‘I’d like to open the barracks more to the local community’

Lt Col Caimin Keogh, Commanding Office, 1st Infantry Battalion, Dún Uí Mhaoiliosa, Renmore. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Lt Col Caimin Keogh, Commanding Office, 1st Infantry Battalion, Dún Uí Mhaoiliosa, Renmore. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

In January of this year, Lieutenant Colonel Caimin Keogh assumed command of An Chéad Cath battalion in Renmore’s Dún Uí Mhaoilíosa Barracks. As a Galway-man Lt Colonel Keogh is immensely proud to lead his home-town battalion, as he told me when I sat down with him in his office on Monday afternoon.

“It is a huge personal honour for me – it would be an honour to be battalion commander anywhere but especially in my hometown with soldiers and friends I have grown up with,” he declares. “To come back and not only lead the unit here in Galway but also to take them overseas as I will do in November when the entire battalion goes to Lebanon, is the ultimate for any infantry officer. It is a big responsibility, leading nearly 600 soldiers for six months in a difficult operational environment, but I can see the training and the commitment that the soldiers have here and I am looking forward to the challenge of going to Lebanon with them. It has always been a goal of mine to lead a unit overseas, and to realise that with An Chéad Cath is wonderful.”

The battalion’s name alludes to its founding, in 1924, as an Irish-speaking unit. To what extent does that still define its identity? “It is still known as An Chéad Cath within the Defence Forces and is seen as the Irish unit and we still have a lot of Irish speakers, mostly from Connemara,” Keogh replies. “Admittedly, there are not as many as there used to be but we still have a big commitment to encourage wider interest in the language and we run Irish classes so it is still something that is part of the unit and that we are proud of.”

Lt Col Keogh is enthusiastic about his job, the soldiers under his command, and the modern role of the Army. He followed his father’s footsteps in choosing an army career; “My father served in the Army and retired as General O/C of the Western Brigade,” he tells me. “Though I am Galway born and bred, I spent the first three years of my life, from 1967-1970, in the Middle East where my dad was a UN military observer, initially in Sinai, and then Damascus. My older sister became fluent in Arabic just from playing with local kids and when my parents went shopping she would do all the bartering with the traders. We came back to Galway when I was 10 and I went to school in St Enda’s and then the Bish, and I finished off in Garbally in Ballinasloe.”

Post-Garbally, Keogh got a cadetship and was commissioned in 1988 and has since served in numerous postings both home and abroad. As he prepares to bring his battalion to Lebanon, he describes the Irish input to the UNIFIL mission; “Irish soldiers have been in Lebanon since 1978 and we have a good relationship with the local community. I have been there as both a young officer and a senior officer, and I have seen the development of that relationship and what it means to the local people to have UN peacekeepers there. It has different challenges now with all that is going on in Syria and the movement of refugees across the border and shifting political alliances. It is a difficult working environment for soldiers. The Irish are always seen as desirable peacekeepers by local communities because we go out and meet them and get to understand the nuances of the situation. The UN mission in Lebanon has grown a lot over the last 20 years, when I first went out there were about 5,000 soldiers and now it is closer to 10,000. Lebanon keeps coming up with new challenges and Irish soldiers seem to have a way of finding solutions quicker than those from other nations. I have worked with many international nations overseas and I can say, hand on heart, that Irish soldiers are gifted at finding workable solutions that are amenable to all parties.”

Those problem-solving skills are greatly aided by the quality of training and education the Irish soldier receives from today’s Army. “We focus from day one on the education of our soldiers,” Keogh tells me. “When you come in as a recruit you get your 16 weeks training and from then on it is all about education. All our courses are aligned with civilian education institutions and carry recognised accreditation so if our soldiers decide to leave they have qualifications they can apply in civilian life. People think soldiering is just marching around the barrack square but it’s not; if you walk around this barracks you’ll see people who are armoured car drivers, medical technicians, IT technicians, engineers, chefs, there are so many different trades. Every soldier has a role within the wider organization and that role is not just being a line soldier but being a qualified individual so they are always developing and improving as both an individual and a member of the Defence Forces.”

The Army can clearly produce highly skilled and qualified personnel, but do they have a problem with those soldiers leaving for better paid jobs in the private sector? “That is a delicate point,” Keogh says. “We have a commitment from the Government to recruit to the full establishment which is 9,500, but we are having difficulty reaching that figure because of retention –for example last year we took in 750 new recruits and we lost 700. Recruitment is not a problem, retaining people is a problem. Our soldiers become desirable to outside agencies and companies. Most people do not join the Defence Forces mainly for monetary reasons; it is the life experience, the comradeship; these things mean something to soldiers. But even if they are not joining just to make money they are still entitled to a decent standard of living. It pains me to say that there are people here in the barracks who have to avail of family income supplements. I believe we should be able to reward our soldiers to the point where they can comfortably survive. Pay and conditions is something that needs addressing. The Chief of Staff, the General Staff, the Minister of Defence are all aware of that and we are hoping that the Public Service Pay Commission will be able to redress in the near future.”

In recent years there has been much talk about the establishment of an EU army, a prospect that generates some unease about our neutral status. Lt Col Keogh offers his perspective on this issue; “We want to be contributors to international peace and we cannot do that on our own, we have to ‘partner up’. We cannot be a part of the EU and not be part of its security and defence. Trans-national crime and cyber crime are big issues and these are problems we cannot control on our own. Unless we are willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with our European neighbours we cannot expect them to protect us. Ireland recently signed up to the EU’s Permanent Structured Co-Operation on Security and Defence [PESCO] and that is something we can contribute to where we feel there is a value from Ireland’s perspective. We don’t have to partake in everything; we can choose what programmes we want to be part of. I do think a public discourse on the issue of neutrality is long overdue. The neutrality we signed up to in 1949 is very different to what neutrality is today. If you want to be neutral you have to be able to defend your neutrality and defence is a very expensive item. Ultimately, the Irish Government decides what we do overseas, not the Army or the EU, and as long as we retain the power to decide ourselves anything else is positive about working with those international partners who share our views and values.”

Lt Col Keogh concludes our chat by outlining one of his prime objectives in his new command; “One of the things I would like to do as O/C is to open the barracks more to the local community. For too often the Defence Forces were shut off behind the barrack walls and people don’t really know what we do. So I would like to engage more with the local community so that they can see that we give value for money. It is difficult to get the resources we require if people do not see or understand what we do. We have to communicate that message and I put that high on my list of priorities.”

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