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Speech by Minister Willie O’Dea on Ireland’s Future Participation in UN Peace Support Missions
McKee Barracks

Thursday February 9th 2006

Here in McKee Barracks, on December 14th last, we marked the 50th anniversary of Ireland’s membership of the United Nations.

On that day we rightly paid tribute to the members of the Defence Forces who have performed over 54,000 tours of duty on 58 UN peace support operations worldwide. From the Congo to Kosovo and from the Lebanon to Liberia, Ireland has shown its commitment to the United Nations as the cornerstone of our foreign policy.

I have come here to McKee Barracks today to reflect on how our Defence Forces can continue that proud record of commitment to the United Nations and how we, as a member of the EU, can contribute to making the United Nations an effective protector of the international rule of law.

Ireland has been, and remains, a staunch supporter of the Charter of the United Nations and of the primacy of the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security.

We take very seriously our obligation under the Charter to make armed forces, assistance and facilities, available to the Security Council, in order to contribute to international peace support operations

To this end Ireland has always sought to remain at the forefront of the development of multinational arrangements in relation to such operations, both within the UN and in international organisations including the EU and the OSCE. Our participation in the EU’s European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) is a continuation of our long and honourable tradition of support for multilateral arrangements in the maintenance of international peace and security.

ESDP is an integral element of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. The tasks to be carried out under ESDP (the so-called Petersberg Tasks) are defined in the Treaty as “humanitarian and rescue tasks, peacekeeping tasks and tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking.” Our participation in ESDP and in the Petersberg Tasks has been endorsed and supported directly by the Irish People in the referendum on the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and the subsequent referenda of the Amsterdam and Nice Treaties.

Our participation in ESDP is fully also in accordance with our traditional support for the UN and our obligations as members of the international community of States, to respond to crises, events and humanitarian disasters, wherever they may occur.

In the past two decades we have witnessed some of the worst atrocities in man’s history, most notably the carnage in Rwanda and Srebenica. The failure of the international community to act was not the failure of the United Nations as an institution. It was the collective failure of civilised nations to act together - rapidly, speedily and effectively, in defence of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable peoples. It is vitally important that we seek to ensure that such atrocities are never repeated. This requires coordinated multilateral action on the part of the international community including the EU.

The European Union today has the potential to play an increasing role in responding to such crises, in providing humanitarian relief and in supporting the maintenance of international peace and security in furtherance of the aims of the United Nations and the UN Charter.

Accepting this role is not just an EU ambition, it is an EU obligation.

We have, in the EU, a wide range of instruments at our disposal to support conflict prevention, crisis management and reconstruction. These include political, diplomatic, economic and security instruments. It is important that we bring all these instruments to bear in a coordinated and effective manner.

It is against this background that we must look at how we can most effectively contribute to the United Nations, including our potential participation in UN rapid response.

To this end I established the interdepartmental group to examine all issues relating to Ireland’s potential participation in an EU led rapid capability, or what is commonly called: Battlegroups.

The Group reported to me in November last year and, since then, its report has been considered by the Cabinet Sub Committee on European Affairs and, informally, by the Government.

On the basis of the study and informal discussions at Government level, I have authorised my officials to open exploratory discussions with potential partners on Ireland’s participation in a Battlegroup. To date 22 of the 25 EU Member States have made a commitment to a Battlegroup. We will seek, in cooperation with like-minded nations, to contribute to the development of the Battlegroup concept and, through this, to remain at the forefront of developments within the international community in supporting international peace support operations.

Like many others, I find the term “battlegroup” unfortunate. It has connotations that some will exploit to raise baseless fears. Nonetheless, it is the underlying concept we should focus on, not the word itself, which is a technical military term for a rapidly deployable force, usually of battalion size.

Our 420 troops in Liberia serve in a Quick Reaction Force, alongside Swedish troops. In some respect this is a type of in-theatre battlegroup.

The UN has long recognised the requirement for a rapid response capability. Battlegroups have the potential to deliver this capability which has rarely been available to the UN and which could stop potential unrest in many locations throughout the world from deteriorating into a major crisis.

Battlegroups could also provide a bridging or reinforcement operation pending the deployment of a larger more long-term UN blue hat operation.

I am satisfied that the development of EU Battlegroup concept provides another dimension and vehicle, within which, Ireland can contribute further to the United Nations and its international peace support operations.

I am reinforced in this view by the strong endorsement given by the UN to the development of the Battlegroup concept. In particular, the strong backing given by the United Nations’ Secretary General, Kofi Annan.

In his speech here at McKee Barracks and in his address to the Forum on Europe on 14 October, 2004, Kofi Annan specifically stressed how important strengthened EU capacities, in particular rapid deployment capabilities, are to the UN.

In March 2005, in his major report on UN reform entitled ‘In Larger Freedom’, Secretary-General Annan called on the international community to support the efforts by the European Union, the African Union and others to establish standby capacities as part of an interlocking system of peacekeeping capacities.

Despite this clear and concise endorsement of the United Nations Secretary General, there will be those who seek to confuse or blur the issue for narrow political purposes.

These units very clearly do not constitute a “European Army” in any shape or form. I am fully satisfied that our participation in the Battlegroup concept in no way weakens or undermines Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality. Nor does it give rise to any constitutional issues.

I have reiterated on many occasions, that our participation in peace support operations would continue to require UN authorisation. Participation in Battlegroups will not diminish this requirement in any way. The Triple Lock of UN, Government and Dáil approval will remain in place.

Participation in a Battlegroup imposes no obligations in relation to international or multilateral defence. Participation of our troops in individual missions will be decided by own national decision-making process, on a case-by-case basis. Any decision to participate in any mission, irrespective of our commitment or participation in a Battlegroup, will be a national sovereign decision.

Ireland’s basis for participation in missions undertaken by the EU is grounded in the legitimacy conveyed by the UN Security Council. This will not change.


As part of its study the interdepartmental group recommended changes to current legislation in light of the increasing range of operations where military forces can play a role and the need for increased interoperability and training so we can be more effective and more efficient once deployed.

It is important to the development of capabilities and the ongoing training of the defence forces that they can undertake training overseas and learn from best practice in other countries. While not conclusive, the study raised possible questions as to whether Defence Forces can be sent on such overseas training. This training is essential to the development and maintenance of high standards in the military and our existing peace support operations, where we work alongside many other armies.

I intend to introduce amending legislation to put this issue beyond doubt. Moreover, in light of developments since the Defence Act was amended in 1960 to provide for participation in UN peace support operations, for the avoidance of doubt, I also intend to update the wording in the Act to more closely reflect current practice in the formulation of UN Security Council resolutions endorsing Peace Support Operations. The Triple Lock requirement of UN, Government and Dáil approval will continue.

I also propose to provide for the participation by Defence Forces personnel in humanitarian operations in response to natural and man-made disasters such as the tsunami in South East Asia or the earthquake in Pakistan. Currently personnel must volunteer for service with a civil undertaking, in the same manner as any ordinary citizens and cannot be deployed at the behest of the Government.

These issues are important and must be addressed. The requirement for this amending legislation arises irrespective of our participation in Battlegroups. It is my hope, subject to the approval of the Oireachtas, to have the necessary legislation enacted before the summer recess.

Battlegroups are no panacea. They will not take over the role of larger forces deployed by the UN on peace support operations. They do, however, in specific circumstances, have the potential to stabilise a situation and create the conditions into which a more substantive force can be deployed.

The EU’s operation Artemis in the Congo clearly showed what can be achieved. There the EU stopped a potentially destabilising situation in Bunia from escalating into something more dangerous. This allowed the UN to expand its force and provide a deterrent effect.
Battlegroups are simply another vehicle within which Ireland can continue to play its role and contribute to effective multilateral action in support of international peace and security. They are one further way of expressing our commitment to the UN and its principles.

Participation in Battlegroups in no way undermines our commitment to traditional UN “Blue Hat” operations nor is it in any way an alternative or replacement for our continued active engagement in UN peacekeeping.

Later this year we will complete our participation in the UN mission in Liberia. However, this will only be for a short period so as we can regroup, re-equip and commence planning for our next UN mandated operation.

We remain fully committed to the UN and to the obligations that membership brings. We will respond to its call with any appropriate resources at our disposal, whether that is through missions led by the EU or NATO on its behalf, through Battlegroups or through traditional “Blue-Hat” operations.

As we recognised here on December 14th last, Ireland’s commitment to the United Nations has never been found wanting over our 50 years of membership.

Today, the UN is asking us to continue to make the expertise, and commitment of our Defence Forces available to them, including through the EU Battlegroups. Not to do so would be to depart from our traditional policy of full support to the UN.


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