The ONUC mission in the Congo was not even over when the United Nations found itself getting involved in another similar situation, this time in an island in the Mediterranean Sea. On this occasion the nature of the mission, and its cost in human loves, would be far less, but this does not make the UN’s role in Cyprus, or Ireland’s involvement, any less interesting. This was to be the Irish Defence Forces second contribution to a UN peacekeeping mission, one of the longest, and a sign that Ireland’s dedication to service within the UN was becoming a normal state of affairs.
Cyprus had been a British colony since 1878. Its population was a mix of ethnic Greeks, who made up about 80% of the total number, and ethnic Turks, most of the remainder, with added religious differences demarcating the two communities. Greek Cypriots fought an armed campaign against British rule in the late 1950s, desiring a political union with Greece. Fears of this eventuality pushed the Turkish community to favour a partition of the island, with they largely backing the British in the conflict. Violence between the two communities increased throughout the late 50’s, blowing up into a full international crisis as the British government struggled to find a viable solution. As Turkey itself began to take a more active interest in what was once an Ottoman possession, Greek Cypriot leaders moved from union with Greece as their preferred outcome to a full independence. In 1959 an agreement was found whereby Cyprus became an independent republic, with guaranteed positions in government and the public service for both communities. The agreement was unstable from the start, unpopular with Greek Cypriots who felt it allowed the Turkish minority too much relative to their size and economic impact on the new state. Within three years the agreement had started to break down, with Greek Cypriot political leaders attempting to amend the constitution to remove Turkish Cypriot guarantees of position. In late 1963 violence broke out between the two communities again, with the British moving in nearly 3’00 soldiers within a few weeks to try and keep the peace. Hundreds of people had been killed on both sides, many more had been driven from their home and the Turkish military was beginning open preparations to intervene. At this point the UN became involved.
The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 186 in March of 1964, which called for a return to law and order within Cyprus and permitted the creation of a peacekeeping force to accomplish this. This organisation, the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, or UNFICYP, initially consisted of military contingents from Austria, Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Sweden, the aforementioned British soldiers and, of course, Ireland. These nations were each assigned an area roughly corresponding to Cyprus’ already existing civil districts. The peacekeepers deployed were there to prevent a return to the violence by upholding existing ceasefires, and to otherwise do what they could to return conditions in Cyprus to something approaching normality. In order to do this they would enact presence patrols, observe the situation in potential hotspots of trouble, do what they could to mediate local disputes before they could become something greater and generally put themselves between parties that might otherwise come to blows.
The participants generally sent battalion-sized units: the Irish would send somewhere in the region of a 640 men, backed up by a substantial Irish Armoured Unit, who arrived in April 1964, followed after by additional men that would bring the number to over a thousand. At the time there was little in the way of opposition within the Dail for such things: objections were based largely on how the force would be paid for, to what degree Irish solders would be subordinate to British equivalents and just how long the deployment was expected to last. On that final point the Irish initially committed to UNFICYP for a period of three months, but more than one person, in government or in opposition, recognised that the mission was hardly going to last such a short time. Indeed, Irish commitment to UNFICYP would last more than four decades, with Irish soldiers based primarily in a significant chunk of the island’s south coast, near the border of what we might recognise as Turkish Cyprus.
It’s here that we can take a moment to talk about just what peacekeeping actually is. ONUC is nominally described as a peacekeeping mission, but involved far more active war-fighting than such a term should really be attached to. Cyprus was arguably the first real opportunity for the Irish Defence Forces to engage in the practise closer to what we understand as its definition today, and they rapidly proved that they were rather good at it.
Peacekeeping is first and foremost what it says on the tin: keeping the peace in a situation where some manner of ceasefire, agreement or treaty has established peaceful conditions, but where serious concern is apparent that it might all just be a temporary state of affairs. Peacekeepers patrol areas to make sure that neither side of a would-be conflict are taking steps to advance that conflict; they engage with local communities to find out what needs to be done to maintain stability and order; they, if necessary, literally place themselves between such parties if the need requires. They are not there to fight a war, and are not supposed to be there to favour one side over another (often a disputed aspect of such missions): if fired upon their initial objective is not to fire back, but to identify themselves and seek whatever means they can to stop the shooting, with defensive fire only coming into it afterwards. Peacekeepers engage in humanitarian work in terms of doling out needed supplies, assisting in infrastructure improvements and providing medical aid where needed. When necessary, they work as election observers, and assist in the creation and buttressing of local government functions.
All these things Irish soldiers were involved in at some point or another in Cyprus, and found that they were well-regarded in doing so. As outlined previously, Ireland has a certain attraction as a peacekeeping nation for many reasons. On a practical level Irish soldiers can all speak English fluently, so deal well with other English-speaking nations and with nations where English is a common second language. Ireland is and will remain a small power in the world, and in precarious situations such a military can sometimes be vastly more preferable, less politically problematic, than something from a much larger nation. And in Ireland’s historical past as a colony and not a coloniser, there is a natural recognition that the Irish Defence Forces have a certain suitability for certain arenas.
More than that, there is the more intangible factors. I can put in no better than to say that elements of the Irish character, for lack of a better term, are imminently suitable for peacekeeping missions like that experienced in Cyprus. Such missions require men and women to serve as peacekeepers who are friendly, open to discussion with potentially belligerent groups, have the ability to integrate themselves into local communities without rancour or obnoxiousness and can facilitate friendly relations with all concerned; but still have the training and professionalism to be trusted to take a hard line when the moment occasionally calls for it. No nation who has contributed troops to UN peacekeeping missions can claim to have been able to embody all of these qualities all of the time, but I would say that it is reasonable to say that Ireland can claim a more impressive record than many others. There is a reason that Irish soldiers were tasked with staying in Cyprus for as long as they did, just as there is a reason why they have stayed in other areas for lengthy periods of time.
In order to illustrate what a deployment like that which was part-and-parcel of UNFICYP actually entailed, let’s talk a closer look at the experience of one particular unit during such a tour, as can be seen in the digital scans of the contemporary reports available on the Irish Defence Forces archive site. The 20th Infantry Group served in Cyprus between April and November 1971. It’s companies were defined by what specific area they were assigned to: here we will look at the experience of the “Larnaca Company”. They had an area of 300 square miles to patrol, covering roughly 33 villages, in which Greek Cypriots were a decided majority, but where the Turkish minority was still sizable enough, roughly 25%. It was a farming area, whether it was tillage, fruit or goat herding. The unit report includes quaint sounding recommendations to visit the local museums and archaeological sites, before noting the location of the Tekke Mosque within the patrolling area, a site of special significance to local Muslims but whose visitations were inhibited by the presence of Cypriot military nearby. The company’s main camp, named after Wolfe Tone, was a former chicken farm, and was described as comfortable with plenty of amenities: film screenings, bingo, volleyball and “amusement arcade type football” games are noted. In terms of actual peacekeeping, the repot notes that the problems that arose were often small-scale but liable to encourage escalation in a tit-for-tat manner: a Cypriot flag left flying to antagonise Turks could result in a uniformed Turkish Cypriots appearing in an area they were not supposed to, and so on and so forth. The peacekeepers response to such thing were generally to engage with the local HQs of either the Greek or Turkish factions, and a decent summation of a peacekeepers life can be found in one passage: “Patience, fortitude and a willingness to listen to the opposing views helped considerably in the negotiations and common sense generally prevailed at the end in reaching a solution acceptable to both sides…a bland smile, common sense and tact generally brought an eventual solution and most difficulties encountered were resolved by the use of the above traits”. The company established outposts specifically located to separate the two communities and seem to have been largely successful in their work. The visits of force commanders and government TD’s receive almost as much attention as actual incidents, of which there appear to have been very little.
And the Cypriot mission, while thankfully being bloodless for the Irish contingent, was not without its difficulties. Efforts to find a political solution to the “Cyprus problem” would be ongoing for many years. Initial UN and American efforts, that variously focused on political union with Greece matched with legal concessions for Turkish Cypriots, came to nothing in the first years after UNFICYP was founded. The military coup that established a dictatorship in Greece in 1967 led to a brief resumption of violence on Cyprus, with Turkey threatening a full-scale military intervention until Greece drew down its own and allied forces on the island. The Greek Cypriots soon became divided between those who favoured independence and those who favoured union with Greece. In 1974 pro-union forces took over the Greek Cypriot government, which led inexorably to a Turkish invasion in July of that year. The brief war left thousands dead and the Turks occupying a sizable portion of the north-east of the island, just over a third of the entire landmass, by the time the fighting ended in mid-August. The UN peacekeepers, who stayed out of the fighting as best they could, occupied an agreed “buffer zone” between the different sections of Cyprus, better known as “the green line”.
Since then the situation has remained largely the same. Repeated efforts to find some manner of acceptable conclusion to the dispute have been made by numerous actors, but have never been able to find enough common ground to come close to a lasting agreement. Turkish Cypriots have routinely demanded a federalist solution whereby they are granted significant guaranteed representation in politics without giving up territory – the Republic of Northern Cyprus was unilaterally declared in 1983, but has never been formally recognised by anyone other than Turkey – while Greek Cypriot leaders have continued to have little time for any proposed two-state solution. Throughout the time since 1974 there have been occasional flare-ups of violence, and the UN presence on the island has become the norm, though in more recent years there have been increased calls for the UNFICYP mission to be brought to a conclusion.
Over 6’000 Irish soldiers would serve in Cyprus during the length of Ireland’s involvement there, mostly without notable incident: of the 15 fatalities of UNFICYP suffered via “malicious” means, none were Irish. In 1973 most of the Irish garrison was withdrawn to serve briefly in the Sinai as part of the UN response to the Yom Kippur War, but were soon enough back on Cyprus. The Irish unit reports from the Cyprus mission are largely unexceptional reads, where the phrase “little of note” litter accounts: the most serious incident generally involve the danger of tensions in any particular area getting out of control, before peacekeepers step in and calm things down. In 2005 the Irish presence in Cyprus was drawn to a peaceful conclusion, though, as noted, UNFICYP continues to this day.
Ireland’s involvement in the UNFICYP mission is not an especially notable part of Irish military history, in a general context or even just when focusing in on the post-revolutionary period Irish Defence Forces. But I hope that an examination of why the mission came into being and what actually unfolded for the Irish during it provides something of a primer for what the majority of UN peacekeeping missions were/are meant to be like: not everything was intended to be as dramatic as the mission that led to Jadotville. Going forward I may choose to deal with some of the Irish Defence Force’s UN commitments in a group fashion, those that were of a small-scale or lack any great notoriety. There will be exceptions, for those missions where Ireland played a leading role, or where there was some degree of violent engagement with other parties. We will come to them in time.
For the moment, we will turn to an even grander topic, one where Ireland was very much a niche player. The Cold War was in full swing by the mid-1960s – indeed, it had already seen its greatest crisis, even as ONUC was continuing its work in the Congo – and the threat of nuclear war was constant. In the next entry we will discuss how Irish governments responded to this threat, and look at the methods that were used to educate the country on just what to expect and what to do in the event of a nuclear confrontation between the superpowers becoming manifest.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
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