After returning home from attending an Ireland-France rugby match in Paris in 2007, then taoiseach Bertie Ahern had a proposal which took Irish military officials by surprise.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy had asked Ireland to contribute to a French-led EU mission in Chad to protect the thousands of refugees entering the country.
The first job for the Defence Forces was to find the country. "[Defence Forces] HQ was scrambling around for a map trying to figure out where Chad was," Brig Gen David Dignam recalled during a recent talk organised by UCC.
Within a year, Irish troops were on the ground in the central African nation. It was a dangerous mission. At one point, Dignam recalled, the 97th Infantry Battalion “had to interpose themselves between Djabal refugee camp, and armed groups are fighting within two kilometres of the camp.
“And effectively, they said, we’re about to stand here, we’re going to protect the people in this camp, if needs to be with our lives. And that was our statement of intention to the locals in that area.”
The Chad mission was more complex, more aggressive and more dangerous than most other Defence Forces deployments such as the UN Disengagement Observer Force mission in Syria and UN Interim Force in Lebanon.
Now, all the signs suggest these types of missions are to become the future for the Irish military.
According to experts and officials who spoke to The Irish Times, the future of Irish peacekeeping lies not in deploying a few hundred lightly armed troops to relatively stable areas of the Middle East but in more specialised and dangerous missions to Africa, particularly in the Sahel region where extremism and climate change are increasingly destabilising already weak governments.
"I think Africa is likely to be a big focus, particularly across the Sahel region," Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney tells The Irish Times.
Military and civilian officials are currently undertaking an examination of what kind of overseas missions Irish soldiers are likely to be tasked with in the next few years, Coveney says.
A consensus is now emerging, both in Ireland and abroad, that relatively small teams of specialists – such as engineers, medical personnel and bomb disposal experts – will be more in demand from western countries than the jack-of-all-trades peacekeeper.
It is a process that’s going to take “a number of years, not just a number of months”, Coveney says. “The conversation that’s taking place at the moment is, if we’re going to actually build capacity to do something else of substance for the UN, well, what missions are we currently doing that we should think about? We haven’t made any decisions in that regard.”
It is a view which was shared by the Minister’s department in a submission to the Commission on the Defence Forces earlier this year.
Developments in peacekeeping “point to the need for increased specialised capabilities within the Defence Forces”, the Department of Foreign Affairs said. “These capabilities should include Rapid Deployable Units, skills in [bomb disposal-related activities], peacekeeping intelligence, emerging technology and continued protection of civilians expertise.”
The department added that co-operation with the EU and Nato is likely to become more important as peacekeeping becomes "increasingly complex, taking place in demanding security environments and requiring a range of specialised skills."
Coveney points out that Ireland has a long tradition of peacekeeping in Africa, from the heroics of Jadotville in 1961 to the scattering of much smaller Irish missions which exist today across the continent. Most notable are the deployments to Mali, where the elite Army Ranger Wing carry out counter-terrorism operations and Irish instructors provide military training.
Coveney says he would also like to see the Air Corps and Naval Service involved in future missions, including possibly contributing ships to the EU's Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre, which is responsible for co-ordinating drug interdiction operations in the Atlantic. However, the manpower shortages in the Naval Service makes the latter unlikely in the near future, he concedes.
“There are active missions at the moment that I would like Ireland to be involved in. But we’ve got to be realistic about what’s possible in the short term.”
Today most of the large peacekeeping missions have become dominated by developing countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh who are able to provide manpower but not necessarily specialised personnel and equipment, says Finish Brig Gen Mauri Koskela who, until recently, served as the Deputy Force Commander of Undof in Syria. Such countries rely heavily on UN payments to maintain their large militaries.
"The focus will turn more and more to missions in Africa. There the UN will use these large troop-contributing countries, which are mainly developing countries," Koskela says. "With more developed countries like Ireland and Finland, we will be asked for more specialised, smaller units."
These new mission profiles will bring new dangers for the Defence Forces, which has lost 87 troops on overseas missions since its first mission to the Congo in 1958.
Koskela recalls hearing from a “very senior” UN headquarters official a few years ago, that in future there will only be a demand for peace enforcement missions. Peace enforcement means compelling combatants to stop fighting, usually by military force. They are far more dangerous than peacekeeping missions, in that there is usually no peace to keep; the Korean War and the first Gulf War were both peace enforcement operations.
Koskela was recently asked by the Finnish parliament for his predictions about future peacekeeping missions. “I said that we have to prepare ourselves for more losses, losing more peacekeepers. Because the operations will be more robust.”
Modern conflicts increasingly involve non-state groups, such as rebel insurgencies or terrorists and the blue helmet of the UN does not offer the same protection as it used to, he says.
Asked if the Irish Government and people would be willing to accept an increased risk to its troops, Coveney says the Defence Forces will not shy away from difficult missions and that it makes sense to pair the most experienced countries up with the most complex missions.
“Peacekeeping is never about playing it safe. We are talking about very well-trained soldiers here. Having said that, of course, there is a risk threshold beyond which we will not go.”
For Ireland, the move to smaller, more specialised missions will be a massive change. Recently the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (Raco) produced figures showing about 7 per cent of the Irish Army is overseas at any one time.
By comparison, the equivalent figure for Sweden is 1.5 per cent while for New Zealand, which has the roughly the same size military and population as Ireland, it is 0.7 per cent.
In any one year, about a quarter of Army troops are either overseas or training to go overseas.
“I can say without fear of contradiction that there is not an army in the western world, other than Ireland, that deploys and makes that level of commitment to peacekeeping on an annual basis. And we are very, very proud of that effort,” Brig Gen Dignam told the UCC conference in May.
However, given the retention crisis affecting the Defence Forces, it is not at all clear that Ireland will be able to commit to even the smaller overseas missions envisioned by military planners. The organisation has currently 1,000 staff below its establishment strength of 9,500, a figure which gets worse every year.
Furthermore, those who do remain are less keen to volunteer for peacekeeping duty.
Overseas service has traditionally been popular among Irish soldiers. As well as offering a degree of excitement and adventure, the extra allowances for peacekeeping tours are a valuable source of income. It is common for soldiers to volunteer for a tour when they want to put a deposit on a house or after they learn they have a baby on the way.
However, figures obtained by The Irish Times show Defence Forces management is increasingly being forced to order or “mandatorily select” troops to go on overseas missions.
This is particularly the case for the highly specialised soldiers, such as engineers and medical personnel. The trend is creating severe manpower gaps at home as troops are plucked from their units at short notice, Raco said.
Coveney says he hopes it is not the case that Ireland’s current, relatively stable overseas missions have lost their allure for soldiers. But he agrees more dangerous missions generate more publicity, and therefore “more excitement”.
“And that’s what drives many young people to decide to join the Defence Forces. They want to represent Ireland in uniform, they want to change the world.
“They want to be a peacekeeper, they want to be a soldier. And that for them means adventure, camaraderie, certainty of income, promotion opportunities. This is this is what drives a young man or woman to want to join the Defence Forces.”
He insists the Defence Forces, despite the manpower crisis, will not be withdrawing from its peacekeeping duties in any way.
“We’ve made sacrifices and really valuable contributions around the world. And I intend on ensuring that we keep that reputation intact.”