Minister for finance John Bruton wanted to withdraw Irish troops from peacekeeping in Lebanon in 1987 because Ireland was not being financially reimbursed sufficiently by the UN, writes Seán McCárthaigh
Cabinet files from 30 years ago show Mr Bruton was in favour of pulling the Irish contingent out of UNIFIL or at least significantly reducing its size as rates paid by the UN were “no longer adequate”.
Mr Bruton argued that there was a strong case for withdrawing Irish soldiers as the mission was underfunded by £270m. He claimed Ireland was only receiving 57% of the cost of keeping its troops in the Middle East.
The failure of the US to contribute its share to the cost of running UN bodies was a major factor.
However, the minister for foreign affairs, Peter Barry, believed any Irish withdrawal from UNIFIL would do a disservice to Ireland’s international reputation.
The Government had estimated it had only been reimbursed with £39.7m out of £58.1m it was due since it had begun its mission in Lebanon nine years earlier.
Documents also show the government claimed the fatal shooting of an Irish soldier on UN duty in Lebanon in 1987 was “a deliberate and provoked attack” by the Israeli army.
Corporal Dermot McLoughlin was killed on January 10, 1987, when a round fired by an Israeli tank struck his UN post in the town of Brashit.
Cabinet files show there were no reports of hostile fire aimed at Israeli military forces in the area at the time.
Israeli troops had also ignored flares fired by Irish soldiers to indicate a UN post had been hit prior to the fatal round which killed Cpl McLoughlin.
A report prepared for the government said all the circumstances of the case pointed to the incident being a deliberate and unprovoked attack.
It revealed the Israeli government initially sought to represent the incident as an accident but later clarified that it had occurred because an Israeli officer new to the area had overruled a subordinate and instructed that the UN post be fired on.
Mr Barry said he did not accept Israel’s claims that the UN post had been misidentified by Israeli soldiers.
Mr Barry and the minister for defence, Paddy O’Toole, had already made a formal protest to their Israeli counterparts a short time earlier about a series of incidents of close fire involving Irish troops serving on the UN peacekeeping mission.
Despite receiving assurances from the Israelis, the government said there had still been an increase in the number of incidents of Irish soldiers coming under fire.
The Israeli ambassador to Ireland was summoned by Mr Barry following Cpl McLoughlin’s death and asked that those responsible should be disciplined.
The government believed that Israel was intent on preventing UNIFIL from carrying out its mandate in southern Lebanon.
However, the Government said any decision by Ireland to withdraw its contingent from UNIFIL could damage the country’s international standing and its reputation as a traditional supporter of the UN and its peacekeeping efforts.
Mr O’Toole said he was concerned about the safety of Irish troops, particularly given the dangerous level of harassment by Israel.
Mr Barry said he would maintain contact with the Israeli authorities to ensure they exercised maximum constraint as well as speak with the UN secretary general, Javier Perez de Cuellar to maintain pressure on Israel.
The foreign affairs minister said he would also approach the US government to use their influence on Israel as well as to ask them to resume full payment of their contributions to the UN.
Mr Barry said it was possible that UNIFIL could disintegrate if Ireland were to withdraw from it as the Irish battalion played a key role in its operations.
Later that year, the new minister for defence, Michael J Noonan, said the professional advantages for Irish military personnel serving with UNIFIL were very substantial but he was concerned that continuing participation could not be sustained beyond October 1987 for financial reasons.
Mr Bruton’s successor as finance minister, Ray MacSharry, insisted at a cabinet meeting in April 1987 to ratify sending a replacement contingent to serve in Lebanon that no new members of the Defence Forces would be recruited that year because of his concerns at the cost of the UNIFIL mission.
A letter written by community leaders in Tibnin, a Lebanese town, to then taoiseach Charles Haughey in 1987 said local people regarded the Irish battalion as brothers and begged him to ensure they remained in UNIFIL.
“We never forget they have made a heavy sacrifice to ensure our safety,” they said.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved