On the 17th of November, 230 Irish troops returned home following a six month deployment to South Lebanon. The 110 Infantry Battalion of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), were greeted at Terminal 1 in Dublin Airport by overjoyed friends and family.
Their tour of duty is in accordance with Ireland’s long-standing participation in overseas missions mandated by the United Nations. Ireland has been a member of the UN since 1955 and next year will mark the sixtieth anniversary of Ireland’s first contribution to a UN Peace Support Operation.
Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act 2014 reveal that between January 2007 and December 2016, approximately 9,812 troops have been deployed to various missions between postings for the UN, EU, Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s Partnership for Peace (PfP/NATO). These other organisations appear as the UN is increasingly relying on regional organisations to launch and manage operations on its behalf and under its authority.
Today, the Defence Forces have over 640 personnel serving in eleven countries and one sea under these organisations, while a total of 1,300 troops have been deployed in 2017. The Irish Defence Forces continue to show their dedication to the cause as they have “the longest unbroken record of peacekeeping service in the world [and] we can justifiably claim to be experts in peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations,” according to spokesman Commandant Pat O’Connor.
However, some may wonder what is the importance of these missions to Ireland.
“Overseas service and the associated training is where our personnel gain experience in high pressure operational environments, develop their professional leadership skills as well as the capability needed to protect Ireland against modern threats,” said Cmdt O’Connor.
“The aim of these missions is not to go in guns blazing, it is an extensive effort in the path to peace. Peacekeeping has unique strengths, including legitimacy, burden sharing, and an ability to deploy and sustain troops and police from around the globe, integrating them with civilian peacekeepers to advance multidimensional mandates.
“UN Peacekeepers provide security and the political and peacebuilding support to help countries make the difficult, early transition from conflict to peace.”
Ireland has built up quite a reputation on these missions and in fact many of our troops are depended on to lead missions. “Success is never guaranteed, because UN peacekeeping almost by definition [involves going] … to the most physically and politically difficult environments,” said Commandant O’Connor. “However, we have built up a demonstrable record of success over our sixty years … including winning the Nobel Peace Prize.”
The day to day life and tasks that these troops might face while on these missions may be a mystery to some. Former Sergeant Steven Shields, who was deployed to Lebanon, discussed what takes place when sent out for deployment.
“We monitor in a country, we observe, we report, and we keep a buffer line between two hostile forces,” he said.
“The mission is to provide peace and security within your safety zone. You do this by integrating into the local population, reporting back to higher authority and being able to have patrols and keeping a physical presence throughout the set area.”
He recounted that a normal day would involve humanitarian work, which entails helping with schools, food, water purification, infrastructure, setting up hospitals and providing medical supplies. They would then continue to integrate into the local community and visit politicians. These visits would include offering mediation services between hostile forces.
“Whatever area they are in becomes a secure zone, it means that not only do they provide the humanitarian aspect, they also provide security, so people can see a military presence. How they do that is by patrols and you’re seen. With the UN, the Irish will generally not wear helmets, they’ll wear soft flat berets. Glasses are off to make eye contact to appear friendly, but they’ll still carry weapons.”
These patrols throughout villages are so people can always be aware of a military presence protecting them, but at staggered times 24 hours a day, in order to remain unpredictable.
They also offer mine clearings for villages, secure zones where people can go to be protected and not fired upon. They also offer employment to locals, providing jobs within their camp. They also help provide an economy by buying supplies off the locals to create prosperity.
If anything happened within their camp however, they would have to report back to the UN immediately where it would be brought to a world stage.
“We were the eyes and ears of the world,” said Steven Shields.
By Mary-Kate Findon & Lee Shields