Ties that bind The Congo to Ireland - Part 2
Written by Dr Jean-Pierre Eyanga Ekumeloko
Chief Executive Officer
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is probably the African country with the strongest historical links with Ireland. There are mainly two I would like to talk about.
In the first part of this article, we said that the first link had to do with Roger Casement who worked there. The second concerns the first major overseas deployment of Irish troops sent to the Congo in 1960 as part of the United Nations force ONUC.
It must be noted that in March 1961, another Irishmen, Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien, who was then attached to the Department of External Affairs in Dublin, was appointed as the UN’s special representative to Katanga. He resigned his post in December 1961.
From a politico-diplomatic point of view, this operation was considered the first armed overseas mission since the foundation of the Irish state in 1922 and represented an important milestone in Ireland’s foreign policy. Ireland, previously, twice sent troops as unarmed observers - to Lebanon in June 1958 attached to UNOGIL, the UN Observer Group in Lebanon, and in December 1958 with UNTSO, the UN Truce Supervision Organisation. But the Congo mission was far different, since the troops were armed; they had to operate on a huge territory and in very difficult circumstances.
In fact, only twelve days after securing its independence on 30 June 1960, the new Republic requested military assistance from the UN to maintain its territorial integrity which was under a real threat of civil war with the mineral-rich province of Katanga declaring independence on 11 July 1960. For that reason, the 32nd Infantry Battalion, under the leadership of Colonel Mortimer Buckley, was sent there in July 1960 to carry out a peace-keeping mission. According to the UN, over 6000 Irish people served in the Congo between 1960 and 1964. It is now clear that the field realities transformed the mission into a peace-making operation.
All keen observers and historians agree that it was a very costly mission for the Irish troops with the loss of at least 26 soldiers. The sadly famous Niemba Ambush in Katanga claimed 9 lives, the greatest loss of life for the Irish army in a single incident.
Even though one can say now that they were ill-equipped, inexperienced and unprepared for the catastrophic battles they would face, many reports praise the tremendous courage, “professionalism” and resistance displayed by the Irishmen in different hot spot occasions. One of these is known as the Siege of Jadotville where 150 lightly armed and equipped Irish soldiers successfully confronted more than 4,000 Katanga troops for six days, without any fatal casualty on their side. The Katanga troops were supported by a jet and backed by mercenaries from various countries such as Belgium, Rhodesia and France. Outnumbered, the Irish company was eventually forced to surrender after ammunition and supplies were exhausted, and soldiers were held prisoners for almost a month. However, the enemy suffered heavy losses.
Today I would agree with the view that despite the widespread unrest in the Congo in the early 1960s, the UN Irish troops’ contribution helped to prevent the death toll from rising further. They also helped to bring an end to the secession of Katanga in January 1963.
This is something that the Congolese people cannot and will not forget: Ireland contributed to the country’s peace and unity recovery, even if, following the withdrawal of UN forces, the internal and the external struggle for control of the giant country continued. Still now, multinational mining conglomerates and financial trusts are working hard to keep the country in a relatively “unstable stability” in order to keep on exploiting unscrupulously its wealth. But Irish people shed their blood for the good of the Congolese people who will always say: “Thank you, Ireland”.
From these links between Ireland and the Congo, I can unmistakably conclude that the two countries met at very important moments of their history, fashioning strong and indelible ties that people of both countries won’t ever forget. These links should be built on to develop healthy and robust political, economic, social and cultural relationships fully justified by this shared history which needs to be respected and valued the way it deserves.
- David O’Donoghue, Army’s Congo Mission Casts a Long Shadow, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Vol. 17 (2006), 43–59.
Copyright © 2012, DPNLIVE – All Rights Reserved