Killing of Irish soldier by Israelis believed to be ‘deliberate and unprovoked’
Cpl Dermot McLaughlin killed when Israeli tank shell hit Unifil post in January 1987
Irish Defence Forces soldiers pictured in southern Lebanon in 2007. The government considered ending Ireland’s involvmenent in the Unifil mission 20 years earlier after a corporal was killed in January 1987. Photograph: Kate Geraghty
The death of a Defence Forces corporal serving with the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon prompted the government to consider withdrawing from the mission, according to State papers opened under the 30-year rule.
At the same time throughout 1987, the government was grappling with a shortfall in funding, from the UN, to pay for the peacekeeping operation, while trying simultaneously to exert diplomatic pressure in Washington for the United States, the chief funding defaulter, to pay its dues.
Cpl Dermot McLaughlin (33), who served with the 28th Infantry Battalion, which is otherwise based at Finner Camp in Donegal, was on duty in a UN observation post near the town of Brashit in southern Lebanon at 8.49pm on Saturday, January 10th, 1987.
He was killed when an Israeli tank shell hit the Unifil (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) post. Defence Forces sources have long viewed the incident as a deliberate, and unprovoked, attack by the Israelis, a view supported by a 19-page memorandum presented to government on January 19th, 1987, entitled Review of Irish Participation in Unifil.
The Israeli tank that fired the fatal round was inside what was known as Charlie Compound, a place controlled by the so-called South Lebanon Army (SLA), an Israeli proxy inside Lebanon.
“There were no reports of hostile fire aimed at the compound and the Army does not believe that there were armed elements (ie Hizbullah or Amal guerrillas) in the vicinity when the attack occurred,” says the review.
It notes that about an hour before the post was attacked, an Israeli defence forces liaison officer had contacted Unifil claiming to have seen “suspicious movement close to the Irish Unifil post”.
“The Irish Unifil post indicated that there was no such movement near their post,” the review continues. “Despite this, firing subsequently commenced from the compound at the town of Brashit in the course of which one tank round hit the Irish Unifil position.
“The Unifil post responded by firing two red flares indicating that they had been struck by fire.
“Subsequently, a second tank round hit the Unifil post and detonated as a result of which Corporal McLaughlin received multiple injuries and died before being evacuated to hospital. The UN post was struck at the time of the incident by a third tank round; no casualties were caused as a consequence of this round.”
The review characterises the Israeli action as “a new departure” and charges “the indications are, moreover, that it was a deliberate and unprovoked attack”.
In support of this, the review says that the existence of the UN post was well established and well known, flared alerting the attacking tank were fired, the post was the only properly lit building in the area and the UN flag itself was illuminated by spotlight, the attacking tank was a “highly sophisticated one and was manned by Israeli personnel, not untrained SLA members”, and finally “there was no hostile fire at the time of the incident”.
The review notes also that the attack followed “a series of incidents of close fire [from Israeli forces] which we regard as harassment of our Unifil personnel and which was the subject of a formal protest” to Israel’s defence minister.
Israel responded initially by claiming the attack on the UN post was an “unfortunate accident in the course of firing on Brashit” but later claimed that an Israeli officer “new to the area overruled a subordinate and instructed that the post be fired on”.
“The officer has since been removed from his post,” said the summary prepared for the cabinet, the review itself noting Israel’s regret and describing Cpl McLoughlin’s death as tragic.
The government responded to the attack by calling in the Israeli ambassador to Ireland and registering “a strong protest” while at the UN expressing concern to the secretary general who supported Ireland’s call for the Israeli officer responsible to be disciplined.
While minister for defence Paddy O’Toole was “gravely concerned about the safety of Irish troops in the mission area”, minister for foreign affairs Peter Barry said an Irish withdrawal from Unifil “would do a disservice to our international reputation”.
The government decided to continue with Unifil and by April, a decision to rotate Irish troops needed to be taken, it was overshadowed by funding concerns.
A memorandum for government, dated April 8th, 1987, noted that the withholding by the US “of a significant portion of its assessed contribution to Unifil has seriously exacerbated the problem of force financing”. The Irish embassy in Washington had told the administration of president Ronald Reagan of Irish “dissatisfaction” at this.
A series of telex exchanges between the embassy and the department in Dublin in the Autumn of 1987 shines a light on efforts to get US senators to overturn a house appropriations committee decision not to reinstate funding Unifil, efforts that were in time supported by the then secretary of state George Schultz.
A note from the ambassador, Padraic MacKernan, refers to a “hostile mood towards State dept. spending programmes in particular” and suggests the senate was unlikely to overturn the committee recommendation.
However, a day later, on October 15th, 1987, a note from the embassy reported greater optimism that Unifil funding would be restored – which it was, as a December 18th telex from the embassy to Dublin noted, “this makes it virtually certain that $18.7m will be appropriated for Unifil”.
Other files show that, in February 1987, the minister for defence sought cabinet approval that an ex-gratia lump sum payment would henceforth be given automatically to the dependant of any member of the Defence Forces killed on overseas peacekeeping duties with the United Nations.
The request was part of a submission from the minister for a payment to the widow of Lieutenant Francis Murphy who was killed in August 1986 while serving with Unifil in south Lebanon.
In a memo that twice notes twice “the lump sum [which was £25,590] is recoverable from the United Nations”, approval was sought also that in future “where a member of the Defence Forces dies as a result of overseas service with a United Nations Peace Keeping Force, the ex-gratia lump sum be automatically payable and that the question of dependency should arise only in determining the person to whom the lump-sum is payable”.
The cabinet approved the suggestion.