SPEECH BY MR. MICHAEL SMITH, T.D., MINISTER FOR DEFENCE,
AT THE REVIEW OF THE FIFTH TRANSPORT COMPANY, KFOR,
WHICH WILL SHORTLY DEPART FOR SERVICE IN KOSOVO
Ambassador Halverson, Chief of Staff, Secretary General of the Department of Defence, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentleman and, most importantly, personnel of the fifth Irish Contingent, KFOR. I am honoured to have this opportunity to address you here today in Roscrea.
I would like to start by referring to the medal presentation ceremony that took place earlier. The recognition by the Australian Government of the important role played by the first group of Irish soldiers to serve in the INTERFET force in East Timor is deeply appreciated. I can think of no more fitting testimonial to these troops than to quote from a letter to me from Ambassador Halverson and I quote "I know from the very many warm comments from our task-force commanders, that the high degree of training and the professionalism of your troops was second to none. They were the best of the best and had the situation deteriorated further, we know that their abilities and capabilities would have strengthened the outcome of such a just cause." end of quote.
These Irish Troops volunteered at a crucial time in East Timor's recent very difficult history. Despite the dangers and the difficult climatic conditions which they faced, they made a significant contribution to the mission.
For many years, the Defence Forces in Ireland had a relatively low public profile, quite out of line with their important role internationally as a leading provider of peacekeeping personnel. Over the years, many thousands of personnel have participated in UN missions without this ever having made a major impact outside the defence community. For example, personnel selected for duty in Lebanon spent many months getting ready before finally assembling for a most impressive parade of more than 600 personnel - all out of sight behind the high walls of McKee Barracks in Dublin.
A few years ago, I decided that the time had come for the Defence Forces to present themselves to the wider community. Instead of parading in front of a small, invited audience inside the barracks, I decided that each unit going overseas should be given the opportunity to parade in public. And I decided that an important element of this new approach would be for these parades to take place in different locations around the country.
I am delighted to tell you that this new more open approach has proved to be an outstanding success. Often, it is only when rows of Irish troops are lined up on the main street of a town that the importance and scale of Ireland's commitment to peacekeeping is appreciated by the general public. The parades generally attract considerable attention and generate a very positive response. The military personnel themselves greatly value the very warm and genuine appreciation shown by the public. Since the start of this new practice there have been reviews in Clonmel, the Curragh, Ballyshannon, Templemore, Kilkenny, Athlone, Cavan and Limerick. I am very pleased that this Review is giving the people of Roscrea an opportunity to bid farewell to our troops as they depart on peacekeeping duties in Kosovo.
Roscrea is not without its military connections. A Roscrea man, the late Major General J.J. Quinn served with distinction as Quartermaster General in the Defence Forces. He also had the great honour to serve as Force Commander of the UN Forces in Cyprus from 1976 until 1981. I would like to welcome Major General Quinn's wife, Mary here today.
The major programme for the modernisation of the Defence Forces is well underway with major investment in new infrastructure and equipment. The Army, Naval Service and Air Corps of today can offer challenging and rewarding careers to young people wishing to enlist. Military parades are a spectacular way of highlighting to young people the many opportunities offered by service in the Defence Forces.
The White Paper on Defence which was published last year recognises the importance of the career dimension and provides for the preparation of an updated and very comprehensive personnel management plan. This process is well advanced and a key feature of the plan will be a continuation of a policy of regular recruitment. Due to the booming economy the Defence Forces like many other organisations is experiencing some recruitment difficulties. However, the military authorities are drawing up plans for my approval for a major new recruitment campaign. I am confident that provided we get the message across, we can attract recruits, even in today's highly competitive environment.
Ireland has a long and proud record of participation in UN authorised peace support missions. The peacekeeping structures employed by the international community have changed and evolved over time. In recent years, the UN has increasingly authorised regional organisations to organise peace support missions on its behalf. Because we are committed to maintaining our traditional role, Ireland has engaged with other countries through the mechanisms of Partnership for Peace and the EU Rapid Reaction Force. In conformity with our long standing principles, we participate in planning and preparation for UN authorised peace support missions and humanitarian relief. Sometimes what we are actually doing can be misrepresented and it is a matter of regret that our training and preparations have sometimes been cynically exploited and misrepresented by certain elements in our society. This Government remains firmly committed to UN authorised peace support missions.
The KFOR mission is an example of one of the new type of overseas peace support missions authorised by the United Nations and implemented by NATO led forces on the ground. Our participation in this important European mission shows that we want to continue to help to get things back on a sound footing in Kosovo. We want to assist the people of Kosovo as best we can in their search for peace, stability and normality after the terrible conflict they have endured. The task assigned to the Irish Transport Company is seen as being important and it is a task that our personnel are well trained and well equipped for. They carry out military and humanitarian resupply missions to villages and towns in Kosovo. The Irish contingent, therefore, is mobile throughout the entire KFOR area of operations. Over and above their normal duties members of the Irish Transport Company's have assisted with the reconstruction of 8 houses (3 Serb, 4 Albanian, 1 Gypsy) in the Lipljan area.
At the end of March, I made a short visit to Kosovo to see the members of the 4th Transport Company. I also took the opportunity to visit the families being helped in the Lipljan area. Last year I had made £10,000 funding available in order to allow the Irish Contingent continue their humanitarian effort. These funds were used to rebuild homes which had been burnt out during the conflict. I visited the rebuilt homes of the JASHAXICA family - two parents, five children and their grandmother, who had all been living in a UNHCR tent. I also visited the SALIHU family - whose father works with the Irish Forces in Kosovo - I met little FITORE SALIHU, their deaf and dumb daughter, a deeply moving encounter.
The help that was given to local families by our troops made me feel very proud in Kosovo. When one considers that this work is carried out only after they have performed their daily UN duties, it is all the more remarkable. I know that the Kosovars are very genuinely appreciative of the work of the Irish troops, and I want to register my appreciation of the efforts made and in particular of the manner and the attitude with which the work is carried out. I do not know if it is an Irish trait or a consequence of Irish military training or a combination of both, but it is to be greatly appreciated and admired.
I know also that your humanitarian work is not confined to Kosovo, it is part of every mission undertaken by Irish Peacekeepers ---- assisting the orphanage in Tibnin, South Lebanon or a local school in East Timor are another two shining examples that come to mind.
I have witnessed Irish troops on peacekeeping duties in many countries and I never fail to be impressed with their determination and attitude. The patience and diplomacy that Irish soldiers, such as yourselves, have shown on many different missions over the years has made a very significant contribution to maintaining peace and allowing normal day to day life to proceed in many parts of the world.
Last week I announced that the Government authorised, subject to Dail approval, the despatch of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for service with the United Nations Missions in Ethopia and Eriteria (UNMEE). The proposed contingent will comprise of a Guard Administration Company of between 150 and 200 all ranks. The contingent, will be based in Asmara, Eritrea.
One of the most appalling aspects of recent conflicts has been the lethal legacy of landmines that armies leave behind them. It is estimated that as many as 70 million of these cheap and undiscriminating killers lie scattered across some 70 countries across the world. Landmines are a scourge - they prevent economic recovery, prevent the return of refugees and damage the environment. It is estimated that they maim or kill approximately 26,000 civilians every year - including 8,000 to 10,000 children. It is essential that every step be taken to protect our troops from the danger of landmines. The newly arrived Mowag armoured personnel carriers will help to ensure the safety of our troops from this threat as they continue to serve in some of the most dangerous areas in the world.
I would like to wish the Unit Commander, Commandant Brian Daly, Captain Byran Carley, Captain Jerry Lane and all the members of No 5 Transport Company a safe and successful tour of duty. I know that you are a very experienced group of soldiers and that this contingent includes personnel who have served on overseas missions in Lebanon and East Timor.
Finally, I am delighted that families and friends are able to attend here this afternoon as it gives me the opportunity to express my appreciation for the considerable sacrifice made by each and every family through the absence from home for six months of a loved one. Family support has always been an important element in ensuring the success of an overseas mission. That support has always been there in the past and I know it will be there for this latest KFOR mission.
I wish each and every one of you an enjoyable and fulfilling tour of duty and a safe return home. Thank you.