Overseas missions are "vitally important" to the Defence Forces and help to project a very good image of Ireland internationally , according to a senior Army officer who is retiring having spent much of his career working abroad.
Maj Gen Michael Finn retired last month as head of mission and chief of staff of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (Untso), one of the most senior positions achieved internationally by a Defence Forces officer. He will retire from the Army itself at the end of next month.
“We are playing a role within the UN and that’s hugely recognised by the [UN] department of peacekeeping operations,” he said.
Asked about the current review of the Defence Forces and what might emerge in the forthcoming White Paper on Defence, Maj Gen Finn said he hoped the Defence Forces would continue to be able to contribute to international operations at the level the country was doing now.
“Aside from the domestic responsibilities that we have, to remain in a position to continue to contribute internationally is hugely important,” he said. “To maintain the reputation, the standing that we have within UN headquarters, with the department of peacekeeping operations, with the secretary general, in relation to our capabilities Ireland is someone that can be called on to contribute meaningfully and make a difference, if that can be maintained, it would be very good.”
Maj Gen Finn, interviewed in McKee Barracks in Dublin to mark his retirement, has enjoyed a career dominated by overseas postings and, within the Defence Forces in Ireland, a stint supervising overseas operations. He served three times with Unifil, the UN interim force in southern Lebanon. Prior to his appointment as head of Untso in June 2013, he served as an Untso unarmed observer on the Syria-Israel border and then on the Lebanon-Israel border.
He commanded the first Irish infantry company to serve in a Nato-led operation, Kfor in Kosovo. Between 2007 and 2010, he was based in Brussels with the European Union military staff helping prepare for, among other things, the EU mission to Chad.
His appointment as head of Untso, the UN’s oldest peacekeeping mission, came at a particularly fraught time in the Middle East with the descent of
into civil war. Untso was set up in 1948 to observe and report on adherence to the armistice agreement between Israel and its four Arab neighbours, made after the initial hostilities that attended the birth of the state of Israel.
Based in Jerusalem, the organisation today has 156 military observers (who are all unarmed), 135 locally employed civilian staff and 88 international civilian staff. It plays no role in affairs within Israel or in relation to Gaza or the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Untso observers man observation posts in southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights. The organisation used to have similar roles in the Sinai Desert and on the Israel-Jordan border but since Israel signed peace agreements with, respectively, Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, it now maintains just a token liaison office in Ismailia on the Suez Canal and conducts occasional patrols in southern Sinai.
Untso has evolved over the years as the situation on the ground has changed. Unarmed Untso observers in southern Lebanon and in Israeli-occupied Syria are administered from Jerusalem but are under the operational control of the Unifil commander in southern Lebanon and the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) commander on the Golan Heights, both of which seek to maintain buffer zones between Israel and its enemies.
In mid-2013, when Maj Gen Finn took over running Untso, the Golan Heights "area of separation" between Israel and Syria ceased to exist as a meaningful buffer because of the Syrian civil war, the zone's eastern flank disintegrating. In quick succession, Croatia and Austria withdrew from Undof and Maj Gen Finn was faced with a growing number of Untso countries placing caveats on their observer participation, saying their troops were no longer permitted to be posted to the Golan.
The solution was to create a more muscular quick reaction force within Undof to patrol what was left of the buffer and offer more robust protection to the observers. This task fell to Ireland, whose 48th Infantry Group makes up the 130-strong Force Reserve Company, working with Fijian and Nepalese Undof troops.
What Maj Gen Finn describes as the comfort brought by the Irish quick reaction force on the Golan has reassured other nations and “has not gone unnoticed in international circles”. He has said events that prompted peacekeeping nations to make their participation conditional through the use of caveats was problematic.
"I fully recognise the national interests that drive caveats, but I also see that caveats threaten to 'drive a wedge' between contributing nations, threatening as well peacekeeping and observer capabilities of the UN," he told the UN Security Council recently. "Thus, it is a critical challenge to find ways to address the contentious issue of caveats and to maintain the integrity of peacekeeping missions into the future."
Untso is unique among the multi-faceted UN presence in the Middle East because, by its very structure and purpose, it has permanent access to all players in the immediate region.
"The head of mission of Untso straddles five different countries in the region and the head of mission has access to the capitals of those five countries," he said during the interview. "So there are great advantages in this: Unifil would be confined very much to Lebanon and Israel, Undof to Syria and Israel, whereas Untso has this overarching, regional mandate which gives us access to Egypt and to military and diplomatic people [there and] in Amman in Jordan."
This was useful in allowing Untso to convey between the sides the thinking of the others and underlines the UN’s commitment to finding a lasting peace in the region.
This allowed him, when meeting military personnel or diplomats on one side, to “convey messages and warnings against what the other side are thinking which you hope will increase the understanding on both sides”.
A UN review last year of Untso’s workings and relevance judged that the organisation symbolised the legitimacy of the world body and its commitment to the pursuit of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East with political values that remains essential.
Maj Gen Finn demurred from commenting on what political measures might help to drive the parties towards peace or on the current migrant crisis in which the Naval Service is playing such a prominent role in the Mediterranean other than to say “it’s a huge problem”.
He said that in playing a role internationally, the Defence Forces had to choose their missions carefully.
“We have to be modest in our ambitions,” he said. “Within our capabilities and within what the Defence Forces can afford to deploy, I think we’re very much in a good place and the important thing is to maintain our place, maintain our equipment, that we can continue to take on these relatively modest roles but very important from a mission’s point of view.”
Aged 62 and from Claremorris, Co Mayo, Maj Gen Finn, who is married and has three children (one a Defence Forces captain working in Sweden with the Nordic Battlegroup, of which Ireland is a member), has no immediate plans for his retirement but he would like to maintain his interest in the Middle East.