Speech by Mr. Michael Smith, T.D., Minister for Defence
at the Review of the 1st Contingent UNMEE before their departure for service with the United Nation Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE).
McKee Barracks 15 November 2001
Chief of Staff, Secretary General of the Department of Defence, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I am very pleased to be here today to review the first contingent of Irish soldiers who will shortly depart for service with the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE).
This has been an eventful and an historic week for the Defence Forces. Just two days ago I attended the ceremony in Camp Shamrock that marked the end of 23 years of continuous service with UNIFIL in Lebanon. It was the end of an era and the Defence Forces should be proud of the role they played in bringing peace to that area. But situations change and here we are today about to open a new chapter on Irish military history. We are returning to the African continent for the third time, following in the footsteps of those who served in the Congo and in Somalia.
The present troubles in Ethiopia and Eritrea have been ongoing since 1998 when fighting erupted as part of a border dispute. The UN formally invited Ireland to contribute a Guard and Administration company of about 200 personnel to serve with UNMEE which was established under UN Security Council Resolutions 1312 and 1320. UNMEE has a strength of 3,705 troops and 215 military observers drawn from 45 countries. The Irish soldiers will serve at the Force Headquarters in Asmara, Eritrea, for a minimum period of 12 months. They will carry out a range of tasks, including the provision of signals technical support; perimeter defence and internal security; security for convoys; transport services for headquarters staff; etc.
Over 50% of the UN Security Council's agenda is taken up with conflict prevention and conflict resolution issues in Africa. The Government consider that Ireland, as a member of the Council and a long-standing contributor to UN peacekeeping, should participate where possible in suitable peace support operations in Africa. The UNMEE operation offers a suitable opportunity for such participation particularly in light of the withdrawal earlier this week of the Irish Contingent deployed with UNIFIL.
The success of the Government's policy of continuous recruitment to the Defence Forces is very evident here today with 65 soldiers about to embark on their first overseas mission. The average age of the Contingent is 30. A constant intake of young blood has a very positive effect on all organisations and none more so than the Defence Forces.
You have all worked and trained hard to prepare yourselves for duty for this mission and you will benefit from the overseas service. Experience mixed with the exuberance of youth is what gives Irish contingents the balance necessary to discharge their function in an even-handed way that is respected both by other military contingents and by the local population in the area.
Increasingly in the case of peace support operations, humanitarian tasks go hand in hand with military tasks. I am pleased that the Defence Forces have embraced these tasks with willingness and enthusiasm. I have seen for myself, at first hand, the fruits of their endeavours in Lebanon in the Orphanage at Tibnin; in Sarajevo, where they undertook the reconstruction of homes which were burnt out in the conflict; and in East Timor by their involvement with a local school. I am aware that there will also be opportunities to provide humanitarian aid in this new area of operations, and that the Defence Forces will respond with its usual enthusiasm.
As I have said, this week saw the culmination of a very successful contribution of Irish soldiers to the return of peace and stability to Lebanon and this contingent will depart to undertake a new mission with UNMEE demonstrating clearly the importance of having a well equipped, well trained, and well motivated Defence Forces which can make a significant contribution to peace and security in a troubled world. What more justification could there be for this Government's policy of enhancing the equipment available to the Defence Forces. Those who question the bona fides of this approach need to ask themselves the question - "should Ireland stand aside from conflicts and the sufferings of innocent civilians or should we be part of the solutions which the international community seeks to achieve?" I think the answer is self evident.
The safety of Irish personnel serving overseas is always of paramount concern. While no absolute guarantees can be given with regard to the safety of troops serving in missions it is the policy and practice to ensure that Defence Forces personnel are adequately trained and equipped to carry out their mission. Troops selected for overseas service undergo a rigorous programme of training. As regards equipment this is the first overseas mission where the new Mowag Armoured Personnel Carriers will be deployed. With their mobility and protection characteristics they will prove to be an important additional security element.
Family support is of vital importance to the success of overseas missions and for that reason I am delighted to see here today so many families and friends of the troops preparing for departure.
Finally, I want to express my appreciation and that of the Government for the magnificent work being done by Irish troops on overseas service. I would like to wish the men and women of the 1st Contingent UNMEE, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Billy O'Hara, a safe and successful tour of duty. Thank you all for your attention.