38. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if he will report on his recent visit to UNIFIL, UNDOF and UNTSO; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 20414/18 asked on 10 May 2018)
Minister of State at the Department of Defence (Deputy Paul Kehoe): During the period 13 to 20 March 2017, I visited the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) and also the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). The visit afforded an opportunity to see at first hand the tremendous work done overseas by the Irish Defence Forces in the Middle East and also by An Garda Síochaná in Cyprus. It was a privilege to spend time with Irish forces serving abroad on our national feast day.
The itinerary for the visit to Israel, from 14th to 15th March included meetings with the Israeli Head of Political Military Bureau Mr. Zohar Palti, in the Israeli Defence Ministry. We discussed the current political situation in the region. I also received briefings from the Deputy Chief of Staff of UNTSO, Colonel Tommi Paterri Kajanmaa, the Chief of Staff of UNDOF, Colonel Mick Dawson from Ireland and the UNDOF Head of Mission and Force Commander, Major General Francis Vib-Sanziri. I spent time with Irish troops serving as part of the UNDOF mission and concluded my visit with a reception at the Embassy of Ireland, Tel Aviv to celebrate St Patrick’s Day.
A one day visit to Cyprus on 16th March was included as part of this regional visit for St. Patrick’s Day. In the course of my short stay, I visited the UNFICYP HQ in the UN-controlled buffer zone and received a detailed briefing from Ms. Elizabeth Spehar, Special Representative of the Secretary General in Cyprus. I also met with members of An Garda Síochaná who are currently serving with UNFICYP and was briefed on the important liaison role being played by the Irish personnel. The visit also afforded me an opportunity to meet with the newly appointed Cypriot Minister for Defence, Mr. Savvas Angellides. My visit to Cyprus concluded with an address delivered at the Irish Embassy St Patrick’s Day reception which was attended by political, diplomatic, business and community contacts and members of the Irish community. From Cyprus I travelled to Lebanon.
On 17 March I met with Defence Forces personnel serving as part of a joint Irish/Finnish battalion with UNIFIL in south Lebanon. I presented medals to personnel serving with the 111th Infantry Battalion in UNIFIL. I received briefings on the current situation in the region and visited the Headquarters, United Nations Post 6-52 and United Nations Post 2-45 where Irish personnel are based. I also spoke at a Gala Dinner event in Beirut to celebrate St. Patricks day.
The following day there was a wreath laying ceremony at the Tibnin monument in honour of the 47 Irish personnel who lost their lives while serving in Lebanon. The structure is a permanent reflection of the Irish Defence Forces contribution and the sacrifice made by them to Tibnin and its people.
On 19th March, I attended a UN ceremony in Naqoura to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of UNIFIL. 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. The ceremony included a poignant and emotional tribute to fallen peacekeepers. It was a great honour to be present while a veteran Irish Peacekeeper delivered the tribute at the ceremony. Ex-Private John O’Mahony was injured and lost two of his colleagues - Private Derek Smallhorne and Private Thomas Barrett - in April 1980. During the course of the visit, I had the honour to lay a wreath alongside Pte O’Mahony, at the location of the murders of Private Derek Smallhorne and Private Thomas Barrett.
On the 20th March, I also met with the Lebanese Minister for National Defence for political consultations in relation to the security situation in Lebanon given the significant challenges in the region as a whole. In the course of my meeting with him, I also impressed on him the concerns of the Irish Government in relation to the ongoing trial of Mahmoud Bazzi, the alleged perpetrator of the murders of Private Derek Smallhorne and Private Thomas Barrett and the attempted murder of Private O’Mahony. Before my meeting, the Minister for National Defence honoured Privates Smallhorne and Barrett with military honours and the laying of a wreath at the Lebanese Army Martyrs Statue at the Ministry of Defence. I also met the Commander in Chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces. In the course of the visit I also had a meeting with our legal adviser and other contacts in relation to the Mahmoud Bazzi case.
A comprehensive range of issues in relation to peacekeeping was discussed with Mission Leaders and political leaders in the host countries during the visit. The respect and high regard held for the professionalism displayed by Irish Peacekeepers was clearly evident.
In my discussions with Defence Forces personnel serving in these missions I conveyed our deep appreciation for the outstanding manner in which they continue to perform their duties on overseas service.