Irish soldiers in Syria are sure to do us proud
ALAN Shatter is about to make one of the most awesome decisions that can fall to any politician.
The Minister for Defence stands poised to send over 100 Irish soldiers to the Golan Heights region of Syria, where a brutal civil war has been raging for the past two years.
By an odd coincidence, this is happening just as the Government has begun a fundamental review of the Defence Forces – a review badly needed if Ireland is to keep punching its weight on the international stage.
The deployment will be a serious test for Irish troops. The region is Israeli-occupied but the Syria which lies beyond its boundaries is one of the most dangerous places on earth, with the United Nations estimating that 5,000 people are killed there every month and 6,000 flee the country every day.
President Bashar al-Assad is a ruthless dictator, but recent incidents such as the beheading of a Catholic priest have suggested that the Islamic rebels would not be much of an improvement.
At last month's G8 summit in Co Fermanagh, the world's leaders struggled to come up with a solution. Russia's Vladimir Putin is still backing his old friend al-Assad, while President Obama wants to arm the rebels.
The only thing they can agree on is that a peace conference must be held soon – and in the meantime it is up to UN forces to contain the violence as best they can.
This is where Ireland comes in. The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has specifically asked for Irish troops to join an observer force in the Golan Heights, acting as a mobile reserve in this 700 square mile zone on the Israeli border.
Austria has just pulled its own 350 soldiers out because it considers the situation too dangerous, while 20 Philippine troops were recently kidnapped by a rebel group but later released.
Ireland has a 'triple-lock' policy when it comes to overseas deployment, which means that any use of our army must be approved by the Government, Dail and UN itself. All those locks are set to be picked by the end of this week. The Syrian mission may be dangerous, but it is also a noble cause and most Irish people will be proud that we are making a contribution.
At the same time, Ireland's defence forces are clearly overdue for a makeover. Last Tuesday the government published a Green Paper on the issue, which is essentially a discussion document that will lead to firm policy proposals in a White Paper next year.
Of course nobody is going to invade Ireland in the near future, but we still need an army fit for the 21st century – to back up our unarmed police and combat cyber-terrorism in a world where bombs can be detonated by mobile phones.
When Mr Shatter finally comes up with a definite plan, one question is set to cause more controversy than any other. Should Ireland abandon the 'triple lock'?
The Government parties are completely split, with Fine Gael keen to throw off this shackle and Labour warning that it would threaten the country's traditional stance of neutrality. As things stand, a single member of the UN Security Council can stop Ireland from taking part in a peacekeeping mission – but do we really want to sign up to an EU army instead?
The Defence Forces sometimes suffer from an image problem, with a perception in some quarters that they are overstaffed and underworked.
A lot of embarrassment was caused last year when it emerged that female soldiers were receiving an underwear allowance, for example.
The bottom line, however, is that there are people all over the world who owe their lives to the Irish army. Our long peacekeeping tradition is one that deserves to be protected.
Ireland's troops in Syria are sure to do this country proud.