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Speech made by Minister O'Dea at a Review of the 34 Infantry Group shortly heading for duty with UNIFIL in Lebanon

Thursday, October 19th 2006

Secretary-General, Deputy Chief of Staff, distinguished guests and members of the 34th Infantry Group; it is a great pleasure for me to be here this afternoon to review the personnel from the Southern Brigade who will shortly be travelling to Lebanon to participate in the UNIFIL peacekeeping mission.

Earlier this month, the Government authorised my request to despatch a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for service with UNIFIL, in accordance with its enhanced mandate as set out in UN Security Council Resolution 1701. On Wednesday last Dáil Éireann overwhelmingly endorsed this decision. This put in place the third element of the Triple Lock of UN authorisation, Government and Dáil approval.

Since the ceasefire of the 14th of August, the Government had been monitoring the situation in the area with a view to determining how best Ireland might contribute to the expanded UNIFIL II mission. As you will appreciate, given our other existing commitments, the Defence Forces have limited resources to contribute to this mission. However, in view of Ireland’s long association with the UNIFIL mission and the high regard that the Lebanese people have for our peacekeepers; we were very keen to play our part.

An option was identified whereby Ireland might partner Finnish troops and provide a protection detail to a planned Finnish Engineering Company. The Defence Forces have operated alongside Finnish troops in previous UN missions and are familiar with Finnish operations. Detailed talks took place between the Defence Forces and their Finnish counterparts including a joint reconnaissance mission to Lebanon and agreement on establishing a joint Finnish-Irish unit was reached.

You, the 158 men and women of the 34th Infantry Group, will form part of the joint Finnish-Irish unit. Together your unit will carry out tasks in support of UNIFIL and also some humanitarian work, including dealing with unexploded ordnance clearance.

While you in the Irish element will be primarily tasked with reconnaissance, security and protection duties associated with the engineering works, you will also be available to undertake other tasks at the request of the UNIFIL Force Commander. These could include protection details, escorts and security duties within their area of operations.

The current situation in Lebanon is that the ceasefire has been holding well and the final withdrawal of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon by the end of September is more or less completed. Following the reconnaissance mission and consultation with our Finnish colleagues, UNIFIL and other parties it is assessed that there is no direct threat to UNIFIL personnel.
However, the uncertain and volatile situation means that incidents, misunderstandings or wider political developments all have the potential to impact negatively on the peacekeeping operation, while the large quantity of unexploded ordnance also present a risk. Nonetheless, the ceasefire seems to be holding well and the Defence Forces have assessed the overall threat as “LOW - within a volatile situation”, not dissimilar to that encountered by Irish personnel on other peace support missions.

The Chief of Staff has assured me that, given the Defence Forces’ equipment, training and experience, the UNIFIL mission is within the capability of our Defence Forces and that they can play a meaningful role in helping to restore normality to south Lebanon.

We are returning to Lebanon in unfortunate circumstances and against the backdrop of massive destruction of the infrastructure and of the communities whom we served for over 23 years from 1978 to 2001. However, there is a real and substantive role for the Defence Forces in supporting the rebuilding of Lebanon and I believe that you will fulfil that role with the same commitment, courage and humanity, as you always have done.

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 conventional military skills of the soldier. Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s the personnel of successive UNIFIL battalions 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 and, indeed, to enhance it.

Ireland’s participation in UNIFIL is an illustration of the very positive and practical difference that small countries like Ireland can make in the world's trouble spots by supporting the United Nations. You have all worked and trained hard to prepare yourself for duty with UNIFIL and I know that many of you have served in the Lebanon before. Hopefully this will make your task easier.

As you leave to write a new chapter in the annals of what has been a very distinguished and successful peacekeeping mission by our troops, we should remember the high price that has been paid by members of our defence forces while on service in Lebanon. Forty-seven (47) members of the Defence Forces gave their lives in the attempt to bring peace and stability to that volatile region of the world. Today, we remember their sacrifice.

The support of your families is of vital importance to the success of UNIFIL missions and for that reason I am delighted to see so many of your families and friends here today. The support of loved ones plays a crucial part in ensuring the success of these missions and I would like to pay tribute to the families of our troops for the unheralded role that you play in Ireland’s contribution to peacekeeping missions abroad.

Finally, I would like to wish you, the members of 34th Infantry Group and your commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Billy Harrington, a safe and successful tour of duty.

Thank you very much

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