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Speech by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence,
Mr. Alan Shatter, T.D.,
at the review of the 44th Infantry Group - leaving Ireland shortly for Peacekeeping Duty with UNDOF in Syria
Stephens Barracks, Kilkenny, 10 March 2014.
Lord Mayor Brett, Deputies, Councillors, Secretary General, Chief of Staff, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen; I’m delighted to be here in Stephens Barracks to review personnel of the 44th Infantry Group, who will travel to Syria later this month for service with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).
For over half a century now, our Defence Forces have played a vital role as peacekeepers throughout the world. We have an honourable tradition of supporting the United Nations in the cause of peace and security. You the men and women of the 44th Infantry Group are the latest to continue this long and proud tradition.
Ireland’s substantial contribution to international peace support operations depends on the ongoing commitment of Defence Forces personnel to serve overseas in often difficult and dangerous circumstances. Your commitment, service and loyalty to the traditions of the Defence Forces on overseas service contribute extensively to the high regard in which Ireland is held throughout the world.
The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was established on 31 May 1974 by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 350 (1974). The force was established following the agreed disengagement of the Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights in May 1974 following the Yom Kippur war. Since 1974, the mandate of UNDOF has been renewed every six months, most recently on 18 December 2013.
UNDOF supervises the implementation of the disengagement agreement, maintaining an area of separation between the Israeli and Syrian forces which is over 75 kilometres long.
UNDOF is assisted by 80 military observers from the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation’s (UNTSO) Observer Group Golan, which currently includes seven (7) Irish Officers. In March 2013, I had the opportunity of visiting the Golan Heights and meeting with Irish Defence Forces personnel serving as unarmed Military Observers with UNTSO.
The escalation of the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic has affected the UNDOF area of operations significantly in the past year or so. UNDOF remains an important element in ensuring stability on the Golan and in the region. Last year, at the request of the United Nations, and following Government and Dáil approval, the deployment of the 43rd Infantry Group to UNDOF on the Golan Heights was successfully completed on 28 September 2013. The continued support of troop contributing countries such as Ireland to the UNDOF mission is vital to allow the mission to continue the implementation of its mandate in a safe and secure manner. Helping to maintain the 40 year old ceasefire between Israel and Syria represents an important contribution to preventing further instability in the region.
To assist in this task and given the evolving security situation in the UNDOF area of operation, the Security Council has adjusted the posture and operations of the mission, including enhancing the self-defence capabilities of UNDOF, increasing the force strength to the maximum of 1,250 and improving its self-defence equipment.
When you deploy to Syria, like your predecessors you will be tasked primarily to serve as the Force Mobile Reserve within the UNDOF Area of Responsibility. Your role will include the provision of a Quick Reaction Force which will be on standby to assist with on-going operations within the UNDOF Area of Responsibility. You will also be tasked with carrying out patrols and convoy escorts as necessary.
I understand that soldiers from seventeen (17) counties around Ireland are represented in the 44th Infantry Group. For forty-three (43) of you this is your first tour of duty overseas. Other members of the Battalion, of course, have had previous service overseas and have accumulated two hundred and seventy-four (274) tours of duty with missions in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Balkans. This is a proud day for all of you and indeed your families, who can draw comfort in your absence from the knowledge that you are serving your country and the greater international community.
To prepare for your deployment to the UNDOF mission, you have all completed a rigorous training programme which is updated on an ongoing basis. While this training has been demanding nonetheless, it is necessary in order to ensure that all of you are well prepared to meet the demands and to discharge your duties effectively in the mission area in the Golan Heights.
The Defence Forces authorities have assured me that appropriate force protection assets and capabilities are being deployed to operate in the current and future environment in the Golan Heights. However, that is not to underestimate the dangers you may face in your role as peacekeepers as was evidenced by a number of incidents over recent months that took place on the Golan Heights in Syria.
I must say that the decision by Government to send troops overseas is not taken lightly. Your safety and the safety of all Irish Defence Forces personnel serving on all overseas missions is always a concern to me, my Government colleagues and to the military authorities. Our ability to protect the health and safety of our personnel is of paramount concern when considering any mission. While no absolute guarantees can be given with regard to the safety of troops serving in missions, it is the policy and practice to ensure that Defence Forces personnel serving overseas are appropriately trained and equipped with the most modern and effective equipment to carry out their mission, as well as providing the required force protection specific to the mission. In addition, ongoing threat assessments are carried out in mission areas and we continually review both personal equipment and force assets, to ensure that Defence Forces personnel are appropriately equipped to fulfil their roles. Unfortunately, no mission is without danger, but I am satisfied that all appropriate security measures are in place to ensure the safety of all Defence Forces personnel serving with UNDOF and UNIFIL.
The catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Syria is a growing threat to regional stability and a major human tragedy. It is estimated that over 130,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war and there are over 2 million refugees from Syria in neighbouring countries. We also know that major difficulties have been experienced in providing food and medical aid to civilians in Syria trapped in the conflict.
Ireland is strongly committed to continuing support to both Syria and its neighbouring countries in light of the continuing urgent needs and deteriorating humanitarian situation. In 2013, Ireland provided €11.3m in humanitarian assistance and €2.65 million in 2012. Ireland’s additional pledge of €12 million brings our overall commitment from 2011 to 2014 to over €26m. Funds have been provided to a range of established UN partners as well as to Irish Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).
In addition, arrangements have been made to receive in this State some refugees from Syria and, as Minister for Justice, I am presently developing some additional such arrangements.
When your deployment is completed later this month, approximately 130 members of the Permanent Defence Force will be serving in the Golan Heights. The total number of Defence Forces personnel serving overseas at that stage will amount to 425 across 14 missions.
Overseas service has become a core activity of the Defence Forces. Ireland's record of service in UN authorised peace support operations is second to none. We have made, and continue to make, a significant contribution to such operations throughout the world.
Service with the United Nations demands a wide variety of skills and personal qualities. Patience and diplomacy have become as important, and as necessary as the required professional military skills of the soldier. Throughout the years, Defence Forces personnel that have served with the numerous UN, EU and NATO led missions have worked hard to build up an outstanding reputation as committed, conscientious, professional and humane peacekeepers. I know that you will all work hard to maintain Ireland’s reputation in this regard and, indeed, to enhance it.
I am delighted to see so many of your families and friends here today to bid you farewell and wish you a safe return home. The support and encouragement of your family and friends is of vital importance to the success of all overseas missions. I thank them for that support, which enables you to serve abroad and thereby help to protect and save the lives of countless numbers of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.
Finally, I want to wish each and every member of the 44th Infantry Group, under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Paul Kennedy, a safe and successful mission. You will be in our thoughts throughout the duration of your tour of duty. You are travelling to Syria with my best wishes and with those of the rest of the nation.
Thank you very much.
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