Taoiseach salutes 50 years of Irish peacekeeping

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen paid tribute to the Defence Forces as veteran soldiers and army chiefs celebrated 50 years of peacekeeping missions.

As troops prepared for the rainy season in Ireland’s most expensive mission abroad in the dangerous and remote terrain of Chad, retired soldiers back home stood their ground in continuous rain yesterday during a near two-hour ceremony.

Surviving members of Ireland’s first peacekeeping mission to the Lebanon 50 years ago also attended the anniversary occasion at McKee barracks.

Remembering the 85 Irish soldiers who had lost their lives on duty during peacekeeping missions, Mr Cowen paid particular tribute to members who had died during service in the Congo in 1960s. Some 26 Irish soldiers died on duty in the volatile nation.

“These deaths were a sharp wake-up call for Ireland, as the nation and the international community more widely began to fully appreciate the cost that had to be borne in the cause of peace.”

Ireland has participated in 74 missions since its first in 1958.

Up to 811 Defence Force members are currently serving abroad on 12 different missions throughout the world, including in Kosovo, Chad and Bosnia.

“Relative to our size, Ireland is proportionately a very large peacekeeping contributor within the international community,” added Mr Cowen.

Troops on parade at yesterday’s ceremony included members of the air corps and navy.

A parade of trucks and artillery was overseen by a fly-over of four Pilatus army planes.

A commemorative stamp was also launched by An Post to mark the UN peacekeeping anniversary.

Defence Minister Willie O’Dea praised veterans and retired soldiers saying: “You have done your country proud.”

Speaking at the ceremony, retired Major General Fergus O’Connell described the first mission to Lebanon, some 50 years ago.

He was among the 50 officers who went on the mission, only eight of whom are still alive today.

It had been a leap into the unknown for Ireland as an emerging nation, he said. He described a memory from the mission: “There was a certain amount of danger in it. I was stopped by a young fellow of 12, with a rifle and a load of grenades around his chest.”

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