Ireland must be one of the few countries in the world where, the Minister for Defence also doubles as the Minister for Agriculture, although in fairness, over the years the Agriculture brief has been the more demanding and bruising. But whatever irate farmers across the land may think, the priorities for Simon Coveney, the Minister for Agrifence, changed at the end of August.
The Irish troops are currently in the Golan Heights, the de facto barrier between Israel and Syria, fulfilling a UN Mandate voted on 40 years ago. The UN are there to make sure that the Israelis and Syrians keep to the terms of their ceasefire and to monitor 'the zone of separation'; what was not envisaged was that the Golan would become what is essentially a southern frontline in the Syrian civil war. Last week Irish troops exchanged fire with Islamist insurgents in the course of a rescue mission to release 35 Fijian UN troops, whose base was surrounded by hundreds of insurgents. These fighters apparently included elements from Jabhat al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate.
The rebel fighters attacked the UN base following the successful seizure of Queneitra, a town close to the Syrian border with the Heights, killing 20 or so Syrian soldiers; they then advanced on the UN base to the south of Quenetira where they seized the Fijian troops. Although the Irish rescued 35 Fijians, over 40 still remain captive.
As the situation in Syria (and the wider region) falls further and further into chaos, Irish peacekeepers are mediating between two governments, but are facing down Islamic insurgents and possibly fighters from the Islamic State, who are using the Golan as a base of operations.
Ireland has a proud history wearing the UN blue from the Congo, to Cyprus, Lebanon, parts of the former Yugoslavia and now the Golan Heights. As Tom Clonan, a security analyst pointed out in a piece in Tuesday's Irish Times, all the parties in the conflict - Israelis, Syrians, Hizbollah and Palestinian militias, have a track record of firing on the Irish peacekeepers.
Fifty percent of out casualties in Lebanon were inflicted by the Israelis and their proxies. The remainder were inflicted by Islamist resistance groups...Syrian troops shot dead an Irish army officer, Comdt Thomas Wickham, on Golan in 1967.
There is a rotation of Irish troops due later this month and I would think that this is the item on Coveney's desk that is causing him the most thought. Do the government carry on with their role in the mandate? (one of the reasons the Irish are there is that Austrian and Croat troops were pulled out by their respective governments). Do they get a fresh mandate from the UN taking cognizance of what the Israeli's like to call the 'facts on the ground'? Do they delay the rotation of troops? If the Irish pull out, who would replace them and if no one, presumably that would mean the end of the operation?
If an Irish withdrawal does mean an end to UN operations, would that not simply reinforce the Syrian people's belief that the rest of the world has abandoned them, and once abandoned, forgotten?
Simon Coveney has a big task pacifying Irish farmers, for slights and injustices real and imagined, but I think this may be his biggest challenge in government to date.
- Paddy Horahan, retired Company Sgt, UN Congo Veteran, aged just 17, speaking at Veterans Day , Sept 2 2014