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Dublin: 10 °C Sunday 18 November, 2018
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Irish peacekeeping troops experiencing 'some harassment' in Syria

Another 130 troops will deploy to the area next month.

Lieutenant Marie Carrigy from Longford
Lieutenant Marie Carrigy from Longford
Image: PA Wire/Press Association Images

THE 130 MEMBERS of the Irish Defence Forces who will be travelling to the Golan Heights next month were put through their paces in Wicklow today.

The 14 officers, one chaplain and the 115 other men and women of varying ranks took part in pre-deployment training in the Glen of Imaal ahead of their overseas mission.

They will be the third group to join the UNDOF mission in Syria where they will spend six months in the region, serving alongside troops from India, Fiji and the Philippines.

The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force was set up in 1974 to police the ceasefire between Israeli and Syrian troops — in the Golan Heights region between the two countries.

It followed the Arab-Israeli war of the previous year, and the subsequent signing by both sides of a ‘disengagement agreement’. The mission has been ongoing for the last 39 years, with troops  from various countries taking part — supervising and helping implement that ceasefire deal.

The area had been reasonably quiet until the outbreak of the Syrian conflict more than three years ago.

Since then, there has been an increase in the difficulties experienced by the troops.

“There is some harassment of UN troops,” notes Deputy Commanding Officer Commandant Owen McNally.

With 25 years army experience behind him, Cmdt McNally is to take the Second in Command position for this deployment.

“Like most UN missions, there is a potential for danger,” he tells TheJournal.ie, but downplays the role the civil war is having on their training.

“What it does do is focus preparation a bit more,” he adds, giving today’s mission readiness and field training – which are based on real life scenarios – as examples.

United Nations Disengagement Observation Force training Today's final preparations. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

For the Irish troops already in the area, he says they have seen “all elements” of the conflict involved in the blocking of freedom of movement of troops and other small harassments.

UNDOF has also admitted that there has been “a rise in the nature, number and gravity of incidents involving United Nations personnel on the ground, including abductions of UNDOF and UNTSO observers, the direct and indirect firing at them by the Syrian Arab armed forces or armed members of the opposition, the theft of UN weapons and ammunition, vehicles and other assets, and the looting and destruction of facilities”.

The Irish troops have no mandate to get involved in the internal Syrian conflict. They operate in the Golan Heights area only, which is defined as a stretch of land around 75km long, and varying between 200 metres and 10 kilometres in width.

There are two base camps for the force in the area, 20 permanently manned positions, eight outposts manned during daylight hours and eleven observation posts. Troops actively patrol the area by day and night.

The UN mission’s headquarters, where the Irish contingent will be based, is located at Camp Faouar.

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The third deployment

There are seven women travelling in the group, three of whom are officers. The average age of the entire deployment is 28 years and between them they have been on 302 trips.

Group Sergeant Major Derek Lambe has gone on 20 of those missions, including tours to Cyprus, Lebanon, Kosovo and Bosnia.

His son, Derek Junior, has recently returned from overseas service with UNDOF.

“He was out with the first group that deployed,” Lambe told TheJournal.ie.

“He returned in late March…He’s giving me nothing but tips,” he laughs. “He got a wealth of experience there that he has passed on.”

Every mission is worthwhile, he adds.

“Not only are the Irish well received in every place [we] go to, but it also gives us a broader spectrum of experience that we can pass on.”

The downside of the trip is having to leave family and Lambe admits his wife Colette doesn’t like to see him go.

“The family are all reared,” he begins. (He has seven children and 12 grandchildren). “And the wife continues to support me… Although she’s not happy I’m going away.”

McNally echoes those sentiments.

“My children are quite young so to them Daddy is just going away. Like all military families they are supportive and we wouldn’t be able to do the job without them.”

Explainer: What are Irish troops doing in Syria? 

Read: Deportation of man suspected of killing Irish soldiers “an important step”

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