CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett; Director at the Department of Defence, Ms Clare Tiernan; Deputy Chief of Staff (Operations), Major General Kieran Brennan; GOC 2 Brigade, Brigadier General Howard Berney; Distinguished Guests; Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am delighted to be here today in beautiful Letterkenny to review the personnel of the 114th Infantry Battalion, who will travel to the Middle East later this month for service with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
First of all, let me begin by welcoming all of the family members, friends and guests, to this very special occasion.
The support that you have all shown the personnel here today has been crucial in the developments of their careers to date within Oglaigh na hÉireann.
Any tour of duty can prove difficult, particularly given the period of time that members spend away from their homes, their partners and indeed their children.
You play a vital role in contributing to the success of overseas peacekeeping missions and I know you will provide huge support and encouragement to the troops standing before us here today, as they prepare to embark on the extremely important mission that is UNIFIL.
Given the location of today’s review, it would be remiss of me not to mention the tremendous work carried out over the Easter weekend by members of the Defence Forces based in Finner Camp.
In partnership with your colleagues in the Air Corps and other agencies, you successfully battled Gorse fires that were raging in West Donegal.
You ensured that homes and buildings were protected.
You brought a potential emergency situation under control.
You demonstrated your commitment to assisting communities in Donegal, who I know are deeply grateful for the work you carried out.
May as I Minister, thank you for your service over the Easter weekend.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the women and men standing before us today will shortly embark on one of Ireland’s proudest traditions: UN Peacekeeping.
UN peacekeeping is one of the most effective and important tools available to the international community in order to respond to crises around the world. It plays an essential role in stabilising regions affected by war and conflict.
The tradition of UN Peacekeeping, of which we have participated in for over 60 years, is about saving lives and ensuring others can enjoy the gift of peace.
I know you, the men and women of the 114th Infantry Battalion, will perform your duties to the best of your ability, and with the humanity and professionalism we have come to expect from Óglaigh na hÉireann.
As Minister I am delighted that for the second time, as part of a bilateral agreement with Ireland, personnel from the Armed Forces of Malta will deploy to UNIFIL as part of the Irish Battalion.
I know they will make an important contribution to the 114th Infantry Battalion and I wish them well in the months ahead.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have had the privilege of visiting our troops overseas in Lebanon on several occasions and on each visit, I have seen the fine work that our personnel are doing on the ground, to help bring stability and peace to the region.
My last visit to UNIFIL was in March, when I met with personnel of the 113th Infantry Battalion at their respective posts on the Blue Line.
I was struck by the deep bond and strong relationship that has been forged between our personnel and the local communities in which they serve.
Since May 2011, the UNIFIL mission has represented Ireland’s largest overseas deployment.
In UNIFIL, the Irish Battalion provides 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 two observation posts along the Blue Line.
There have been some important developments with regard to our relationship with UNIFIL in recent times which I would like to inform you all of briefly here today.
Following Finland’s withdrawal from the joint Irish/Finnish Battalion, in November 2018, Ireland increased the number of personnel deployed to UNIFIL and assumed the full duties and responsibilities of the Irish Battalion for a 12 month period.
Additional force protection assets have been deployed, consistent with the increased strength and the increased responsibilities of the Defence Forces contingent in UNIFIL.
Ireland now has a Battalion comprising some 460 troops in UNIFIL. We also have a Company in the UNDOF mission on the Golan Heights along with other significant postings in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans.
It is a major success on behalf of the Defence Forces to man two significant missions and you, the members of the 114th Infantry Battalion, are contributing to that success.
It has recently been agreed that a contingent of Polish Armed Forces together with a contribution of troops from Hungary will join our UNIFIL contingent in November 2019. This is a very welcome development which we look forward to. Partnership with other States is an important element of peacekeeping operations.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Government’s commitment to the Defence Forces has been demonstrated by the significant investment made in recent years in defence forces training and equipment across all the services, land, maritime and air services. Earlier this week I was in Waterford to commission the fourth new Naval vessel in the current programme, the LE George Bernard Shaw.
We are also continually investing in soldiers’ personal equipment and force protection assets to ensure that our peacekeepers, our soldiers, our sailors and our air personnel are fully protected as they carry out their duties. Our defence forces personnel deserve no less.
Any savings on the defence budget in recent years have been reinvested in defence primarily in equipment and infrastructure.
While we continue to prioritise investment, I know too that there is significant concern about the issues of recruitment and retention.
Most of you standing before me here today will be well aware of the commentary in the media and on social media about pay and conditions.
As Minister, I want to be both frank and honest with you here today.
My Department, in conjunction with Military Management, has been working round-the-clock for months now to address these issues.
This work has also involved the two representative bodies, PDFORRA and Raco, who are the two official and recognised associations tasked with advocating on behalf of members of Defence Forces members.
It was on my request that the Government tasked the Public Service pay Commission with examining challenges being experienced in recruitment and retention.
Written submissions have been made by all the above parties and both the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General in my Department have made a joint verbal submission.
I can inform you today that I am expecting that report in the next few weeks and the Government will act swiftly once it is received.
Together, and I know the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General will agree with me, we are working proactively and diligently to ensure that the role of the Defence Forces personnel is fully appreciated and that the challenges in recruitment and retention are understood.
Let us be honest however. There are no easy solutions.
If this was easy we would have already solved this issue and the solution requires a range of actions.
However, I will continue to address the issue in support of our defence forces personnel.
Moreover, as Government makes decisions on issues of public investment and expenditure, let me assure you, ensuring the safety, security, welfare and the well-being of our Defence Forces is, and will remain, my top priority. And I will ensure that we secure the necessary resources to this end.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Personnel travelling with the 114th Infantry Battalion represent 29 counties across Ireland. The unit of the Defence Forces which is providing the greatest contribution of personnel is the 28th Infantry Battalion based here in Co. Donegal in Finner Camp.
The next three largest units contributing troops are the 7th Infantry Battalion garrisoned in Dublin, the 6th Infantry Battalion garrisoned in Athlone and the 27th Infantry Battalion located in Dundalk and Gormanston.
The 114th Infantry Battalion will deploy to UNIFIL under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Paul Kelly from Letterkenny. He is an experienced officer with numerous tours of duty already completed overseas, including one in UNIFIL.
Other members of the 114th Infantry Battalion also have considerable experience of overseas missions. Private Paul Murphy from Dublin has deployed on overseas service on 15 occasions and has already served in Lebanon 7 times. Sergeant Declan Higgins from Mallow, Co. Cork has also served overseas on 15 occasions and is now extending his tour of duty in Lebanon.
This is an example of the remarkable contribution made by Irish Defence Force personnel to peacekeeping worldwide.
I am also advised that there are some family connections among Defence Force personnel, here today, deploying to UNIFIL. Ready to deploy is a father and son, Company Sergeant Michael Wall and his son, Private Craig Wall, both are part of the Ordnance Group in the Defence Forces Training Centre. We also have 2 sets of brothers, Sergeant Matty Regan and Private Keith Regan based in the 28th battalion in Co. Donegal, and Corporals Marcus Callan and Christopher Callan from units located in Cathal Brugha Barracks, Co. Dublin.
Also today, we have twenty eight female personnel ready to deploy as part of this Battalion. Irish women peacekeepers are an essential asset to all peacekeeping missions where they undertake the same roles under the same difficult conditions, as their male colleagues. 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 the defence forces generally so as we can also replicate this in our peacekeeping contingents.
To the members of the 114th Infantry Battalion, you have all worked and trained hard to prepare yourself for duty with UNIFIL. You have completed a rigorous training programme which is necessary to prepare you to meet the challenges you will face and to discharge your duties effectively in the mission area.
Before I conclude, let me once again thank your families and friends for attending today and for their ongoing 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.
I also wish to thank everyone involved in the organisation of today’s event, including the Band of Two Brigade under the baton of Captain Feargal Carroll for their musical accompaniment.
I wish each and every member of the 114th Infantry Battalion, under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Paul Kelly a safe and successful mission. It is my hope that you return home in six months’ time enriched by the experience you are about to embark on.
Thank you very much.