‘Driving in a war zone is a lot different from driving on the M50’

Irish UN peacekeepers on life in danger zones, missing home and getting used to the heat

It's not everyone's choice of a spot to spend the summer – a dugout in the Golan Heights, or a live-fire training camp in Mali – although there are other options. How about flagging landmines along a sand berm in the Western Sahara, or watching from an observation post in south Lebanon, as Israel builds a wall to keep Hizbullah out?

In any case, these are all places a long way from the Wicklow hills, or the snow that fell there in March, when 31-year old Lieut Thomas McHale-Roe from 28th Battalion of the Irish Defence Forces did his pre-deployment training for the arid semi-desert of the African Sahel.

"We were doing off-road driving practice in the snow one day, then we were in 42 degrees the next," the London-born Co Mayo soldier says, now four and a half months into a six-month tour training troops in Mali to fight jihadi militants. "Doing that in full-body armour, carrying weapons – it's definitely a shock to the system."

It may also be a shock to some systems that the Defence Forces are in Mali at all, or Western Sahara, or Syria, or Lebanon, or even – some 57 years after Jadotville – still in the Congo.


There are also small contingents of Irish soldiers in Bosnia, Kosovo and even Afghanistan, operating under a variety of different mandates, from the UN to Partnership for Peace (PfP) to the European Union. In total, 13 countries and one sea are dotted with little islands of Ireland, now home to 645 members of the Defence Forces.

“We’ve been in continuous service overseas since June 28th, 1958,” says Lieut Col Tim O’Brien, who runs the UN Training School Ireland (UNTSI) at the Curragh. “In total, around 70,000 individual tours of duty. I’ve done 10 myself. It’s a lot for a small army, and I don’t think any other country in the world could claim so many, proportionately.”

There has been a price for all that peacekeeping, enforcing and monitoring, though. Since the phone first rang at the Irish UN delegation office in New York, 60 years ago, with an urgent request from then secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold to send peacekeepers to Lebanon, 87 have gone overseas and not come home alive.

Mortar rounds, machine gun bullets, mines and shells have taken their toll, while "quite a lot died in traffic accidents", says retired Col George Kerton, a veteran of many overseas missions. "Driving in a war zone is a lot different from driving on the M50. "

A portrait of the most senior officer to die – Lieut Col Justin McCarthy, killed in a traffic accident in the Congo in 1960 – hangs on the wall above O’Brien’s desk at the Curragh. McCarthy led that first mission in 1958, too, establishing an Irish peacekeeping and peace-monitoring presence in Lebanon that continues to this day.

Situational awareness

Other missions have also come and gone. Defence Forces were deployed to Cyprus in 1964, Kashmir in 1965, the Sinai in 1973, Cambodia in 1991.

In the process, the military has changed dramatically.

“In 1960, before we went to the Congo,” says Kerton, “we were a pre-World War II army. We were frozen in time, with the same uniforms from the 1920s and improvised armoured cars.”

Yet the Defence Forces was enthusiastic to be heading overseas.

"Sean Lemass had a vision and was very active in this," says Kerton, who ascribes to the then tánaiste much of the impetus for the go-ahead given to the UN's request in 1958. Lemass was pushing Eamon de Valera's government to make Ireland more outward looking and saw this as a golden opportunity.

Now the units and personnel deployed overseas are highly trained, well equipped and able to draw on six decades of experience.

That's the kind of pedigree that Sgt John Collins has to draw on daily, too, at his post on the Golan Heights.

The 38-year-old father of three from Waterford is on his fifth overseas deployment, having also been twice to Kosovo, Mali and Lebanon.

On the Golan, he is with the UN Disengagement Observation Force (UNDOF). His job is to support UN observers in and around the Area of Separation – a zone between Israeli and Syrian forces established in 1974.

“We conduct patrols and do constant training,” he says. “Could be in armed combat, night vision, practicing extraction or medical emergencies. We have to keep good situational awareness, at all times.”

Last July fighting in Syria between pro-Assad forces and rebels came dangerously close. “We were a couple of hundred metres away from the fighting,” Collins says. “We watched it unfold, literally out there. It’s quite sobering watching history being made right in front of you.”

Frozen history, however, is usually a larger factor in these missions.

‘Quite challenging’

Thirty-two year-old Capt Ciara Ní Ruairc from Kildare is part of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which was first deployed in 1991. It now monitors a ceasefire between Morocco and Polisario guerillas along an extraordinary, 1,400km sand wall snaking through the desert known as the Berm.

“We’ll be doing patrolling on the Berm site,” she says, who arrived at the start of August. “The temperature out there in the middle of the desert will be about 50 degrees and can get up to 54 to 55 degrees. It can be quite challenging, but you just have to adjust to it.”

Ní Ruairc will also be marking landmines and making sure neither side has encroached on the ceasefire line. There have been few incidents recently, but “in any overseas op there is an inherent risk you have to be conscious of”, she says.

As for her gender – another sign of how the military has changed since 1958 – “from a Defence Forces point of view, it’s a non-issue”, she says. “In fact, that’s one of the things I like about them. If you are of the right standard, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Danger is also a constant in Mali, where McHale-Roe trains Malian soldiers in everything from how to avoid an improvised explosive device to human rights law. He is there with the EU Training Mission (EUTM), which operates under a UN mandate.

“The UN mission in Mali is the deadliest in UN history,” he says, “with about 160 peacekeepers killed since it started in 2013.”

Most of the fighting is in another part of the country from the training camp where he works, however. Trips to the field for training exercises still involve careful checking in advance to make sure all is secure.

“You have to be alert, aware, wearing your body armour and carrying your weapon when you leave camp,” he says. “I don’t really feel under threat. We have force protection units and Malian troops protecting us”.

The level of danger is, of course, also a marker of a mission’s level of success.

Physically demanding

Sgt Philip Kelly from Co Meath first deployed to south Lebanon 20 years ago and is now back there on his sixth tour of overseas duty.

There, he works for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), set up in 1978 to supervise the Israeli withdrawal and restore peace and security to the border zone.

“It’s physically demanding here and can be repetitive,” he says. “We do six-hour patrols, and you always have combat gear with you. But when I compare what I saw on my first tour here with what I see now, I see a clear pay-off. The area is now populated and prosperous. It’s definitely worthwhile.”

Relations with locals are also key.

“Working with the Malians is a joy,” says McHale-Roe. “I try to use some Irish humour with them too, which seems to work well. ”

Developing good relations with other national contingents is also a major part of these missions.

“There are 21 different nationalities with the mission here,” says McHale-Roe. “You learn so much working with people from so many countries. We’re hoping to get some over to Ireland later for training courses – we have extreme wet in Ireland, which is an experience in itself. But it’s also about building a kinship. During the World Cup, the Brits set up a TV on my landing for us all to watch, the Germans organised a fussbol tournament and we Irish are trying to organise a rugby tournament – we’re trying to bring the game overseas.”

Tours are usually six months, which can be a long time away from home.

“My husband, I miss,” says Ní Ruairc, “number one, top of the list.”

Family isn’t so far away these days, however, as the camps are equipped with wifi and courtesy phones. Other things missed range from a full Irish fry-up to chocolate and even the rain, says Kelly, although, “obviously family and friends too – sometimes it’s harder for them than it is for us”.

For those deployed, the value of the missions makes these sacrifices worth taking, however.

“I think to myself, if, as a result of my training, I get one guy on board on something that’ll save his life, that’s a success,” says McHale-Roe.

“It is the road less travelled – a surreal way of life,” says Collins. “Back home, you have normality; here, a different part of the world, with other nationalities, and you get a chance to represent the tricolour, the Irish people, and show what we can do.”

Ní Ruairc agrees: “I wanted to make a difference and represent my country on the international stage. So, what better way to do that is there, than this?”