It is time to ask whether our Defence Forces should stay in Lebanon

The Irish Defence Forces are not removed from the people, they are the representation of us as a people - in some of the darkest parts of the world

In 2012 I travelled south from Beirut to the city of Tyre while visiting Lebanon as a tourist. As we came near the town of Sidon, it was pointed out to me where a UN vehicle had been struck by a roadside device a few years previously. Listening to my Army comrades, I found the stories of previous attacks on UN forces difficult to understand. At that time, having previously deployed on a Chapter 7 UN peace-enforcement mission elsewhere, I really had to change my perspective to understand how the mission in Lebanon had to operate, and the constraints that the units deployed there faced.

After returning home I met a sergeant I knew well in Cathal Brugha Barracks. He had recently returned from south Lebanon, and I asked him how the deployment had gone. He said to me that the “New Leb” was quite different to the “Old Leb”. I understood he was referring to the differing environment of the United Nations Interim Force Lebanon (Unifil) mission that had concluded for Ireland in 2001, and the new mission that saw Ireland return after the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006. The latter mission involved a return to a country which had seen a much more established Hizbullah that did not like the idea of a strident force poking into its business.

There was wrangling over the return of the UN at the time, with Israel wanting a more robust Chapter 7 peace-enforcement-style mission, and Hezbollah wanting a more traditional Chapter 6 peacekeeping-type deployment. The agreement was a Chapter 6 mission with the objective of a Chapter 7. The mandate as it stands cannot be implemented by a Chapter 6 force, and this creates ambiguity.

This sort of disagreement and the ambiguity it can create can be maddening, particularly for those deployed to these war zones. Some countries do not take well to operating in these grey areas, but that is one of the reasons why Ireland has been so successful at deploying with the UN continuously since 1960. Operating in grey areas causes incidents that could never happen elsewhere – for instance, Unifil patrols having their weapons and communications equipment taken from them by angry locals unhappy with Unifil operating in their village.


We do not do invasion; we don’t partake in expeditionary war. We as a nation-state have decided to deploy our military forces purely in pursuit of peace. With no skin in the game before we deploy, we go to all corners of the planet, putting ourselves in harm’s way so that we can stop one group from killing another. The Defence Forces come and go to various missions, there might be a few TV clips of troops returning for Christmas, or “in theatre” we will see pictures of them smiling, wearing their county colours on All Ireland final day. I will admit, I have always thought that this obscures the serious work we do, and why we do it.

The tragic killing of Pte Seán Rooney and serious injury of Pte Shane Kearney in south Lebanon last week has brought home the seriousness of that work, and the seriousness of the world we are operating in. I admitted to a former colleague after the news emerged that I was far more annoyed by the attack than I would have expected. My friends that have served in Unifil are all deeply affected by what happened, as they know it could have been any of them that ended up in this situation.

The attack on our troops in Lebanon should act as a new catalyst for discussion for our country, not just the Defence Forces

Ireland has had a turbulent couple of years in terms of overseas deployments. We pulled our last two observers from Western Sahara in 2021 after 30 years. We withdrew our troops from the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo after the situation seemed to become untenable. We must also remember that we have answered the call to deploy when the international community needs it: our deployment to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) in Syria followed the withdrawal of Austrian troops in 2013, during the ratcheting up of conflict there.

We were happy and proud to have taken a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021-2022. That success was contributed to, in large part, by our commitment to global peace since 1960. We have earned our seat at the table because we have quite literally bled for the cause.

We appreciate now that we started our time on UN missions poorly equipped and perhaps a little naive. Our experience at the Battle of Jadotville in 1961 was a sobering one that opened our eyes to what it meant to take part in international affairs as an independent people.

The attack on our troops in Lebanon should act as a new catalyst for discussion for our country, not just the Defence Forces. I can appreciate the pain and frustration that people feel; I can hear them asking what we are doing in these places. I, however, think we need to see that the 21st-century security environment is quite different to that of the post-second World War era. It is time to assert ourselves; no one else will do it for us. We have earned the right to fight to ensure that the perpetrators of this illegal attack are held to account.

If we choose to stay involved in such missions, then let us ensure we go with a clear purpose

In the immediate term these priorities are a must, and in the medium term we need to accept that where we choose to deploy, and why, are key elements of wider discussions about the Defence Forces. Our force that is under pressure at home is the same one that pulls together units to go overseas without fail. We must remember that at 24 years of age, this was Pte Rooney’s second deployment. The Irish Defence Forces are not removed from the people – they are the representation of us as a people, in some of the darkest parts of the world.

We have now lost 88 members of the Defence Forces on missions in the service of peace. None of this has been for territory or treasure, but maybe it is time to ask – for what? If we choose to stay involved in such missions, then let us ensure we go with a clear purpose. We should not shy away from this question as a country either.

If we want to continue, let us assert ourselves and fight for that clear purpose and clear rules of engagement. The world is getting more complex, and for these purposes it needs defence personnel who are masters at operating in the grey.

Phillip Quinlan is a management consultant and former Army officer