SPEECH BY THE MINISTER FOR DEFENCE, MR. MICHAEL SMITH, T.D.,
AT THE REVIEW OF THE 8th IRISH COMPANY WHICH WILL SHORTLY DEPART FOR SERVICE WITH UNTAET IN EAST TIMOR
Spanish Arch, Galway 25 January 2002
Secretary General at the Department of Defence, Deputy Chief of Staff (Support), ladies and gentlemen, and most importantly the Officers and Men of the 8th Irish Company that will serve with UNTAET, I am honoured to have this opportunity to address you here in Galway prior to your departure to East Timor. I am also glad to see the newly appointed General Officer Commanding the Western Brigade, Brigadier General Fred Swords, and I congratulate him and wish him well in his appointment.
Very strong links have been developed over the years between Galway and both the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence. The 1st Battalion has been headquartered in Dún Uí Mhaoilíosa since 1924, a building which had been previously occupied by the Connaught Rangers. Since the early 1970s military cadets have been part of everyday student life in UCG. In addition, nearly 200 civil servants from the Department of Defence have been based in Galway since 1989.
UNTAET was established as an integrated peacekeeping operation to administer East Timor during its transition to independence. It currently has a military component of around 8,000 troops and this will fall to under 5,000 by the end of May which is a real indication of the success of the mission. The Timorese now live in relative safety with the knowledge that a well-trained professional force is available to protect them in the event of a recurrence of violence. People are rebuilding their houses and sending their children to school because the UN peacekeepers give them the hope they need to start again. Two years ago there were very few people in the villages in the Irish area of operations and those that were there were very apprehensive of uniforms. This has now been transformed, more people are returning to their villages and they are openly appreciative of what the UN force has achieved. The Irish contingent has played no small in this and a positive rapport has developed between the Irish soldiers and the Timorese. Life is returning to normal and people are feeling more secure.
During my term as Minister for Defence I took the opportunity to visit East Timor and witness at first hand the difficult conditions in the area of operations where you will be based. There is no doubt that this mission is in some of the most difficult terrain that Irish personnel have ever encountered. It is the furthest mission from home and it is in probably in one of the most inhospitable climates ever faced by Irish troops. It is a significant challenge and it is heartening to know that all of you volunteered for this assignment and, indeed, that you are looking forward to it as a challenge.
You have all trained hard since last September and this training, combined with the previous peacekeeping experience some of you have, has prepared you to deal with any scenarios that are likely to arise. Looking at the troops being reviewed here today it is obvious that they are young (the average age is just 25), extremely fit, and focused on the mission ahead. 60% of them are undertaking their first overseas mission in the Defence Forces. The other 40% have an abundance of overseas service and this mixture of youth and experience will ensure that they meet the challenge that lies ahead.
The resources being invested in the Defence Forces mean that the quality and the quantity of equipment being purchased has never been better. Unprecedented amounts of money are being spent on modernising and upgrading operational, training and living accommodation for all members of the Defence Forces. Here in Galway, over the past five years, €460,000 has been spent on renovating and modernising accommodation in Dún Uí Mhaoilíosa. This is in addition to funds for local maintenance works. Later this year work will begin on a new Cookhouse and Dining Hall in the Barracks at an estimated cost of €4m.
This level of investment in the Defence Forces is indicative of the Government’s commitment to develop a world class organisation, capable of carrying out the full range of missions which may be assigned by Government in the future. In this regard, I want to see the Defence Forces maintaining their long and proud tradition of service with the United Nations promoting the causes of international peace and stability. I believe that the pragmatic efforts of the European Union to put in place a capability of carrying out such missions, with the type of humanitarian objectives which have always been at the heart of Irish foreign policy, have considerable merit.
Contrary to the impression frequently conveyed in some quarters, there is nothing in the European Security and Defence Policy, or in the EU Treaties - including the Nice Treaty - that points Ireland in the direction of participating in a European Army. Indeed, the fact that developments at EU level do not imply the creation of a European Army has been repeatedly stated in the outcome of successive European Council meetings, including most recently at Laeken last month. Ireland’s involvement in the EU's work in developing a capacity to conduct humanitarian and crisis management tasks does not affect our position of military neutrality. Rather, our participation is in the full knowledge that it is consistent with Ireland's traditions of peacekeeping with the United Nations.
Finally, I would like to convey a special note of appreciation to the family support which is of vital importance to the success of military missions overseas, and for that reason I am delighted to see here today so many families and friends of the troops preparing for departure. I want to pay a special tribute to the families of our personnel who serve overseas and for the sacrifices which they make while their loved ones are away.
In conclusion, I want to wish everyone a safe and successful tour of duty.