The Brainstorm long read: what has the Defence Forces' involvement in UN peacekeeping missions meant for Irish troops?

Membership of the United Nations (UN) has been a central pillar of Irish foreign policy since admission in 1955. Maintaining an effective UN, especially in the area of conflict prevention, forms a key objective of this policy. The deployment of the Defence Forces on peacekeeping missions throughout the world continues to provide a tangible demonstration of Ireland’s commitment to the UN and the maintenance of international peace. The 2015 White Paper on Defence indicates that it is also viewed as having enhanced Ireland’s international reputation. This is especially important as Ireland seeks another term on the UN Security Council.

A history of active membership of both the League of Nations and the UN has assisted in establishing a peacekeeping tradition. Furthermore, the effects of Ireland’s policies over a range of issues including decolonisation, disarmament, human rights and its history under colonial rule and non-membership of a military alliance, combined to make it acceptable as a contributor to peacekeeping and related activities.

The 2015 Defence White Paper confirms Ireland’s policy of military neutrality. This is a fundamental tenet of Irish foreign policy that underpins engagement in all peacekeeping operations. For this reason, deployment of Defence Forces’ personnel on peacekeeping missions will continue to be in accordance with relevant legislation, which contains the requirement for Government, Dáil (parliament) and UN approval, known as the "triple-lock".

The story to date 

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland in 2010, journalist and broadcaster Cathal O'Shannon recalls Ireland's first peacekeeping mission with the UN in the Congo

It is difficult to access in general terms the impact that involvement in peacekeeping has had on the Defence Forces. Nonetheless, it is evident that what is generally referred to in Irish military circles as "overseas service" has always been viewed as a welcome respite from the day to day barrack routine at home. It also boosted morale, especially in the early 1960s when the government first agreed to contribute large numbers of troops to the peacekeeping operation in the Congo. It increased the relatively low wages of serving personnel by way of overseas allowances. However, it was the new sense of purpose that the army felt in the 1960s which provided the most significant boost to morale. 

The Irish Times in 1963 summed up the effect as follows: "there had been created a better public image of the army. This had been achieved by much mention in the speeches of politicians at home and abroad. The national newspapers have given it much publicity albeit somewhat dramatic and hysterical at times ... there was the enormous benefit in experience that active service gives ... (and) ... Irish troops did at last receive adequate pay in terms of overseas allowances".

The Defence Forces' involvement in UN operations has been varied and considerable since the 1960s so how have Irish soldiers been so successful?

More importantly, peacekeeping operations from a military point of view have consistently provided an ideal training ground for an army of Ireland's size and resources. This is especially true in Southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights today, owing to the general operational environment of the UN Forces there.

The first indication of Ireland's potential suitability as a UN troop contributor state came in 1958, when officers participated in an observer mission in Lebanon. However, Ireland's first major involvement in peacekeeping came two years later when Irish troops departed for the Congo in July 1960.  This proved a baptism of fire and 26 soldiers lost their lives (17 in action), and 57 were wounded or injured.

From RTÉ Archives, Bells and Blue Berets from 1966 about Christmas for Irish troops on United Nations peacekeeping duties in the Middle East

The equipment, training and other military aspects of Irish involvement with the UN today compares very favourably with the Congo in the early 1960s. Irish soldiers arrived in the sweltering head of Central Africa dressed in heavy bullswool uniforms and armed with bolt action rifles. An Irish contingent was still in the Congo when a request was received for another unit to participate in the UN peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).  Between April 1964 and October 1973, over 9,000 Irish personnel served with this Force.

In 1973, the 25th Infantry Group from Ireland arrived for a tour of duty with UNFICYP in Cyprus but, following a request by the UN, this unit only spent a week in Cyprus before transfering to the UN Emergency Force II (UNEF II) in the Sinai desert. In early 1974, the Government withdrew Irish troops owing to the deteriorating security situation in Ireland.

In 1978, the UN again requested that Ireland contribute a unit to form part of the proposed peacekeeping force for Lebanon (UNIFIL). There have been 47 Irish casualties with this peacekeeping Force, 14 of whom were killed in action. The early years of Irish involvement in Lebanon led to significant tensions between Ireland and Israel and there were a number of serious clashes between Israeli-backed forces and Irish UNIFIL troops on the ground. Today, Irish troops confront a more complex regional situation than in 1978 and a major challenge is how to implement the mandate to protect civilians while avoiding becoming a party to the conflict.

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News' reporter Kevin O’Kelly talks to some of the Irish soldiers on UN peacekeeping duties in Cyprus in 1964

From August 1993 to January 1995, Ireland contributed a Transport Company to the UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia (UNOSOM II). The UN operations in Somalia have had a profound impact on peace support missions since and Ireland’s policy and legal framework governing peacekeeping was modified in response. The Defence (Amendment) Act, 1993 amended earlier legislation in significant respects and brought about an important change in policy that was not reflected in the level of public or parliamentary debate at the time.

Since 2000, owing to the number, size and complexity of peace support operations, it was deemed necessary to adopt guidelines for participation in peace support operations and these are set out in the White Paper on Defence and White Paper on Foreign Policy. When the matter of contributing troops to the NATO-led operations in the former Yugoslavia (SFOR) and Kosovo (KFOR) was being considered, the guidelines were applied.

In July 1999, Ireland agreed to send a transport company to Kosovo as part of KFOR.  There was nothing radical in this decision, and their role was similar to that performed by the Irish contingent with UNOSOM II in Somalia. Nonetheless, Irish involvement in SFOR and KFOR appeared to set the scene for a longer-term re-orientation of Irish participation in international peace support operations. Ireland also participated in the UN-approved international intervention in the then East Timor, operating under various mission titles. In the same year, Ireland also joined the NATO-led Partnership for Peace, thus paving the way for more significant involvement in UN approved but potentially NATO or EU-led crisis management/peacekeeping operations.

From RTÉ Radio One's History Show, a feature on the Lebanese civil war with Rhona Tarrant reporting from Beirut, and retired army officer Félim Gibbons discussing the history of the conflict and the Irish Army's peacekeeping role in Lebanon

The guidelines were applied in the decision by the Irish Government to participate in the UN mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) in 2001 and Liberia (UNMIL) in 2003.  According to the Minister for Defence at the time, the decision to send Irish troops to Liberia was not taken lightly. It was the biggest commitment by Ireland to any mission since participation in UNIFIL in 1978.  There are also the cost implications to the Irish exchequer, in that the costs incurred as part of UNMIL were met from UN funds.

The 2007 decision to participate in an EU mission to Chad marked a significant evolution in Irish participation in peacekeeping. This was the first occasion that EU/UN cooperation adopted the model whereby an EU military force and a UN mission were combined under a single UN mandate. EUFOR was a bridging operation to facilitate the simultaneous deployment of a UN police mission and other elements under the UN MINURCAT operation. Although it did have adequate military capability, this was intended for deterrence not combat. 

From RTÉ Archives, Tom McCaughren reports on the Irish Defence Forces marking 25 years of UN service

From an Irish perspective, the mission was seen as operationally and logistically challenging. There was also controversy regarding what was seen as the premature withdrawal of Irish forces from MINURCAT, but this was linked to uncertainty over the renewal of the mandate and logistical issues.

The Irish and the Golan Heights

Since September 2013, the Defence Forces have contributed a contingent to United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on the Golan Heights. This remains an important mission in an area of significant strategic importance. Under the disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel, UNDOF is the only military presence allowed in the area of separation.  It is one of the last traditional so called UN Chapter 6 missions that may only use force in self-defence and as such is reliant on the co-operation of the parties to the conflict.

In 2014, Irish peacekeepers came under attack while serving as part of the UNDOF mission. After the withdrawal of Austria and Croatia, a company plus of well-equipped Irish troops that were called upon to rescue their besieged UN colleagues and it seems that the Irish contingent was the only one with the military capacity to do so. 

READ: what are Irish soldiers achieving in the Golan Heights?

Although the mission reflected well on Irish willingness to deploy and prevent the collapse of the UNDOF operation, the clash with Syrian rebel group al Nursra led to a re-evaluation of Irish participation. Thereafter, a previous almost unwavering commitment to UN peacekeeping was going to be more conditional. This can be attributed to increased expectations over military capabilities, the need for realistic mandates and the responsibility of the Irish government to ensure it respected the duty of care to Irish soldiers. 


The Defence Forces' involvement in UN operations has been varied and considerable since the 1960s so how have Irish soldiers been so successful? While the Defence Forces were organised and trained to fulfil a primary role in the defence of the state against aggression, their most important function evolved to that of providing military assistance to the civil power. Internal security tasks expanded due primarily to the conflict in Northern Ireland and these became the major operational activity. 

This is one of the reasons why Irish troops adapted so successfully to a UN peacekeeping role where the duties performed up to recently have also been of a similar character for the most part. Other important reasons were the "can-do" and professional approach of military personnel and the extent to which conventional military skills were retained within the Defence Forces. Given the relatively small size of the Defence Forces, a large number of officers have also served in senior command and staff appointments with UN peacekeeping missions.

From RTÉ Radio One's Documentary On One series, Keeping the Peace - Her Story looks at Sgt Sharon Duggan who was one of the first female recruits to the Irish Defence Forces and served in Lebanon as part of the UN peacekeeping forces. 

The changing nature of peace support and crisis management operations has led to a demand for multinational peacekeeping forces that are fully integrated in accordance with recognised international standards for interoperability. The development of more formal bilateral relations with other states is also becoming an increasing feature of Ireland’s security, defence and international peacekeeping and crisis management arrangements.

Participation in multi-national peace support, crisis management and humanitarian relief operations is one of the primary roles of the Defence Forces. The 2015 White Paper acknowledges that the degree to which Ireland is prepared to share the burden of EU co-operation and solidarity in the security and defence field, in particular through contributions to military operations and capabilities, significantly influences perceptions of Ireland within the EU. It also contributes to maintaining Ireland’s credibility in the UN which is increasingly relying on regional organisations to provide UN missions with key enablers, rapid response forces and higher-end military capabilities.  Participation also helped Ireland’s case for election to a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, which it did in 1962, in 1981-82 and in 2001-02.

From RTÉ News, Brig Gen Tony Hanlon explains the role of Irish peacekeepers in the Golan Heights

Irish involvement in SFOR and KFOR in the former Yugoslavia set the scene for a longer-term re-orientation of Irish participation in international peace support operations. This reflected the move from traditional peacekeeping to more complex peace support operations conducted by regional organisations with UN approval.  As such, it was a significant development for Ireland that should assist in ensuring that the prominent role played by the Defence Forces to date in peacekeeping operations is not diminished in the future. 

In August 2005 the Minister for Defence made proposals for participation of Irish troops in EU rapid-reaction forces that required a series of legislative changes. This was the background to the passing of the Defence (Amendment) Act, 2006 which gave more legal certainty to participation by Defence Forces personnel in UN-approved EU, African Union and Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe missions. It also clarified the situation with regard to defence force personnel undertaking training-related activities abroad. For many, this was evidence of a growing commitment to EU led operations by Ireland. 

European states, including Ireland, remain concerned about putting personnel in harm’s way and their duty of care. A major weakness in many current UN operations is combat support service. UN operations can be logistically challenging, especially medical evacuation assets. There was some resistance from the UN for the deployment of armoured personnel carriers with the Irish contingent of UNIFIL. Such force protection equipment later proved vital on the Golan Heights and necessary in Lebanon to ensure the safety of those deployed. 

From RTÉ Archives, Jim Fahy for RTÉ News reports on the funeral of Lieutenant Aengus Murphy, killed while serving with United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in Lebanon in 1986 

The problem is that MOWAG armoured personnel carriers are an expensive necessity and the UN must foot the bill. The level of training and nature of the equipment among other contingents is also important. Having to rely on poorly trained and inadequately equipped contingents will not work, especially if the operational environment is dangerous and demanding. Command and control issues can also arise on peacekeeping operations.

There has been a distinct lack of realistic debate concerning the role of the Defence Forces and the move from traditional UN police operations in favour of quasi-enforcement operations under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. The decision to replace the Austrian contingent part of UNDOF in Syria did much to challenge the perception that Ireland was risk-averse when it came to UN missions.

READ: A controversial legacy - the United Nations and Haiti

The issues are complex, and the dilemmas confronting Ireland were evident in the debate about participation in the multinational force in the former Yugoslavia. In reality, both SFOR and KFOR were NATO forces, albeit operating with the authority of a UN Chapter 7 resolution and with non-NATO member contributors. Irish involvement in these forces sets the scene for a longer-term re-orientation of Irish international peacekeeping.

Although the Irish commitment to the UNOSOM forces in Somalia in the 1990s was quite small, the decision to participate had significant political and military implications. It was the first time Irish soldiers participated in a Chapter 7 peace enforcement operation and it set a precedent that helped pave the way for the participation in SFOR in the former Yugoslavia. It marked a significant evolution in Irish peacekeeping activities and a realisation that Ireland could be left behind in the changing nature of the international security environment unless it too adapted to events.

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