Analysis: 60 years ago today, the Secretary General of the United Nations asked for five Irish officers to join a UN team in Lebanon

By Dr John GibneyRoyal Irish Academy

On 23 June 1958, Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary General of the United Nations, contacted the Irish Permanent Mission to the UN to request that Ireland provide five officers of mid-rank to join a UN "observation team" in Lebanon at very short notice. 

Amongst the qualifications required were driving ability, "some experience conducting investigations, questioning witnesses and preparing reports", along with "even temperament mature and objective judgement" – and ideally some knowledge of French. 

The United Nations Observer Group in Lebanon (UNOGIL) that they were being asked to join had been set up to monitor the flow of weapons across the Lebanese border with Syria, which at this time formed part of the short-lived United Arab Republic along with Egypt. 

UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold arrives in Beirut in June 1958 (UN photo)

Under the leadership of General Gamel Abdul Nasser, the United Arab Republic was supporting Muslim rebel forces against the recently elected government of Lebanon, led by the Maronite Christian Camille Chamoun.

The Lebanese had brought their concerns to the UN, and the creation of UNOGIL was the outcome. 

Some 80 officers from a wide range of countries (mainly in Western Europe and Scandinavia, but also India, Peru, Burma and Canada) were taking part in the UNOGIL and most had already arrived in Lebanon, but the UN sought to add another 20.

Hence the query to the Irish delegation, which, in the Permanent Mission’s view, should receive a "favourable reply". According to Eamonn Kennedy, Ireland’s charge d’affaires at the UN: 

"We, for our part, would like to express the hope that this opportunity to participate in a useful and practical task of the United Nations in a vital area for world peace will not be missed. This is the first time that Ireland’s participation in a joint U.N. team has been requested by the Organization. It would seem fair to say that our successful participation would open the door to sharing in further efforts of this kind for which our position in the Organization is admirably suited."

The next day, 24 June 1958, the cabinet, led by Eamon de Valera, who was about to enter his final year as Taoiseach, agreed to send a small number of suitably qualified officers to serve with the UNOGIL in Lebanon under the leadership of Lt Col Justin McCarthy (who, as it happened, spoke good French). 

In the end, 50 Irish officers served with UNOGIL, which ended in December 1958.

On the completion of the UNOGIL mandate the UN requested that some of the Irish officers serving with the mission (including McCarthy) be moved to the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in the Middle East (a mission which is still ongoing). Since then, there has been a continuous Irish military presence in Lebanon under the auspices of a variety of UN missions. 

In many people’s eyes, the role of the Irish Defence Forces is largely defined by their role in UN peacekeeping operations around the globe, and as the 60 anniversary of Ireland’s involvement in such peacekeeping comes around, it is worth asking the question: why did Ireland get involved in it in the first place?

Minister for External Affairs Frank Aiken in the UN General Assembly, 3 October 1958 (UN photo)

This may seem like a cynical question, as the implication is that such ventures may be of debatable value (and there have been many criticisms levelled at UN peacekeeping missions in the decades since). 

Yet there was a clear rationale for Ireland becoming involved in some activities, one which chimed with the professed commitments of its foreign policy since the first Dáil of 1919. 

Since independence, Ireland has committed itself to a number of international bodies: the League of Nations between the world wars, the UN after World War II and, in more recent decades, the European Union and its predecessors. 

There was, and is, a pragmatic side to this: for a small state such as Ireland, a commitment to an international order based upon rules was the best hope for survival and prosperity in a world dominated by large and more powerful countries. 

And this was an issue of great relevance in a world riven by the Cold War, and in the shadow of a possible nuclear conflict. Ireland was firmly in the western fold during the Cold War but was not a member of any post-war military alliance and did not have an imperialist past. 

In that sense, Ireland was neutral on two fronts, so it was probably inevitable that it would become a candidate for active involvement in UN missions.

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Listen: Rhona Tarrant reports from Beirut, and retired Army Officer Félim Gibbons speaks about the history of the conflict in Lebanon and Ireland's peacekeeping role there.

Colonel Richard Heaslip has explored the role of the Defence Forces in UNOGIL and other early UN missions, but the context in which the decision to participate in these missions was made is revealed in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s own archive, due to be published later this year in the next instalment of the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy project.

Neutrality had spared Ireland the horrors of World War II but has also led to a degree of international isolation thereafter. 

Ireland had enthusiastically engaged with the UN since joining it in 1955 and was eager to participate further. The UNOGIL was seen as a first step. 

The peacekeeping mission also had a natural appeal to the Defence Forces themselves, who had been marginalised and under-equipped since independence. 

Peacekeeping offered a new sense of purpose. But there was principle involved as well as pragmatism. 

As John Hearne, Ireland’s ambassador to the US, put it, the UN’s General Assembly could be: 

"A great forum of international discussion of the great issues which threaten peace in the danger spots, and in the world generally. The Assembly could become the platform for the concentrated expression of the moral conscience of mankind, and UNO its instrument… Ireland’s role is that of the peacemaker. She should use her influence to assuage acerbities to moderate opinion, and ease tension. Her representatives could do this by studying both sides of particular problems under discussion in the United Nations and seeking to place detached, objective and realistic views before the Assembly."

In the latter half of 1958, the UN was discussing tensions in the Middle East and the Far East in relation to conflicts that still have a resonance today (such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Korean War). 

Irish diplomats such as Hearne and Kennedy, and most especially the Minister for External Affairs, Frank Aiken (formerly the IRA’s Chief of Staff at the end of the Civil War), had a very strong commitment to the UN’s potential role as an arbiter in international disputes, an approach that was put forth and noted at surprisingly high levels. 

This was the impulse that found expression in the decision made in June 1958 to take a hands-on role in the resolution of such disputes on the ground as well as at the UN headquarters in New York.

The decision to participate in the UNOGIL inaugurated the Defence Forces commitment to UN peacekeeping, a commitment which remains a core principle of Irish foreign policy. 

Irish troops went to Lebanon in 1958. Now, 60 years later, Irish troops are still there.

Dr John Gibney is DFAT100 Project Coordinator with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy project. All quotations are taken from Michael Kennedy, Kate O’Malley, Eunan O’Halpin and Bernadette Whelan (eds) Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Volume XI: 1957-1961, which will be published by the Royal Irish Academy in November 2018.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.