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Sarsfield Barracks, Limerick, 8th September 2009.

Secretary-General, Deputy Chief of Staff (Operations), distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I’m delighted to be here in my home city of Limerick to review members of the 101st Infantry Battalion who will shortly be travelling to Chad for duty with the United Nations mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT).

Occasions such as this serve to remind us of the important part our Defence Forces play as peacekeepers throughout the world. Participation in the MINURCAT mission is a continuation of our honourable tradition of supporting the United Nations in the cause of peace and security.

The men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann have made real and lasting contributions to the lives of the communities they have served around the world in the cause of peace. You the men and women of the 101st Infantry Battalion Group are the latest to serve in this long and honourable tradition.

As you are aware the initial mission in Chad and the Central African Republic was launched by the European Union in response to a request from the United Nations. The objective of the mission was to address the major humanitarian crisis resulting from hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing persecution from neighbouring Darfur. The European Union mission was designed to be a bridging mission, to create a safe and secure environment pending the deployment of UN Blue Helmet forces. This it achieved in a very short period of time, with an effective and capable force drawn from across the member States.

Despite the negative assertions from some quarters, the European Union went about its business in Chad in a neutral and impartial manner, in support of the United Nations and in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter. Impartiality was the hallmark of this mission which was led by an Irish General and which operated in accordance with the best traditions of the Defence Forces and fully in accordance with Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality and support for the United Nations.

Over the past 50 years you and your predecessors have, deservedly, earned a very honorable track record of facilitating and enabling peacekeeping around the world in support of the UN. This has been done without compromising our military neutrality and has been consistent with our national interests and traditions.

Participation in EU led operations changes nothing in terms of this tradition and threatens no one. If anything, it reinforces the capacity of Ireland, within the framework of military neutrality, to support the UN in more demanding and complex missions. It enables us to respond more effectively and more rapidly to the needs of the UN and the security needs of displace refugees in conflict zones. This is what the UN is asking of us today, this is what the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon asked of us and of the European Union when he recently visited Ireland re-iterating the request of his predecessor Kofi Annan for EU capabilities for UN operations.

To those who say that the EU threatens our neutrality, I ask the question, where is the evidence? All EU operations to date have been launched under UN mandates, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, twice in the Congo, off the coast of Somalia and in Chad. Which of these missions should the EU not have launched? What request from the UN should we have ignored? Which of these missions has threatened our neutrality.

Wild assertions from those who oppose Lisbon do not count as evidence and if we are to have an honest debate, it needs to be grounded in the evidence of the role the European Union has played to date in support of international peace and security.

One only has to look at the success of the EUFOR mission in Chad to see the positive and proactive role that the EU can play in furtherance of the aims of the United Nations. The EU gives security and hope to some of the poorest people on the planet. Through our active engagement in European Security and Defence Policy we form and shape the Unions policy in relation to international relations, international development and crisis management operations.

The Lisbon Treaty does nothing to change the status quo in relation to peacekeeping and defence issues in general. It does not diminish or alter Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality. Nor does it enable the establishment on a European Army or harbour the possibility of conscription. The legal guarantees we have received put all these questions and concerns beyond doubt. As members of the Defence Forces, as mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, spouses and children of our proud Defence Forces gathered here, let me assure here today: Nothing in the Lisbon Treaty changes or threatens Ireland’s current defence policy or our values and traditions of neutrality and volunteerism.

Our neutrality is firmly in hands of the people of Ireland and that is where it will be staying, as is our right to decide for ourselves, where and when our Defence Forces can participate in overseas missions.

Today, you, the One Hundred and First battalion, take up the baton, to continue the traditions of the Defence Forces in bringing peace to the troubled conflict zones of the world continuing in the footsteps of generations of Irish peacekeepers. The performance of your duties overseas requires considerable sacrifices. I know the dangers you will face and the hardships you will be expected to endure as part of this particular mission.

The safety of all Irish personnel serving overseas is of the utmost importance to me, to the Government and to the military authorities. Defence Forces personnel serving on all overseas missions are equipped with the most modern and effective equipment available.

The Irish people, as I’m sure you are aware, fully support you in the difficult job you do supporting and protecting disadvantaged and vulnerable peoples in the conflict regions of the world. That is why the Government, despite the current difficult economic circumstances, continues to support and commit resources and personnel, wherever we can, to support peace, security and development in troublespots throughout the world.

The mission you now embark on with MINURCAT, the UN mission in Chad and the Central African Republic, has now been taken over by the UN. Despite the initial challenges faced by MINURCAT, the mission is building on the solid foundation laid by EUFOR, which has helped prepare the way to build future successes and contribute to the long-term beneficial impact of a safe and secure environment.

The presence of UN troops in Chad since last March continues to make a positive difference to the security environment. Troops serving with the mission have enabled the international humanitarian organisations and NGOs to continue to carry out their work safely.

I would like reiterate, not just my pride, but also the entire nation’s pride in the achievements and standards set by the Defence Forces on this new UN mission and similar missions. We may be a small nation, but we can stand tall when it comes to helping some of the most beleaguered people on this planet. Your bravery, enthusiasm and determination will help improve the lives of nearly half a million refugees in Chad.

I know that for 114 of you, this is your first tour of duty overseas. I know the strain and pressure the separation from family and loved ones places on you. I want to pay tribute to your family and friends, many of who are here today, for the unheralded role they play in Ireland’s contribution to peacekeeping missions abroad. The support they play is of vital importance to the success of all overseas missions.

Before concluding, I would like to pay tribute to the Deputy Chief of Staff Operations, Major General Pat O’Sullivan. Major General O’Sullivan will retire later this month having served nearly 44 years in the Defence Forces. On my own behalf, and on behalf of the Government and the whole of the Defence community, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your long and distinguished service, to express my best wishes to you and your family and to wish you, with Vera, a long, happy and healthy retirement.

In conclusion, I would like to wish the Battalion Commander, Lt Col Howard Berney, and all members of the 101st Infantry Battalion a safe trip and a successful mission. You are travelling to Chad with my best wishes and with those of the rest of the country.

Thank you very much.

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