Speech by An Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, T.D.
Review of the last battalion to depart for service with UNIFIL
Monday, 9th April 2001 at 4.30pm.
Minister for Defence, Michael Smith, T.D.;
Secretary General, David O'Callaghan
Deputy Chief of Staff, Major General Carl Dodd;
General Officer Commanding, Brigadier General David Taylor; Distinguished guests;
Ladies and gentlemen.
Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a gabháil don Aire agus díbhse go léir as an fáilte a chur sibh romhaim inniu.
Thank you for your warm welcome. It is always a pleasure to come to Tipperary but it is a special honour to be here today to review the 89th Infantry Battalion and the 44th Irish Component, UNIFIL before you leave shortly for United Nations service in South Lebanon.
This is an historic day because it marks the last review of an Irish battalion before it leaves for United Nations service in South Lebanon. The 89th Infantry Battalion stands in a proud line of Irish men and women who have served Ireland and the United Nations in Lebanon for over two decades. During this time, the Irish Defence forces have upheld the UN mandate in Lebanon and made a huge difference to the success of that mission. This is a cause of great pride to me as Taoiseach and to Irish people everywhere. I know that it is a source of enduring good will between Irish people and the people of the Lebanon. And I know that we can take pride that we have helped, and are helping, to keep the peace in a troubled area of the world.
As you leave to crown what has been a very distinguished and successful chapter in Ireland's record of UN service, I think our first duty is to remember the high price that has been paid by men and women of the defence forces on active service for the United Nations. Eighty-two members of the Defence Forces have lost their lives on peacekeeping duties and forty four lives were lost on active duty in Lebanon. This is the highest price a country can be called on to pay in defence of peace and justice, and it is a price that has been paid courageously, and with great honour, by the Irish defence forces.
It is fitting then, that the plaque which honours our fallen comrades and loved ones which is currently in Camp Shamrock, will be repatriated following our final withdrawal. There are those who might suggest that it should remain in Lebanon, but I feel it is important for new recruits and young people to have the memorial here, in Ireland, as a permanent tribute to the sacrifice made by these fine Irish soldiers for peace and human rights.
For a small country, our Defence Forces have earned an unrivaled reputation as peacekeepers in South Lebanon, Congo, Cyprus, East Timor, Kosovo and other places of conflict around the world. In South Lebanon, you have made a very real contribution to the safety of the people and the survival of local communities. Your presence has helped local people maintain as normal a life as possible, in what must have been a tense and dangerous place. During my visit to Lebanon a little over two years ago, I was lucky enough to witness at first hand the great efforts being made by our soldiers and the good relations they had with local people. It was proof to me once again, that we have a part to play and that we can make a positive difference, in the world's troublespots.
The UNIFIL mission has been a particularly difficult one, and at last, there is light at the end of what has sometimes been a very dark tunnel. Two of the three objectives of the work which UNIFIL were asked to do have now been done. The withdrawal of the Israeli Forces has been confirmed and the Lebanese authorities have been helped to return to the area vacated by the Israelis. The focus of UNIFIL is now on the remaining part of the mandate, which is to restore international peace and security and to prevent any further violence. An observer mission will most likely carry out these duties, and I am sure that while this is the last Irish battalion to serve in Lebanon, Irish personnel will continue to be involved in the UN mission. There are outstanding issues which still have to be resolved and I pray that they can be solved in a diplomatic and timely manner, so that the people of Lebanon can look forward with confidence to a peaceful future and you can return home safely to your families.
Late last year, Ireland was given the singular honour of being elected to the United Nations Security Council for a two year term. We faced tough opposition for this honour, and I know that Ireland's distinctive role in UN peacekeeping throughout the world was one of the cornerstones of our campaign and one of the reasons for our success.
Our experience in the Lebanon with the United Nations, highlights the role Ireland can play in the international community to support peace and stability. Next month, Irish people will be asked once again to reaffirm their support for our role in an enlarged Europe. I ask for the people to vote yes in that referendum and to reaffirm their support for a strong and prosperous Europe.
I believe that Irish people are fully aware of the overwhelmingly positive benefits that are associated with our membership of the Union. The economic benefits, in terms of increased jobs, growth and exports, have benefited every region in the country. A single market of 350 million people, soon to expand to over 500 million when enlargement happens, is of enormous importance to an open trading economy like ours.
There are people who will argue that the Nice Treaty represents a step towards a single European army. This is not true. The security and defence aspects of the Treaty are minor technical details which allow the EU to live up to its responsibilities and to develop its capacity to undertake humanitarian tasks. As I have said repeatedly, it is solely a sovereign decision as to what, if any, missions Ireland will take part in, and if Ireland chooses to do so, it will only be with UN authorization.
Ireland has nothing to fear, and much to gain, from the Treaty of Nice. We in Ireland have demonstrated, over the past three decades, that we are well able to adapt to and take advantage of the benefits and opportunities which full participation in the Union has offered us. I believe that Irish people want the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to have the same opportunities we had. This makes sense for Europe. It also makes good sense for Ireland.
The success of the Government's policy of continuous recruitment to the Defence Forces is very evident here today, with 122 soldiers about to embark on their first overseas mission. The average age of the Irish staff at UNIFIL HQ is 37 and for the Battalion itself is 27. Minister Smith and the Chief of Staff launched this year's recruitment campaign for 800 recruits last week and about 150 have enlisted so far this year. A constant intake of young people has a very positive effect on all organisations and none more so than the Defence Forces.
I am proud to have presided over a Government, that has shown its willingness to continue the process of major investment in equipment and infrastructure for the Defence Forces, which means that more money than ever before is being made available for those purposes. This commitment was emphasised when the White Paper on Defence was approved by Government early last year. The White Paper sets out a modernisation strategy for the Defence Forces as a whole and will release up to £250 million over the next 10 years to be spent on modernising equipment and infrastructure. New armoured personnel carriers, helicopters and ships are just some of the items that will be coming on stream. The standard of accommodation in barracks is improving every year. Between 1999 and 2003 more than £100 million will have been spent on new buildings and on upgrading existing buildings throughout the Defence Forces. The benefits will reach every aspect of military life.
I want to refer briefly to the Foot and Mouth disease and thank everyone who is working hard to ensure that it does not spread throughout the country. The Defence Forces, together with Department of Agriculture officials, the Garda Síochána, Civil Defence and responsible farmers, have made enormous efforts over the past few weeks. Members of the Defence Forces have been rendering assistance to the Civil Authorities by operating additional checkpoints along the border area with members of the Garda Síochána and they are also assisting in Dublin Port. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the important contribution of the Defence Forces to the national effort in trying to curb the spread of Foot and Mouth disease.
I know that you have all worked and trained hard to prepare yourselves for duty with the 89th Battalion in Lebanon, and you will all benefit from the overseas service. Those of you who have previous service in Lebanon will know what to expect. Experience, mixed with the exuberance of youth, is what gives Irish UNIFIL battalions the balance necessary to discharge their function in an even handed way that is respected, both by other military contingents, and by the local population in the area.
Of course, the support of your families is of vital importance to the success of UNIFIL missions and for that reason I am delighted to see here today so many families and friends of the troops preparing for departure. Support of your loved ones during their six month tour of duty, is crucial to ensuring the success of these missions, and I pay tribute to you for your unwavering, and often unrecognised role in Ireland's contribution to UNIFIL.
Finally, I would like to wish the 89th Infantry Battalion here today under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Hegarty, a safe and successful tour of duty. Thank you. ENDS