|Secretary-General, Chief of Staff, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, members of 28 Infantry Group.|
Since August 1999, members of the Irish Defence Forces have served as part of the KFOR mission in Kosovo. During that time they have distinguished themselves with characteristic professionalism and have built on the well-established reputation of Ireland as a source of some of the world’s finest peacekeepers. As part of a force of 17,000, drawn from 30 countries, Irish troops have played a central role over the past five years in making this UN authorised mission an extremely successful one.
Last month I paid a brief visit to Camp Clarke, headquarters of the 27 Infantry Battalion currently serving in Kosovo. While there I attended a medal presentation and visited some of the humanitarian projects with which our Defence Forces personnel have been involved since the mission in Kosovo began. I have every confidence that you will continue this good work – work that brings great credit and goodwill to the Defence Forces and the Irish people.
What has always distinguished our peacekeepers is the combination of professional excellence and humanity that they possess. Wherever they have gone, the men and women of the Irish Defence Forces have reached out to the local communities and have made a real and lasting contribution to improving the quality of life. For many years, the Irish peacekeepers’ interpretation of their UN mandate has been a broad one. The unique ability to combine the traditional peacekeeping duties with the provision of humanitarian support has become the calling card of the Irish peacekeeper internationally.
Throughout my seven years as Minister for Defence, it has been my great fortune to witness the distinctive impact of our peacekeepers throughout the world. I know and am very proud that this combination of roles has not just been maintained but has been enriched during the KFOR mission.
As we know only too well, peacekeeping missions are not without their dangers. This was brought home to us yet again last November with the tragic death in Liberia of your colleague Sgt. Derek Mooney.
We also recently saw on our television screens that ethnic violence has re-erupted in Kosovo and this has set back relations between Albanians and Serbs. The clashes led to some minor injuries to a small number of our soldiers and some damage to KFOR vehicles. It was good that we were in a position to respond to these incidents, as our presence there helped to quell the disturbances and prevented damage to property and may very well have saved lives.
This outbreak of trouble is indicative of the dangers inherent in peacekeeping missions. Of course Kosovo has a long history of inter-ethnic conflict, stretching back to the fourteenth century when the Serbian State fell to the Ottoman Empire following the Battle of Kosovo. It is very difficult to predict what may happen, and it goes without saying that it is important to be vigilant at all times.
Your colleagues in Kosovo played a leading role in controlling what was a very tense situation and I would like to take this opportunity to commend their actions. The levels of skill and professionalism they displayed during the trouble are a testament to the training that they have received, and the vast reservoir of peacekeeping experience that our forces can draw on in difficult circumstances.
The safety of Irish personnel serving overseas is always of paramount concern to me. Defence Forces personnel serving on all overseas missions are equipped with the most modern and effective equipment available. This equipment enables troops to carry out the mission assigned, as well as providing the required protection specific to the mission. I am satisfied that that all appropriate security measures are in place to ensure the safety of all Defence Forces personnel serving with KFOR. However, that is not to underestimate the dangers you may face in your role as peacekeepers, and you will be in our thoughts and prayers throughout the duration of your tour of duty.
Our continued participation in peacekeeping operations comes at a time when the challenges facing the United Nations in maintaining international peace and security are many and varied, as recent events have clearly demonstrated.
It is against this background of volatility that the nature of peacekeeping operations are changing from traditional UN led missions. The KFOR mission, while UN authorised is NATO led and participation in by the Defence Forces has proven to be highly successful. There is now an increasing onus being placed on regional bodies to organise and be prepared to provide peacekeeping troops for the purpose of discharging a UN mandate. This carries with it implications for the manner in which these operations are organised and structured. We must, therefore, seek to optimise our levels of interoperability, so that our Defence Forces can work effectively in multi-national peace support operations, as is now the case in this KFOR mission.
As you know, Ireland currently holds the Presidency of the EU. One of my priorities, as part of Ireland’s European Security and Defence Policy mandate is to bring forward the work of developing the EU’s early warning and rapid response capabilities, so as to enhance its ability to support the UN, through autonomous operations, at short notice.
In conclusion, I would like to wish the Contingent Commander, Lt. Col. Thomas Doyle and all of the members of the 28th Infantry Group a safe trip and a peaceful and successful mission.
Go n-éiri libh go léir agus go dté sibh slán.
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