Friday 31 October 2014

Our teen peacekeeper who never came back from the Congo

Ralph Riegel remembers Irish UN trooper Pat Mullins, who is still 'Missing in Action' 50 years after trying to save his dying colleague

In 50 years of Irish peacekeeping operations with the UN, just two soldiers remain posted as 'Missing in Action'. The first is Trooper Pat Mullins from Kilbehenny on the Cork-Limerick border, who was killed on September 14/15, 1961, when his patrol was ambushed in the city of Elisabethville in the Congo's breakaway Katanga province.

Tpr Mullins was just 18 years old and would be killed after a gun battle in which he heroically tried to protect a dying colleague.

He faced overwhelming odds -- but courageously refused to leave his wounded comrade's side.

Yet, despite his bravery, remarkably few outside the Irish military are even aware of Tpr Mullins' heroism.

The battles that erupted on September 14 would rage on in Katanga for weeks to come and would eventually become part of Irish military lore.

Yet, just over a year earlier, there had been a mood of national exhilaration as Irish troops headed to Africa to wear the blue beret.

It was the countrys first major military deployment since independence and many regarded the UN mission to the Congo as heralding the dawn of a new, modern Ireland.

But the mood of exhilaration quickly turned to tragedy after the Niemba ambush on November 8, 1960.

A total of nine Irish soldiers had died in that engagement -- and it suddenly dawned on a somewhat naïve nation that peacekeeping missions weren't just parade-ground drills.

The Congo was proving a steep learning curve both for Ireland and her soldiers.

They had first arrived in the newly independent African country with weapons that were more suited to conflicts from the 1920s and 30s.

Wool uniforms and home-built Ford armoured cars would, within the space of just five years, give way to modern equipment and state-of-the-art weaponry.

But, unlike other UN nations, Ireland had significant advantages with its deployment. Ireland brought no colonial baggage to the Congo -- and, over time, Irish troops grew to be hugely respected.

The Niemba ambush had been caused by Baluba tribesmen who presumed that, because the Irish troops were white, they posed the same threat to them as the mercenaries now backing the breakaway Katangan regime.

But the Congo itself was, by now, a mess. Tribal tensions, old grudges and greed combined to threaten to tear the Congo -- one of Africa's biggest and potentially wealthiest states -- apart.

The Congolese national army was, in numerous areas, in widespread revolt; isolated white families, many working in mines or plantations, were targeted for robbery, murder and rape.

Katanga felt it had good reason not to be part of the Congo. Just the previous month, Irish, Swedish and Indian troops had delivered what they had thought was a major blow against the secessionist Katangan forces with a series of operations whose aim was to deprive the those forces of their mercenary officers -- a move endorsed by the then-UN special representative to Katanga, Conor Cruise O'Brien.

Irish Independent

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