|Secretary-General, Deputy Chief of Staff, distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.|
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 already well-established reputation of Ireland as a source of the world’s finest peacekeepers.
As part of a force of 21,000, drawn from 17 NATO countries and 17 Non-NATO countries, eight Irish Transport Companies have played a central role over the past four years in making this UN authorised mission an extremely successful one.
Operating in a heavy lift capacity, the Irish contingents have been a key component in allowing the KFOR mission to undertake its onerous tasks effectively. Earlier this year, it was my honour to Review the 8th and final Transport Company as it set off for Kosovo. Today we mark the beginning of a new and exciting phase of Defence Forces involvement in the KFOR mission as the 27 Infantry Group, the first such Group, sets off to undertake its duties. I would like to place on record the gratitude of the Government and myself for the way the mission has been undertaken to date. A high benchmark of excellence has been set over the last four years which I have no doubt will be matched by the 27 Infantry Group and the contingents that will succeed them.
Today’s ceremony is one of immense significance for the Defence Forces because it marks the deployment of the largest single contingent of personnel on peacekeeping duties since UNIFIL. The 262 men and women of the 27 Infantry Group will move Irish involvement in KFOR to a new phase. As part of a multinational Brigade, which is currently led by Finland, this newly configured involvement will allow Ireland much greater flexibility in terms of maintaining its capacity to service the KFOR mission in the future. And, as with the Transport Companies, I am especially pleased that the mission will see the further extensive deployment of the modern equipment with which the Defence Forces are being provided under the White Paper on Defence and the Programme for Government.
Of particular significance will be the involvement of a Mowag APC mounted Company, as part of the Infantry Group. These state of the art vehicles have already proved their worth in Eritrea and this mission now affords the opportunity to see them deployed on a broader operational basis, specifically in the areas of patrolling, check points and force protection. Defence Forces personnel have the right to the best equipment and these APCs are among the most advanced in operation in any army in the world and will allow infantry to be transported to advanced positions safely. Forty such vehicles are already in service, with a further 25 due for delivery next year at a total cost of over €80 million. I am determined to continue the modernisation programme in the Defence Forces, which has been largely funded from our own resources and wherein there has been so much progress over the last few years. Although the Government must take account of the prevailing economic circumstances and continue with its prudent approach to public spending, it is my aim to ensure that investment continues, while taking account of financial realities and the need to spread costs over longer timescales. There should be no doubt that the White Paper and the modernisation programme which underpins it will continue to be driven by the Government.
As I have said on many occasions, what distinguishes our peacekeepers among their peers is the unique combination of professional excellence with a rich mix of humanity. Wherever they have gone, the men and women of the Irish Defence Forces have reached out to the local communities and made a real and lasting impact on improving the quality of life. The Irish peacekeepers’ vision of their UN mandate is a broad one. During the last six years, as Minister for Defence, it has been my great fortune to experience the unique impact of our peacekeepers throughout the world. I have witnessed at first hand the endeavours of the KFOR contingent based at Camp Clarke to raise funds to rebuild the homes of several families in both the Serb and Albanian communities, as well as the refurbishment of parts of the mental institution in Stimlje and the provision of clothing for the patients. This mix of humanitarian support with more traditional duties is the calling card of the Irish peacekeeper internationally. And I look forward to this mix being maintained and built upon for the rest of the KFOR mission.
Given this unique reputation, it came as no surprise that the Defence Forces were so much to the fore in the recent Special Olympics World Games which captured the heart of the nation. Almost 1,000 men and women of the PDF and the Reserve played a crucial role in making this memorable event such a true success. Quietly and without fuss, a whole array of key support tasks were completed by Defence Forces personnel as part of a massive logistical exercise. Each and every one of the personnel performed above and beyond the call of duty and I’m sure that the memories of this involvement will last a lifetime.
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 lead 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 and 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 newly constituted KFOR mission.
We have a proud tradition of answering the call from the United Nations for help in crisis situations for over 40 years. I intend to use the forthcoming Presidency of the EU to explore how Ireland can continue to influence the development of the Common Foreign and Security Policy and , during the Presidency, I will examine how Ireland can further strengthen the links between the European Union and the United Nations in the cause of international peace and security.
I conclusion, I would like to wish the Contingent Commander Lt. Colonel Michael Finn and all members of the 27 Infantry Group every success and safety in the forthcoming mission. As you embark for Kosovo, you do so as ambassadors for your country as well as the United Nations. It is difficult leaving family and friends, but I’m sure that any regrets of separation will be eased by the fact that you have been selected to carry the flame of Ireland’s proud record of bringing peace on behalf of the international community.
Go raibh maith agaidh.
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