BINT JBEIL: Driving down south, beyond Bint Jbeil, the hilly plains stretching toward the Blue Line and Israeli border come into view. After five slow minutes along a bumpy track running parallel to the border fence in the near distance, an isolated base appears, with a U.N. flag flying above it.
Entering this UNIFIL base feels like stepping onto a patch of Irish soil, transplanted to Lebanon under U.N. auspices, with signposts of Irish town names telling you where soldiers garrisoned here call home. The small base holds 30 Irish peacekeepers, responsible for monitoring a stretch of the Blue Line on a constant basis.
“The mission is not very strenuous,” explains Sgt. Tom Daly, 39, who’s also served in Syria. “The food here is great but I must say the shawarma is better in Damascus.”
Living at close quarters for prolonged periods, the soldiers are a close-knit group. “We have a lot of [fun] together,” patrol commander Leanne Butler says. “Time goes faster when we’ve things to look forward to so we do a lot of bingo nights and karaoke.”
It has been 42 years since the establishment of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon and one of the few contributing nations who have been there from the start is Ireland. Indeed, the Irish have lost more soldiers on the UNIFIL mission than any other nation.
As interim has come to mean indefinite, so has Lebanon become a familiar name to the Irish. “Towns like Al-Tiri, Haddatha and Tibnin, have a resonance within our military culture,” Deputy Commander Whyte explains sitting in his office at UNIFIL’s western sector HQ in Shama. “Strangely,” he continues, “questions like ‘whose wife makes the best hummus,’ or ‘where can you find the best tabbouleh in Dublin,’ have become part of our lives back home.”
Ireland’s long-standing presence has made the country’s connection to Lebanon multigenerational. Back at the base, while his fellow soldiers play some table tennis beside us, Daly explains that Lebanon is a place he grew up hearing about. “As a child I’d listen to my friends’ fathers talking about the place and completing tours here. It was a part of my childhood in a way.”
The effects of this longevity works both ways. “It’s amazing to encounter locals asking after Irish soldiers who served here decades ago or even asking for their contact details,” Lt. Paul Murphy tells me as Daly drives us along their patrol route. In the early years of the mission, when the Irish HQ was in Tibnin, it was common for Irish soldiers to be garrisoned in the same building as local communities, even renting rooms off them, which meant there was a high level of integration.
According to the peacekeepers, some of their local contacts themselves grew up with Irish peacekeepers in their midst back in the early years of the mission, getting help with their English homework or just kicking a ball around.
Although soldiers come and go on a six-month rotation, fond memories have not been forgotten and this gives current Irish peacekeepers a respect that they inherit from a long line of predecessors. There is still an orphanage in Tibnin that the Irish set up and a monument to the fallen Irish soldiers at which monthly commemorations are held. “It means a lot to us when locals attend those commemorations,” Murphy says. “Sometimes when we go up there to tend to the monument plaque, we see that and locals have actually done it for us. It’s lovely to see.”
For many Irish peacekeepers, both past and present, the most memorable impressions come from strolls through Naqoura, where for years during the Israeli occupation the peacekeeping presence sustained a microeconomy for displaced communities that came to be known as Mingy Street among the soldiers.
“Mingy is a term that came from the Congo,” a place Irish peacekeepers also served, explains Martin Malone, a retired soldier who served in Lebanon between 1985-98. “It means items of a dubious quality. You’d find clothes, watches, jewellery, porn.”
Malone recalls with wonder how vendors would speak to him in Gaelic, Ireland’s native language, and this still happens decades later.
“It’s amazing to go into a shop on Mingy street and hear some Lebanese guy greeting you with ‘cead mile failte’ (a 1,000 welcomes in Gaelic),” Murphy marvels back at the base.
Ireland’s presence in Lebanon is explained by the country’s own history. Following centuries of British rule ending in 1922 with partition between north and south, the newly independent state in the south was committed to international peace and neutrality and this contained a powerful message.
“Peacekeeping is hugely important for Ireland psychologically,” Whyte says. “It reinforces our national view that we are not tied to our bigger neighbor Britain. We are an independent state with a neutral foreign policy.”
Ireland’s suitability for peacekeeping is not, however, the result of a peaceful history, but rather reflects an anti-imperialist sentiment that came of age following independence.
“We have no imperial baggage in the Middle East,” Whyte points out, “and this helps us.”
Interestingly, Ireland and Lebanon have similar historical experiences. While the Lebanese Civil War dragged on, Northern Ireland, which remained part of Britain following the south’s independence, was experiencing its own brutal sectarian conflict, known as “The Troubles.” Though the Irish Republican Army, a radical group determined to oust the British from Northern Ireland, outraged large swaths of the Irish population with its violence, it did reinvigorate Ireland’s international reputation as a people of resistance.
Prominent IRA figures became part of a global resistance hall of fame, featuring Che Guevara and Yasser Arafat.
This solidarity extended to Iran. When a senior IRA figure named Bobby Sands died on hunger strike in a British prison, the Iranian government named a street in his honor. Tellingly, the chosen street had previously been called Winston Churchill.
While the IRA’s place in such circles may incline one to see Ireland’s UNIFIL presence in Lebanon as a gesture of solidarity against Israeli injustice, Irish politics are more complex. “I wouldn’t have had any discussion with the IRA,” says Malone, who since retiring has become a successful novelist. “As far as I was concerned, there was only one Irish army and that was the government’s army.” Malone’s experiences as a soldier in Lebanon and Iraq, lend him a no-nonsense view toward armed struggle, no matter how worthy the cause. “War is thoroughly evil, but in Lebanon there were Christians from the SLA and Shiite militiamen who just wanted to get the gloves off. Last man standing.”
Recalling the inspiration behind his novel “The Broken Cedar,” Malone tells of walking into a shop on Mingy street, and seeing the owner crying as he watched the burial of those killed at the Qana massacre on TV. “I sat down for a beer with him and we watched it together,” he says.
Malone’s Lebanese experiences reinforce his views on Ireland’s history. “When you’ve had a taste of war you see that a piece of land isn’t worth anyone’s life,” he says.
Four years ago, Ireland commemorated the 100th anniversary of its own bloody insurrection that led to independence. “It wasn’t lost on me in 2016,” Malone says, “that Scotland had just had their own independence referendum and there was nobody killed over it.”
But during Ireland’s struggle for independence 100 years ago, “there wasn’t one visionary who saw that violence wasn’t the path,” Malone argues. “In Lebanon, the old man crying gave me hope, ’cause he seemed human and knew violence was not the way to go. It’s far easier to slide into war than climb out. For us in Northern Ireland, we’re just sitting on the lid. Under the surface, the violence could rise again.”