Opinion Eoghan Harris

Saturday 27 August 2016

Saluting those serving in far, foreign lands

Published 28/07/2013 | 05:00

Brigadier-General Gerald Aherne, of the Irish Army, commands the EU's Training Mission to Somalia. From a base in Kampala, Uganda, his tiny 12-man team has trained 3,500 members of the Somali Army. This weekend, his trainees may get a short break.

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That's because the Brigadier-General will almost certainly be checking out Cork's GAA fortunes, having played Gaelic football for Cork minors and captained the winning team of 1972. I know this, having checked out his career for a piece I planned to write on Alan Shatter's recent Green Paper on Defence.

Some of my research has been out-flanked by a faster-moving column commanded by Conor Brady writing in the Irish Times last Thursday. But while I agree with all that Brady says – particularly his warning against conflating the roles of the Army and gardai – I have a few things to add. Let me start with a quibble with his assumption that Ireland is neutral.

Neutrality requires responsibilities laid down by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. The only time we were neutral in that strict sense was in the First World War. The White Paper of 1996, on Irish foreign policy, admitted as much. We are not neutral: we are non-aligned.

Brigadier-General Aherne would probably be the first to admit that Irish troops abroad have benefited from our blurry image as a neutral country. Not so beneficial, however, is our blurry notion of the Defence Forces abroad. We wish them well, but we don't really know what they do, and how good they are at doing it.

Take Brigadier Aherne. In the past 32 years, he has served as an infantry officer in Ireland at every level from platoon to brigade, been Director of Training, Provost Marshal, Commandant of the Military College and commander of the 4th Western Brigade. But much of his service life has been spent in far, foreign fields.

He has served as senior officer with four groups (UN, EU, NATO, OSCE) in the three major trouble spots of the world: the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa. He has done nine tours of duty, from six months to two years. A total of nine years away from his beloved family.

Although his service is exceptional, the general statistics of the Irish Defence Forces are similarly striking. Since first deployed in Lebanon in 1958, they have completed 64,000 individual tours of duty in 70 UN-authorised missions. This has left us with a peerless international reputation for armed peacekeeping.

True, it came at a price. Eighty-six Irish soldiers have died on foreign service. But they helped save countless lives. Their deaths have not been in vain.

Alas, the role of the Defence Forces is better respected abroad than at home. In recent years, we have reduced the Irish Army from three to two brigades. But we have not used the savings to invest in crucial areas like cyber security.

Viewed from home, the role of the Defence Forces abroad has been reduced to soft photo ops. Far too often, the Army press office has settled for smiling soldiers. The classical publicity shot is of a female member of an Irish battalion teaching English to veiled Muslim girls.

These shots might be fine for recruiting posters – if the Army was recruiting. But they do not represent the complex and challenging tasks that the Irish Army faces abroad. Such shots are simply a sop to the humanitarian lobby in Ireland.

The Irish Defence Forces are not simply armed humanitarians. They are a military force, highly trained, highly skilled, highly motivated – and highly admired by their military peers. But they are trained at home – where they get scant support from the Department of Defence.

Language lets in a lot of light on how a society sees its institutions. The current Green Paper offers a depressing clue to the mindset of the civil servants who, having already eliminated an entire brigade, seem to be now preparing a feeble future for the Irish Defence Forces.

The clue comes in the coinage "Defence Organisation" instead of the traditional "Defence Forces". This debased language depicts the Irish Army as akin to a gathering of community activists. Shame on those few who have gone along with this gormless jargon.

Let us hope that serving and retired officers will demand the phrase be dumped. There is no such institution as the "Defence Organisation". Who leads this imaginary body? To whom does it report?

The short answer is that the "Defence Organisation" does not exist. It has no statutory basis. It is not a legal entity. It is nothing more than a civil service fiction to cover further cuts. It should be scrapped forthwith.

Downgrading the Defence Forces in language must not be followed by downgrading it in life. Away from home, the Irish Army is admired everywhere it has served. And this is not just patriotic puffing.

We know that Irish Army officers are highly rated internationally because they get a disproportionately higher ratio of the top jobs at the headquarters of international missions. This is due to their superb military education, as well as a native genius for what might be called social anthropology.

The Irish Army does not stand aloof when abroad. It studies local habits and customs and is wise to local machinations. That is where the GAA comes in. As one officer observed: "If you can hold your own in that bear-pit then Hizbollah, Serb warlords, Chadian tribesmen and Somali clansmen are only boy scouts."

As well as their military education and native genius for negotiation, most Irish officers had another skill we take for granted: the ability to write clear English, so essential to military reports. But in recent years, senior Irish officers have complained about the erosion of earlier high standards in written English.

Thankfully, most senior officers can still write graphic English. One of them emailed me his abiding memory of a refugee camp in Chad. I quote it as an antidote to the anodyne publicity that avoids the reality of armed peacekeeping.

"Apart from the 50 degrees of heat, my abiding memory are of two smells in the camps where some 800,000 refugees were housed – the never-to-be-forgotten smells of excrement and death. When experienced in that magnitude, words are superfluous, one's humanity is challenged."

That's the downside of the Defence Forces' tour of duty. But the positive side also calls for cold courage. Last May, Brigadier-General Aherne set up a forward HQ in Mogadishu. That's the terrifying city that features in the movie Black Hawk Down.

The Green Paper gives us a chance to cherish the human capital of our Defence Forces. And to consider how we can convert it into financial capital. Many of our retired officers stay in social contact with their Russian, Indian and Chinese counterparts – a resource Britain has used extensively, but which we have ignored.

The Irish Army at home and abroad is a small but perfectly formed force for the modern world. But it needs constant care. Ask your TD to pay more attention. Meantime, as a fellow Corkman, may I piously pray that Brigadier-General Aherne gets the GAA results he richly deserves.

Sunday Independent

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