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An Irish Defence Forces soldier on duty in Lebanon. Irish Defence Forces
ger buckley

Irish general who liaises between State, EU and Nato calls defence links 'a force for good'

Brig Gen Ger Buckley was speaking to The Journal’s Niall O’Connor in Brussels last week.

THE IRISH GENERAL who manages both the State’s military engagement with the European Union and Nato in Brussels said he believes that international defence relationships are “a force for good”. 

Brigadier General Ger Buckley works in an office located at the Irish embassy in the Belgian capital and sat down last week with The Journal to discuss his role as the military representative to the EU and Nato’s Partnership for Peace.

The Co Kerry native points to previous European conflicts – particularly in the Balkans – in supporting the need for common defence policies, which allow groups of countries like the EU to address conflicts and crises as one, rather than as individual nations.

He said that such agreements could help prevent genocidal conflicts and that they were not policies that people should be worried about.

“It’s another string to the EU bow and it is something people shouldn’t be afraid of,” he said.

Buckley was speaking before controversy over comments by President Michael D Higgins regarding the impending forum on international security policy.

The president, who is Supreme Commander of the Irish Defence Forces, has since apologised for comments he made about the Forum chairwoman Professor Louise Richardson.  

Buckley, a hugely experienced officer, is well versed on the topic of Irish military engagements with other countries and external agencies. 

He started his career in 1983, and has worked as a senior advisor and military officer in places as diverse as Somalia, Afghanistan, the Balkans and the diplomatic halls of Brussels.

He describes his role in its simplest of terms: as being the European-based representative and advisor for the Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces Lt Gen Seán Clancy.

But he also has a leadership role which sees him interact with various organisations associated with the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) initiatives. 

As part of his work, Buckley works with a senior official from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Cáit Moran, and her colleagues, and he also has a military team in Brussels.

These offices are spread across the city and in other locations – there is a small team based at the NATO headquarters located near Zaventem Airport. There is also a team working on training for Ukrainians and other military officers working on other various projects.

Sarajevo

Buckley has been to several warzones, but it is the events in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo and the genocide that befell the former Yugoslavia that informs his world view. 

“People would ask me, why does the EU need [the Common Security and Defence Policy]?

“And I will give you just one example, in a word: Sarajevo. If you ask me why I would just say Sarajevo, the UN couldn’t intervene, NATO wouldn’t intervene – I think that’s the right word – and the EU was unable.

“We had genocide two hours’ drive from Vienna and we couldn’t do anything about it. So we should never allow that to happen again,” he said. 

Between 1992 and 1996, Sarajevo endured a siege of more than 1,400 days in which over 5,000 civilians died from sniper fire and shelling – there were also large-scale losses of military personnel.

Serb nationalist military and civilian leaders have since been convicted and received life sentences for their part in the war before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. 

In relation to current defence frameworks, Buckley said that Ireland’s military relationship with its EU partners was at a “crisis management” level. 

He believes the United Nations and Nato have strong roles in this, but that the EU must complement it.

“It’s another string to the EU bow and it is something people shouldn’t be afraid of. I see it as a force for good,” he added. 

Screenshot (32) Brigadier General Ger Buckley. Irish Defence Forces Irish Defence Forces

Buckley said that Ireland has participated in a number of missions – most recently a training mission in war-ravaged Mali in the Sahel region of Africa and Operation Irini off the coast of Libya. 

Irish troops were training local forces in the Sahel to fight a jihadist insurgency as part of the European Union Training Mission and there was also a detachment of Army Ranger Wing operators working in the UN-backed MINUSMA mission.  

“If you see where the EU has been deployed and its crisis management operations in Mali and Chad; the training mission in Somalia, down in Mozambique, Operation Irini in the Mediterranean. They’re all trying to make the world a better place,” he said.  

Nato connection

Buckley also interacts with Nato as Ireland has been a partner nation of the alliance for a number of years. A small office of military officers and diplomats works at the headquarters. 

In Ireland, the relationship between the State and the alliance is controversial, with some opposition TDs, including People Before Profit, strongly criticising the involvement of Ireland with NATO. But in Brussels it is just another connection for the Irish. 

“I lead the military element of our office out in Nato, which is a very small office. I see partnership for us as giving us opportunities and benefits.

“And it is reciprocated because partnership is interesting. The more you engage with them, the more benefits you will get. It’s not about going in and eating a slice of the cake and walking away,” he said. 

The Journal has previously reported on the Operational Capabilities Concept evaluation in which Irish troops such as artillery units, naval service and the Army Ranger Wing were assessed by Nato assessors.

Buckley believes that this is a key benefit of Partnership for Peace, as it helps Ireland to reach the standard of international best practice. 

“Nato sets the world standard – these are the standards we want and these are the standards we want for all our different types of operations, for our UN operations our CSDP operations, for our Nato operations like in Kosovo,” he explained. 

Ukraine

Ireland has also, through the EU, worked to train Ukrainian soldiers in bomb disposal techniques on a mission in Cyprus

At present, Buckley said, Ireland is waiting to see what the next training mission will be – the Defence Forces, due to Ireland’s exemption from participation in certain military activities, are limited to providing only non lethal aid. 

Buckley did speak about his views on how the European Union responded to the war in Ukraine, describing it as “incredibly positive”. 

“The EU has responded very well, to the crisis in Ukraine in a holistically, militarily and in an integrated manner. And we in the Irish Defense Forces, like the people of Ireland, have taken the the Ukrainian refugees.

“I think we have skills that will be useful for them,” he said. 

Buckley would not be drawn on discussions of policy, stating that it was a matter for the Irish Government. 

There were no discussions on neutrality or on the Triple Lock, whereby the Government must obtain cabinet as well as Dáil approval and a UN mandate before deploying troops. 

There is now a fervour within the Government to change that policy as a Consultative Forum on International Security begins this week.

One of the arguments put forward by those opposed to the Triple Lock is that the need for a UN mandate permits an external power to interfere in Irish policy given that members of the UN Security Council, like Russia and China, can veto peace missions. 

Buckley did give an example of the impact of a Chinese veto on a mission in Macedonia in which he was involved.

The operation was to keep tensions low between Macedonians and their Serb neighbours during the various Balkan conflicts.  

“There would have been tensions between these communities. The mission was closed rather unexpectedly in 1997 and 1998 due to a Chinese veto of the mandate. And they were fighting each other six months later,” he said. 

49859694612_f0ebfbf9a2_o Irish troops training for an EU Battlegroup mission. Irish Defence Forces Irish Defence Forces

Soft power

Buckley said that the connections between Irish military leaders, Government diplomats and various defence sector contacts have borne fruit repeatedly – in the form of a much-vaunted soft power. 

But he believes that the training and education system for Irish officers and soldiers has helped massively.

The biggest help to the perception of Irish troops internationally, Buckley believes, comes from their constant deployments overseas. 

“We do more operational deployments than most of our EU partners, like Austria.

“We do them in every rank, throughout our service and as we come back from one we are preparing for another.

“It develops you personally and professionally and our national characteristics help us you know, we have a friendly disposition. We don’t seek confrontation.

“You may have those who believe you have better outcomes by showing yourself to be strong and powerful but Irish soldiers have a completely different approach – that is what we bring to the table,” he added.

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