ADDRESS BY THE MINISTER FOR DEFENCE,
MR. MICHAEL SMITH, T.D.,
AT THE REVIEW OF THE 7th IRISH COMPANY
WHICH WILL SHORTLY DEPART FOR SERVICE
WITH UNTAET IN EAST TIMOR
Chief of Staff, Secretary General at the Department of Defence, ladies and gentlemen, and most importantly the Officers and Men of the 7th Irish Company that will serve with UNTAET, I am honoured to have this opportunity to address you prior to your departure to East Timor. UNTAET was established as an integrated peacekeeping operation to administer East Timor during its transition to independence. It has a military component of just over 8,000 troops and a civilian police component of about 1,600 drawn from nearly 50 countries. The Timorese now live in relative safety with the knowledge that a well-trained professional force is available to protect them in the event of an upsurge. People are rebuilding their houses and sending their children to school because the UN peacekeepers give them the hope they need to start again. Elections were held in East Timor last week and the large turnout, helped in no small way by the presence of UN peacekeepers, is an important indication that normality is beginning to take hold again in this country that has suffered greatly.
I visited East Timor last year and witnessed at first hand the difficult conditions in the area of operations where you will be based. There is no doubt that this mission is in some of the most difficult terrain that Irish personnel have ever encountered. It is the furthest mission from home and it is in probably the most inhospitable climate ever faced by Irish troops. It is an extreme challenge and yet I understand it is one that all of you are looking forward to.
Today we are reviewing 44 soldiers who will serve in East Timor for four months. 4 will serve with the Component Headquarters in Dili, 2 as unarmed Observers, 4 with the National Support Element in Darwin and 34 as an Infantry Platoon in Taroman in the South West of the country near the border with West Timor. The Infantry Platoon members, under the command of Capt. Niall Twomey, are all drawn from the 4th Infantry Battalion based here in Collins Barracks, Cork, and I am confident that they will meet the challenge that lies ahead.
You have all trained hard since last July and this training, combined with your previous peacekeeping experience, has prepared you to deal with any scenarios that are likely to arise. There have been a number of incidents in the last few weeks in East Timor where Irish troops have come under attack. Thankfully these situations were not allowed to escalate and calm was restored. Situations like these test the training and experience of personnel and they were not found wanting. Looking at the troops being reviewed here today it is obvious that they are young (the average age is 24), extremely fit and focused on the mission ahead.
This is an exciting time to be in the Defence Forces. The resources being invested in the organisation mean that the quality and the quantity of equipment being purchased has never been better. Unprecedented amounts of money are being spent on modernising and upgrading operational, training and living accommodation for all members of the Defence Forces. This investment allied to a policy of continuous recruitment will ensure that a career in the Defence Forces is positive and satisfying.
I want to take this opportunity to once again acknowledge the contribution the Defence Forces make to Irish society. There are currently approximately 810 Irish soldiers serving overseas, mainly in Lebanon, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and East Timor and this represents a huge contribution to peacekeeping by a country of our size.
I am glad to be able to announce that earlier this week I got the approval of my Cabinet colleagues to continue to provide a contingent of Defence Forces personnel to the UN peacekeeping Force in East Timor until October 2002. This unprecedented commitment means that three further contingents, including this one, will serve four month tours in East Timor.
Next month will see the end of 23 years of peacekeeping involvement in Lebanon. It is a region that will have many memories, mostly happy, for members of the Defence Forces. However, things change and more importantly jobs get done. Irish soldiers should be proud that they saw the mission in Lebanon through to a satisfactory conclusion.
Towards the end of the year Irish soldiers will once again depart for peacekeeping duties in Africa when they become involved with the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea. This will be a fresh challenge and I have no doubt that, as always, Irish soldiers will answer the call and help to provide peace and stability to that part of the world.
Finally, I want to wish everyone a safe and successful tour of duty.