Army barracks Covid-19 drinking party broke pandemic laws, damning investigation finds

Sexual assault on female soldiers after barbeque results in conviction of army officerIndependent probe finds rules under Covid-19 legislation “were not adhered to” at booze-upTánaiste orders Defence Forces top brass to look again at disciplinary action taken

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Fionnán Sheahan

A drinking party held at Army headquarters during Covid-19 was in breach of pandemic restrictions, a damning investigation has found.

The holding of a barbeque by the very group in charge of the Army's pandemic response “was a decision which lacked judgment and ought not to have happened”.

The hugely embarrassing report for the Defence Forces finds: "The requirements under the Covid legislation at the time were not adhered to.”

A sexual assault of two female members of the Defence Forces also took place by an attendee at the event. The drinking party only came to light as a result of WhatsApp messages circulating about this incident. There has been a conviction for a number of offences including sexual assault at a court martial and sentencing is awaited.

The outdoor party was held for members of the Defence Forces group that assisted with the response to the pandemic. The event was held at Defence Forces’ Covid Taskforce HQ at McKee Barracks in Dublin on June 25, 2020.

The party was attended by 37 people, despite restrictions at the time limiting gatherings to 15 people. The party started at 2pm and finished up sometime after 9.30pm.

The independent investigation by barrister Hugh Mohan says the function may have been intended to be “a working lunch”, but it became an event “for entertainment and social reasons”.

“The very fact that alcohol was purchased and was being served, regardless of whether it was on sale or not, to a group of people in excess of 15 was in the circumstances against the very spirit of what was required of all citizens of the country let alone what would have been expected of a team that was part of the State’s critical response to the pandemic,” Mr Mohan concluded.

The investigator repeatedly refers to the group being in charge of the Defence Forces pandemic response.

“The very idea of having a lunch/BBQ, as all parties now agree, was a decision which lacked judgment and ought not to have happened particularly taking into account the role of the Joint Task Force and what was expected of them in light of their leadership/State role,” Mr Mohan said.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin has now ordered the Defence Forces chief of staff to look again at the disciplinary actions taken against senior officers involved.

“Having read the report, it is absolutely clear that this event should not have been organised, and it was wrong to do so during a time when many people were subject to emergency public health restrictions. The organisation of this event represented very poor judgement by all concerned,” the Tánaiste said. The report is also scathing about delays in telling the Department of Defence what was going on. The Military Police report on events was completed by September 2021 but was not disclosed to the Department until January 2022.

“The Department of Defence is entitled to be informed of what has happened or is happening,” the report says. "There is no doubt there was a shortcoming in this case with regard to same.”

An independent investigation into the June 2020 event was ordered by the Government as the military’s own inquiry took too long. A military police investigation into the party found restrictions had not been breached.

The Government only received a formal report on the outcome of the military investigation this time last year – 20 months after the incident.

A number of senior officers were reprimanded for the party, which breached army rules on serving alcohol. But the Defence Forces always claimed Covid-19 rules were not broken.

The external review contradicts the Defence Forces’ own investigation into the party, which found it didn’t break Covid-19 rules, but did breach its own alcohol policy.

Mr Mohan was appointed a year ago to look at the military investigation into the event.

The Defence Forces described the event as an “outdoor late lunch”. The military police investigation into the event was reviewed by an army general. Following this, three senior officers were reprimanded by then Chief of Staff Mark Mellett as the serving of alcohol at the lunch “was ill-­advised and inappropriate”.