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Statement by the Minister for Defence, Mr. Willie O’Dea, T.D., on the Motion seeking the approval of Dáil Éireann for the deployment of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for service with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL)

Wednesday, October 11th 2006

I would like to thank the House for agreeing to take this motion at short notice.

I propose to introduce the motion and provide some brief information on the reason the Government decided to respond positively to the United Nations and to provide a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

Decision of the Government in relation to UNIFIL
On 3 October, 2006, the Government authorised me, as Minister for Defence,

· to despatch a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force, for a period of one year, for service with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), established on 19 March,1978 under UN Security Council Resolutions 425 (1978) and 426 (1978), in accordance with its enhanced/additional mandate as set out in UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (2006) of 11 August, 2006;

· to move a resolution in Dáil Éireann approving the despatch of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for service with UNIFIL in accordance with its enhanced/additional mandate as set out in UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (2006) of 11 August, 2006;

The Government further authorised me to

· to make appropriate budgetary provision in consultation with the Minister for Finance to fund the contingent; and

· for the Minister for Defence to make preparations for the selection, training and equipping of a further contingent of the Permanent Defence Force to provide for the possibility of Ireland’s continuing participation in UNIFIL beyond the one year period, provided that the Security Council renews the mandate of UNIFIL and subject to any further decisions which the Government may take as to continued participation in the Force.

Pursuant to this authority, the following motion has been placed on the Order Paper for Dáil Éireann:

"That Dáil Éireann approves the despatch, pursuant to section 2 of the Defence (Amendment)(No. 2) Act, 1960, as applied by the Defence (Amendment) Act, 2006, of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for service with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), established on 19 March,1978 under UN Security Council Resolutions 425 (1978) and 426 (1978) and in accordance with its additional enhanced mandate as set out in UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (2006) of 11 August, 2006."

In commending this motion to you, I would like to briefly outline the Defence Forces participation in UNIFIL to date and the background to Ireland’s response to the United Nations to provide a contingent.

UNIFIL was originally established in March 1978, following the invasion of Lebanon by Israel, with a mandate "to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli Forces, to restore international peace and security and to assist the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area". The Secretary General of the United Nations concluded that, as of 16 June, 2000, Israel had withdrawn its forces from Lebanon in accordance with resolution 425 (1978), thus partially fulfilling UNIFIL’s original mandate. Since then, UNIFIL has continued to operate in Southern Lebanon. The mission continued to focus on the remaining part of its mandate: the restoration of peace and security in the region, through observing, monitoring and reporting on developments in its area of operation, liaising with the parties, with a view to correcting violations along the line of withdrawal, the so-called Blue Line, and preventing the escalation of incidents.

On 12 July, 2006, the Hezbollah militia launched a raid into Israel, killing a number of soldiers and abducting two. Israel’s military response against Hezbollah rapidly escalated into a ground attack across the border into southern Lebanon, as well as air strikes on targets throughout Lebanon, including Hezbollah controlled areas of south Beirut, and the destruction of transport and energy infrastructure. Israeli towns and cities were subject to large-scale attack by Hezbollah rockets. Over 1,000 Lebanese civilians are estimated to have been killed and hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the border forced to flee the conflict zone.

In response to the crisis, the UN Security Council decided, under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, to extend the mandate of UNIFIL to the end of August, 2007, and to increase its troop strength from approx 2,000 troops to a maximum of 15,000. In addition to carrying out its original mandate under Council resolutions 425 and 426, UNIFIL will also monitor the cessation of hostilities, accompany and support the Lebanese armed forces as they deploy throughout the south of Lebanon; and extend its assistance to help ensure humanitarian access to civilian populations and the voluntary and safe return of displaced persons. The nature of the expanded UNIFIL mandate is such that its role is to be considerably more robust than it was prior to the adoption of Resolution 1701, while still operating under Chapter VI of the UN Charter.

Current situation in Lebanon
The ceasefire, which took effect on 14 August, 2006, has been holding well with only a small number of incidents reported in the days immediately following the official cessation of hostilities. The final withdrawal of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon, was more or less completed on the night of 30 September, 2006, in accordance with a general agreement that Israel would leave South Lebanon by the end of September and once UNIFIL reached 5000 troops. Israeli troops are still present in the town of Ghajar, which straddles the border. It is hoped that the withdrawal of all Israeli troops from the Lebanese portion of Ghajar can be confirmed in the next few days.

The first phase in the three stage deployment of UNIFIL II has been successfully completed, with the deployment of some 5,000 international troops in Southern Lebanon, alongside units of the Lebanese Army. Full deployment is on course for early November, when UNIFIL will have a strength of 15,000 personnel deployed.

Ireland’s participation in UNIFIL to date
Ireland has participated in UNIFIL since 1978. Between May 1978 and November 2001, the Defence Forces had an infantry battalion (approx. strength 540 personnel) in Lebanon, together with approximately 100 personnel in UNIFIL Headquarters and the Force Mobile Reserve. The battalion’s duties were mainly providing a presence in the area, by operating patrols, checkpoints and manning observation posts. The presence of the Irish battalion in South Lebanon undoubtedly helped to restore a certain normality to the area, as evidenced by the increase in population and economic activity in the region over the course of its deployment.

Following the withdrawal of the Irish battalion in November 2001, a small number of Defence Forces personnel continued to serve at the Force Headquarters in Naqoura. Five (5) personnel are currently deployed at the Force Headquarters.

Following on from the ceasefire of 14 August, the Government has been monitoring the situation with a view to determining how best Ireland might contribute to the expanded UNIFIL II mission. As the Deputies will appreciate, given our other existing commitments, the Defence Forces have limited resources to contribute to this mission. Against this background, 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 various UN missions and are familiar with Finnish operations. In addition, Finland is also one of the participants in the Nordic Battlegroup.

Detailed discussions have taken place between the Defence Forces and their Finnish counterparts including a joint reconnaissance mission to Lebanon. A Defence Forces team also travelled to Finland to finalise details of a possible joint contribution. The current plan envisages the deployment of a Finnish engineering unit with an Irish protection detail in the Eastern Sector area of Lebanon.

Defence Forces future participation in UNIFIL
It is planned to deploy a contingent consisting of approximately 150 personnel as part of the joint Finnish-Irish unit. The existing five (5) Defence Forces personnel will continue to be deployed at the UNIFIL Force Headquarters. At the request of the UN, it is also proposed that the Irish officer currently deployed as Senior Liaison Officer in UNIFIL HQ, would take up a new appointment at a Coordination and Planning Cell, to be established within UNIFIL in Beirut, to ensure effective interaction with the Lebanese authorities.

The Finnish/Irish engineering unit will carry out tasks in support of UNIFIL and also some humanitarian work, including dealing with unexploded ordnance clearance. While the Irish element will be tasked primarily for reconnaissance, security and protection duties associated with the engineering works, it 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.

Deployment dates/Duration of deployment
Deployment to UNIFIL is planned to take place on 30/31 October 2006. Initial deployment will be for 1 year subject to renewal of the mandate and a satisfactory review of the mission at that time. In line with standing policy that the duration of any deployment should be set at the outset of a mission, it is considered that Defence Forces involvement in UNIFIL should not exceed a maximum of 2 to 3 years in duration.

Risk Assessment
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. That said, 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 cluster-bomblets and other unexploded ordnance also present a risk. However, 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. Given the Defence Forces equipment, training and experience, the Chief of Staff has advised me that the mission is within the capability of Defence Forces personnel and that they can play a meaningful role.

Legal Aspects
While Dáil Éireann previously approved the despatch of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for service with UNIFIL under UN Security Council Resolutions 425 (1978) and 426 (1978), the Attorney General has advised that a further Dáil resolution is now required, given the expanded role of UNIFIL under UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Hence the current resolution before the House.

Financial Aspects
It is estimated that the additional cost to the Defence Vote (transportation, start up and sustainment costs, overseas allowances) will amount to some €10.2m over the initial 12 month period to 31 October, 2007. As UNIFIL is a UN-led operation, certain troop and equipment costs incurred by Ireland will be reimbursed. It is estimated that UN reimbursement of costs to the Exchequer will amount to some €3m over a 12 month period. The net additional cost to the Defence Vote will, therefore, amount to some €3.8m in 2006 and € 3.4m in 2007.

We return to Lebanon in unfortunate circumstances and against the backdrop of massive destruction of infrastructure and of the communities whom we served for over 23 years from 1978 to 2001. However, I am confident that there is a real and substantive role for the Defence Forces in supporting the rebuilding of Lebanon and that we will play that role with the same courage and commitment as heretofore.

I commend the motion to the House.

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