Statutory inquiry into sexual harassment allegations in Defence Forces announced

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The Government has agreed to establish a statutory inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct, bullying and discrimination in the Defence Forces, as recommended by an independent report.

The independent review group’s (IRG) report found a “discernible pattern of rape and sexual assault” in its analysis of participants’ contributions.

Reacting to the publication of the report, Tanaiste and Minister for Defence Micheal Martin also announced the immediate establishment of a new external oversight body of the Defence Forces to deal with the group’s recommendations.

He described the report as “stark” and “harrowing”, and committed to a programme of reform and culture change within the Defence Forces.

“Fundamental change is coming,” he said.

He said the current culture within the Defence Forces “is simply and entirely unacceptable”.

“Today is a very challenging day for our Defence Forces but it can also be a new start,” he added.

“We will pass legislation that will ensure there will be an obligation that any sexual assault that is reported will be dealt with by the gardai in the first instance,” he said.

Mr Martin thanked the men and women who came forward to share what happened to them.

“Your fortitude and personal bravery is genuinely appreciated,” the minister said.

Interviewees told investigators of bullying and sexual harassment within the Defence Forces which caused long-term pain and injury.

Members of the Defence Forces reported being in dangerous situations after they were invited to take part in sexual activity by a person who was often of higher rank, and, in some cases, by a person or persons who were under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.

“Apart from the horrendous nature of the alleged rapes and sexual assaults suffered and described in great detail to the IRG, what happened afterwards is of equal concern,” the report said.

“Instead of delivering a proper, modern, streamlined and skilled response to the complainant, the individual was often told to bury the complaint, or they were asked whether they seriously wanted to complain formally,” it added.

The report said “bungled investigations that last for years are the order of the day”.

The report is highly critical of the internal complaints system and also found that incidents of bullying, rape and other serious physical assaults are “covered up”.

The Defence Forces reported that no sexual harassment cases were officially recorded through the formal complaints process over the period 2019–2021.

The IRG said this would appear to confirm the narrative that there is a lack of reporting of incidents rather than a lack of incidents.

“These ‘zero incidence’ figures are not comparable with figures reported in other military organisations of similar size internationally, or in other organisations of similar size in Ireland,” it said.

There is a higher risk of rape and sexual assault incidents occurring while members are on overseas duties, it found.

Interviewees reported sexual assaults taking place in barracks, naval boats, shower facilities and while abroad on tours.

They also reported regular drink spiking, grooming of younger recruits, and compromising intimate images of female members being taken by surreptitious means.

Men also reported being on the receiving end of unacceptable behaviours, ranging across the full spectrum, up to and including rape.

In terms of bullying, respondents outlined behaviours such as ‘tubbing’ which is when an individual is put in a barrel which may contain items such as chemicals, oil, fuel or animal carcasses as a form of punishment.

Respondents also described punishment through arduous exercises known as ‘beasting’ and ‘mobbing’ where an individual is harassed and isolated to ultimately “make life so difficult that they resign their post”.

The research, which required hundreds of hours of consultations as well as thousands of pages of transcripts, found that some members of Defence Forces’ management “abuse their positions of power and command” in their treatment of subordinates.

This includes threatening behaviour and the suggestion the individual is under total control of the superior.

It found some members of management “crossed the line” by undermining individuals’ human dignity through an absence of respect.

The IRG said members of the Defence Forces should be offered access to an independent external complaints service for as long as it takes to put a “trusted internal system” in place.

National Day of Commemoration Ceremony
The IRG said members of the Defence Forces should be offered access to an independent external complaints service (Damien Storan/PA)

It said the Defence Forces should develop new policies on gender, inclusion and diversity as well as ensuring the provision of adequate maternity clothing for female personnel.

The IRG said the enforcement of traditional gender norms in the Defence Forces “is a situation that cannot continue”.

It called on leadership to shift perspective to align with modern attitudes on gender, specifically adopting measures to address a culture of misogyny and “disrespect for all things female”.

The group concluded the Defence Forces is unable or unwilling to make the changes that are needed to provide a safe working environment to its members.

In its high-level findings, the review also found that intellectual capabilities are rated as much less important than physical skills within the Defence Forces.

“Flexibility and alternative thinking is suspect,” the review found.

“Difference or divergence from a perceived norm is not tolerated,” it added.

“All of these have implications for culture, workplace climate and behaviours.”

Mr Martin said the inquiry would be established before the end of the year.

“I want to get this up and running as quickly as possible,” he said.

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