Lebanese fondly remember Irish troops who served in their country

COME back Irish soldiers — we miss you.

“People are still talking about the Irish. There has been a gap left behind because the local people and the Irish soldiers were living their lives together for so long. I have heard lots of words since 2001 from people who just want to see the Irish back. The soldiers in the area had shared in people’s loss and their joy,” said Hassan Fawaz.

Mr Fawaz worked as translator for the Irish battalion until 2001.

Yesterday he joined other Lebanese members of the “honorary Irish community” in welcoming Mr Martin, the first cabinet member to visit the base since the Irish mission ended.

For two decades the Irish were a mainstay in Lebanon but since 2001, the former deployment of 600 has been reduced to eight. These remain part of the 12,733 strong peacekeeping force.

Their absence has meant a quieter life for the traders on nearby Minghy Street and in Irish House, an invite-only bar for members of the Defence Forces.

It opened for the reception yesterday with one minor change — the ash trays were hidden from Mr Martin and a temporary smoking ban came into place at the bar.

At meetings with the Lebanese president, prime minister and foreign minister yesterday, Mr Martin heard of the fond regard the war ravaged country holds towards the peacekeepers who served with the tri-colour on their shoulder.

The Lebanese also recognised the 47 Irish soldiers who died on duty, including Lieutenant Aonghus Murphy who was killed by a car-bomb in 1986 and has been honoured with a plaque outside Irish House.

“Lebanon has a warm place in the minds of Irish people... [but you must recall] the 47 soldiers who lost their lives over that period in the cause of peace,” Mr Martin said.

Today there are eight Irish men in uniform holding the fort and manning the bar at Irish House for friends and guests on Friday nights. These are Sergeant Major Ger Fennell, Sgt Mjr Sean Cosgrave, Company Sgt Pat Keane, Captain Greg O’Keeffe, Cmdt Malachy Doran, Comm Padraic Macklin and CCPC Liam O’Flaherty, who works out of Beirut.

During his visit, Mr Martin was briefed on the military situation in the country and efforts to stabalise the region after the 2006 war with Israel.

The UN has increased its force since the war and a naval operation has been deployed for the first time.

However, the bulk of the Irish peacekeeping commitment is now in Chad and Kosovo.

The people of Lebanon said their loss has been other countries’ gain.

Micheál Martin yesterday described the decision to cut aid to poorer countries by €95 million as a regrettable but necessary measure.

He said this year the amount spent on overseas’ aid of €796m would be 0.534% of GDP, under the 0.7% target the UN wants nations to reach by 2012.

“First of all I regret that we have had to take this decision... [but] We need to get the public expenditure cut to enable us to get back on course,” he said.

Mr Martin said given the smaller budget, his department would now prioritise education and health programmes in Africa.

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