces personnel to serve overseas in often difficult and dangerous circumstances. Your commitment, service and loyalty to the traditions of the Defence Forces on overseas service contributes extensively to the high regard in which Ireland and indeed Irish peacekeepers are held throughout the world.
The escalation of the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic has affected the UNDOF area of operations significantly in recent months. Reporting to the United Nations Security Council last June, the UN Secretary-General stated that UNDOF remains an important element in ensuring stability on the Golan and in the region.
In that regard, it was essential that UNDOF continued to have at its disposal all the means and resources it needs to carry out its mandate safely and securely.
You, the men and women of the 43rd Infantry Group, will be deploying to Syria at a most significant time in the history of Syria. Earlier this year, the Government approved the first deployment of Irish Defence Forces personnel for service at UNDOF’s mission headquarters.
In light of the significant deterioration in the situation in the mission area and the withdrawal of essential personnel by a number of troop contributing countries, the Government recently decided to further reinforce UNDOF with a well armed Defence Forces contingent. The continued support of troop contributing countries such as Ireland to the UNDOF mission is vital to allow the mission to continue the implementation of its mandate in a safe and secure manner. Helping to maintain the 40 year old ceasefire between Israel and Syria represents an important contribution to preventing further instability in the region.
To assist in this task and given the evolving security situation in the UNDOF area of operation, the Security Council has adjusted the posture and operations of the mission, including enhancing the self-defence capabilities of UNDOF, increasing the force strength to the maximum of 1,250 and improving its self-defence equipment.
When you deploy to Syria, you will be tasked primarily to serve as the Force Mobile Reserve within the UNDOF Area of Responsibility. An Advance party of Defence Forces personnel will first deploy to Syria. They are tasked with ensuring that the necessary infrastructure and facilities are in place to support the 43rd Infantry Group, when you arrive in Syria.
Your safety and the safety of all Irish Defence Forces personnel serving on all overseas missions is always a concern to me, my Government colleagues and to the military authorities. To prepare for your deployment to the UNDOF mission, you have all completed a rigorous training programme which included Chemical, Biological, Radiation and Nuclear training.
Such training, which is updated on an ongoing basis in the light of increased threat, has been designed to help you carry out your tasks and to provide for your protection. The Chief of Staff has assured me that all appropriate security measures are in place to ensure the safety of all Defence Forces personnel serving in Syria.
As you are all aware, the escalation in the Syrian civil war has caused horrendous casualties among the civilian population. To date, figures released by the UN Refugee Agency show that nearly one- third of the population – about seven million Syrians – has been displaced since the uprising began in March 2011. Over two million are refugees, with the overwhelming majority being in the neighbouring States of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, with little prospect of returning to Syria anytime soon.
It is estimated that more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed since the uprising began and there is no doubt that the recent deliberate use of chemical weapons against a civilian population is a very serious war crime and an affront to the values of the United Nations. Ireland and the wider international community now await the United Nations weapons inspection team’s report of the analysis of the samples collected.
I understand that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will brief members of the UN Security Council on the situation in the coming days. The UN Security Council is the appropriate forum for determining the response of the international community but it presently appears to lack the capacity to unanimously agree an appropriate response. I concur with my colleague, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, that only a political solution can ultimately bring peace to Syria.
Unfortunately, due to the nature of the conflict, the atrocities that have occurred, the sectarian and political divisions that exist and the destruction wrought, it is hard to find any basis for optimism. Tragically for the Syrian people it may be some time before such a solution comes about. It is no exaggeration to say that this country is experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe.
As a small State, in addition to providing €10.8m of financial assistance to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and to aid organisations, we can make a contribution of substance by supporting and contributing to UNDOF, a very specific mission with a defined mandate to operate within a clearly defined area on the Golan Heights.
Throughout my time as Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, it has been my honour to witness, at first hand, the very real impact our Defence Forces personnel are making throughout the world. Last March, I had the opportunity of visiting the Golan Heights and meeting with Irish Defence Forces personnel serving with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) as unarmed Military Observers.
I was briefed on security issues in that area, especially the growing risks flowing from instability in Syria and the impact of the refugee crisis in the region. I met with Major General Singha, who is UNDOF’s Head of Mission and Force Commander. He praised the work of Irish Defence Forces personnel deployed to the UNTSO mission. As you know, the UNTSO peacekeeping operation is led by another Irish General, Major General Michael Finn.
When your deployment is completed later this month, approximately 130 members of the Permanent Defence Force will be serving in the Golan Heights. The total number of Defence Force personnel serving overseas at that stage will amount to 570 across 14 missions.
Overseas service has become a core activity of the Defence Forces. Ireland's record of service in UN authorised peace support operations is second to none. We have made, and continue to make, a significant contribution to such operations throughout the world.
Service with the United Nations demands a wide variety of skills and personal qualities. Patience and diplomacy have become as important and as necessary as the required professional military skills of the soldier. Throughout the years, Defence Forces personnel that have served with the numerous UN, EU and NATO led missions have worked hard to build up an outstanding reputation as committed, conscientious, professional and humane peacekeepers. I know that you will all work hard to maintain Ireland’s reputation and, indeed, to enhance it.
I understand that soldiers from 15 counties of Ireland are represented in the 43rd Infantry Group. For 44 of you this is your first tour of duty overseas. All of you leaving for Syria are keepers of a proud flame of service and loyalty. This is a proud day for all of you and indeed your families, who can draw comfort in your absence from the knowledge that you are serving your country and the greater international community.
I am delighted to see so many of your families and friends here today to bid you farewell and wish you a safe return home. The support and encouragement of your family and friends is of vital importance to the success of all overseas missions. I thank them for that support, which enables you to serve abroad and thereby help to protect and save the lives of countless numbers of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.
Before concluding, I would also like to take the opportunity to congratulate your new Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Conor O’Boyle on his appointment and on this, his first review in his new role.
Finally, I want to wish each and every member of the 43rd Infantry Group, under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Brendan Delaney, a safe and successful mission. You will be in our thoughts throughout the duration of your tour of duty. You are travelling to Syria with my best wishes and with those of the rest of the nation.
Thank you very much.