25 Jun 2022

PHOTO GALLERY: 'Siege of Jadotville' talk at Sallins Book Club

Irish troops' battle in Congo

The journalist, author and security advisor Declan Power was in Sallins recently to discuss his book, 'The Siege of Jadotville'.

The event was hosted by Sallins Book Club in the Community Centre and was well attended by locals and a good showing of people with military experience.

Mr Power is a former soldier himself and spoke with formidable knowledge of the background and context to the events of that time.

He spent most of his talk outlining the background to why the Irish troops were sent into a small pocket of the Congo in 1961 in the first place.

Mr Power's book was the subject of a Netflix produced film of the same name.

He explained that, for the purposes of dramatising what is a complex historical and politcal background, some of the events or people were not depicted entirely accurately.

And the episode at the end of the film, where a senior officer was punched, never happened, he revealed.

The siege took place over the course of six days in September 1961 when a lightly armed company of Irish soldiers were attacked by a mixture of French and Belgian mercenaries and local native Katangan soldiers.

Despite a repeated onslaught from a far greater number of troops with far greater resources at their disposal, including a fighter jet, none of the Irish soldiers were killed.

Their Comandant Pat Quinlan is widely acknowledged as having saved the lives of 155 men. He surrendered when all of their ammunition had run out and when it became clear that his original mission (which was to protect the local people) was no longer relevant.

The men were held for several weeks until their release was negotiated.

For a variety of reasons - the surrender and the dubious political medling and strategy, it was an embarrassing episode for many, including the UN and the Irish government. And for that reason, the heroism and bravery of the Irish soldiers was not acknowledged or publicised.

The background to why the men were there was that nobody quite knew what was going to happen in the Congo.

At that time, a mineral rich section of the Congo, Katanga, had broken away from the rest of the country and established itself as a new nation.

This had lead to a confluence of agendas - the mining companies, the political leaders of Katanga, the political leaders of the rest of the Congo and the UN, who feared that the uranium, a vital mineral in the growing nuclear arms race, was in danger of being grabbed by competing world powers.

The Irish soldiers (along with Swedes and Indian soldiers) were sent in to protect the Katanganese citizens, but the Katangan leader Prime Minister Moise Tshombe portrayed their arrival in the country as backing up the Congo's military and invading his country.

Mr Power outlined the failings in the military planning and strategy involved, and spoke of the ineptitude of the nascent UN organisation at the time.

The UN, he explained, “was not as stable as it is now”.

Although obviously sympathetic to the Irish soldiers who found themselve under fire, he poked holes in the much vaunted, and smug assumption that Ireland and Irish troops had never engaged in colonisation - arguing that perhaps Ireland had effectively played a part in the colonisation of Katanga.

He asked the audience the provocative question if, perhaps, Katanga should have been allowed to remain independent, although he admitted that hindsight was 20.20 vision.

As regards the battle itself, he spoke of the attempt to reinforce the company which failed. He noted that while it failed it was a genuine attempt, under fire, to do so. And similarly so with the brave attempt by the helicopter pilots.

Continued below...

Actor Jamie Dornan played Comdt Pat Quinlan in the film adaptation of Declan Power's book

He also revealed that when the time came to surrender, Comdt Quinlan asked the opinion of his officers before deciding himself.

“It was not a democracy, he was the commanding officer,” Mr Power explained.

Quinlan would have also been aware of the sensitive and unstable geopolitcal situation around him and be mindful not to inflict any harm to that, given how clever the Katanganese were with the use of media.  They used the Irish to embarrass the UN.

Photos: Tony Keane

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