Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Monday 25 September 2023 Dublin: 16°C
Alamy Stock Photo
Inside the military and diplomatic mission to evacuate Irish citizens from Sudan
Earlier this week The Journal spoke to two officers who devised and planned the Sudan ECAT in which more than 200 people were rescued.

AT THE START of each day, Colonel Stephen Ryan and Lt Colonel Fergal MacDonald get an intelligence briefing outlining events in which their expertise may possibly be required.

While that briefing looks at incidents across the Defence Forces roster for the day, it also lays out broader global affairs that the Irish may become involved in.

These meetings often muse over potential missions that never materialise but tenor of the news on 16 April this year was different. 

The world had just woken up to news footage of bombers pounding military positions and house-to-house fighting on the streets of Khartoum in Sudan. 

Inside their nondescript corner of the red brick buildings of McKee Barracks in Dublin, Ryan and McDonald, started to plot a rescue mission, dubbed Operation Piccolo. 

It is part of their job description to design evacuations of Irish citizens from warzones when required. 

Colonel Stephen Ryan is director of Operations and Planning at Defense Forces headquarters and Lt Colonel Fergal MacDonald is the officer in charge of plans and capabilities.

Ryan worked on the Irish element of the chaotic Kabul airlift in which 36 people were rescued by Ireland as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 2021. 

Speaking to The Journal this week following a mission which saw more than 250 Irish people removed from the embattled city, he outlined the lessons learned from that mission and how it informed the ECAT, or Emergency Civil Assistance Team, in Sudan.

The team said that while the initial news of 16 April from Khartoum was unexpected, there was an immediate realisation that the process of planning an evacuation would need to begin immediately. 

While Ryan and MacDonald began their work there was another group who were also examining how they could help.

In a secure compound, 50kms away, in the Curragh Camp the ARW were also monitoring the situation and Ryan revealed that they had also immediately began planning. 

“It was on the media that things in Sudan were starting to go down hill. We were also getting our (military) intelligence guys to say that things were happening in Sudan. So before we even got a phone call from the Department of Foreign Affairs or whatever, we were thinking about what we could do,” Ryan said. 

After reading the intelligence report, the next phone call was to the ARW and they spoke to the Officer Commanding at the secretive unit.

“They were tracking this as well – and we said, okay, put guys on standby and start getting things prepared, just in case,” Ryan said. 

Having worked on Kabul, Ryan, said that he had procedures in place with manuals and memos to guide him. All military officers are trained in performing the Defence Forces equivalent of an ECAT, a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO).

“We were immediately making preparations, we were doing planning, we had the guys in the Army Ranger Wing (ARW) getting ready for a possible tasking that they may possibly be tasked within a couple of days time.

“So that we were kind of confident enough that if we did get a phone call, to start discussing how to activate this thing. We had the nuts and bolts of a plan already in place,” Ryan said. 

52167706279_60e987e873_o Irish Defence Forces A key to the operation was the Irish Army Ranger Wing. Irish Defence Forces

Numbers of people involved cannot be disclosed for security reasons but the officers said that the Ranger Wing team included many soldiers who were involved in the Kabul airlift. 

“The beauty of the Army Ranger Wing is that because they’re so highly trained, they are dual and triple purpose.

“You can have a soldier from the Wing who is an expert medic, but he’s also an expert at communications, maybe also have language skills, will have various weapons skills and various command skills.

“So they do bring a huge force multiplier to even a small group have the effect of a much larger group, they really are a very good asset to throw at a problem like this,” he said. 

Lessons from Kabul

The military plan also included a command detachment to run the operations on the ground – this is part of a key understanding from Kabul along with, as Ryan said, multiple fail safes, known as redundancies, built into the system to prevent a failure. 

Ryan and MacDonald said that there are other key considerations that Kabul gave them – simple details such as ensuring a supply of bottled water and enough women’s hygienic products and nappies for babies. 

There was also a need to devise a strategy to extract the Irish team if the situation deteriorated – therefore the planners must devise multiple plans to ensure that the Irish can get home. 

It is the need for multiple communications methods that were the ultimate learning – making sure that there are multiple ways to keep in touch with Dublin.

But before getting to the point where the deployment order is given, there is a large number of meetings and discussions. 

MacDonald said: “There are different parts of the Defence Forces we need to speak to as part of that planning and getting their input. 

“We need to talk to our military intelligence to find out what is actually going on out there. We need to talk to our logistics people to work on how we would get to the various locations and also just about the most practical way to do that.

“Because anything that is outside the circumference of 1,000 kilometres, well there is a range as to what we can do alone.”

file-a-man-walks-by-a-house-hit-in-recent-fighting-in-khartoum-sudan-april-25-2023-the-u-s-conducted-its-first-organized-evacuation-of-citizens-and-permanent-residents-from-sudan-the-state-dep Alamy Stock Photo A man walks by a house hit in recent fighting in Khartoum, Sudan. Alamy Stock Photo

Soft power benefits

Critical to organising such operations, both officers stressed, are the good relationships built up between the Defence Forces, and their colleagues in the Departments of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and Defence (DOD).

They speak of both military people and their civilian counterparts working 18-hour days to get the operation done. 

“It’s the personal relationships. Some of the DFA people that were involved were the same DFA people that were involved with this and it was the same with the military people both on the ground and in the planning. 

“It is so important that when we’re engaging with DFA on these issues that they already know us and they know, they can trust us, we know we can trust them,” Ryan said. 

The pair also point to the soft power benefits of relationships built up with foreign militaries over the years. 

And membership of the European Union is seen as a key tool as they were able to contact militaries in other countries, for example the French who immediately, without question, offered help. 

While the officers said that the DFA was working their connections with governments across the world, so were the military, particularly their officers based in EU missions in Brussels.

The planners said this was to find out what other nations were doing and how Irish troops and diplomats could fit in with those operations. 

The timeline of getting to the point where the operation was looking like it was getting a green light from government became more clear in informal conversations with DFA which began on 18 April, MacDonald said.

By 20 April, MacDonald said: “I won’t say we had the ‘go’ but we were at 80%.”

The team had much of their plan in place and the Army Rangers were also set to go and Ryan and MacDonald said that the ARW operators were on a one-hour standby to move at that point.

Government approval came on 23 April with a special meeting of cabinet to clear the way. 

Again lessons had been learned from the Kabul ECAT and DFA had put in place certain procedures to quicken the pace of deploying the mission – put simply much of the planning is already in place in various memos of understanding and other documents.

The military had devised several scenarios that would fit into the operation – depending on the scenario selected by DFA.

“They (DFA) recognised in fairly short order that this was going to happen from their perspective.

“We then have to look to see what is the ask and we had various scenarios that we were looking at. But it really then starts narrowing down to see exactly what is the ask. How exactly do they see the Defence Forces supporting them, how can we support them to do what they need to do,” Ryan explained. 


The military planners said that the proposal from the DFA side was to move their diplomatic team from Nairobi in Kenya and place them in Djibouti where other states were operating.

Djibouti has a western military airbase with infrastructure that is required to operate in a safe environment — but is still deemed close enough to Sudan.

MacDonald said that the various plans and contingencies were narrowed down in an early morning meeting with DFA on 22 April.

Ryan said one key consideration, different to the Kabul airlift, was that the Irish soldiers would be going into a stable country, Djibouti, and that clearances were necessary for them to operate there. 

“In the same way if, say, France turned up sending armed soldiers into Dublin Airport, the people in Dublin Airport would have to know well in advance so you can’t just do things like this without working out those diplomatic issues.

“So that’s where Foreign Affairs come in, things like diplomatic passports, clearances to get into countries etc. All that kind of stuff had to be pushed through various embassies and along various lines, to make sure that our guys wouldn’t be turned away when they land or it be seen as an aggressive act by a friendly nation,” Ryan said. 

Both officers explained, once the go order was officially given, that the quickest way to get the Rangers and the Command element to Djibouti to support the DFA personnel was on commercial airlines. 

While they put the operation in motion, it is the team on the ground that then work the problem, making links with other forces and managing the strategy. There was a change in operations when the ECAT shifted focus to Cyprus where British aircraft were bringing the evacuated Irish citizens. 

The plan was reshaped to manage that with Air Corps dispatched to Cyprus to provide equipment. 

The team then watched as the numbers of evacuated people increased daily. 

Ryan said that the new longer range cargo aircraft coming into the Defence Forces will be of huge benefit to organising similar missions in the future. 

“That will add – to a big degree – to what we can offer to the customer, which is DFA, and ultimately the Irish citizen on the ground.

You can see the way other nations do it, you can see how they use those types of assets.

“You can learn lessons on how we can integrate those assets into our planning for the next one,” he said. 

Both officers play down the nature of the input they and other Defence Force’s personnel played in the mission but they are agreed that this would not have happened with out overseas connections and the intense work of civil servants in foreign Affairs and Defence.  

Although the mission successfully brought 250 Irish citizens home, there was some concerns expressed that the Irish government could not bring home all residents and visa holders.

Speaking to The Journal‘s Explainer podcast Dr Aia Mohamed, who is an assistant professor and registrar at St James and Trinity College Dublin, said she believes more could have been done on the ground to ensure the safe evacuation of more people more quickly. She was born in Sudan but grew up in Ireland. Her father was in Sudan when fighting broke out and was part of the evacuation.

Mohamed said there are eight Sudanese doctors who are working in Irish hospitals still trapped in the country. 

The challenges for the State workers tasked with getting the job done are vast – particularly the lack of availability of an Irish-based strategic lift capability. However with that in mind the mission was a success from the planning through to the execution for many people who otherwise would have been trapped in Sudan. 

MacDonald said there is a “lot of negativity” around the Defence Forces and Ireland’s capabilities but that his involvement with those who were involved in the operation renewed a sense of pride for him. 

“It made me feel good. I felt afterwards we’re not a bad crowd,” he laughed. 

“As bad as people or teams might seem from the outside, after working with the various people they are very committed people who come in every day, whether it’s Defence Forces, whether it’s Department of Defense, whether it’s DFA and do a really good job.

“That sometimes gets lost in the other stuff that’s going on around the place,” he explained.