Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Monday 25 September 2023 Dublin: 15°C
Photocall Ireland Tom Clonan at a Transparency Ireland event in 2010
Tom Clonan 'My whistleblower journey in the Defence Forces has ended. I am back in from the cold'
Dr Tom Clonan met with the Defence Forces Chief of Staff today about a reconciliation process. ‘Unusually for Ireland, this whistleblowing story has a happy ending,’ he writes.

WHISTLEBLOWING IN IRELAND – speaking truth to power – can be a dark experience.

Whistleblower reprisal experienced when speaking truth to power here can lead to very negative professional, reputational and personal outcomes.

My journey as an army whistleblower began on 6 November 1989. As an idealistic Trinity graduate, I joined the Irish Army as an officer cadet.

Eighteen months of intensive – often brutal – training followed until April 1991 when I was commissioned as an officer. It was the proudest day of my life.

Prior to republican cease-fires, the early 1990s in Ireland were operationally demanding and I quickly gained experience commanding armed operations in support of An Garda Síochána.

In 1995, I deployed to Lebanon as a UN peacekeeper. During my tour of duty, the Israeli government launched an air and ground campaign against the population of south Lebanon, declaring our area of operations a ‘free-fire zone’. All hell broke loose.

Hundreds of Lebanese civilians were butchered during ‘Operation Grapes of Wrath’. As human shields we, the 650 Irish soldiers of the 78th Irish Battalion, placed ourselves in the firing line trying – often in vain – to prevent the slaughter. Our tour culminated in a massacre of over 100 civilians in a village called Qana.

Lebanon left its mark on me: I returned home restless. Psychological, emotional, intellectual and ethical changes fomented within me.

Coming from a matriarchal household, I had a strong relationship with my mother and grandmother. My Kerry grandmother had fought with Cumann na mBan during the War of Independence.

Aware of the role of women – often leadership roles – in the liberation of the state and, later, within the Provisional IRA and other Irish paramilitary organisations, I was struck by parallels with the conflict I had encountered in the Lebanon. I had observed their suffering and resilience.

This, among other reasons, led me towards a PhD in DCU. I applied in writing to the General Staff to conduct research into the status and roles of females in the Defence Forces. With ethical approval from DCU, I was supervised and supported by the university in what became an equality audit of the Defence Forces.

‘Feminine’ work

Initial results were stark, showing a sharp and negative gender division of labour within the organisation.

Female soldiers performed ‘feminine’ work – often tasks such as waitressing in officer’s messes – and were denied the command and operational appointments required for promotion.

As my research progressed and I reported to DCU’s postgraduate research committee, the Registrar’s Office became concerned at the very negative nature of the initial findings.

The Registrar advised me to meet with the Defence Forces’ Chief of Staff to inform him of the emerging findings and obtain a ‘letter of comfort’ to proceed with the research.

In June 1998, Lieutenant General Gerry Mac Mahon granted my request in writing, urging me to complete the research ‘thoroughly’, so the Defence Forces could fully appreciate and rectify the serious issues confronting female personnel.

With the Chief of Staff’s imprimatur, I got permission from unit commanders to interview 43 female colleagues from various appointments in army, air corps and naval units across Ireland and extended the investigation to include interviewing 17 serving in the Middle East.

These were harrowing interviews.

Discussing training, 59 out of 60 of my female colleagues revealed traumatic experiences of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. I documented the research findings and continued to work under the supervision of DCU and my military superiors towards the conclusions and recommendations of the research.

In summer 2000, I completed my viva examination and on graduation in December, lodged the doctoral thesis, as directed by the Chief of Staff, to the DCU library.

At this point, I was a valued member of the Defence Forces. I was a Captain, serving as a staff officer to the Chief of Staff in Defence Forces Headquarters. I was at the heart of the organisation, a highly regarded press officer and colleague with command experience in a violent overseas deployment. I embodied the values and leadership qualities of the officer corps – professionally, intellectually, ethically.

I was confident my superiors would end the systematic violence perpetrated against my female colleagues.

At that moment, I was unfamiliar with the terms ‘whistleblower’ or ‘whistleblower reprisal’. They were to become familiar. What happened next is what Transparency International Ireland has dubbed a ‘textbook case’ of ‘whistleblower reprisal’. All hell broke loose.

When I communicated my findings to my superiors I was rebuffed and verbally abused.

I was told crudely that my work was ‘bullshit’.

I was a ‘rat’.

I was warned to remain silent and threatened with a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign.

A former superior and mentor chillingly stated ‘if the organisation cannot go for the ball, they’ll go for the man’, because ‘character assassination’ is a legitimate tactic ‘when the reputation of the organisation is at stake’.

At this point, as planned, I retired from the Defence Forces to pursue an academic career.

I made repeated attempts to persuade the general staff to act on my findings. Instead, I was ostracised and demonised by many former colleagues.


In summer 2001, Irish media gave the research saturation coverage.

The Defence Forces stated in dozens of media interviews that I had ‘concealed’ the research and carried it out ‘covertly’, that I had ‘fabricated’ the research process, ‘falsifying’ the findings.

These blatant untruths, along with an insidious and systematic campaign of character assassination continued for weeks, intensifying so alarmingly I feared losing my new career as an academic.

My professional reputation and integrity as a researcher were brutally targeted.

Matters came to a head that September when I showed journalists my letters of permission from the Chief of Staff, proving that the Defence Forces knew of and supported my research.

I demonstrated that my PhD was pursued openly and ethically. It was unique as an academic study in that it was supervised, supported and invigilated at the level of Registrar and Chief of Staff in DCU and the Defence Forces respectively.

One listener to a radio interview I had at that time with RTÉ was then-Minister for Defence Michael Smith TD. After I left the studio, he rang my mobile asking what needed to be done to end the extended, sorry saga. I asked for a full, independent enquiry into the research I had carried out.

He did exactly that, launching the ‘Study Review Group’ headed by Dr. Eileen Doyle, an experienced, highly-respected academic. The group fully vindicated the findings and recommendations of my research.

To its credit, the military authorities fully implemented the Study Review Group’s recommendations. This has profoundly transformed the Defence Forces’ culture regarding workplace equality, diversity and dignity.

As a consequence of my research and subsequent enquiry, the Defence Forces is a better workplace for thousands of aircrew, sailors and soldiers.

Indeed, the Defence Forces are regarded as exemplars of best practice on diversity, inclusion and equality within the international military.


Unfortunately my relationship with the organisation remained broken.

For two decades, I remained isolated from former colleagues. My contribution to the transformation of Defence Forces’ culture remained unacknowledged. I never received an apology for the whistleblower reprisals perpetrated against me and my family when my research became public.

However, in June this year – exactly 21 years to the day when Lt Gen MacMahon gave me written instructions to complete my research – I received an unexpected, welcome invitation from the current Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, to discuss what had passed between myself and the Defence Forces.

We met in September and discussed the impact of the research on the organisation, and of the research process upon me personally and professionally. At some point in the conversation, I realised my whistleblower journey had ended. In this meeting of minds, my relationship with Oglaigh na hEireann had come full circle. I had come back in from the cold.

Today, 30 years after I joined the Army, I will be met at the Military College in the Curragh Camp by Vice Admiral Mellett. Along with DCU, the Defence Forces will acknowledge the contribution my PhD made to the organisation on equality, diversity and dignity.

More significantly, Sandra Healy, DCU’s Head of Diversity and Inclusion, and I will deliver an inaugural annual lecture to senior Defence Forces officers on the power of diversity and inclusion in our armed forces.

We will discuss moving forward in partnership – to learn from whistleblowing, and to empower individuals to speak truth to power. In partnership with the Chief of Staff, we feel strongly that Irish public and private sector organisations and institutions might be empowered by learning to respond receptively and positively to disruptive findings within the workplace.

Unusually for Ireland, this whistleblowing story has a happy ending.

It would have not been possible without the support of DCU and the Defence Forces. I am grateful to Professor Brian MacCraith, President of DCU for his personal support. I am indebted to Vice Admiral Mellett for his courage in facilitating this reconciliation and profound moment of healing and learning.

Most of all, I am especially grateful to my female colleagues who spoke so powerfully and eloquently in my research. To this day, I remain awed by their integrity, courage and resilience as Irish women and soldiers serving our country in the most difficult of circumstances.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT.

You can follow him on Twitter here.     

Voices Image

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel