Under the blue flag

 

IN JULY 1960, in response to a request from newly independent Congo, Ireland sent its first contingent on a UN-mandated peacekeeping mission, inaugurating 50-years of courageous, and professional service to the international body. That mission would last four years, involving 6,000 Irish soldiers and the tragic loss of 26 lives, nine of them in one action in Niemba on November 8th, 1960. To date, 86 members of the Defence Forces have lost their lives on UN service.

At yesterday’s commemoration at Baldonnel to mark the Congo deployment Taoiseach Brian Cowen rightly paid a warm tribute to the legacy of the mission, in many ways a coming-of-age for the Defence Forces.

But it is true to say that the professionalism, now the hallmark of our involvement in peacekeeping and, as the Taoiseach observed, widely admired internationally, has been acquired at a heavy price. The men who boarded flights to Congo were ill-equipped, inexperienced and unprepared for the sort of challenges they would face. Whether it was the wool uniforms, poor communication equipment and weapons, linguistic inadequacies or the sheer vastness of the Congo, they all combined to make for a steep learning curve for the Army. But it also proved, in an operation that quickly evolved from peacekeeping to peace-enforcing as the Congo descended into chaos, that Irish soldiers in combat were a tough, effective and determined force that would have to be reckoned with.

Involvement in UN operations, increasingly now as part of an EU contingent, has become a cornerstone of Ireland’s foreign engagement. It is an internationalist commitment that reflects not just a moral imperative, an adherence to global collective security as a defining part of our active neutrality, but is also part and parcel of our UN membership. As the Taoiseach noted, echoing predecessor Seán Lemass 50 years ago, member states are under a legal obligation to the UN arising from its charter to provide armed forces in support of security council action. This is an obligation that many do not meet and which may also involve us in politically difficult operations about which we may have doubts.

Following the return from Chad, small numbers are currently serving in eight theatres including once again the Congo. But Ireland continues to offer through the UN Standby Arrangements System to provide up to 850 military for overseas service at any one time, and yesterday Minister for Defence Tony Killeen suggested many more will once again be called on soon to don the blue beret. It is a most honourable calling.