On a small hilltop beside the Lebanese village of Tibnin, the melody of The Piper’s Lament rang through the midday air. Tánaiste Micheál Martin stood before the black granite memorial engraved with the names of the 48 Irish soldiers who died while peacekeeping in Lebanon.
Mr Martin, the Defence Forces chief of staff Lt Col Seán Clancy, and the mayor of Tibnin, Nabil Fawaz, each laid a wreath at the memorial which, for the first time in 22 years, featured a freshly carved name. After a lethal gun attack in Al-Aqbiya last month, Pte Seán Rooney became the 48th soldier to be commemorated on the memorial to fallen Irish soldiers.
Fr Declan Shanahan, the chaplain for the Irish-Polish battalion which serves with the UN force in South Lebanon known as Unifil, led prayers at the ceremony in Tibnin on Thursday. Tributes to Capt Christopher McNamara and Cpl Dermot McLoughlin, who both died in the month of January, were also made during the ceremony.
Fr Shanahan said that the battalion “knows only too well, the pain of loss. Our memories of that fateful night in December last are still raw but our affection for our fallen comrade has only but increased. The name Private Seán Rooney is not only etched in this monument; it is etched in our hearts.”
After the ceremony, Fr Shanahan said Pte Rooney’s death has had a huge impact on the troops. “Some of them are as young as 19 years of age, and to suffer the loss of one of your peers under these circumstances and to be so far away brings its own vulnerability.”
At Camp Shamrock in At Tiri, Trooper Alex Tate described Pte Rooney as “a top bloke” and said the Donegal native always supported his friends. “If you ever needed a chat he was there.”
“There wasn’t a person on this trip that didn’t like him,” said Trooper Tate. “He never will be forgotten. Never.”
Lt Col Damien Murphy, the officer commanding the Irish-Polish battalion, said that “as commander it has been my responsibility to ensure that all the troops that are under my command are receiving all the necessary supports, such as medical support, personnel support services, and chaplaincy services”.
During his address to Irish troops at Camp Shamrock on Thursday afternoon, Mr Martin said: “Private Rooney’s death was a shocking reminder to all of Ireland of the risks taken by each and every one of you, in discharging your duty and maintaining our country’s proud record and reputation.”
Three parallel investigations into the attack, which left Pte Rooney dead and Trooper Shane Kearney seriously injured, are being undertaken by the Defence Forces, Unifil and the Lebanese authorities.
The attack on Irish peacekeepers and death of Pte Rooney has been widely reported in Lebanon.
“The 24-year-old soldier left his country, his family and his fiancee with whom he was planning to build a family to maintain security in Lebanon,” said Patrick Richa, a spokesperson for Kataeb, a Christian opposition party and an observer member of the European People’s Party.
“The Kataeb Party categorically rejects any kind of attack on the peacekeeping forces in the south or in any other region of Lebanon.”
Ali Hamdan, a press adviser for the Amal Movement, the Shia party which holds the parliamentary seats for Tibnin and Al-Aqbiya, where the attack happened, told The Irish Times that the attack on the Irish peacekeepers was “unacceptable”.
The Amal Movement is the weaker member of an alliance with Hizbullah, the Shia militant group backed by Iran which controls most of South Lebanon. While Amal members typically occupy public and administrative roles, Hizbullah and its private army dominate on security and foreign policy issues.
In response to a question from The Irish Times on the security situation facing Irish peacekeepers in South Lebanon, Mr Martin said: “There’s a political vacuum at the moment, in the absence of the establishment of a permanent government, and all of this makes the work of Unifil more difficult than five years ago.”
He said the environment for Irish peacekeepers serving with Unifil had changed and they were now encountering increasing numbers of obstacles and confrontations while on patrol.
“The frequency has gone up and the intensity of the interventions has also escalated,” said Mr Martin. “That is a problem for a mission such as the one that’s operating here.
“The first priority is to protect our people here who are on this peacekeeping mission,” said Mr Martin.
“It’s not in the interests of Lebanon or the Lebanese population that Unifil would cease operations here,” he added. “That could lead to a far worse escalation of war, which would have shocking repercussions for the people of Lebanon. We don’t want that; the Lebanese authorities are acutely aware of this.”