Deaths of Irish peacekeepers avoidable, says report

Bereaved families of three Irish soldiers killed by a landmine in Lebanon 22 years ago said they have finally been vindicated.

Deaths of Irish peacekeepers avoidable, says report

Bereaved families of three Irish soldiers killed by a landmine in Lebanon 22 years ago said they have finally been vindicated.

An official report into the deaths of Corporal Fintan Heneghan, Private Mannix Armstrong and Private Thomas Walsh found the device should or could have been detected before it detonated on March 21, 1989.

The Defence Forces and United Nations (UN) failed to carry out adequate threat assessments despite greater risks from radical Islamic groups, an independent review stated, while the troops had not undergone adequate mine sweeping training.

Cpl Heneghan’s brother Enda accused Army authorities of a cover-up for the last two decades and said the Defence Forces’ treatment of the families had been outrageous.

“After a blanket denial over 22 years, we’re now in a situation that the army authorities in this country have admitted a systems failure, as it is being termed,” he added.

“Today does not represent any thought of victory or celebration because today, as every day for the rest of our lives, there are three graves in the west of Ireland.”

Cpl Heneghan, 28, from Ballinrobe, Co Mayo; father-of-three Pte Walsh, 39, from Tubbercurry, Co Sligo; and Pt Armstrong, 26, whose widow Grainne gave birth to their first child weeks after her husband’s death, were killed while collecting stones during UN duty in Bra’shit, south Lebanon.

For years families and colleagues argued the men died because the dirt track had not been swept for the fatal landmine, believed to have been planted by the militant Hezbollah group targeting the Israeli army.

The army had denied any negligence.

Defence Minister Alan Shatter ordered an independent review in April, by senior counsel Frank Callanan, when evidence came to light during a High Court case brought by Pte Armstrong’s widow, Grainne. The action collapsed and was settled out of court.

Ordnance Officer Comdt Ray Lane revealed he had warned officials in Dublin about the increased threats before the men died. Those concerns were also raised with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), the report found.

Mr Heneghan criticised previous internal probes by the Defence Forces, claiming it was more focused on “self-preservation”.

“The device that killed Fintan, Mannix and Thomas could and should have been detected and detonated, and this is the core issue of our dispute with the army over the years,” he added.

He said it was too soon to decide if further legal action would be taken.

Mr Shatter said the report identified a systemic failure by the Defence Forces and the Unifil mission to respond to the increased threat from improvised explosive devices and from the danger of a targeted attack by radical armed Islamic elements.

“Three brave soldiers have died and three families have been bereaved and devastated by their loss,” he said.

“As the report shows, the deaths of Cpl Armstrong and Ptes Heneghan and Walsh could and should have been avoided.

“For that, on behalf of the State, I apologise wholeheartedly to their families, their loved ones and their comrades.”

Defence Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sean McCann expressed his sympathies to the families.

“The Callanan report has concluded that the Defence Forces systems in place at that time to counter the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) threat were not robust enough to prevent this tragedy. For that, I wholeheartedly and unreservedly apologise,” he added.

More in this section