In the 1980s and 1990s, Irish soldiers preparing to deploy on UN service in Lebanon would have been aware of one grim fact: statistically one member of their battalion would not make it home.
“Every six months on average there was a fatality out there,” says Defence Forces veteran and military historian Dan Harvey. “So there you were, preparing to go overseas, standing on the square for review by the minister, and you knew one of the group going out would not come back alive.”
Forty-seven Irish battalions deployed during the 23 years of Ireland’s first Unifil deployment and 46 soldiers died.
Every one of those deaths rocked Ireland’s tight-knit Defence Forces community, even those who had never met the victim. Mary Burke, whose son Peter was murdered while on duty in Lebanon in 1982, feels them more than most.
“It’s like reliving it all again,” she says. “Anything to do with the Leb, I’m tuned into. It doesn’t get easier. The older we get, the worse it gets. You can only imagine how we felt when our other son went over to serve.”
The unique nature of military life means Defence Forces members and their families are impacted by these deaths in a particular way, says Mark Keane, a Naval Service member and president of Pdforra, which represents enlisted ranks.
“Of course it affects you because it’s a unique thing we do. Because it’s a military family. There’s a common bond between all of us and you see the reminders everywhere you go. You see the flags at half-mast. You recognise the placenames and roads mentioned on the news because everyone has been there.”
Another Defence Forces member says, “When something happens to someone in your unit, don’t ask me to explain it, but you feel it very, very strongly.”
The fact that the killing of Pte Seán Rooney on Wednesday was the first death of an Irish peacekeeper overseas in 19 years made it all the more shocking. What made it worse was that it was the first peacekeeping death to occur in the age of social media, meaning family, friends and colleagues back home woke up to distressing WhatsApp videos of the immediate aftermath of the attack.
“These videos were flying around. I think people were sending them without thinking and some felt bad about it later. But it’s not a nice thing for those lads’ colleagues to have to see,” one Unifil veteran says.
That anger and frustration has been compounded by references, including by interim Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati, Hezbollah officials and even some people in Ireland, to an “accident” or “unintentional incident”.
“Everyone in Ireland needs to stop calling this a tragic incident, it was murder full stop,” another veteran says.
Although fatal attacks on peacekeepers are relatively rare – there hadn’t been a fatality among the 10,000-strong Unifil mission since 2015 – confrontations with locals and militia groups are growing more frequent and more serious.
This has led to concerns that Wednesday’s attacks signal the start of a renewed period of violence in south Lebanon, which is increasingly under the control of Hezbollah, a group which has been designated a terrorist group by the EU and US but which enjoys broad support in the area and is often described as “a state within a state”.
The group has denied any involvement in the attack but has been known to stop UN peacekeepers from patrolling, either by using its own members or inciting local people, including children, to block in patrols. “They have an ability to summon a crowd from nowhere,” one Army officer says.
Hezbollah rhetoric has become increasingly antagonistic towards Unifil, which it sees as abusing its mandate by operating without escort from Lebanese authorities, says UCD international relations lecturer Edward Burke. Burke is not saying Hezbollah orchestrated the killing “but clearly, they are ratcheting up the rhetoric in what is a very, very dangerous situation”.
Irish patrols encounter so-called “denial of freedom of movement” situations on a semi-regular basis. “Typically they would come up to you and say why are you not with [Lebanese Armed Forces],” a defence source says.
In fact, even though it is not a requirement, about 70 per cent of Unifil patrols are conducted alongside the Lebanese Army while the remainder are carried out in close consultation with it.
Most of the time these situations are de-escalated and the patrol passes through, the former peacekeeper says. “Sometimes you might have to say, ‘listen, I’m driving in that direction so you should get out of the way’ and usually that works.”
During previous deployments, Defence Forces personnel were more at risk because they were so visible in the community. But that visibility also offered its own protection, as it ingratiated them among locals and provided good intelligence.
Irish peacekeepers still do a huge amount of outreach work in their area of operations but the dynamic has fundamentally changed. Previously troops were billeted in posts dotted around the area of operations. “You mixed with the people, you visited with them and drank coffee, you bought things in their shops,” Harvey says.
Locals can’t put fuel in their cars but they see UN jeeps driving around. They’re fed up— Veteran
Now, under more recent mission mandates, Irish troops are stationed in one large camp and two smaller outposts. “There’s fewer of them, they’re away from the people and there’s less mixing, which is not a good thing,” says Harvey.
Other defence sources say the new generation of Hezbollah leaders are more radical and less open to co-operation with peacekeepers. Previously confrontations would be de-escalated by commanders on each side talking to each other and coming to an agreement to withdraw their people. That is less common now.
The economic crisis has exacerbated the situation. “Locals can’t put fuel in their cars but they see UN jeeps driving around. They’re fed up,” one veteran says. Hezbollah, with support from Iran, has exploited this frustration by setting up its own banks and supermarkets and even by importing fuel from Iran and giving it out free to communities.
Some south Lebanese communities also complain about “surveillance fatigue”. The southern border is covered in Israeli radars, cameras and listening devices, particularly in one area which locals refer to as Spy Hill. Hezbollah has been known to spread rumours that Unifil is also spying for Israel. This is something the militant group is very worried about as it gears up to what it believes is an evitable war with Israel in the short to medium term.
“Hezbollah are preparing the battlefield with defensive positions and tunnels which is why they are trying to restrict the routes where Unifil can travel,” says a source.
Accusations that Unifil is gathering intelligence for Israel or its American allies were not helped by UN plans to locate advanced infrared cameras around the region several years ago. Irish officials opposed the plans but were overruled.
News of the project caused massive anger both in Hezbollah and in local communities, and there was an immediate increase in denial of movement incidents. The project has since been shelved.
Whether this week’s attack and these increasing tensions will cause Ireland to revaluate its Unifil commitment is unclear. The Government won’t want to be seen as demonstrating a lack of resolve in the face of violence, particularly given it is finishing up a term on the Security Council. But even before the attack, questions were being asked about how much a contribution Irish troops were making in such constrained circumstances, even taking into account their skills and deep knowledge of the region.
In the words of another defence source: “There’s a feeling we could be doing a lot more with less in other parts of the world.”