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Are we willing to risk Irish lives by sending troops to Mali or Lebanon?

Minister Simon Coveney must address the potential dangers involved in sending Irish soldiers to replace French forces, Ryan McCarrel writes.

Ryan McCarrel

IN THE WAKE of last week’s siege by radical jihadists on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali’s capital, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney sought to downplay the risk to Irish soldiers already serving in a UN backed peacekeeping mission there, and doubled down on the government’s current position of sending a larger contingent to replace French forces.

The possible deployment of more Irish soldiers to either Lebanon or Mali comes at a time when France is reeling from the deadliest terrorist attack on European soil in more than a decade and has called upon its EU allies for aid and assistance.

Increasing the size of Ireland’s contingent is meant to ease the burden of the French military, which is currently stretched thin, dealing with numerous overseas commitments, while simultaneously confronting a growing domestic security crisis.

Responding to critics who have questioned whether sending a larger contingent of Defence Forces personnel to France’s former colonies is the appropriate response, Coveney claimed that “some people are trying to create a story that is unfair”.

Security interests

But what the minister fails to address is exactly why it is Ireland’s responsibility to fill those holes with Irish soldiers – much less, articulate clearly how Ireland’s national security interests will be served in doing so.

While acts of support in solidarity with the French are absolutely necessary at this time, any assistance should not undermine Ireland’s own national security interests by haphazardly putting Irish lives at risk – especially when that assistance is directed abroad on a mission that may only tangentially be related to European security, if at all.

Furthermore, Coveney has some explaining to do in his framing of the issue explicitly around helping the French in their time of need – the decision to send 180 more soldiers to Lebanon next year was already decided upon long before the attacks in Paris and Hollande’s invocation of Article 42.

Increasing the total number of soldiers available for international deployments from around 400 to 850 has also been on the minister’s agenda for some time now.

Mali Hotel Attack Soldiers from the presidential patrol outside the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako. Source: Jerome Delay/AP/Press Association Images

Colonial responsibility

France has a colonial past and present to attend to in much of Africa, a fact that must not be lost on us, and as such France maintains several military bases spanning sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal on the Atlantic, to Djibouti on the Red Sea.

Their colonial past has also left the country with the awkward recognition that their own history bears some responsibility for the current jumbled state of affairs besetting many places throughout the continent, including Mali.

Ask any foreign policy expert and they will tell you that this colonial history is therefore a significant reason why places like Mali and Central African Republic feature so prominently in the strategic thinking and geopolitical reasoning of French authorities, and not other European states.

The fact that France secured a UN mandate for their operations there does not change this – nor does it automatically provide a justification for Irish forces to intervene on their behalf.

Nevertheless, French President Francois Hollande’s invocation of Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty –  what some refer to as the mutual defence clause – demands a response from the Irish government, lending legal weight to an already hefty moral burden.

However, it is far from certain that this burden extends to supporting what are essentially French security operations in faraway places that the Irish would have little prior knowledge of or pre-existing commitments to.

Indeed, it is unclear whether providing relief for French forces in their ongoing overseas operations would even conform to the original intent of of the Lisbon treaty in the first place – a treaty negotiated in the early 2000s which clearly had in mind European defence, as the United States opted for a go it alone strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and began to withdraw US forces from the European continent.

France Britain Paris Attacks French President Francois Hollande meets British Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of the Paris attacks. Source: Michel Euler/AP/Press Association Images

No requirement

Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty states that “if a member state is is the victim of armed aggression, the other member states shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance, by all means in their power”.

But it goes on to stress that this assistance “shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain member states” – notably among them, neutral Ireland.

In other words, the Lisbon Treaty does not require Ireland to replace French soldiers abroad, in Mali, Lebanon or anywhere else.

Any commitment to do so should unequivocally be placed on the shoulders of those making the decision, including the minister himself – it should not be pinned to the Paris attacks alone.

Other types of aid and assistance that fulfill treaty requirements but do not not impinge on the character of Ireland’s mostly anti-interventionist posture could just as easily be considered, including sending the Defence Forces to support ongoing border checks in Europe, intelligence sharing, and providing any required material or humanitarian aide.

Given the unprecedented nature of rapidly unfolding events, Minister Coveney has a responsibility to:

  • make it absolutely clear what the treaty does and does not require Ireland to do;
  • articulate precisely how any decision regarding deploying soldiers abroad will be in Ireland’s national security interests (including how it could affect the country’s long-standing stance on neutrality and/or make Ireland a future target of terrorist attacks);
  • make the potential risks and consequences well-known so the public can be reasonably informed on the complexity of the security environment in Mali (or Lebanon), including the inherent dangers involved in sending troops there.

And just so we are clear, these dangers appear to be growing, as a fragile peace accord that never had the support of some jihadist and separatist forces in the first place is in danger of falling apart completely, threatening an escalation in violence at precisely the same moment that Irish leaders are struggling with the decision to send more Irish soldiers.

France Paris Attacks French soldiers watch over the Champs Elysees in Paris. Source: acques Brinon/AP/Press Association Images

Targeting foreign nationals

Furthermore, it appears as if this violence is specifically targeting peacekeepers and aid workers, including last week’s attack in Bamako and more than two dozen other attacks in the last few months alone.

As Andrew Lebovich and Gregory Mann, two prominent regional experts, have made plain in the Washington Post, it is no coincidence that the most recent attack targeted a hotel frequented by foreign dignitaries and aid workers.

These attacks are meant to disrupt Mali’s “troubled links to the world beyond West Africa”.

We should carefully consider whether or not it is in Ireland’s interest to become one such link.

In categorising growing concerns about the appropriateness of escalating Ireland’s military commitments abroad as somehow “unfair”, Coveney misses the mark completely.

Those asking the government for thoughtful deliberation are not discounting Ireland’s commitment to France or European security more broadly – nor should they stand accused of fabricating some story.

They have real concerns that require a well thought-out strategic response, not sugarcoated answers.

Coveney has a responsibility to show the same degree of seriousness as those asking such difficult questions, while laying bare what’s at stake, before he sends more Irish soldiers into harm’s way.

Ryan McCarrel is a PhD candidate in geopolitics at University College Dublin, where he specialises in NATO’s relations with its non-member states.

Read: Jihadi group names attackers responsible for deadly hotel siege in Mali

Read: Will Ireland have to provide military assistance to France?

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