Ireland’s Wars: The United Nations And The Congo Crisis

Our “coverage” of the 20th century in terms of Ireland’s military history now affords us the opportunity to look at the sorts of things that Ireland was able to do with its regular military forces as a free and independent nation. The Irish Defence Forces, in the aftermath of the Civil War, had seen their defining contribution to the state’s existence take place during the Emergency but now, 15 years after the end of the Second World War, they would get a very new and very different opportunity to make their mark. At the beginning of what is now a 62 year history of involvement in such things, the Irish Army would be called upon to send soldiers into the heart of the African continent, on a peacekeeping mission that would combine humanitarian efforts at reducing violence with all-out combat the Irish Defence Forces would never again really experience on such a scale.

Ireland had to wait a while to join the UN. As previously mentioned, its initial application had been rejected owing to a Soviet Union veto, Moscow believing that Ireland’s wartime neutrality and lack of diplomatic relations with the USSR made it unworthy of membership. Ireland spent the next ten years attempting to get past this block, while participating in some of the UN subsidiary organisations, like the Food and Agriculture Organisation. The situation finally changed in 1955, when the Soviet Union was convinced to drop their objections, perhaps in part because some nations in Eastern Europe and abroad aligned to their interests were also seeking membership at that time. On the 14th December of that year, along with 15 others, Ireland’s application for membership was unanimously agreed.

Ireland’s initial involvement with the UN, under the administration of John A. Costello, was defined by anti-communist and pro-western stances, married to neutrality. Fredrick H. Boland would be Ireland’s first ambassador to the UN, later winning election to chair the 15th General Assembly in 1960, on which occasion he banged a gavel so hard in an effort to silence Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev so hard it splintered. Other key diplomat of Irish delegations in this time included Conor Cruise O’Brien, an ambitious and confident veteran of External Affairs who would become a key figure in Ireland’s first UN deployment, and Minister of External Affairs Liam Cosgrave, a future Taoiseach. Later Frain Aiken would serve a similar role. Ireland was notable in this period for criticising Soviet intervention in Hungary, the French efforts to supress Algerian independence and supported dialogue on the topic of allowing the membership of the People’s Republic of China.

But the key early crisis that these delegations were witness too was that in the Suez region in 1956, when an Anglo-French force attempted to wrest military control of the Suez Canal from Egypt. The attempt was roundly condemned in UN meetings, with Ireland joining the chorus. Ireland supported an initiative to create a “United Nations Emergency Force” to help maintain a ceasefire in the region and ensure the separation of Egyptian and Israeli forces. This was the beginning of what we know today as UN peacekeeping, wherein multi-national forces go into regions under an agreed UN mandate, there to preserve peace between previously warring factions.

After a slight amendment to Irish laws in order to make participation in such things legal, Ireland was prepared to honour its commitments under the UN charter and contribute soldiers to such endeavours. The first such commitment was not, as is widely beleived, in the Congo, but a few years before. This was actually with soldiers attached to the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) and then the United Nations Observation Group in Lebanon (UNOGIL), both in 1958. The first provided a command structure to UN efforts in the Sinai, the second was designed to stop arms trading into Lebanon from Syria following internal unrest within Lebanon. In both instances the Irish Defence Forces contributed a small number of officers, whose role was mostly of an observing nature.

Which leads us to 1960 and the Congo. The Congo was the third largest country in Africa at the time, about the size of western Europe, a county of jungles to the north and bush/savannah to the south. It had been a badly exploited Belgian colonial territory for decades ahead of independence, valuable for its vast mineral deposits, especially in the south-eastern province of Katanga: such things gave the area a great deal of importance in the world of Cold War politics, with the USA and the Soviet Union both having an interest in maintaining influence in the region. When the Belgians withdrew in the face of a growing Congolese independence movement, in a story that was repeated throughout the African continent as Europeans departed, the vacuum of educated government, police and military officials – the Belgians had deliberately fostered a culture of denying advanced education to natives in order to make their subjugation easier – rapidly created an environment of disorder.

Not unlike Ireland decades early, the Congolese independence movement had been a disparate thing of many factions with many competing cultures and ideologies, temporarily united with the common goal of getting the Belgians out: with that goal achieved, perhaps faster than it should have been, things began to fall apart, with widespread civil unrest and mutiny from native members of the police – the ANC – against white officers still in situ. Within days of Belgium’s official withdrawal, their own military forces had essentially re-invaded the country, nominally to protect Belgian nationals from the growing chaos but in reality to maintain their influence, especially in the perceived crown jewel of Katanga. With Belgian support (especially its mining companies, that were practically their own actors in the crisis) Katanga would declare its secession from the larger Congo under Moise Tshombe in July 1960, prompting the leadership of the Congo – President Joseph Kasa-Vubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba – to ask for UN assistance.

The UN’s Security Council would soon after adopt Resolution 143, which called for the UN to facilitate a withdrawal of all Belgian military forces, maintain law and order in the region, shore-up the post-colonial government and maintain the new nations territorial borders. Within 48 hours the first soldiers of what would soon be dubbed the United Nations Operation in the Congo, or ONUC, had arrived in the Congo. It was a dangerous situation for the UN to intervene in, with immediate dispute over just what their mandate was: Congolese officials wanted them to enter Katanga and end its secession by force, something UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld was loath to do. The situation was made further chaotic by the disorder evident in the Congolese leadership, with would-be coups, appeals to the Soviets and military insubordination from civilian control very much evident. Even as UN peacekeepers were replacing Belgian soldiers, the situation remained very much in flux. Among those peacekeepers would be an Irish contingent.

The period between the end of the Second World War and the Congo deployment was an unexceptional one for the Irish Defence Forces. The conclusion of the Emergency led to a significant drawdown in the overall size of the force, soon back to around 12’500 regulars and then under 9’000 in the Army, with the Irish Air Corps remaining small and the Naval Service operating mostly as fishery protection. The Defence Forces generally suffered an understandable stagnation in that 15 year spell, operating with outdated equipment and in substandard facilities: about the only major evolution worth noting was the transformation of the reserve element into An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil (FCA), which was integrated into the “Regular” Army in 1959. An Army career at this time, as part of an organisation with no defined purpose beyond existing, could be tedious and close-ended. With the exception of an increased military presence on the border during Operation Harvest, the Defence Forces, and most especially the Army, had very little to do. Membership of the UN, and then the reality of peacekeeping deployments throughout the world, were to change all of that.

Ireland had initially agreed to send a battalion-sized contingent to the Congo soon after the call went out from the UN, and it took less than two weeks for the first Irish soldiers to begin the trip. There were no shortage of volunteers at all levels, with the chance to participate in such an adventure proving hugely attractive to bored soldiers and officers who felt they had hit a dead-end in their careers beforehand. Hopes were high that Ireland’s commitment to the mission would mean a renewal of financial support for the Defence Forces from Sean Lemass’ government, which for some time had severely limited the purse strings for the Department of Defence.

That would come, but it would take a while. When that first Irish unit departed Baldonnel Aerodrome in July 1960 – 700 men of the 32nd battalion, under the command of Colonel Murt Buckley – they did so with equipment and uniforms that were severely outdated, and made the unit the subject of scorn from American serviceman tasked with flying the planes to take them to Africa. The hob-nailed boots were one thing, but it was the bulls wool tunics, just about the worst thing you could be asked to wear in the sweltering humidity of Sub-Saharan Africa, that garnered most of the attention. The 32nd was armed with bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifles as well, which to outside observers made them seem more like a unit preparing for combat in the Second World War: more rapid firing weapons were now the norm across the world. Thus the 32nd battalion, and the later 33rd which followed a few weeks later, would arrive in the Congo severely underprepared for what they were being asked to do. These issues would be solved eventually, with lightweight kit sent and the Lee-Enfield replaced by the more modern FN-FAL – somewhat ironically, a rifle of Belgian design – but for the opening period of their deployment the 1’500 or so Irish soldiers “in-country” simply had to get on with what they had.

They were stepping into a situation was was very much in flux. 30 different nations had committed 20’000 troops to ONUC, but it was still unclear just what it was they were meant to be doing: a mission to impose law and order was all well and good when spoken in a UN meeting, but what did that actually look like? And there was a question about who exactly was giving the orders, given that every international contingent had its own commanders, under a multi-force commander who in turn was expected to take orders from the UN’s civilian leadership, many of whom did not fully comprehend what was actually happening in the Congo. Despite being invited into the country by its nominal political leadership, ONUC faced hostility from native Congolese at every turn, and when they entered Katanga they struggled to fill the vacuum of the withdrawing Belgians.

Based in Katanga’s capital of Elizabethville, the Irish were among those now tasked with imposing some form of law and order on the province. Among their obstacles were Katanga’s heavily militarised gendarmerie, which included a number of lethally effective Belgian officers and NCO’s; local tribes hostile to the breakaway Katanga government and not liable to see much of a difference between them and patrolling UN peacekeepers; and elements of the larger Congo military, deserters from which sometimes turned up, heavily armed, within Katanga. An uneasy truce between the UN and Katanga’s mercenary contingent held for a time, as isolated pockets of peacekeepers attempted to get on with the job. That often involved mobile patrols but for contingents like the Irish, expected to operate over a vast area with very limited access to vehicles, and reliant on interpreters to interact with locals, this was a task impossible to carry out properly. All the while the larger political situation remained fraught, with coups, counter-coups and appeals for Soviet assistance when the UN wouldn’t do as requested all marking the chaos of the period.

But the Irish Army was there now, and the contingent would only get bigger. The experience was going to stand to the Irish military, and in the improvements that were made in the early months of their deployment the stage was being set for a force that would have a greater role to play in the UN in the future. In time, they would be involved in some truly monumental military operations in Africa, even as the larger ONUC project continued to see lofty ideals slam into the realities of Congolese life and politics. But before that there would be a harsh lesson in how things really worked. In the next entry we will discuss an ambush that has become a defining tragedy of the post-revolutionary history of the Irish Defence Forces, and showcased many of the difficulties that UN peacekeepers were facing in the Congo.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The United Nations And The Congo Crisis

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Niemba | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The O’Neill Era And The Civil Rights Movement | Never Felt Better

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