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Speech by the Minister for Defence, Mr. Willie O' Dea, T.D., at the opening of Custume House, Athlone

Thursday, November 2nd 2006

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen and members of Óglaigh Náisiúnta na hÉireann Teoranta, it is a great pleasure to have been invited to officially open ONET’s (Óglaigh Náisiúnta na hÉireann Teoranta’s) new premises at Custume House, Athlone this afternoon.

One of the main objectives of ONET is to ensure the welfare of ex-servicemen and women by providing accommodation to homeless, elderly or disabled members in need of such shelter and other assistance that may be required. Today’s ceremony marks the end of a three-year initiative that has seen the organisation spend over €1,0000,000 on the provision of housing for ex-servicemen in Ireland. I am delighted, as Minister for Defence, to welcome this impressive new addition to ONET’s property portfolio.

Between them, ONET’s three properties in Dublin, Cork and, most recently, Athlone, are able to provide warm comfortable and secure accommodation for over forty people who otherwise would have nowhere to live. In the fifty-six years since its foundation, ONET has grown from strength to strength and today it has a total of fifty Branches including two in England. Down through the years, the Organisation’s relations with Ministers for Defence, the General Staff and the Department have always been cordial.

So warm has the relationship been, in fact, that earlier this year a deputation from the Organisation succeeded in persuading me that it deserved a special, one-off grant to help it with some new developments it planned to set in motion. The deputation argued its case persuasively. I decided that, in recognition of the long tradition and the invaluable involvement of serving and former members of the Defence Forces in international peacekeeping, I would award an exceptional grant of €50,000 from the Department to both ONET and IUNVA. These contributions are to mark the 50th anniversary of Ireland’s membership of the United Nations as well as almost 50 years of Defence Forces participation in UN peacekeeping. I know that both of these organisations will put this welcome funding to good use.

Turning now to Custume House, I am delighted that, almost a decade after it was first identified by the Local ONET Committee as a suitable premises for accommodating ex-soldiers, the years of planning and fund-raising have finally come to fruition. In total ONET has spent almost €400,000 on the purchase and refurbishment of Custume House and it now accommodates six ex-servicemen, with a seventh expected to join his comrades shortly. I understand that ONET sourced all of the labour, furniture, and fixtures and fittings locally and the people of Athlone deserve great credit for their generous support of this project.

ONET offers a range of social, cultural and sporting activities to its members in order to engender and nurture the spirit of comradeship between serving and retired members of the services. Information is provided in the area of pensions, social welfare benefits and other entitlements, and the Organisation is responsible for representing military pensioners. These activities indicate a vibrant organisation intent on assisting, serving and caring for its members and ONET deserves high praise for the important and valuable services that it provides.

I know that the Organisation has plans to establish similar Homes in other locations and I wish it well with these ambitious plans. Your track record to date proves that ONET has the drive, the commitment and the capability to succeed at any project that it adopts.

In conclusion, I would like to pay tribute to Mr. Joe Lynch. This is his last event as CEO of ONET after a very successful three-year term. I look forward to working with his successor, Oliver O’Connor. I want to extend my best wishes to him and to the Directors and all of the members of your excellent Organisation.

Thank you very much.

Speech by the Minister for Defence, Mr. Willie O' Dea, T.D., at the review of 96th Infantry Battalion due to leave Ireland shortly for peacekeeping duty with UNMIL

Thursday, November 2nd 2006

Chief of Staff, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, and members of the 96th Infantry Battalion, it is a great pleasure for me to be here this afternoon to review the personnel from the Western Brigade who will shortly be travelling to Liberia to participate in what is almost definitely the final Irish Infantry Battalion to participate in the UNMIL peacekeeping mission.

Over the past three years, Ireland has contributed, in a substantive way, to bringing stability to a key region of Africa. We have worked to bring peace, and create respect for human rights and the rule of law and have helped to ensure the re-establishment of civil society in the region. Sadly, our peacekeeping efforts in Liberia were not without cost; tragically, Sgt. Derek Mooney died in a road accident in Liberia during the first month of the UNMIL mission. It is especially appropriate today that we remember Sgt. Mooney and his 84 Defence Force comrades who have given up their lives in the cause of peace.

Earlier this year I took the opportunity to visit to Liberia where I met with many of your comrades in the 94th Battalion. The objective of my visit was to see at first hand the work of our Defence Forces Personnel and to convey to them, on behalf of the Government and the people of Ireland, the deep appreciation felt regarding the outstanding manner in which they perform their duties in this challenging mission.

As you probably know, Ireland was due to complete its participation in UNMIL in November 2006. However, earlier this year, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, requested Ireland to consider postponing the withdrawal of its troops from UNMIL for a period of at least six months in order to give the UN time to find a suitable replacement for the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) capability.

Following a detailed review of the request, the Government was pleased to be able to respond positively to Mr. Annan, so, the 96th Infantry Battalion will be the final Irish rotation in Liberia. The Swedish contingent, which has partnered Ireland in Liberia is withdrawing this month and will be replaced by troops from Pakistan who will also take over from our troops, next May.

Of course, Ireland remains committed to Peace Support Operations in Africa under a UN flag. As well as our involvement with UNMIL, we are currently playing our part in UN-approved missions in Western Sahara, Sudan, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Initially, the Irish Battalion in UNMIL mainly operated in a path-finding and reconnaissance role, supporting the deployment of other UN contingents. It has also conducted long-range patrols beyond Monrovia and well into the interior of Liberia, showing a UN presence, deterring lawlessness and protecting local populations. The contingent also undertakes regular daily patrols within the Monrovia area. The Irish Battalion is available to the Force Commander to provide support and a rapid response capability in the event of a breakdown in law and order or further conflict. Additionally, the QRF conducted patrols in support of the National Elections that took place in Liberia last November.

Through their time in Liberia, our Defence Forces have carried out these tasks with the very high level of professionalism and competence that we have come to expect of them.

Turning for a moment from international to domestic military matters: earlier this year I spoke of two areas in which I wanted to see more progress being made. One of these was encouraging more women to join the Defence Forces and I have spoken on a number of occasions recently about what we are doing to achieve this. The other was my wish to see more being done to remove the perception of a “glass ceiling” to promotion in the army. Every private soldier joining the army should have a reasonable expectation of being promoted to senior officer level by virtue of his ability and character.

I am pleased to report that progress is being made here too. The revised cadetship competition is now seen as the primary means of commissioning from the ranks. The competition has been revised to increase the maximum entry age to 28 and to award bonus marks to candidates with previous experience in the Permanent or Reserve Defence Force. Results for the 2006 cadetship competition were encouraging with 13% of PDF and 8% of RDF applicants being successful in obtaining cadetships as against 4% of “civilian” candidates

Consultations with the representative associations are ongoing regarding the conditions for a Commissioning From the Ranks competition, which it is intended to hold in the coming months. This competition will provide existing non-commissioned officers with an opportunity to compete for entry on a potential Officers Course and ultimately, a commission. The outcome of this competition will inform my approach to this important issue into the future. This is a welcome and progressive development and it is a further indicator of how the Defence Forces are continuing to modernise.

The safety of Irish personnel serving overseas is always of paramount concern to us. All Defence Forces personnel serving on overseas missions are highly trained and equipped with the most modern and effective equipment available. But we are mindful of the dangers you may face in your role as peacekeepers. You will be in all our thoughts and prayers throughout your tour of duty in Liberia.

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. As all of you will know family support is of vital importance to the success of all overseas missions. The encouragement, support and loyalty of your family and friends is vital in enabling you to serve abroad and thereby help protect and save the lives of countless numbers of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on our planet.

On a personal note, I want to take this opportunity to mention again the magnificent display by the Defence Forces at the Easter Parade. I received a great deal of positive feedback both from members of the public and from my Government colleagues. They were delighted to see the modern Defence Forces given an opportunity to parade through our capital city. I am sure that a number of you here today participated and I hope that any disruption to your family caused by your participation was alleviated to some extent by the pride they must have felt in seeing the enthusiastic reception given to you on the day. The Defence Forces have always served their country in an outstanding fashion, both at home and overseas, and it was heart-warming to see the warm response and great praise that you received that day from your fellow countrymen.

In conclusion, I would like to wish the Contingent Commander, Lt. Col. Mick Kennedy and all of the members of the 96th Infantry Battalion a safe trip and a peaceful and successful mission in Liberia.

Thank you very much.

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