Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett; Assistant Secretary General at the Department of Defence, Robert Mooney; Deputy Chiefs of Staff, Major Generals Sean Clancy and Tony McKenna; Assistant Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Peter O’Halloran; GOC 2 Brigade and GOC 1 Brigade, Brigadier Generals Tony Cudmore and Paddy Flynn; GOC Air Corps, Brigadier General Rory O’Connor; Flag Officer Commanding the Naval Service, Commodore Mick Malone; Local Representatives; Distinguished Guests; Ladies and gentlemen.
I am delighted to be here in Custume Barracks, Athlone, today to review personnel of the 60th Infantry Group, who will shortly travel to the Golan Heights for service with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).
You, the men and women of the 60th Infantry Group under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Dwyer, are the latest to continue the long and proud tradition of supporting the United Nations in the cause of peace, stability and security.
We currently have some 680 members of the Permanent Defence Force serving in overseas missions worldwide making a substantial contribution to international peace support operations.
Participation in overseas peacekeeping missions by members of our Defence Forces is a key element of Ireland’s foreign policy.
It has been an important dimension in cementing Ireland’s international obligations as a committed member of the UN and the EU.
I know that each and every one of you standing before me today will continue this important work and proud tradition and make a valuable contribution to the success of the UNDOF mission.
As peacekeepers, you will play an important part in improving the lives of citizens on the ground and of vulnerable communities, which for too long have lived under a cloud of conflict.
In many instances, conflict can have devastating consequences, leading to increased numbers of migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons.
That’s why our role and record as peacekeepers helps us stand out as a nation.
For we believe, to quote the words of former US President Ronald Reagan;
“Peace is not absence of conflict. It is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, Ireland believes and takes seriously, our commitment to making forces available for United Nations mandated missions and we continue to work with the UN and the EU to make peacekeeping operations as efficient and effective as possible.
Last year, I secured the Government’s agreement to provide a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force to participate in the German-led EU Battlegroup 2020, which will be on standby for 6 months from July of next year.
Ten members of the Defence Forces have recently been deployed to Germany to take up roles in the Force Headquarters, while planning is underway for all members of the Battlegroup to take part in the Battlegroup field exercise to be hosted in Germany next year.
Separately and as we meet here today, over a dozen Irish troops are in the process of embedding with the UN authorised peacekeeping operation in Mali. This follows Government and Dáil approval earlier this year to send a deployment of the Defence Forces, drawn primarily from the Army Ranger Wing, to participate in MINUSMA.
This deployment is an essential contribution in strengthening the international presence in the Sahel region in support of the UN mission.
Ladies and Gentlemen, as the personnel here before us prepare to travel to UNDOF in the coming weeks, I am delighted to bring to your attention a highly significant appointment.
The UN recently appointed Brigadier General Maureen O’Brien to the post of Deputy Force Commander, UNDOF. I wish to take this occasion to warmly congratulate Brigadier General O’Brien and her family on her appointment to this prestigious role.
I understand she is, as we speak, en route to UNDOF as she prepares to take up her post, which I have no doubt she will serve with distinction.
The appointment represents the first time a female has served in this crucial leadership role - demonstrating the range of opportunities that are there for women in the Defence Forces.
The presence of women on overseas missions 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.
This is a piece of history for the Defence Forces and indeed our country and I have no doubt that many other female personnel will take inspiration from Brigadier General O’Brien and go on to serve in leadership positions at the highest level within Óglaigh na hÉireann.
Since its establishment in 1974, UNDOF has been supporting the efforts of the international community both in the Golan Heights, but also in the broader Middle-East region.
The continued presence of the UNDOF mission, supported and welcomed by both Syria and Israel, remains an important element in ensuring stability on the Golan Heights and in the Middle East region.
A contingent of the Permanent Defence Force has been deployed to UNDOF since 2013. When you deploy to UNDOF, like your predecessors, you will be tasked primarily to serve as Force Mobile Reserve within the UNDOF Area of Responsibility.
You will protect communities that need protection; You will work to ensure peace in a region that for too long has been impacted by conflict.
Over the past number of years, Irish troops have been based in Camp Ziouani on the Israeli side of the Area of Separation, due to the level of conflict in the area of separation.
In September 2018, Irish Defence Force personnel relocated back to Camp Faouar, on the Syrian side of the area of separation. This relocation fully reflects the assigned mandate of UNDOF as a confidence supporting force and the role with which you are tasked. The location of the camp affords UNDOF appropriate force protection measures along with increased visibility of the Area of Separation.
Ladies and Gentlemen, our ability to provide for the safety of our personnel is of paramount concern when considering any mission.
I know that in preparation for this deployment you have undergone rigorous training. All commanders and soldiers have been put through a demanding series of scenarios based on the current operational situation in the Golan Heights, focused on the potential threats that may be encountered in the mission area.
These mission readiness exercises ensure that you can now deploy confident in the knowledge that you are well prepared for the challenges you will face in theatre.
Soldiers from 26 counties around Ireland are represented among the 130 strong contingent of the 60th Infantry Group here today.
Some of you have already completed previous tours of duty with UNDOF, and other missions in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. I am told that you have accumulated a total of 261 previous individual tours of duty overseas.
This level of experience will be an invaluable asset for the mission, and for personnel deploying for the first time.
Of course, participation in peace support missions comes at a personal cost for individuals who must be away from families and friends for extended periods of time. Without your commitment and dedication, Ireland’s strong tradition of service overseas, under the auspices of the United Nations, would not be possible.
You have family members and friends here today and I know I speak on your behalf when I thank them for their support and encouragement. They too have an all important role to play in Ireland’s contribution to peacekeeping missions abroad.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Ireland holds the record for the longest unbroken record of any peacekeeping nation in the world.
The men and women before us here today will ensure this record continues.
It is just part of the hugely positive story that surrounds our Defence Forces.
I know, as Minister, some of that positive story can get lost within a negative narrative surrounding recruitment and retention.
Unfortunately, these issues can be seized upon and twisted by people with other agendas.
The agenda of this Government is to restore the strength of the Defence Forces and to ensure that everyone in the public service, including the Defence Forces, are properly rewarded for their work.
As Minister, let me be very clear, pay is increasing and will continue to increase under our current pay agreement.
The Public Service Pay Commission also makes a series of recommendations around allowances which will boost the take home pay of all DF members.
Those recommendations are currently being considered by the two Representative Associations, RACO and PDFORRA, and will be implemented in full if ratified.
Before I conclude, I wish to thank everyone involved in the organisation of today’s event.
I want to thank the Band of 2 Brigade under the Baton of Captain Thomas Kelly.
But above all, I want to wish each and every member of the 60th Infantry Group, under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Dwyer, a safe and successful mission.
You are travelling to the UNDOF Mission with my best wishes and with those of the Government and the nation as a whole.