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Custume Barracks, Athlone 25th September 2008

Secretary General, Deputy Chief of Staff, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen I’m delighted to be here in Athlone this afternoon to review the 39th Infantry Group who will shortly be travelling to Kosovo.

Occasions such as this one remind us of the great pride we can all take in all that the Irish Defence Forces have done and continue to do as peacekeepers throughout the world. This is a year of celebration for the Defence Forces commemorating as it does 50 years of Irish peacekeeping with the United Nations.

During the course of those 50 years, the Irish Defence Forces have made a real and lasting contribution to the lives of the local communities, wherever they have served around the world in the cause of peace. You the men and women of the 39th Infantry Group are the latest to serve in this long and honourable tradition. You will be deploying to Kosovo at a significant time in its history, having declared independence in February of this year.

As you know KFOR was established in June 1999 to support the maintenance of civil law and order within Kosovo, so that a safe and secure environment could develop in which all citizens, irrespective of their ethnic origins, can live in peace while democracy and civil society gain strength. The KFOR mission, in which Ireland has participated since August 1999, has restored confidence in Kosovo.

We are rightly proud of the role that we have played in helping the people of Kosovo to move from war, misery and fear towards a stable, secure and peaceful future. However, there is still some work to do and, subject to ongoing assessments of the situation on the ground, Ireland will maintain a presence in KFOR for some time yet.

Ireland is also supporting the new European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) Rule of Law mission to Kosovo, EULEX Kosovo, which was launched on 16 February 2008. Ireland is contributing eight members of an Garda Síochana and one civil servant from my Department to the mission. The objective of this mission is to support the Kosovo authorities by monitoring, mentoring and advising on all areas related to the rule of law, in particular in the police, judiciary, customs and correctional services. EULEX will in the near future assume responsibilities from the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), to which Ireland currently contributes four Defence Forces personnel.

I have visited our troops in Kosovo a number of times, most recently last April. On each occasion I have seen the fine work that our personnel are doing on the ground to help bring stability and progress to Kosovo. It is important for me to see at firsthand the vital work you do and again I intend to visit you on the ground in Kosovo in the near future.

On 31 July 2008, Ireland successfully completed a 12-month period as Lead Nation in the KFOR Multinational Task Force Centre based around Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, under the leadership of Brigadier General Gerry Hegarty.

This was a new development for the Defence Forces as the Defence Forces had never before commanded a brigade size force in a multinational PfP-led peace support operation. Undertaking this new responsibility has contributed significantly to the development of the Irish Defence Forces, not only improving our capabilities but also heightening our profile as a professional and well-organised force within the international peacekeeping community.
Performing your duties overseas can require considerable sacrifices. I know the dangers you will face and the hardships you will be expected to endure as part of your mission. The safety of all Irish personnel serving overseas is always of paramount concern to me and to the military authorities.

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. The military authorities have assured me 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. You will be in our thoughts and prayers throughout the duration of your tour of duty.

I am also very mindful of the great sacrifices that each one of you is making. For some of you this is your first tour of duty overseas. I know the strain and pressure that separation from family and loved ones places on you. The support your family, friends and loved ones provide is a crucial component in the success of these missions. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all of your families and friends, many of whom are here today, for the important but unsung role they play in Ireland’s contribution to peacekeeping missions abroad.

In conclusion, I would like to wish the Contingent Commander, Lt Col Eamon Caulfield, and all members of the 39th Infantry Group a safe trip and a successful mission. You are travelling to Kosovo with my best wishes and with those of the rest of the country.

Thank you very much.

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