Minister for Defence Paul Kehoe, together with the Deputy Chief-of-Staff of the Defence Forces, Maj-Gen Kieran Brennan, and several other senior officers and defence officials are currently on a nine-day trip to the Middle East.
They are combining St Patrick's Day events in several places with visits to a number of United Nationspeacekeeping operations in which Ireland is playing leading roles.
On Monday, commemorative events marked the start of something that has had a major, and continuing, impact on the Defence Forces – Unifil, or the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, an interim force that now has a 40-year history.
In March 1978, members of Fatah, the Palestinian National Liberation Movement which was part of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, entered Israel from southern Lebanon and began a spate of killings by murdering an American tourist on a beach.
They then hijacked two buses and, in the ensuing carnage with Israeli security forces, 38 Israeli civilians, including 13 children, were killed and 76 wounded. Three days later, on March 14th, Israel invaded Lebanon to clear out their enemy, from the Israel/Lebanon border north to the Litani river.
The UN Security Council went into emergency sessions, and on March 19th adopted resolutions that called for a ceasefire and Israeli withdrawal, and the setting up of Unifil. The first troops arrived on March 23rd; the Irish took up positions in May and have been there since.
Wreath- laying ceremonies and speeches in Tibnin and Naqoura, involving Mr Kehoe and Maj-Gen Brennan, are important for the families of those who died over those four decades – 47 in all, 18 of them through hostile action against UN peacekeepers.
The events are also significant for the current Irish contingent – 336 Irish men and women of the 111th Infantry Battalion who began their tour of duty last November and will be coming home in May.
And it was be an important moment too for Maj-Gen Mike Beary, the Irish officer who is Unifil force commander and head of mission – a job that has him in charge of a force that is in some respects larger than the one from which he comes back home. Unifil had 10,838 military personnel, plus 817 civilian employees, seven warships, nine helicopters, 15 hospitals and a budget of $489 million.
In Unifil’s 40 years, over 32,000 individual tours of duty have been served in southern Lebanon by Defence Forces personnel.
"It was hugely important in the Defence Forces, certainly to my generation," says retired Colonel George Kerton, of the Irish United Nations Veterans' Association.
We wanted to play our part on the world stage, and so we sent a full battalion to the Lebanon, the 43rd Infantry Battalion
Looking back, Col Kerton sees the Defence Forces' embracing of UN overseas duties in the context of the Troubles in the North. For most of the 1970s an Army career meant long periods of Border duty and other tasks assisting the Garda Síochána – the Defence Forces' "aid to the civil power" imperative. While not diminishing any of those tasks, they were nonetheless limited in scope and appeal.
Then came Unifil and, although the mission followed others in the Congo, Cyprus and Egypt, it is instructive to note that Irish participation in the UN Emergency Force II’s deployment in Sinai ended in July 1974 in the wake of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.
In the late 1970s, Unifil reopened a world of possibilities for the keen soldier.
“It opened up a lot of opportunities. It reinforced the need for recruitment,” says Col Kerton. “We wanted to play our part on the world stage, and so we sent a full battalion to the Lebanon, the 43rd Infantry Battalion.”
He drew professional satisfaction from the fact his “basic training for conventional warfare could be adapted for humanitarian and peacekeeping purposes”. While men and women signed up for different reasons – for soldiering, for adventure and for economic reasons in some cases – most also wanted “to serve the State, at home and abroad”.
Col Kerton saw service several more times in Lebanon, in 1979/80, in 1985/86 and again in 1997/98, while he also served with the UN in Western Sahara in 2000 and in Bosnia in 2005.
Unifil is intimately connected with Untso – the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation. Headquartered in Jerusalem, Untso was set up in 1948 to oversee implementation of the truce between Israel and its neighbours in the war that followed the UN’s 1948 declaration of the state of Israel, which came under immediate attack.
About 150 soldiers from multiple nations work with Untso, including 12 from Ireland.
The organisation runs two groups of unarmed military observers in observation posts at flashpoints. One group works in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights with Undof, the UN disengagement observer force, to which Ireland contributed the Force Reserve Company, the other works with Unifil.
Capt John Forde is currently stationed with Untso in Tiberias on the shore of Lake Galilee, and works mostly in an observation post on a line between Israel and Syria. "On a daily basis we do a series of static patrols and inspections."
Capt Forde watches for ceasefire violations – from the every serious to the routine and inconsequential. But, as a measure of the effect of overseas service on morale, it is seeing colleagues in the Force Reserve Company, the Irish-run rapid support service for the unarmed observers, that really boosts him. One day he may need their help.
“Whenever you see the guys rolling up and deploying, really slick with their drills, it does give you a sense of pride,” he says. “And it’s also the fact that other nations, from Canada to New Zealand, compliment our people and their capabilities – that gives you a great sense of pride too.”
Asked what does he think the Irish bring uniquely to peacekeeping, he instances a mix of national character and training.
“What they bring is a common sense, a real practical skill. They are measured in how they act, and they bring an applied sense of responsibility. That’s a real complement to their training.”
Unifil’s 111th Battalion will be packing their kit bags in a few weeks for the return home. Already their replacement, the 112th, are well into their training.