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Questions to answer over Irish army involvement in Mali

The EU Political and Security Committee decided on April 11 that they will no longer be providing military training to the army of the Republic of Mali. This followed reports by Human Rights Watch that an estimated 300 men had been killed by soldiers and foreign mercenaries, believed to have been Russians, in the town of Moura in the last week of March.

The region is at the centre of violence said to be committed by various Islamist groups including Al Qaeda and Islamic State who have themselves been accused of atrocities against civilians. The decision will mean that 14 members of the Irish army’s Rangers unit who are serving along with German soldiers at the mission based in Minsuma are being withdrawn. A separate mission which is in Mali to train members of the police will remain.

 

It ought to be pointed out that the decision regarding the Rangers is only being implemented because of the EU decision rather than any political one by the Irish government, and that the EU itself is only doing so following the announcement by Macron of the withdrawal of French troops in February. That followed the expulsion of the French Ambassador.

It reflects no credit at all on the Irish government who had already decided, as announced by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney on March 10, to mandate the training mission for a further 12 months.  The previous day at a Committee meeting, Coveney had referred to the Cabinet approving the extension despite Mali having become “more volatile and less democratic.”

Which begs the question as to when Mali was ever “democratic.” There have been only two elections since 1991 when one of a succession of military regimes was overthrown. France clearly considers Mali to be on its “manor” and has until now been the key power broker.

While French and EU intervention has been defended as part of resistance to Islamist terrorists, others claim that the extent of the influence of Al Qaeda and others has been exaggerated. A Malian military commander even claimed that people were using the threat as an excuse to “enrich themselves.”

In the meantime, there have been claims that there are in the region of 200,000 slaves in Mali. Clearly then, whatever other motivations might lie behind the ongoing French involvement in Mali since formal independence in 1960, the welfare of the unfortunate people who have to endure all of this are obviously not top of the list.

Nor can either the EU or successive Irish governments claim to be unaware of this. While Coveney, when questioned by Richard Boyd Barrett on November 16 last about the deployment of the army Rangers, referred to the Dáil having approved of this in June 2019, the decision was not contested and was opposed by all of the opposition parties and most independents.

Mattie McGrath objected to the deployment of the Rangers on the grounds that there was not a proper debate nor “understanding of what went on in those countries,” and stated that he was totally opposed to the deployment in support of the French troops in Mali.

Other TDs such as Catherine Connolly and Thomas Pringle and Senator Gerald Craughwell have raised similar concerns with Connolly referring to “a very questionable, French led, neo-colonial approach.” In September 2020, Sinn Féin TD John Brady posed the pertinent question as to whether Irish soldiers might have taken part in the training of soldiers of the Malian army which had staged the latest coup.

Coveney did not answer that and would in any event have most likely responded – as he had to a question from Cian O’Callaghan in February 2021 regarding whether Irish troops had been engaged alongside German soldiers in military actions – by stating that he could not comment on operational matters.

Presumably someone will raise this again with the resumption of the Dáil this week. A key question must surely be why the Irish government allowed the participation of Irish army personnel in a country where the line between the alleged good guys and bad guys is by no means apparent. And where it might seem that the interests of one formerly powerful colonial power have been the key driver of EU and consequently Irish foreign policy in Mali.

 

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