President Michael D Higgins' visit to Irish UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon went ahead yesterday despite protests against rising prices, corruption and mismanagement.
Angry Lebanese of all communities took to the streets of central Beirut on Thursday and marched toward the seafront Phoenicia Hotel, a potent symbol of inequality, where the President and his party have been staying.
Demonstrators, flanked by police, chanted against politicians of all parties and persuasions and called for revolution. They did not reach the hotel and the Irish party was unaffected.
On Friday morning, the President, along with his wife Sabina, Minister for Defence Paul Kehoe and a reduced entourage were whisked to the airport in a convoy of armoured vehicles provided with armed guards by both the Irish battalion and Lebanese security.
Mr Higgins took off in a helicopter 90 minutes late but his programme progressed as planned with movement on the ground within the Irish battalion’s area of operations along the 120km Lebanese-Israeli border covered by the 10,300-strong multilateral UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil).
Irish troops spent several hours in bunkers last month, caught in crossfire be- tween Israeli troops and Hizbullah fighters. The Israelis opened up after Hizbullah lobbed shells at an Israeli army base and targeted an ambulance in response to repeated Israeli strikes on Hizbullah and allied Iranian positions in Syria. Neither peacekeepers nor combatants sustained casualties.
Mr Higgins visited Irish positions along the UN blue line defined by the UN following the 2006 war in which Lebanese Hizuollah paramilitaries fought the Israeli army in a war that devastated the south.
In his address to Irish troops, the President stated that the tradition of peacemaking was “an essential component of Ireland’s foreign policy, driven as it is by the core values and principles that have guided the actions of our state on the international stage ever since we gained our independence almost a century ago”.
Some 10,000 Irish soldiers have taken part in 70,000 tours of duty in Lebanon and 47 have lost their lives in a mission to stabilise a region on edge and at risk of conflict since Israel emerged from war 71 years ago.
As commander of the Defence Forces making his second visit to troops serving here, Mr Higgins commended members of the 144th Battalion group led by Lt Col Paul Kelly, for “the professionalism, the bravery, and the commitment to peace and humanism that lie at the core of your engagement as peacekeepers”.
The President and his party returned to Beirut by UN helicopter and were driven once again in convoy into a tense city where troops sought to lock-down protesters who roam the the streets in small numbers.