At least seven Defence Forces peacekeeping veterans are suing the State for alleged injuries suffered when a convoy of Irish armoured vehicles was ambushed in Syria seven years ago.
The troops were part of the UNDOF peacekeeping mission in Syria in November 2013 and were on patrol in a convoy of five Mowag armoured personnel carriers (APCs) when they came under small-arms fire.
One of the APCs also hit a landmine and lost a wheel in what the Defence Forces concluded was a planned ambush on Irish troops by a Syrian militia. The Irish troops returned fire before withdrawing to their base.
So far seven people have lodged cases against the Department of Defence alleging they suffered injuries of a "physical and/or psychological nature" including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A total of 39 soldiers were on the patrol.
Details of the case are included in briefing documents for the new Minister of Defence Simon Coveney outlining the department's legal exposure.
The matter is currently in a mediation process which has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is expected to appear before the High Court again later in the year.
PTSD and other psychological issues are a serious problem for some returning peacekeepers, especially those returning from UNDOF due to the ongoing Syrian civil war.
“There was a serious amount of human rights abuses and slaughtering going on by these NGA [non-governmental actors] which troops came across in the street,” said one military source. These include the “remains of beheadings, hangings openly displayed in streets and off trees/bridges, innocent civilians and families slaughtered”.
About three-quarters of those returning from the UNDOF mission required psychological support, according to a 2017 Defence Forces review.
The ministerial briefing documents outline nearly 300 other ongoing legal actions against the department concerning anti-malarial drugs given to troops, alleged breaches of the European Union working-time directive and the alleged exposure of Air Corps personnel to toxic chemicals while working at Casement Aerodrome between 1991 and 2006.
These matters have been subject to “ongoing political and media attention,” the Minister was told. It is understood there are roughly 200 other outstanding cases relating to other matters including alleged bullying and personal injuries.
Legal costs relating to defence matters have risen significantly in recent years. The State paid €6.4 million in legal costs, settlements and damages last year and €7.1 million the year before. This is up from €3.77 million in 2017.
The Minister was also warned by department officials that the Defence Forces are facing their highest rate of turnover since 2002.
“The trend in departures in recent years has varied, however, the number of trained personnel exiting the Permanent Defence Forces has increased progressively since 2017,” the document states.
The Minister was advised recruitment was not matching departures meaning Defence Forces strength was declining year on year.
The Army currently has 6,838 members, a figure which has declined almost every year since 2008 when it stood at 8,507.
The Naval Service has 887 members, down from 1,070 in 2018. The Air Corps has 727 personnel, down from 832 in 2008.
The loss of specialist personnel such as “pilots, technicians, mechanics and other trades” is having a disproportionate impact which “has led to operational restrictions in the Air Corps and Naval Service”.
“In a buoyant labour market, members of the Defence Forces with specialist skills were highly sought after. In addition, many of those who departed did so with pension entitlements and this could also make working in the private sector more attractive financially,” the briefing states.