In Harm’s Way

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From top: French soldiers in Mali; Minister for Defence Simon Coveney with Irish Army recruits

Ireland is expected to send a contingent of peacekeeping troops to Mali to allow France to deploy troops elsewhere.

But, argues Ryan McCarrel, the risk to Irish lives and Irish neutrality must be known.

Ryan writes:

Irish Defence Minister, Simon Coveney, has recently told The Independent that sending a large Irish troop contingent to Mali, in support of the ongoing French military operation there, is the government’s most likely response in the wake of the terrorist attacks that struck Paris last week.

His announcement comes after the French government’s invocation of Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty on Tuesday that directs European Union member states to provide aid and assistance in the event of an attack on another member.

EU defence ministers are to meet today [Friday), and are expected to make several important decisions about how to do so. Yet sending a contingent of Irish soldiers to Mali is not a decision that should be taken lightly.

Mali has been embroiled in conflict since March 2012 when an armed Tuareg rebellion in the country’s north left the military embarrassed, leading to a coup that overthrew the elected government of President Touré.

The ensuing political crisis was seized upon by the Tuareg rebels in the north who quickly allied themselves with a radical Islamist group known as Ansar ed-Din in order to solidify control over the northern part of the country.

After declaring an independent state of Azawad, the Tuareg rebels with the support of several radical jihadist groups, including Al Qaeda, advanced southwards overtaking large parts of Malian territory as they went. French forces intervened in 2013 and pushed back their advances in conjunction with government forces, eventually retaking control of all of Mali’s major cities.

Though the situation is now relatively stable in comparison to Syria, attacks in Mali are still common and are often directed at UN and French peace-keeping forces.

In the last few months more than two dozen attacks have been carried out against humanitarian organizations alone.

The most recent of which happened just last week when an explosive device was detonated outside the entrance of non-government organization. Indeed, the fragile peace-deal brokered earlier this year might be in danger of falling apart completely.

In a video released earlier this month, Iyad Ag Ghaly, a radical jihadist most likely operating in Mali’s North, denounced the deal, saying the groups who signed it were ‘secular’ and accused them of ‘treason.’

In the video, he instructs his followers to answer Charlie Hebdo’s caricature of Mohammed with “your explosive belts, your remote-controlled charges and your booby-trapped devices.” His threatening remarks are directed as much at continuing the bombing campaign in Mali, as broadening these the campaign to include attacks abroad – and in particular, France.

It’s in this context that Minister Coveney has suggested that Irish soldiers ought to be sent to Mali in support of their French counterparts, while simultaneously vowing that Ireland would not put the lives of their soldiers at risk.

The question of course is whether the Minister can reasonably make such a guarantee for the safety of Irish soldiers – after all French forces have already suffered casualties – or whether participating in such an operation could potentially make Ireland a target of a future terrorist attack.

This is a fate the country has studiously avoided thus far with its staunch stance on neutrality and avoidance of overseas interventions. Indeed, the question should be raised as to whether the Irish defence forces are prepared to partake in counter-insurgency operations if it were to come to that, and perhaps more importantly, it must be asked whether the Irish should be involved in such a complex conflict in the first place.

Mali is a former colony of France. They have a special interest in maintaining a modicum of peace and stability there and elsewhere throughout western Africa, where they regularly intervene and have several military bases. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that France has taken on a “big brother role” in the region.

France’s colonial past is therefore a significant reason why it, and not other countries like Ireland, finds itself continually embroiled in a series of regional conflicts spanning more than 4000km from Bangui in Central African Republic, to Bamako in Mali – capital cities that the Irish would have little prior knowledge of let alone a military commitment to.

Furthermore, these conflicts have not come without high costs. Though precise numbers are difficult to corroborate civilians have been killed and wounded during earlier stages of the French operation, in addition to French soldiers, including a helicopter pilot who died in 2013. As a direct result of intervention, France has been singled-out by radical extremists like Iyad Ag Ghaly for attack.

None-the-less, Irish Defence Minister Coveney has stressed the Lisbon Treaty as the deciding factor in the matter – this despite his admission that sending more soldiers to Mali was already on the docket before the Paris attacks.

Given the current situation and the potential consequences at stake, we should be clear about what Article 42.7 does and does not require Ireland to do.

The treaty states that “if a member state 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 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.

Aid and assistance can take many forms outside of direct military intervention in overseas conflicts, including helping provide domestic security and policing in France, increased intelligence sharing, and humanitarian assistance.

In other words the treaty does not require Ireland to send soldiers abroad in the stead of French troops who are stationed there for reasons which may have little to do with European security, much less Ireland’s national interests
.

If Irish soldiers are going to be sent into such a conflict, the decision should at the very least not be taken lightly or made in haste. Ireland’s long commitment to neutrality and avoidance of such operations in the past, though sometimes difficult while under pressure from its allies to ‘do more’, has paid peaceful dividends.

If Minister Coveney believes this should change now, he should make the potential risks and consequences well-known, so the public has a chance to decide whether it is the right course of action.

There is no doubt that Ireland has a responsibility to France and to European security more generally, but just how far that responsibility extends should be open for debate.

Ryan McCarrel (@ryanmccarrel) is a PhD candidate in Geopolitics University College Dublin where he specialises in NATO’s relations with its non-member states.

UPDATE:

mali

This morning

Reports say 170 people have been taken hostage at the Radisson Blu Hotel (above) in Bamako, Mali’s. capital.

Pic: AFP

88 thoughts on “In Harm’s Way

    1. Bertie Blenkinsop

      “The hotel owner says they are closely monitoring the situation”….

      Yes, I would have thought so.

    1. ahyeah

      oh you’re thinking of the one when we expressed our actual will? there was another one where we did what we were told to do

      1. pedeyw

        From wikipedia “the Irish government renegotiated the terms of the Treaty, adding areas where Ireland would have specific exclusions, which could be presented in a second referendum.”

      2. classter

        Oh yeah, when we voted no with a 53% turnout it was an expression of ‘our actual will’ but when we voted yes to a revised treaty with a 59% turnout, we were doing what we were told.

        Interesting framing there.

          1. pedeyw

            You mean the Government and the EU taking the Irish public’s concerns seriously and amending the treaty accordingly?

  1. Prop Joe

    A good informative read, the only thing I would ask is when you say France has suffered casualties – When and how many and how severe, what were the circumstances etc. I hope this information isn’t obscured to strengthen article’s argument and standpoint.

    1. Ryan McCarrel

      Hi Prop Joe,

      I the French pilot was shot down in 2013 during operations to retake the country’s north. I mentioned it explicitly to highlight the capabilities of the armed groups, and didn’t mean it to be obscure. I hope that helps.

      Best,

      Ryan

    2. ahyeah

      Good question – we need to know exactly how dead they were. If it was just a little bit dead, we could get probably get away with sending the FCA.

      1. Prop Joe

        @ahyeah: “Casualties” does not equate to “deaths”
        I was after specifics. They’ve been provided above. The writer appears to have bias, it’s not a journalistic piece so this is fine – I did feel it was light on specifics.

        Thanks for your input, it was constructive and contributed much to the conversation.

          1. Ryan McCarrel

            Part of the problem is finding accurate reports. I found one article that said 5 French soldiers had died but didn’t think it was from a reputable source – I didn’t want to say something factually incorrect. The French pilot was killed sadly. Again, the point of the article was to highlight that armed groups in Mali have capabilities to carry out attacks like the one unfolding today at the hotel in Radisson and to shoot down helicopters – to provide some information for people in Ireland to decide on their own whether Minister Coveney’s remarks that Irish soldiers won’t be put into harms way should be taken seriously or not.

            Best,

            Ryan

          2. Prop Joe

            Very specifically that word that you’ve put inside inverted commas does not appear anywhere in this piece.
            I have a five piece jigsaw here that you might be interested in. To make it easier for you it’s all just one colour square.

  2. Owen C

    Ireland has a long history of helping out with UN sanctioned missions. This is a UN sanctioned mission. Or do we want to go back into our 1940s era of locking ourselves away from the rest of the world and let everyone else sort things out?

      1. ahjayzis

        Same reasons we got involved in Lebanon – it’s a good thing to protect innocent civilians from harm.

        1. meadowlark

          Hostage situation developing in Mali this morning. Around 170 people being held hostage. So there is a reason. And there are innocent people to protect.

          1. ReproBertie

            Zuppy doesn’t believe that terrorist attacks happen, that man went to the moon, that the news is real or that rockets work in space.

            I was not questioning the existence of the conflict, just his acceptance of that existence.

      2. Owen C

        Fortunately lots of countries didn’t have this attitude when the Nazi’s were banging around. Unfortunately Ireland did. Lets not do it again.

        1. Cian

          The intervention against the Nazis wouldn’t have passed the triple lock.

          And those who did fight them were perfectly happy to let most of Europe rot under Stalin (a man who murdered more than Hitler). So it’s not as if they were altruistic heroes…

  3. ReproBertie

    Iyad Ag Ghaly… instructs his followers to answer Charlie Hebdo’s caricature of Mohammed with “your explosive belts, your remote-controlled charges and your booby-trapped devices.”

    Why doesn’t Iyad Ag Ghaly lead the way? Same old same old. Martyrdom for others.

  4. Owen C

    We need to think about this differently. Our sniper team has been proven to be the best in the world. If they are to maintain this status they need to practice. They can go to Mali to practise on jihadi terrorists who have already stated they want to die. The Irish soldiers will continue to win the sniper competitions and bring home the gold to Ireland. Everyone wins.

    1. ahyeah

      Oh I see – so my suggestion a month ago that the army should be allowed get sniper practice during the scobes’ Halloween fun gets removed, but it’s ok to say the same thing about the moozelums

      1. classter

        There is a difference between ‘moozelums’ and jihadis.

        And for that matter, working class youths in Ireland.

        1. ahjayzis

          In fairness there’s the same difference between ‘working class youths in Ireland’ and ‘scobes’ – hoisted by your own petard there, m’love!

  5. Drogg

    So is Ryan McCarrel saying that we should just stand back and let another country become a haven for extremists? Peacekeeping does not effect our neutrality we will probably do a better job then the french because we don’t have the connections to this country that they have. This is exactly the type of work we did in Chad which was incredibly successful. Ryan just sounds like a bleeding heart pacifist maybe we should all hide under our blankets and wait for the terrorists to go away.

  6. ahjayzis

    Does our neutrality really apply to groups like Daesh and Boko Haram? It wouldn’t be Ireland insinuating ourselves into a conflict between nation states – these are bloodthirsty maniacs on a murderous rampage. There’s no ‘agree to disagree’ with them, like.

      1. ahjayzis

        Isn’t that a massive luxury, though?

        I know the quagmire of military interventions and oppressions that gave rise to them makes it complicated, but what if everyone took that attitude?

        1. MoyestWithExcitement

          Everyone isn’t Ireland, though. Yes, in principle we should be taking a stance but Ireland dropping neutrality would be akin to pasting the French tricolour over your Facebook profile picture. It makes us *feel* better. It addresses the rage we feel towards the terrorists. But. We’re a tiny country of 4 million people. We are completely irrelevant when it comes to global military affairs and we don’t have the capability to defend ourselves. The French, Yanks and Brits do, however.

        2. ahyeah

          Massive luxury and utter cowardice…yes, I know. I agree with you – but I don’t want anyone to shoot at me.

          (Slightly more serious point – if there was a Paris-style attack in, say, Dublin, how confident would you be in our security forces’ ability to counter it? The French were on it quickly, in numbers and with force, but there was still a catastrophic death toll. Shudder to think what the number could be in Dublin. We’re not capable of defending ourselves, so we shouldn’t get involved)

          1. Owen C

            The French fired 5,000 rounds over 7 hours in the siege the day before yesterday. My guess is that any Irish response would have run out of bullets well before 5,000 were fired and we’d be hitting overtime territory by the 7 hour mark. We’d probably need to sub-contract the evening shift out to what lefts of the Provos.

          2. classter

            This is utter nonsense, ahyeah,

            The Irish security services have had to deal over a prolonged period of time with quite a serious threat to public security – paramilitaries in the North. Arguably they have more experience than the French who were dealing with what – ETA crossing over the border & Algerian terrorists for a few years?

            There has been downsides to this (intertwining of civilian guards with security services, arguably excessive political influence on the policing, arguable loss to civil liberties eg Offences agaisnt the state act) but generally they have done an excellent job. Part of the reason that the Dublin & Monaghan bombings are spoken about so much is because of how utterly unscathed the south was from Loyalist violence, at a time when IRA bombs were going off around the UK.

          3. ahyeah

            Immense difference between northern paramilitaries and the likes of ISIS – in terms of training, arms, savagery and brutality. We’re not talking about a couple of opportunistic nail bombers here.

          4. ReproBertie

            The Army Ranger wing was set up specifically to deal with terrorism. They regularly train with special forces units from other countries and regularly beat these other units in competition. I’d be confident in their ability to deal with something here.

          5. ahyeah

            How many of them are there, Repro? And how quickly could they get to, say, O’Connell Street? Within half an hour?

          6. ahyeah

            Army Rangers are great. Except there’s 126 of them and they’re based in the Curragh – an hour at best from Dublin City centre.

          7. ReproBertie

            I believe the defence forces are in possession of a helicopter or two. Also, in the event of a terrorist attack the garda ERU would be on hand. They’re specifically trained to respond to terrorist attacks and regularly train alongside the Army Ranger wing as well as FBI and other anti-terrorist units. In fact the Norwegian equivalent came to the ERU for training after the Anders Breivik attack.

          8. classter

            @ahyeah whatever about ISIS in the Middle East, ISIS/Al-Qaeda in Europe are far less organised, equipped & trained than the Ulster paramilitaries

          9. ahyeah

            Maybe so, I don’t know. But there’s something particularly dangerous about someone who’s willing to blow himself up for a hit. Northern paramilitaries only did that out of stupidity.

  7. Clampers Outside!

    Everything this man has said regarding the caution to be taken around Ireland’s neutrality was pretty much said by Coveney on the news the other nite. Nothing new in what I just read… accept for a little more light on the Mali situation.

    And if the activities to be done there are UN sanctioned, what exactly is the issue?

    1. Drogg

      There is a pretty good 3 part documentary on vice about the Mali situation. It’s a good watch to catch up on what’s going on.

  8. Jake38

    We’re not neutral. We’re defenceless. There’s a difference. We rely on the goodwill of our neighbors to protect us. It’s time to drop the soft-left/RTE/Irish Times/UCD student union/Michael Dee/Pinko consensus and join NATO.. ASAP.

      1. Jake38

        Dunno. Ask those with an archaic notion of neutrality more suited to the early 70’s than to an era of rampant terrorism directed a medieval religion in which you’re either with them……… or you’re dead.

    1. ahjayzis

      That would require a referendum, and we both know it wouldn’t pass.

      The mere whisper of Ireland joining a European Army was enough to tank a treaty vote, NATO would be something else entirely.

  9. Kolmo

    The borders of Mali were arbitrarily set by European powers a century ago, just like the middle east and only to suit mostly UK, French spheres of influence and power, taking little or no account of the ethnic, national, religious differences of those wrapped up inside each border, then later on the US just rolls in, smashes the place up, installs the muppet shows for governments, millions of people are killed, maimed or made stateless..all this current unpleasantness doesn’t just fall from the sky, religion is only the lubrication to get the ball rolling, you’ll always find an easily led maniac to righteously carry out unimaginable crimes in the name of a man on a flying horse. Sending Irish DEFENSE Forces 5000kms to maintain a French protectorate is not wise, a refusal to understand the complexity of the situation by some and pandering to block headed reactionary guff will result in more terror.

    1. mauriac

      100% . Africa is destined to break up into many more smaller countries and there will be a lot of death while it does.Ireland propping up the status quo is pointless and costly.

    2. classter

      The UN-sanctioned mission is not about maintaining a ‘French protectorate’.

      Ireland, like the rest of the EU, should do more for the UN. I think doing so buttresses our neutrality. It reindforces the idea that the UN can help & reduces the justification for US/UK/Russian solo runs.

      1. Kolmo

        I agree with you and would hope your view was the case but the UN is only an irritant to be sidestepped and eventually dismissed by the US with it’s media partners to get to whatever goal is set by the war planners

  10. Snickers

    When did ‘peacekeepers’ start meaning people with guns, ready to shoot other people?

    Am I wrong in thinking that these Irish soldiers are being sent as part of a trans-European army?

    1. ReproBertie

      Yes you are wrong and Irish troops on peacekeeping duty have always carried guns and been ready to shoot other people.

  11. bukowski

    A lot of bull in the comments re: Mali, French protectorates, theoretical break-up of Africa (you do realise the size of Africa and talking about it breaking up is utter nonsense). As someone who works in the Sahel and across Africa in armed conflict the Malian context is highly complex but French and MINUSMA forces have greatly contributed to the nascent peace there as have the ECOWAS forces before the current UN mission. Try not to be simplistic, essentialist or run this crap about Ireland being neutral.

  12. Niallo

    The blueshirts via their alliance with the greater european right, will put us in harms way, thats why were being softened up with this kind of thing, like that show on tv3 glorifying the military.
    This will not end well…
    Mind you, I think events are overtaking us to the point where the “free” world are left with little choice.

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