As published in An Cosantóir in November 2011.
By Sgt Wayne Fitzgerald – Photographs by Corporal Greg Dorney & 105 Sqn
After her recent visit to Lebanon and coming in to her last few weeks in office after her great tenure of service to our nation, the president spoke brieﬂy to An Cosantóir about her memories of the Defence Forces.
Under the constitution, Supreme Command of the Defence Forces is vested in the President. What does this role entail, and how has it manifested itself during your 14 years in office?
Operational command of the Defence Forces is vested in the Minister and the Government but the Supreme Command of the Defence Forces is vested in the President – a role often referred to as Commander in Chief and one that I was anxious to signify by developing an active relationship with the Defence Forces both at home and abroad. The staff in the Aras ADC’s office have become my friends and colleagues these past fourteen years and of course members of the Defence Forces have played a central role in all the ceremonial duties of the Presidency. I had regular meetings and briefings with various Chief’s of Staff, visited many barracks, accompanied the troops twice on their Military Pilgrimages to Lourdes, invited retired members of the Defence Forces and families of serving soldiers to the Aras, took part in commemoration ceremonies, was transported safely to various destinations by the Air Corps and was particularly proud to be the ﬁrst President to visit our troops serving overseas with the United Nations, of Ireland’s most important national engagements with the wider world is our peacekeeping work with the United Nations. Ireland’s Defence Forces have served for over ﬁfty years with outstanding distinction and considerable sacriﬁce. I wanted to honour and draw attention to that work and so my ﬁrst and last foreign visits as President were to Irish troops serving in Lebanon, where forty seven of our troops died in the service of peace, more than any of the other foreign armies serving there. It has been an abiding theme of my Presidency to acknowledge the immense contribution of our Defence Forces since the foundation of the State.
You have visited many overseas missions during your time, is there any one that stands out the most?
Each visit abroad stands out in terms of the sheer professionalism of our soldiers and each carries very special images but there was something dreadfully poignant about Liberia, which I visited in late 2004. The place was a mess with virtually no infrastructure, a wickedly hot climate, with troops patrolling in temperatures that could soar to 50 degrees centigrade. They didn’t complain, just got on with their work and in their spare time helped out at a hospice for people dying of Aids. In a country mired in chaos their positivity and simple decency were so needed and appreciated.
Both Ireland and the Defence Forces have changed substantially over the past 14 years. How important a contribution do you think the three services of the Defence Forces make to the State today?
The Defence Forces have been a rock solid centre of gravity since the foundation of the State, an essential element in Ireland’s early pathway to stability and democracy and today they are part of the warp and weft of our civic life at home while abroad they are the outward expression of Ireland’s commitment to global peace. The loyalty of our Army, Air Corps and Naval Service to Ireland and her values has been exemplary. They showcase to the highest level of professionalism and integrity what big things a small, militarily neutral country has to contribute to global peace. It was a proud moment for me, though no surprise, to hear General Asarta who is the current Commander of UNIFIL say that the people of South Lebanon begged him to bring the Irish troops back to Lebanon because their experience of them had been so good.
What memories will you bring with you of the Defence Forces?
I have many great memories of our Defence Forces, some relating to events at home others to visits overseas. The enormous contribution of our Defence Forces during the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth was particularly memorable and evoked pride across the entire land. I have loved the Guards of Honour, the Bands with their wonderful marching tunes, the Cadets at Garden of Remembrance, the Buglers, the Artillery, the Air Corps with the ﬂy past, the care for one another when serving abroad, the shocking all consuming sadness when a member of the Defence Forces died and the camaraderie that was so evident at funerals and commemorations. I remember the combined Irish army and civilian medical relief teams that went to Honduras after Hurricane Mitch and that my husband Martin was so honoured to serve two rotations with. The stories of those days are regularly told and retold and always the core story is of Irish soldiers who can through sheer can-do determination and skill, work miracles in the most diﬃcult of conditions.
“I take this opportunity to thank the Defence Forces and their families for their truly wonderful support and friendship during my time in oﬃce. I could never hope to repay them but hope they know the pride and respect they evoke in me, in every Irish person and in all whose paths they cross. Those who serve today are building on a very proud tradition and I know from direct experience that they will honour that tradition brilliantly.”