Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
RE: Frank Callinan SC report into the deaths of three soldiers in Lebanon on 21 March 1989
Opening Statement of the Minister for Defence, Mr Alan Shatter T.D.
On 19th September 2011 I published the review of Mr Frank Callanan, S.C., into matters relevant to the deaths of Corporal Fintan Heneghan, Private Mannix Armstrong and Private Thomas Walsh. They died on 21st March 1989 while serving with “C” Company, 64th Infantry Battalion, United Nations Interim Force in the Lebanon. I appointed Mr Callanan in April 2011 to carry out the inquiry following the emergence of new evidence in the course of preparation of a legal case.
I know that members of their families are here today and I would again like to take this opportunity to express my sincere sympathies to the families of Corporal Heneghan and Privates Armstrong and Walsh for their tragic loss.
Corporal Heneghan, Private Armstrong and Private Walsh had been tasked on a detail to collect rocks for the constructing and enhancement of stone gabions around their camp at Bra’shit. These rocks were being collected in an area called the Green Rooms. As their vehicle was returning from this mission it drove over a landmine which detonated causing the tragic deaths of all three men.
At the time the official UN Board of Inquiry found that the mine was designed to inflict maximum casualties on Irish UNIFIL personnel. It further found that no blame attached to any member of the 64th Irish Infantry Battalion.
From very shortly after the tragedy some family members and colleagues raised concerns that issues arose in relation to the deaths of the three men. These issues included an assertion that the track to the Green Rooms was out of bounds. These issues were raised both by way of legal proceedings and representations to the Minister over the years. My predecessor, Minister Michael Smith, appointed a senior official in 2003 to examine statements provided by the families from colleagues of the deceased. Following examination of the contents of these statements and consultations with the military authorities on the issues raised, it was determined that a further enquiry would not come to an alternative view to that in the United Nations Board Report.
However, in 2011, new information came to light in the context of preparing for a legal action. This information, which had not been available previously, was significant and substantive in nature and related to deficiencies in the threat assessment and, therefore, the assessed level of threat pertaining in the mission area. Once this new information was brought to my attention, I determined that it warranted the carrying out of an independent review. I arranged for the families to be informed immediately of this decision and I appointed Mr. Frank Callanan, SC, to conduct the review.
The review encompassed both a review of all relevant documents and interviews with such persons as considered appropriate by Mr. Callanan. In this regard, Mr. Callanan received a warrant which allowed him access to all personnel, facilities and documentation as he deemed appropriate in the context of his review. Mr. Callanan notes in his report that all those he interviewed, both serving and former members of the Defence Forces, cooperated conscientiously and truthfully with his review.
Mr. Callanan completed his review and presented his report to me in September, 2011. I would like to thank him for the excellent report he produced.
It is clear from his report that the Defence Forces engaged in the UN mission in Lebanon at that time, were facing a very complex and difficult mission with limited resources. The report concludes that there was a systemic failure, not alone by the Defence Forces, but by the UNIFIL mission as a whole, to respond to the increased threat from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and from the danger of an attack by armed Islamic elements. For the information of the Committee I would like to put on the record the specific findings from the Report which are as follows:
1. Given prior events, there was a deficient assessment of the threat confronting the 64th Infantry Battalion in UNIFIL both from IEDs and landmines placed by the Lebanese Resistance in the Irish Battalion Area of Operations and from the danger of a targeted attack by radical Islamic armed elements on the Irish Battalion, and a failure to adopt appropriate Force protection measures;
2. The three deceased soldiers should not have been sent from Company Headquarters up the track where they met their deaths in a landmine explosion without the track being first cleared for IEDs and landmines;
3. The procedures for checking for the presence of IEDs and landmines were insufficiently defined and applied. The training of the soldiers of the 64th Battalion in relation to the threat of IEDs was deficient;
4. The track on which the three deceased soldiers met their deaths had not been placed out of bounds either by the erection of a roadside sign or otherwise, and did not lie within the Israeli Controlled Area of South Lebanon. This had been an issue for the families.
I met with the families and extended to them, on behalf of the Government, an apology for the failure to fully recognise, by early 1989, the implications of the changed circumstances in the Defence Forces mission area in Southern Lebanon and for the deaths of their loved ones. It can never be absolutely certain that their loved ones would have been saved if the Defence Forces had adopted a higher risk posture and appropriate protection measures but it must be accepted that appropriate procedures could possibly have avoided this tragedy.
I believe that the Defence Forces have learned from the failure in this instance to undertake an adequate threat assessment and thus deploy appropriate force protection assets. I would like to reassure the families of Defence Forces personnel currently serving overseas that the issue of force protection is taken extremely seriously and that the military authorities deploy all necessary assets to protect our personnel, wherever they operate. In addition, threat assessments are constantly reviewed in light of changing circumstances and incidents having regard to the protection of our forces.
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