The Government will not cut the numbers of members of the Defence Forces serving in United Nations peacekeeping missions, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney has said.
"Under the current pressures, there are some people who are asked to go, as opposed to volunteer to go, and that is something I'm obviously conscious of," said Mr Coveney in Beirut at the end of a three-day visit to Lebanon.
However, recruitment is under way, he said, adding that the Defence Forces did not want to cut off overseas postings: “It’s a big part of choosing a career in the Defence Forces,” he said.
The Naval Service has not been able to serve abroad because of crew shortages, but the Chief of Staff, Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett said he would be "encouraging that as soon as we can", subject to the Government's backing.
Meanwhile, Mr Coveney, who last month introduced legislation to allow members of the Reserve Defence Forces to serve overseas, said he wants to see “a significant increase” in the size of the RDF.
Skillset pinch points
Particularly keen to attract cybersecurity and communications experts, chefs, medics and engineers, he said: “We sometimes have pinch points in terms of skillsets and I think the role of the reserve would be really useful in that regard.”
Final approval to let RDF members serve overseas will come after the Commission on the Future of the Defence Forces reports, and after legislation to ensure that the jobs of those going to serve abroad are protected.
Ireland's neutrality triple-lock, which requires UN authorisation for missions, as well as the approval of the Dáil and the Cabinet, offers "the necessary reassurance" to the Oireachtas and the public, said the Minister.
"I will often speak to some military experts and security experts or peacekeeping experts who will say that Ireland should not allow a veto on the Security Council to be an impediment to doing the right thing," he said.
However, Mr Coveney told The Irish Times, he believed the triple lock was “a safety net to ensure that Irish neutrality, or our military non-alliance, is both protected and maintained”.
But the triple lock is not always necessary, he said: “When I decided to send a ship to the Mediterranean that was a humanitarian mission, rather than a peacekeeping mission, I didn’t need to go through the triple-lock system.”
During his visit, Mr Coveney and the Chief of Staff visited the Irish battalion serving with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) in Naquora and Tibnin, where Irish soldiers have served since 1979.
Praising the role they have performed, Mr Coveney said generations of Irish soldiers had played a crucial role in delicately managing tensions and relationships across Southern Lebanon.
“I don’t believe it’s the job of Unifil to be kicking in doors and looking for arms. I think that would completely change their relationship with communities and community leaders in Southern Lebanon.”
“Unifil has always operated on the basis of pragmatism and relationships to keep people safe,” says the Minister. “To my mind, that is good peacekeeping, as opposed to resorting to the flexing of muscle straight away.”