Ireland Deploys to Congo 60 Years Ago Today
60 years ago today, Ireland deployed troops on its first battalion size United Nations deployment.
The Congo became independent from Belgium on 30 June 1960, in turn triggering a sequence of destabilising events. The Belgian commander, Lieutenant General Émile Janssens, refused to rapidly ‘Africanize’ the officers’ corps of the Force Publique (the army), resulting in disorder and mutinies. To protect Belgians remaining in the country, the Belgian government decided to intervene. Belgium also sent troops to support Moïse Tshombé the President of the mineral rich breakaway province of Katanga. South Kassi also seceded.
Amid continuing unrest and violence, the United Nations deployed peacekeepers to help the central government in Léopoldville under President Joseph Kasa-Vubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Involvement by the Soviet Union split the Congolese government further worsened the situation.
The United Nations Operation in the Congo (French: Opération des Nations Unies au Congo, ONUC) was rapidly established. ONUC was formally established by UN Security Council resolution 143 (1960) of 14 July 1960, by which it decided:
“to authorize the Secretary-General to take the necessary steps, in consultation with the Government of the Republic of the Congo, to provide the Government with such military assistance as might be necessary until, through that Government’s efforts with United Nations technical assistance, the national security forces might be able, in the opinion of the Government, to meet fully their tasks”
ONUCs initial mandate was to ensure the withdrawal of Belgian forces from the Republic of the Congo, to assist the Government in maintaining law and order, to provide technical assistance, and help to establish and legitimise the post-colonial government. It was modified as the situation evolved. The first troops reached Congo on 15 July 1960, many airlifted by the United States Air Force as part of Operation New Tape.
Dáil Éireann quickly passed legislation allowing the deployment of Irish personnel to the Congo. Ireland became one of thirty countries from around the world to provide peacekeepers for the mission. Just over two weeks later the 635-strong 32nd Infantry Battalion ONUC departed for the Congo on 27 July 1960. A month later the Irish contingent was brought to 1,000 with the arrival of the 33rd Infantry Battalion ONUC. The Irish contingent was further boosted when an Armoured Car Group began operations in the Congo on 15 January 1961.
The ONUC mission in the Congo lasted from 1960 to 1964 during which time 6,000 Irish troops served. During that time twenty six Irish soldiers lost their lives in the service of peace.