Irish to join EU Battle Groups

Posted in Europe | 03-Mar-06 | Author: Declan Power

Declan Power

News that Ireland is finally to join up to the European Battle Group concept has been met with the usual welcome and opprobrium from the different quarters.

The truth of the matter is that despite hysteria and wildly inaccurate reports from fringe activist groups, this is directly in line with Ireland’s avowed foreign policy aims.

Despite claims of military neutrality, this state has always believed in playing its part in maintaining and restoring international stability. Indeed as far back as the late ‘30s Prime Minister de Valera was in favour of contributing troops under a League of Nations banner to prevent or stop Italian aggression in Abyssinia.

The cornerstone of Irish involvement in overseas security operations has been to participate through the mechanism of the UN. Therefore most of our troop contributions to peacekeeping have been under a UN flag with our soldiers wearing blue berets.

However, like mainstream warfare, peacekeeping doctrine does not exist in a vacuum, it has evolved. As the Cold War ended, the UN finally became freed up to intervene in a variety of nasty ethnic conflicts such as those that flared in the Balkans and Africa.

So it was in the 90s that traditional methods of UN peacekeeping, that is sending lightly armed troops in to police a signed peace agreement didn’t work. It didn’t work because you invariably had many warring parties who were happy to break treaties and go back to their ethnic killing sprees when they realised the blue-helmeted troops had neither the fire-power, the direction or the will to stop them.

Three salient examples of this include:

Sierra Leone - The small African-led UN force was virtually massacred by the warring parties. It took the hard-nosed intervention of Britain’s Parachute Regiment deployed from off-shore aircraft carriers to restore a climate that allowed the UN operation to flourish. Sierra Leone, while far from perfect, now enjoys more stability than it did over the last 20 years.

Srebrenica in Bosnia – Over ten years ago the Bosnian Serb army entered what was supposed to be a UN-protected safe haven for civilians and massacred over 7,000 muslim men and boys. This was done as Dutch UN peacekeepers got on buses to leave the area because the UN-led force was unable to provide air support to their troops.

Rwanda – Due to dithering about what constituted genocide within the UN, the US and the EU, wholesale slaughter took place under the very eyes of the UN force. To the chagrin of the UN commanders on the ground, their force was actually reduced in number at the height of the genocide.

A UN-commissioned document entitled the Brahimi Report highlighted the need for a harder hitting force to be able to create the stability necessary for the more lightly armed troops to police an actual peace.

Thus EU Battle Group concept grew from the abject failure of Europe to stop ethnic aggression on her own borders during the Balkan debacle. But more importantly it has also been requested by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

He has been to the fore in requesting Europe make ready a force that the UN can task or sub-contract out these difficult but necessary peace enforcement missions.

Ireland’s contribution to these missions is not going to be manpower-intensive. We simply don't have the numbers of well-equipped infantry and vehicles to make such a contribution.

Rather it will take the form of providing small, but potent bodies of troops such as special-forces teams, logistical and operational planners, explosive ordnance disposal and engineering expertise.

We have already done this on some of the NATO-led missions, such as supplying military police and transport specialists in Bosnia. Also Ireland provides a small but significant intelligence cell to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

There is nothing new here. Because the UN have mandated lead-forces to run these bigger more complex operations we have worked on a number of missions with different operational bosses other then UN HQ in New York.

These include our initial participation in the East Timor operation where we sent a Ranger team to served under Australian leadership. Bosnia, where our troops were under NATO control and more recently Kosovo where a reinforced infantry company serve within a larger Finnish force which in turn was controlled by a British leadership.

This is the new reality of conflict management and resolution a polyglot response of nations bound by their common desire to restore stability and security.

The one binding issue however that covers the deployment of Irish troops is the Triple-Lock mechanism. For Irish troops to deploy, there must be a UN mandate, Irish Governmental assent and a Parliamentary majority in agreement.

It’s a debate for another day, but this does seem a tad unwieldy for a force that requires rapid deployment?


Declan Power is an independent security and defence analyst and author of Siege at Jadotville.