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Secretary-General, Chief of Staff, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen and members of 29th Infantry Group.

Three weeks ago I had the great honour to be appointed as Minister for Defence. I came to this position with an enormous regard for the Defence Forces’ outstanding record in United Nations Peacekeeping Missions. This esteem has increased even further as – on days like today - I come to see the commitment and professionalism of our military personnel close up.

From the Congo to Liberia and from Kosovo to East Timor, the Defence Forces have never hesitated to move into some of the world’s most dangerous trouble spots. In the course of their work, they have saved the lives of countless numbers of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on our planet.

Wherever they have gone, the men and women of the Defence Forces have reached out to the local communities and have made a real and lasting contribution to their lives.

Over the past forty-five years, Irish peacekeepers have fulfilled their U. N. mandate with a uniquely Irish combination of professional excellence and unselfish humanity. The unique ability to combine the traditional peacekeeping duties with the provision of humanitarian support has become the hallmark of the Irish peacekeeper internationally.

For the past five years, members of the Irish Defence Forces have served as part of the KFOR mission in Kosovo. As part of a force of 17,000 drawn from over 30 countries, Irish troops have played a central role in making this UN mission an extremely successful one.

During this time our personnel have distinguished themselves with characteristic professionalism. They have built on Ireland’s well-established reputation as a source of some of the world’s finest peacekeepers. I am very proud to say that this reputation has not just been maintained but has been further enriched during the KFOR mission.

Earlier this year, ethnic violence broke out again in Kosovo. Members of the Multinational Brigade Centre and the Finnish/Irish personnel held the line. Our Defence Force personnel protected around 350 men, women and children in Kosovan Serb settlements against vastly superior numbers of Kosovo Albanians.

Following these incidents, our peacekeepers were commended by the Swedish head of the Multinational Brigade Centre in Kosovo: General Anders Brannstrom.

Gen. Brannstrom praised our soldiers’ bravery in the face of riotous crowds saying: "Without the intervention of these Irish personnel, I believe that the majority of the people saved would have been killed,"

I wish to take this opportunity to also commend their actions. The skill and professionalism they displayed during the trouble is testament to the training they have received, and the vast reservoir of peacekeeping experience our forces can draw on in difficult circumstances.

This outbreak of trouble is indicative of the dangers inherent in peacekeeping missions. The safety of Irish personnel serving overseas is of paramount concern. Defence Forces personnel serving on overseas missions are equipped with the most modern and effective equipment available. This equipment enables troops to carry out the mission assigned, as well as providing the required protection specific to the mission.

I am satisfied that that all appropriate security measures are in place to ensure the safety of all Defence Forces personnel serving with KFOR. However, that is not to underestimate the dangers you may face in your role as peacekeepers. You will be in our thoughts and prayers throughout the duration of your tour of duty.

Our continued participation in peacekeeping operations comes at a time when the challenges facing the United Nations in maintaining international peace and security are many and varied, as recent events have demonstrated.

Ireland will continue to approach any proposed mission on a case-by-case basis. Our participation in the operations will be subject to the “triple lock” test – the mission must be authorised by the United Nations and have the approval of the Government and the Oireachtas.

There has been some public comment over the past few days criticising the triple lock approach. Which element of this triple lock do they suggest we unpick? Would they wish us to dispense with the UN authorisation? Or, would they prefer that we ignore the wishes of the Government or the Oireachtas.

I want to make the absolutely clear again today: In any consideration of Irish troops acting overseas that this Government will not allow our policy of military neutrality to be eroded. The triple-lock will remain.

Ireland will only participate in military activity overseas with Government, Dáil and UN approval.

The nature of peacekeeping operations are changing from traditional UN-led missions. The KFOR mission, while UN authorised is NATO led. Our participation in it has proven to be highly successful.

The SFOR mission, which is currently led by NATO, will become an EU-led mission later this year. Subject to completion of national procedures I would intend that the Defence Forces will have a substantive presence in the EU operation which will be called Operation Althea.

These changes carry implications for how future operations are organised and structured. We must, therefore, increase our levels of inter-operability, so that our Defence Forces can work effectively in multi-national peace support operations, as is the case in the KFOR mission.

There is now an increasing onus being placed on regional bodies to organise and be prepared to provide peacekeeping troops for the purpose of discharging a UN mandate. Indeed, I had discussions on this very topic with the U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan during his visit last week.

I assured him of our continuing support for the United Nations Peacekeeping role. The Secretary General welcomed and encouraged continued development of European Capability to provide a rapid response to crisis management and peacekeeping which would be available to the UN.

A significant achievement of the Ireland’s EU Presidency was the agreement of a new Headline Goal for 2010. EU Member States have committed themselves to being able to respond to a crisis with rapid and decisive action. This will involve a coherent approach to the whole spectrum of crisis management operations. These include humanitarian and rescue tasks, peacekeeping tasks, and tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking.

An example of the type of contribution that an effective use of forces could make in restoring peace to a region in conflict is the Finnish/Irish peacekeeping Battalion deployed with the United Nations Force in Kosovo (KFOR) which, as I have mentioned, was the subject of much favourable comment.

The 2010 Headline Goal has no implications for national sovereignty, which is a fundamental principle to participation in the European Security and Defence Policy.

In conclusion, I would like to wish the Contingent Commander Lt. Col. Andy Kilfeather and all the members of the 29th Infantry Group a safe trip and a successful mission. You go to Kosovo with my sincerest best wishes and with those of the rest of the country.

Go n-éiri libh go léir agus go dté sibh slán.

Custume Barracks, Athlone 21 October 2004

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