CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Assistant Secretary Department of Defence, Mr Ciarán Murphy; Deputy Chief of Staff Operations Major General Kieran Brennan; Assistant Chief of Staff Brigadier General Peter O’Halloran; General Officer Commanding 1 Brigade, Brigadier General Paddy Flynn;
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
I’m delighted to be in Galway City to review the personnel of the 113th Infantry Battalion, who will shortly travel to Lebanon for service with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
To the personnel and your families and friends, you are all very welcome here today.
Ireland's Contributions to UN Peacekeeping
These occasions offer an important opportunity to reflect on the remarkable contribution made by the Irish Defence Forces as peacekeepers across the world.
This year, as the United Nations celebrates the 70th anniversary of UN Peacekeeping Operations, Ireland marks its own significant milestones as a long standing contributor to UN Peacekeeping.
My visit to Irish troops in Lebanon last March coincided with the official UN commemorations in Naqoura to mark the 40th anniversary of the UNIFIL mission's establishment.
It was an occasion to pay tribute to the tens of thousands of UN peacekeepers who have served together with local communities for peace in South Lebanon.
Separately, in June, I hosted an official State ceremony in Dublin Castle – attended by President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar - to mark the 60th anniversary of Irish involvement in United Nations peacekeeping operations.
The Government was also very proud to mark this significant anniversary internationally, when we hosted a ceremony at U.N. headquarters, New York in July. This ceremony allowed us to recognise the contribution of Irish men and women from the Defence Forces, An Garda Síochána, and the wider Public Service, to international peacekeeping.
For these men and women and the communities they protect, service with the UN is rightly regarded as noble and important.
The events held in recent months were not simply celebrations of Ireland’s peacekeeping record.
They also gave us an opportunity to remember the 87 members of the Defence Forces who lost their lives on Peacekeeping missions, so that others could know the gift of peace.
As a nation, we cannot and will not, forget them.
Ireland has made a huge commitment to supporting peace and security in the Middle East region and has participated in the UNIFIL mission since its establishment in 1978.
It was in the Middle East, where Ireland’s peacekeeping story began, in 1958, when 50 members of the Permanent Defence Force were deployed as military observers with the UN Observer Group in Lebanon.
We are justifiably proud that, since that first UN Peacekeeping deployment, not a day has passed when an Irish soldier was not on peacekeeping duty somewhere in the world.
Today, we have over 600 members of the Permanent Defence Force serving in overseas missions in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
This commitment to international peacekeeping is a very practical expression of the values which we hold dear as a nation and of our commitment to the United Nations and to multilateralism.
This commitment is also expressed through our engagement in the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).
As Minister with Responsibility for Defence, I am acutely aware that Defence Forces personnel have to operate in often difficult and challenging circumstances, while on service overseas.
I know that a period of deployment overseas can place strain on personnel and their loved ones.
But I also know that the personnel of the 113th Infantry Battalion, under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Keogh, will rise to the challenge before them, in the best traditions of the Irish Defence Forces on overseas service.
Irish troops currently serve as part of a joint Irish-Finnish Battalion in UNIFIL. There are currently some 135 Finnish and 36 Estonian personnel serving alongside Irish personnel. Due to other National commitments, these countries will withdraw from the Irish-Finnish Battalion in November 2018.
The Defence Forces deployment is being increased to 442 personnel to replace the absent Finnish contingent and will assume the full duties and responsibilities of IRISHBATT for the next 12 months.
In UNIFIL the Irish Battalion will provide robust patrolling support to the Lebanese Armed Forces and protection to the local population from their primary Headquarters location in UN Post 2-45. In addition, Irish personnel will occupy and secure observation posts along the Blue Line.
You have all recently completed a rigorous pre-deployment training programme.
While this training has been demanding, it is necessary in order to ensure that you are well prepared to overcome the challenges you may face and to discharge your duties effectively in the mission area in Southern Lebanon.
Our ability to protect the health and safety of our personnel is of paramount concern when considering any mission. While no mission is without danger, and 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 serving overseas are appropriately trained and equipped with the most modern and effective equipment to carry out their mission. This also includes providing the required force protection assets specific to the mission.
Additional force protection assets are being deployed, which are consistent with the increased strength and the increased responsibilities of the Defence Forces contingent in UNIFIL.
Ongoing threat assessments are carried out in mission areas and we continually review both personal equipment and force assets, to ensure that Defence Forces personnel are appropriately equipped to fulfill their roles. I am assured by the Chief of Staff that all appropriate security measures are in place to ensure the safety of all Defence Forces personnel serving with UNIFIL.
This year, for the first time, we have two personnel from Malta deploying as part of the Irish Battalion. The Irish Defence Forces have had an ongoing relationship with Armed Forces of Malta since 2009, providing both cadet and officer training.
To date 29 Maltese cadets have completed their training in the Defence Forces Training Centre with a further 18 currently undergoing training side by side with Irish cadets. I welcome the involvement of the Armed Forces Malta personnel in UNIFIL, I know they will make an important contribution to the 113th Infantry Battalion, and I wish them well.
Soldiers from 29 counties around Ireland are represented among the 452 strong battalion here today and I know that there are many skilled and experienced peacekeepers among you. One member, Sgt Flynn, is currently serving with the 112th Infantry Battalion and will also serve with the 113th Infantry Battalion. He has completed a total of 21 tours of duty overseas. This amounts to over 12 years of service on overseas missions which is a remarkable achievement and commitment to the pursuit of international peace and security.
The sporting achievements of some among you are also noteworthy.
For example Corporal Shelly Kehoe has five All Ireland medals with my own county of Wexford, Sergeant Stephen Grehan has three All Ireland medals with Kilkenny, Captain Aine Gilmore has won a senior ladies all Ireland with Galway and Private Gray has been awarded an All Star for his home county of Laois.
We have a number of family connections deploying with the 113th Infantry Battalion. Company Sergeant Eugene Aherne and his son Pte Darragh Aherne, and Company Sergeant Paul O’Mara and his son Corporal David O’Mara are among those set to deploy to UNIFIL. The Fullam and Higgins brothers are also deploying to UNIFIL.
Twenty one female personnel will also deploy as part of this Battalion. The promotion of a strong gender perspective is a key element in all our peacekeeping operations. It is a priority of mine that we continue to increase female participation in peacekeeping contingents.
A significant female presence within our contingents contributes greatly with resolving conflict and connecting with local populations. It broadens the skills sets available within a peacekeeping mission and importantly provides role models for women, both at home and abroad.
I am delighted to see so many of your families and friends here today. The support and encouragement of your family and friends is deeply valued by me and by the Government. It is their support which enables you to serve abroad and thereby help to protect and save the lives of countless numbers of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.
To the families here today: Your commitment and sacrifice is deeply important and I want to extend my personal gratitude to you all.
But I also want to say that, as minister with responsibility for Defence, it has not been lost on me or indeed the Government, of the concerns about issues such as pay and conditions within the Defence Forces.
Let me be very clear: We are in a process of restoring pay and reversing the cuts that were introduced across the public service during the economic downturn.
And let me assure you, it is because of the esteem in which the Government holds the Defence Forces, that I secured the agreement of Government to prioritise consideration of Defence issues by the Public Service Pay Commission.
I look forward to the outcome of the Commission's work, which will provide the basis for addressing the issues within the Defence Forces.
As Minister with responsibility for Defence, I will continue to ensure that we make progress on the issues affecting our serving personnel.
Finally, I want to wish each and every member of the 113th Infantry Battalion, under the leaderership of Lieutenant Colonel Keogh, a safe and successful mission.
You are travelling to Lebanon with my best wishes and those of the nation as a whole.