A deployment of Irish special forces soldiers to Ukraine has been delayed due to confusion over the legality of sending troops abroad on protection missions.
The Irish Times understands that legislation is being drafted to clarify the law and permit a team of Army Ranger Wing (ARW) personnel to deploy to provide protection to Irish Embassy staff in the capital, Kyiv. The Irish Embassy in the city reopened in August, six months after evacuation of its staff following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Irish Ambassador Thérèse Healy is understood to be one of the only EU ambassadors in the country who does not have a close protection team, a matter which has caused significant concern among Department of Foreign Affairs officials. The plan is now to send a small, armed “close protection team”, composed of elite troops, to Kyiv to provide security to Ms Healy and her staff.
A request for a close protection team was made to the Department of Defence last year. However, this has been delayed as the department took the view that the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006 does not explicitly permit Defence Forces deployment overseas on protection missions. This is despite the ARW being deployed several times in the past to conduct overseas protection of Irish people.
Most recently, an ARW team travelled to Kabul International Airport in 2021 to provide security for Irish officials working to evacuate citizens following the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. In 2015, an ARW close protection unit travelled to Beruit in Lebanon to protect a former Irish soldier giving evidence in the trial of Mahmoud Bazzi, who was accused of killing two peacekeepers in 1980.
They have also deployed to Irish embassies in several countries during times of heightened security threats and sometimes accompany ministers visiting UN deployments.
The 2006 Act provides for Irish troops to go overseas for a variety of reasons, including training, ceremonial duties and humanitarian tasks. But it does not explicitly mention protection.
The problem was first raised internally around the time of the Kabul mission. It is not clear why nothing was done about it until now.
It is understood Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Micheál Martin is to shortly introduce amending legislation allowing the deployment of troops for this purpose, after which a close protection team will immediately travel to Kyiv. Ukraine’s government has already told Irish officials it will allow for the deployment of armed Irish troops on its territory for protection purposes.
The deployment of the team is not expected to trigger the Triple Lock, which requires Government and Dáil approval, along with a United Nations mandate, before troops can be deployed. The Triple Lock only applies to contingents of 12 troops or more and the close protection team will likely be smaller than this.
Mr Martin visited Kyiv last year when taoiseach. Then minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney also visited. On both occasions close protection was provided by the Garda Emergency Response Unit (ERU), a move which prompted some anger within defence circles. One of the reasons cited by Government officials for not sending the ARW was confusion about the law.
Close protection is one of the core skillsets of the ARW, which is considered the most highly trained unit in the Defence Forces. The team deploying to Kyiv will be armed but will likely wear civilian clothes and operate discreetly.
There has not been fighting around Kyiv since Russian forces were driven back from the region last April. However, the city is still subject to regular missile attacks, some of which have caused civilian causalities.