The future of Irish overseas military service likely lies in smaller, specialised missions but for the moment the Defence Forces is going through an “extremely challenging period”, according to the chief of staff.
Lieut Gen Seán Clancy was speaking while on a morale-boosting visit to the LÉ William Butler Yeats which is on patrol off the north African coast as part of Operation Irini.
Missions like this will play a key role in driving recruitment and retention and enable the Defence Forces to reach its goal of having a strength of 11,500, military officials hope.
Operation Irini is an EU mission to enforce a United Nations arms embargo on Libya in an effort to stabilise the war-torn north African state. It is also responsible for disrupting human trafficking and gathering intelligence about oil smuggling.
Since deploying on June 15th, the Irish ship has carried out some 45 operations. It has boarded four ships with the consent of their captains and conducted about 40 “hailings” where information is gathered about a passing ship over the radio.
The ship is docked in Malta for resupply and repairs and to allow the crew to rest.
In his address to the 57-strong crew, Lieut Gen Clancy outlined a three-part strategy to stem the recruitment and retention crisis affecting the Defence Forces in general and the Naval Service in particular.
It comprises a dedicated Naval recruitment campaign, focus on international missions and the “most important thing”, improvements in sea-going allowances.
Speaking to The Irish Times, the chief of staff said the Defence Forces is “stressed” and going through an “extremely challenging period”. However, he said it is not hopeless.
“We will get out of this,” he said. “We will be able to turn this around.”
He said it may seem contradictory to send a ship to the Mediterranean when there is such pressure at home. With the William Butler Yeats overseas for seven weeks, there are only three ships available for domestic patrols.
Period of consolidation
But such missions are vital for driving recruitment and retention, he said.
The general referenced the film Field of Dreams, and its famous line, “if you build it they will come.”
The Defence Forces have recently stood down various missions in Africa as it undergoes a period of consolidation. A final contingent of troops in Mali is due to return home soon, leaving the organisation with just one peacekeeper in Africa, an officer assigned to the UN Mine Action Group in Uganda.
Lieut Gen Clancy said the withdrawals “give him pause for thought. But I’m an optimist. In Africa, we have traditionally cut in for a short period and withdrawn again and this is no different.”
The security situation meant they had to withdraw from the Congo, he said. They are withdrawing from the EU training mission in Mali, which is intended to build up the Malian army to fight Islamic forces, “because it was simply not delivering on the mandate that was required”.
He said he thinks Irish troops will return to Africa but for now, the organisation needs to consolidate.
There will be a need for “more niche, more specific” missions such as Operation Irini in the future, he said.
“Niche capability for a small nation like ours is something that we can definitely contribute to because we have very specialised skill sets. But that’s for the future.”
The general noted criticism in last year’s Commission on the Defence Forces report of Ireland operating two large, static peacekeeping missions in Lebanon and Syria, given the small size of its military (Defence Forces troops will shortly withdraw from UNDof in the Golan Heights in Syria to free up capacity for participation in the EU Battlegroup).
But he said the days of traditional peacekeeping missions, where troops are stationed in a buffer zone between two belligerents, are not over.
“If Ukraine has taught us anything, it’s that land warfare has not gone away and there’s a need to provide training in that peacekeeping environment, similar to what we have in the Golan Heights.”
He said the Defence Forces would respond “very positively” if the Government decides to get involved in such a mission.