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military abuse

An organisation that 'barely tolerates' women: Report details extent of abuse in Defence Forces

The IRG report details a raft of structural failures in the organisation.

LAST UPDATE | 28 Mar 2023

THE LONG-AWAITED REPORT into bullying and abuse in the Irish Defence Forces has detailed a raft of structural failures in the organisation in its treatment of female members and in how it responds to allegations of bullying, harassment and abuse.

The report by the Independent Review Group (IRG) chaired by Ms Justice Bronagh O’Hanlon, has made a series of recommendations including an oversight body and removing management of complaints from military officers.

It examines historical issues within the forces but also notes in its findings that there has been an increase in bullying and harassment in the Defence Forces in the last year.

The Independent Review Group was established by the Government in the wake of allegations of widespread sexual assault, bullying and harassment across the Irish military. 

The report, published at lunchtime, lays out the finding of the enquiry and a number of recommendations. 

In a stark paragraph around the subject of misogyny in the Defence Forces the report finds: “Different sources available to the IRG-DF conclude that, at best, the Defence Forces barely tolerates women and, at its worst, verbally, physically, sexually and psychologically abuses women in its ranks.”

There are also findings of assaults during training in which military personnel were kicked during exercise and assaulted in shower facilities. 

The report also states that the Defence Forces must investigate suicides in the military. 

The report looked into the specifics of how misogyny in the Defence Forces affects its female members and documented reports of particular incidents, based on testimony from affected women.

“These disclosures are consistent with the survey data that 88% of females reported experiencing one or more forms of sexual harassment and that 46% reported experiencing unwanted physical contact/sexual assault.

“The implication is that not all female members experienced sexual harassment or sexual
assault. The same conclusion can be drawn from the data on other forms of unacceptable behaviour,” the report found. 

The IRG found also, in a section titled “The Defence Forces’ Gender Norms”, that much of the language of views used in the forces “have no place in a modern Irish workplace”.

Key findings:

  • bullying, harassment, discrimination and sexual harassment persist.
  • women are seen as occupying a lower status in the organisation.
  • it found that, not withstanding the nature of military work, men and women, are not working in a safe environment.
  • Respondents to the IRG said there was “no point” in making complaints.
  • Legislative frameworks and HR practices are not fit for purpose and out of date. 

Minister for Defence Micheál Martin said that at this morning’s Cabinet meeting Government agreed to progress, as a priority, the report’s recommendations.

The recommendations include the statutory inquiry to investigate whether there have been serious systemic failures in dealing with individual complaints, including sexual misconduct.

The setting up of an External Oversight Body to increase transparency and accountability and to drive necessary culture change throughout the Defence Forces.

The Minister also said that they would urgently reform the existing mechanisms for making a complaint to restore “faith and trust in the complaints process”.

The Government will also prepare legislation to establish an independent complaints mechanism for serving members of the Defence Forces.

New laws will be required to establish the External Oversight Body on a statutory basis.

Defence Act

The Defence Act, 1954 will have to be amended to allow all allegations of rape, or aggravated sexual assault in the Defence Forces in the State be referred to An Garda Síochána for investigation.

There will also be a significant programme of reform and culture change delivered by external experts, with measures to eradicate reprisals and retaliation, and develop new policies on gender, inclusion and diversity.

The report warns: “Change is required to rebuild what is clearly broken in existing systems. The recommendations in this report are radical and, if implemented, will be far-reaching.

“A failure to implement the recommendations will mean a further regression and the Defence Forces’ position could deteriorate beyond repair.”

Tánaiste Micheál Martin said that the report is a “watershed moment”.

“Bullying, misogynistic behaviour, and any form of sexual misconduct is simply unacceptable, and has no place in a 21st century workplace.”

He also acknowledged the “courage by members of the Defence Forces in sharing their experiences” particularly the Women of Honour group.

Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces Lieutenant General Seán Clancy said his the military fully accept the findings of the report – he said the organisation “must change and we will change”. 

“The findings of this report are stark and we need to change. There is no place for any form of abuse, or failure to act on any form of inappropriate behaviour in the Defence Forces. It is contrary to our ethos and values and will not be tolerated.

“My first priority is the safety and wellbeing of our serving members and we are fully committed to achieving the necessary cultural change in our organisation,” he said.  

Women of Honour

Martin met with the Women of Honour (WoH) group yesterday to discuss the report, with the women involved in the meeting describing it as constructive.

The WoH are a number of female Defence Forces members who acted as whistleblowers in regard to their own treatment over bullying and sexual harassment in their military lives.

Their claims were detailed in a high-profile RTÉ radio documentary in late 2021.
It detailed the alleged shortcomings of reporting processes in the forces, as well as the devastating personal and professional implications of abuse and attempts to report it.

Some victims claimed they suffered depression, eating disorders and suicidal ideation as a result of their experiences, while some left their jobs in the forces.

In a statement this afternoon the Women of Honour group said they welcome the Government decision to establish a full statutory inquiry.

“In the light of the findings made by the Independent Review Group, nothing less than a full Statutory Inquiry was ever appropriate.

“Also, inevitably, the Military hierarchy, the Department of Defence itself and the Military system in its entirety will now be subject to that investigation in a manner that has been required for some considerable time.

“It is hoped that this commitment by Government to the establishment of a full Statutory Inquiry will start the process of healing for those persons who have suffered within the Defence Force system the appalling litany of abuse that is part of the Findings of Fact of the IRG Report.

“We await the necessary discussions to start the process of agreeing Terms of Reference for an all-encompassing full Statutory Public Inquiry where that process should start within days rather than weeks as Justice delayed is Justice denied.”

Martin received the IRG report at the beginning of February. The Attorney General then reviewed it before publication today. 

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Christina Finn and Niall O'Connor
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