President revisits Lebanon on her final foreign trip in office


Mrs McAleese praises Irish Unifil soldiers, as she returns to Lebanon 14 years after first visit

ON HER final foreign trip in office, President Mary McAleese is back in Lebanon, 14 years after making the country the focus of her first trip.

Back in 1997, within weeks of her inauguration, she became the first Irish president to visit Irish troops serving overseas.

For Lebanon, it was a time of sustained tension in a region devastated by decades of war and occupation.

Yesterday, after landing by Government jet in a sunny and relatively calm Beirut, she said her strongest memories of her first trip to the city were of a place teeming with military and of children playing in the rubble of buildings that were still home to them.

Now, she said, it looked like “a completely different city”.

The Lebanese minister for foreign affairs and emigrants, Adnan Mansour, was at Beirut airport to greet her and Senator Martin McAleese.

Later they were guests of honour at a dinner given by President Michel Sleiman and Wafaa Sleiman at the presidential palace.

In a short speech, Mrs McAleese noted the similarities between the two countries, riven by “generations of outside occupation and intervention, inter-communal divisions, emigration and stunted economic development, but, at the same time, countries and peoples strong in character, in traditions, in resilience and in an absolute determination to build a better future”.

She recalled her first visit in 1997. “Coming from Northern Ireland as I do, and therefore no stranger to conflict, it evoked a sadness in my heart as I witnessed the havoc that conflict had wreaked here.

“I have returned just 14 years later to find a thriving, reconstructed, beautiful city . . . and a country moving forward at a rapid pace in terms of its economic and social development.”

She also referred to what she called the “phenomenal change” experienced in Ireland, saying that “despite current economic setbacks, Ireland remains a strong and progressive country within Europe, with a highly innovative, open and globalised economy, high export performance, a country and people intent on meeting head-on the challenges we face and securing a brighter and better future for all its people”.

The friendship and understanding between the two countries and people, she noted, “were forged during some of the darkest days in your country’s history when, over 23 years, well over 20,000 Irish peacekeepers came to Lebanon in the service of Unifil to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability . . .”

Forty-seven Irish peacekeepers lost their lives in that cause, more than any other UN peacekeeping force.

“May I take this opportunity to recall the sacrifice of these brave peacekeepers and the terrible loss to their loved ones.”

It was a source of great pride to Ireland that once again a battalion of our troops had returned to serve with Unifil in Tibnin, she said, acknowledging the “difficult and uncertain time” in the Irish areas, and Unifil’s “difficult and potentially dangerous” mission.

Today she travels by helicopter to Tibnin, an area guarded by about 440 Irish UN troops drawn from 29 counties.

The 10-hour tour will include visits to troop positions on the so-called Blue Line with Israel, meetings with local civic and religious representatives and a call to Tibnin orphanage.

This evening, she will attend a dinner hosted by the president of the council of ministers, HE Najib Mikati.

Among the delegation are: Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Alan Shatter; the chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, David Stanton TD; the Irish Ambassador, Isolde Moylan; the secretary general of the Department of Defence, Michael Howard; the chief-of-staff of the Defence Forces, Lieut Gen Seán McCann; and the political director of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, David Donoghue.