Col R. E. M. Heaslip (Retd)
At about 6 P.M. on the 23 June 1958 a coded cable dispatched from Ireland’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York was received in Dublin at the Headquarters Department of Foreign Affairs. When decoded it read
“ MOST URGENT: SECRETARY GENERAL’S OFFICE HAS INQUIRED TODAY ON TELEPHONE IF WE COULD URGENTLY PROVIDE FIVE OFFICERS OF QUOTE MAJOR OR CAPTAIN RANK UNQUOTE TO JOIN UN OBSERVATION TEAM IN LEBANON STOP WILL CABLE FURTHER DETAILS AFTER VISIT HEADQUARTERS THIS AFTERNOON.”
Further information was forwarded from New York which added to the urgency of the occasion stressing that the Irish officers were required to be in Beirut Lebanon on 27 June 1958. At midday on 24 June the Government through Department of Foreign Affairs in Iveagh House responded
“PLEASE INFORM SECRETARY GENERAL AGREEABLE IN PRINCIPLE STOP DETAILS BEING SETTLED AND WILL WIRE LATER STOP REQUEST NO PUBLICITY UNTIL DETAILS SETTLED”.
In effect Ireland and the Defence Forces were now about to commit personnel to a United Nations military mission for the first time. All of this was taking place in the context of the United Nations being in its second decade, Ireland now a member since 1955 and the term “peacekeeping” then evolving to describe the range of armed and unarmed military missions and operations being performed under the aegis of the United Nations.
Without any previous precedent the Defence Forces now had less than seventy two hours to identify, select and deploy five officer volunteers for such a mission, designated United Nations Observer Group in Lebanon (UNOGIL). Correspondence from Department of Foreign Affairs on file in the National Archives shows that from the outset the Defence Forces authorities, despite the United Nations request regarding “Majors and Captains”, were adamant that Ireland should contribute a Lieutenant Colonel in the group of officers it intended to send. The officer in question was Lieutenant Colonel Justin MacCarthy, then heading up the Plans and Operations Section of Defence Forces Headquarters. He was a very experienced officer, a graduate of the British Army’s Command and Staff Course in Camberley, England, who had served in command, staff and instructor appointments in the Eastern Command, The Military College, and Defence Forces Headquarters. Born and educated in England, he spoke French and was married with one son.
“Cometh the hour, cometh the man”, and as events would prove over the coming years, in Justin MacCarthy the Defence Forces had the right man in the right place at the right time and made the right decision regarding his selection to lead this first deployment of five Irish officers on a United Nations Mission. A photograph of their departure for the Lebanon is on display in the Soldiers and Chiefs Exhibition at the National Museum, Collins Barracks, Dublin.
MacCarthy’s group flew to Beirut and from there dispersed to different UNOGIL duty stations, to be joined by other Irish officers over the coming months making a total of fifty Irish officers to serve in UNOGIL. MacCarthy himself served at UNOGIL HQ where, within five weeks of his arrival, he was recommended for promotion to full Colonel and selected for the prestigious senior appointment as Deputy Chief of Staff. He held this appointment until the UNOGIL mission was wound up in December 1958. However the manner in which he had performed his duties in a complex international military headquarters staff obviously impressed his international superiors and he, together with Capt Pat Jordan, was head-hunted to continue their United Nation’s service. This they did by transferring to United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO), then as now, engaged since 1948 monitoring the Arab /Israeli ceasefire lines. His superior in this organisation was UNTSO Chief of Staff Maj Gen Von Horn, a Swedish Officer destined eighteen months later in July 1960 to become the first Force Commander of the United Nations Force in the Congo (ONUC). General Von Horn was also impressed by MacCarthy’s performance of his duties as Chairman of the Israel Egypt Mixed Armistice Commission, a difficult and demanding appointment.
When Von Horn became the United Nations Force Commander in the Congo he quickly sought the Irish government’s approval for MacCarthy to be transferred from his duties with UNTSO in the Middle East to the Congo as Von Horn’s Chief of Staff in this new unprecedented mission. Unfortunately, after only a short time in this mission, working round the clock to get the new ONUC Headquarters Staff operational, MacCarthy was killed in a tragic car accident on 27 Oct 1960. His death was a very significant loss to ONUC HQ and Von Horn acknowledged it as such when he submitted a recommendation for the award of the Distinguished Service Medal in recognition of his contribution to establishing ONUC HQ. The award was made posthumously by the Minister for Defence in May 1967.
Such was the story of the officer who was the pathfinder amongst the Defence Forces many peacekeepers: service with distinction in three successive United Nations missions, UNOGIL, UNTSO and ONUC, first Irish Officer to hold three successive senior appointments on an international military staff at the headquarters of three different United Nations missions, promoted Colonel on the strong recommendation of a non-national superior senior officer, and unfortunately the first and most senior Defence Forces officer fatality on overseas service.
The accompanying photograph at Dublin Airport shows the first five officers departing for the Lebanon – Lt Col Justin McCarthy is standing on the ground in front left; on the lower step on the left Comdt Malachy Higgins and on the right Comdt Pat Lavelle; and on the upper step on the left Comdt Gerard Coughlan and on the right Capt Rory Henderson. This photograph was used on a 55 cent stamp issued by An Post (the Irish Post Office) in 2008, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Defence Forces partaking in its first military mission with the United Nations.