Adjournment Debate. - Death of Irish National in Sierra Leone.

Wednesday, 23 March 1994

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 440 No. 5

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Mrs. Owen: Information on Nora Owen  Zoom on Nora Owen  With your permission, Sir, I wish to share my time with Deputy Sean Ryan.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mrs. Owen: Information on Nora Owen  Zoom on Nora Owen  On Saturday, 12 March 1994, Fr. Felim McAllister, a Holy Ghost Missionary priest from Donabate, County Dublin, was shot dead in an ambush by rebels dressed in army uniforms in Panguma, Sierra Leone. His last words as he tried to lead a convoy of three vehicles from the hospital compound were “I think we are too late, we are surrounded”. With that he was shot dead. A young Dutch doctor Dr. Elco Krijn, his wife Karim and their four year old daughter Zita were in the second vehicle and they were shot. A fourth person in the second vehicle, Dr. Ann Brennan from New Zealand, managed to escape but was subsequently recaptured by the rebels and was subjected to the ordeal of a seven mile walk until she was rescued by the official army of Sierra Leone. She had to witness the burning of the vehicle and although local people managed to retrieve the bodies of Fr. Felim McAllister and Dr. Elco Krijn and his wife, their four year old daughter was burned in the vehicle. Sister Madeleine Naughton, a Daughter of Charity sister from Loughrea, County Galway was driving the third vehicle with three other missionary sisters. She watched in horror as Fr. Felim McAllister and the others in the second vehicle were shot to death. She put her foot on the accelerator and drove through a hail of bullets, thus saving her own life and the lives of the three other sisters.

Fr. McAllister had been in Sierra Leone for 26 years and he, as well as the other Irish missionaries contributed enormously to the communities they were working with, particularly the Kissi and the Mende tribes. In his last letter home written a week before his untimely death he said “Tongafield — the wider parish — is destroyed by the rebels with hundreds of houses burned and every house and store looted. I am busy trying to feed 12,000 displaced persons from the regions. The rebels were approaching but turned away three miles from Panguma but our place is the next obvious target.” Little did he know that the hospital in which he worked would be the next [1293] target. His letter continued “There is real danger that the country could slide into anarchy similar to Somalia. The people do not trust the army”. He then appealed to Irish people and the people of Donabate who supported his missionary work to contact the Sierra Leone Government and ask them to capture the rebels and bring peace to the country.

Sierra Leone is experiencing difficult times. It is considered to be one of the ten poorest countries in Africa, although it used to be one of the richest, with a major diamond industry. The civil war in Liberia has spilled over into Sierra Leone and it is known that one in five children will not reach their fifth birthday. In his last letter home Fr. McAllister appealed for resources so that people could rehabilitate themselves. There is European Union and American aid but army protection is required in transporting food from Freetown. Fr. McAllister's last food convoy was attacked and the food stolen.

I pay tribute to the Holy Rosary Sisters who founded the hospital and to the Daughters of Charity who are continuing this work. I pay special tribute to their principal, Sr. Bernadette, and to Sr. Madeleine Naughton who has now arrived home. I extend my deepest sympathy to the family of Fr. McAllister and to the people of the parish of Donabate-Portrane.

Has the Government of Sierra Leone sent a message of sympathy to the Government? I ask the Minister to put pressure on them to capture the rebels. I also ask him to meet with the Holy Ghost Fathers, the Daughters of Charity and the Holy Rosary Sisters to be appraised fully on the position in Sierra Leone.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  I thank Deputy Owen for affording me the opportunity of making a brief contribution. As someone who grew up and went to school with Fr. Felim I extend my sympathy to his family. Not only is this a tragedy for his family and his Order but, above all, for the ordinary [1294] people of Sierra Leone who in recent times had come to depend so much on him and other missionaries, both nuns and priests, particularly from Ireland.

People in my own parish have appealed to the Government to ensure that the work carried out by Fr. Felim during the years is continued. I thank the Minister for responding so quickly to the representations which have been made to date and ask him to use his good offices with the United Nations and other agencies to ensure that further tragedies can be avoided and that the food and clothing which are badly needed are provided.

Will the Minister meet at an early date with the Daughters of Charity, the Holy Ghost Fathers and the family of Fr. Felim to obtain a first-hand account of what is happening in Sierra Leone and to see what they require?

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Spring): Information on Dick Spring  Zoom on Dick Spring  I welcome this opportunity to reply to the remarks made by Deputies Owen and Ryan on this tragic incident. I will attempt to reply to the various questions raised. The brutal murder by rebels of Fr. Felim McAllister, an Irish member of the Holy Ghost Congregation, in Sierra Leone on 12 March was a terrible tragedy. I am sure all Members of this House will join me in condemning this murder in the strongest possible terms.

A Dutch lay volunteer, Dr. Elco Krijn, his wife Karim, and their young daughter Zita, were also killed in the same attack as they were trying to leave the hospital at Panguma early in the morning. Four sisters of the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity, including one Irish nun, Sr. Madeleine Naughton, were lucky to escape with their lives.

The area around Panguma has been the scene of increased rebel activity in recent weeks. As the missionaries and volunteers tried to leave the hospital they were attacked by rebels. The two vehicles carrying Fr. McAllister and the lay volunteers were attacked and set on fire. [1295] The nuns in the third vehicle had the narrowest of escapes by driving through the gunfire and managed to reach the capital, Freetown, later in the day.

On behalf of the Government, I extend my deepest sympathy to the relatives of all those killed in the attack and particularly to the members of Fr. McAllister's family in Dublin. I also offer my condolences to Very Rev. Brian McLaughlin, Provincial Superior of the Holy Ghost Congregation, and to the other members of the order on the tragic death of Fr. McAllister who worked so selflessly to help the people of Sierra Leone since he began working in that country in 1968.

In addition to being parish priest of Panguma, Fr. McAllister had been administrator of Panguma hospital from 1986 to 1989. His commitment and dedication to helping the people of the area was best expressed in his unceasing efforts in recent months to provide food and shelter for those displaced by rebel activity. These efforts were often undertaken at great risk to his own life.

Since Fr. McAllister's death, the Irish Honorary Consul in Freetown, at the request of my Department, has maintained constant contact with the Government of Sierra Leone at a high level conveying our deep concern at this incident. He is also actively involved in ensuring the protection of the Irish missionaries who are still in the country.

The head of state, Captain Strasser, who is also chairman of the National Provisional Ruling Council, has written to the Taoiseach conveying the deepest condolences of the Government and people of Sierra Leone to the bereaved relatives and friends of Fr. McAllister and to the Irish people as a whole on this sad loss. Captain Strasser said that the murder of Fr. McAllister was a dastardly act which the Government and people of Sierra Leone deplore and condemn in the strongest possible terms.

The area in which the attack took place [1296] in eastern Sierra Leone has been the scene of increasing rebel activity in recent months. This activity is largely caused by dissident elements in the Sierra Leone army together with rebels crossing over the border from neighbouring Liberia. We are assured that the Government of Sierra Leone is making every effort to deal with the rebel activity.

Reports indicate that disturbances are continuing in areas of eastern Sierra Leone. Because of this, I understand that most of the Irish missionaries in the area around Panguma and Kenema have moved to the town of Bo for safety. Three Irish missionaries remain in Kenema. If the security situation deteriorates further, they and the Irish missionaries now in Bo are prepared to move to the capital, Freetown.

My Department will continue to monitor the situation in Sierra Leone very closely in consultation with our European Union partners and through our Honorary Consul there. We will also keep in close contact here in Ireland with those missions such as the Holy Ghost Fathers and the Sisters of the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity who have missionaries in Sierra Leone.

The Deputies requested that I meet the Orders concerned and the relatives of the late Fr. McAllister. It is my intention to meet the provincials of both Orders together with Mr. Noel McAllister, a brother of the late Fr. Felim McAllister, and with Sr. Madeleine Naughton who was involved in the incident. I hope that this meeting can take place within the next few days.


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