'I look forward to spending our first Christmas together' - Irish Defence Forces send festive wishes home
Irish Defence Forces stationed abroad have sent festive wishes home to their families in Ireland ahead of Christmas.
Members of the Defence Forces each sent a simple, but emotional, message home to their families and friends.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny also paid glowing tributes to Irish peacekeeping troops who, he said, lay their lives on the line for their country and for the United Nations.
Mr Kenny was on a Christmas visit yesterday to the 131 members of the 50th infantry group, who serve on the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel.
He told the Irish Independent it was fitting that he should come to the contingent's headquarters, Camp Zouiani to recognise the work being carried out by the peacekeepers in a very sensitive part of the Middle East.
Mr Kenny, who was accompanied by Defence Minister Simon Coveney and Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe, also highlighted the sacrifices made by the Defence Force personnel and their families in the cause of peace.
As the Taoiseach spoke, shots could be heard in the background as rival factions in the anti Syrian government groups exchanged fire.
He recalled that 47 personnel had lost their lives while on peacekeeping duties and said that this week they celebrated 60 years of service to the UN.
A total of 66,000 individual missions had been recorded by Irish troops since then and, Mr Kenny said, they had all been completed with competence and total professionalism.
The Taoiseach underlined the importance of the role being played by the Irish in Undof, (the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force), on the Golan and also in south Lebanon, which he had visited on Monday.
The 131 Irish troops form the force reserve company for the mission.
The contingents play a key role in the mission and its highly modern range of capabilities and past experience of peacekeeping in trouble hot spots means it is operationally very effective.
Its tasks include providing armoured protection for Undof and carrying out patrols in the area of separation between Syria and Israel in the shadow of Mount Hermon.
The Irish also include a quick reaction force, which is permanently on stand-by and musty be ready to respond within 15 minutes.
Its average response time is nine minutes.
A platoon of 30 troops forms the reaction unit and is on duty on a round the clock basis for a week before being rotated.
The peace keepers are on the Golan to maintain the ceasefire between the two countries, agreed in 1974 after two wars in the previous seven years.
The Taoiseach and his two ministers also met eight Defence Forces personnel, who serve at the mission headquarters in Damascus, including the deputy force commander, Brigadier General Tony Hanlon.
He also met the commanding officer of the Irish contingent, Lieut Col Darragh McKevitt, a former inter-county footballer with Kildare.
Camp Zouiani is on the Israeli side but have a platoon of 30 personnel working alongside Fijian troops in a forward post in Syria.
At night the camp echoes with bursts of gunfire and shelling as a result of in-fighting among groups of anti government forces.
Some of the groups regularly change allegiances and form new alliances.
But the Irish do not get involved. The civil war in Syria is not part of their mission.
Two of the most potent anti government groups in the area are the al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated to al-Qa'ida and the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, said to be linked to Islamic State (IS).