Ireland’s role in peacekeeping in focus on ‘Casement Humanitarian Day’

Trocaire and UNICEF represented at commemoration of humanitarian crusader

Tents had to be fastened extra-securely to their moorings at a windswept Casement Aerodrome at Baldonnel for the final official centenary commemoration of the execution of a leader of the 1916 Rising.

It didn’t stop at least one marquee shooting straight up into the air, revealing soldiers demonstrating their high-tech weaponry to an audience of suddenly startled small boys.

It was at this former Royal Flying Corps base in west Dublin that Roger Casement's repatriated remains arrived in 1965 prior to their reinterment in Glasnevin.

Like all the commemorations of the Rising which have taken place this year, the Defence Forces again played a central role in proceedings. There were displays of historic aircraft and up-to-date equipment, while Air Corps, Naval Service and Army uniforms of all sorts were all everywhere. But the usual family day treats were also available.

If we can say one thing for sure about Ireland 2016, it’s that never have so many faces been painted or gourmet burgers consumed for the cause of Irish freedom.

The main emphasis, though, reflecting Casement’s own humanitarian crusades on behalf of the exploited and the abused, was on Ireland’s role in peacekeeping and conflict resolution around the world.

August 3rd, 100 years exactly after his hanging in Pentonville Prison, was billed by the State as “Casement Humanitarian Day”, with the exhibitions in the hangars at Baldonnel charting the many times Irish military personnel have participated in UN missions since 1958. The connection between Casement’s crusades in Africa and Latin America and the work being done today was a recurring theme.

"The focus is on Dochas and Irish Aid, but also on the Defence Forces' peacekeeping role since 1958," said Commandant Stephen Mac Eoin, the Defence Forces' archivist, who is currently seconded to the Ireland 2016 programme.

Mac Eoin believes Ireland’s experience of colonialism has stood the Defence Forces in good stead in their UN work, most of which has been in countries which had themselves been colonised. “The humanitarian aspect of Casement has almost been forgotten,” said Mac Eoin, who agreed that the prominent role of the military in the ceremonial events of the year, and in initiatives such as Flags for Schools.

Trocaire, UNICEF and many other agencies were also represented. Aoife McNamara of Plan International Ireland, a children’s rights organisation, agreed there was a connection between Casement and the work Plan is doing in west Africa. “I do think Ireland has a very strong humanitarian past,” she said. “What we need to focus on now is human rights and social justice.

“We’ve moved on from the charity model. It’s about human dignity, human rights and bringing everybody up to a sustainable standard of living. We work with local staff to ensure quality education for girls and boys. We also specialise in education in emergencies to ensure children’s education is not disrupted when there’s conflict. And we work specifically on girls’ rights, to end child marriage and to end the practice of FGM.”

Mac Eoin says that rape as a weapon and gender-based violence is “a huge challenge” in the areas where Irish peacekeeping forces are deployed. “”Our female members play a big role, especially in Muslim countries such as Chad, in terms of being allowed to talk to women,” he says.

While the focus was on Casement the humanitarian, Casement the Irish revolutionary also figured in a debate chaired by RTÉ’s Seán O’Rourke. Margaret O’Callaghan of Queen’s University stressed that Casement had been “a committed Irish nationalist” from his teens, and Michael Kennedy of the Royal Irish Academy described Casement as “the founding father of Irish foreign policy”.

Earlier in the day, in a wreath-laying ceremony at Glasnevin cemetery, Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said Roger Casement was one of the more intriguing personalities involved in the Easter Rising.

“His work to expose cruelty and abuse in Africa secured his legacy as one of the great Irish humanitarians of the early 20th century, and his commitment is reflected in Ireland’s long standing involvement with UN peacekeeping missions and our strong commitment to overseas development.”

The event in Glasnevin, which included a reading of documents from the trial, was also attended by members of Casement’s family.