Gardaí unable to investigate claims of rape in Defence Forces that take place overseas

Review set up in wake of allegations by Women of Honour group provides a damning assessment including ‘deeply misogynistic attitudes and behaviours’

Diane Byrne, a member of Women of Honour and a former Defence Forces officer, at Government Buildings in Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Hugh O'Connell and Philip Ryan

Gardaí will not be able to investigate allegations of rape or sexual assault in the Defence Forces that happen on overseas tours.

A damning report has found there is a “higher risk” of such incidents taking place abroad.

It comes after a landmark report into allegations of bullying and sexual harassment in the military found the Defence Forces is not a safe working environment and “barely tolerates” women. A statutory inquiry is being established of the findings from the independent review group (IRG), which was chaired by retired High Court judge.

Pledging to address the “entirely unacceptable” findings, Tánaiste Micheál Martin said the law would be changed to allow all allegations of rape or aggravated sexual assault in the Defence Forces in this State be referred to An Garda Síochána for investigation.

However, Mr Martin admitted that in cases where such offences took place on overseas tours only the Military Police would be able to investigate. The IRG report says “there is a higher risk of rape and sexual assault incidents occurring while members are on overseas duties” and notes many overseas environments are “side by side and that the cohort of female members is very small and isolated”.

The report finds that most women members have experienced some type of incident in the form of sexual harassment or assault “especially on overseas missions”. It also identifies unacceptable behaviours that occurred on overseas missions but stopped when the individuals were back in Ireland.

Interviewees reported sexual assaults taking place in barracks, mess halls, naval boats, swimming areas, shower facilities and on tours abroad and of barricading quarters to prevent sexual assault. There were also reports to the IRG, which surveyed hundreds of Defence Forces members, of repeated and regular spiking of drinks, predatory behaviour, and grooming of young recruits.

An individual who alleged rape or sexual assaults was often told to bury the complaint or asked whether they seriously wanted to complain formally, the report claims. “Bungled investigations that last for years are the order of the day,” it says.

Mr Martin yesterday urged victims of rape or sexual assault in the military to contact An Garda Síochána, but admitted that in relation to offences that happen overseas, it “stays with the Military Police”, adding: “You’re external to the country’s jurisdiction if you’re on a mission in a different country and so on like that. I can see the challenge there but that’s not an easy one to overcome.”

Mr Martin said there would be “additional external legal resources” to the Military Police to deal with cases they’re assigned. The report found no sexual harassment complaints were officially recorded between 2019 and 2021 and just two complaints of sexual harassment were made directly to the Military Police in 2021.

The perception of those interviewed for the report is that Defence Forces is more concerned about what effect a sanction might have on alleged perpetrator’s career, but no concern about the effect on the alleged victim.

The overall findings of the review – set up on foot of allegations by the Women of Honour group, whose claims about mistreatment were revealed in an RTÉ documentary in 2021 – are that women occupy a “low status” within the Defence Forces.

The report by the group chaired by retired justice Bronagh O'Hanlon found that the Defence Forces “struggle with gender, displaying hypermasculinities and pockets of deeply misogynistic attitudes and behaviours”, the report states, describing these as “strong organising forces in the culture”.

The report states that these problems will not go away without “immediate and significant steps” being taken to address them.

Respondents told the IRG that making a complaint could be career-ending and that retaliation from superiors took the form of charges that had no basis in fact being levelled against them.

Among other key findings were that a third of Defence Forces personnel had been harassed while serving and in the majority of cases it was on more than one occasion.

Female members (76pc) were far more likely to have experienced harassment than males (27pc) and in four out five cases harassment was perpetrated by officers of a higher rank.

Three-quarters of all incidents went unreported because personnel felt there was “no point”.

A quarter of personnel said they experienced sexual harassment in the Defence Forces, with the vast majority (88pc) of female personnel saying they had been harassed on at least one occasion.

The most common forms of harassment were offensive jokes/stories, sexist remarks and comments about physical appearance.

Mr Martin said Cabinet had also agreed to set up an external oversight body to increase transparency and accountability and drive necessary culture change.

He said existing complaint mechanisms would be reformed and that his department would prepare legislation to establish an independent complaints mechanism and an external oversight body.