The head of the Defence Forces, Lieutenant General Sean Clancy said that the death of an Irish soldier in the Lebanon on Wednesday “deeply wounds the organisation as a whole.” It also wounds the country, which has been proud of the long record of the Defence Forces in the region. The dead soldier was named as 24 year-old Private Seán Rooney. Another soldier, Trooper Shane Kearney, was seriously injured.
It has been more than two decades since the last Irish fatality in the region, but the news underlines the risks taken routinely by those on peacekeeping missions. The incident involved an armed attack on an Irish convoy in a Hizbollah-controlled area by what is described as a hostile mob. It follows some increased tensions between Unifil ( United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) and local groups, though the area in which the attack took place was not previously seen as dangerous. A number of investigations will now take place and clearly full information on what happened and why is needed.
The Irish Army first became involved in a significant peacekeeping role in the region more than 30 years ago, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, to supervise the withdrawal of Israeli forces and ensure peace and security in the area. It played a key role over the years, alongside forces from other countries within the Unifil mission. However, the mission was a dangerous one, with 47 Irish soldiers losing their lives in the period leading up to a withdrawal of Irish forces in 2001, as tensions eased. The Defence Forces returned to the Lebanon in 2006 and the latest tragedy shows that the missions remains difficult and dangerous.
Ireland’s peacekeeping record as part of UN operations goes back as far as 1958 – when some soldiers were sent to the Lebanon – with the first major deployment two years later in the Congo, where there was also significant loss of life, and later in Cyprus and across the Middle East. The missions have been vital to the development of the Irish Defence Forces over many years and have played a key role in many volatile areas. The State’s neutrality left the Irish forces well-positioned to operate in a clearly independent fashion in conflict regions.
The Army has reaffirmed its commitment to the Unifil mission following the latest tragic event. It is a mark of its professionalism that it will continue its duties as before. Given the length of time since the last Irish Army fatality in the region, the public may have started to take this service for granted. The latest tragic events show that we cannot do so. Operating in conflict zones, those representing Ireland will always be in danger. As President Michael D Higgins said, it is a reminder to us all of the extraordinary sacrifices made by Ireland’s peacekeepers.