Defence Forces ‘not a safe working’ environment and ‘barely tolerates’ women, damning review finds

The Independent Review Group’s analysis reveals a workplace where “self-worth and value are negated and disrespect is a dominant feature in an organisation resistant to change”

Irish Defence Forces. Stock image

Hugh O'Connell and Philip Ryan

THE Defence Forces is not a safe working environment for either men or women, according to a landmark report into allegations of bullying and sexual harassment in the military.

The report of an independent review group (IRG) published on Tuesday by Tánaiste Micheál Martin states that “neither men nor women in the Defence Forces are working in a safe working environment”.

Mr Martin said the report makes for “stark reading” and “pulls no punches” and makes clear that the military working environment is “simply and entirely unacceptable”.

The Cabinet agreed to establish a State inquiry after the report recommended a “statutory fact finding process” to identify systematic failures in the Defence Forces and to ensure accountability and transparency.

The IRG’s analysis reveals a workplace where “self-worth and value are negated and disrespect is a dominant feature in an organisation resistant to change”.

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 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. “At best, the Defence Forces barely tolerates women and, at its worst, verbally, physically, sexually and psychologically abuses women in its ranks,” the report states.

Its overall findings are that the Defence Forces is not fully aligned with the principles of dignity, equality, mutual respect, and duty of care and the prevailing workplace culture is one that is “disabling” when it comes to supporting dignity and respect.

Key findings also include:

  • The report found a third of Defence Forces personnel were 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 than the victim. Three quarters of all incidents went unreported because personnel felt there was “no point”.
  • More than a third (37pc) of those surveyed said they experienced at least one instance of bullying and it was again most commonly committed by members of higher ranks.
  • More than half (55pc) of those who encountered bullying said they considered or took steps to leave the Defence Forces due to their experience.
  • Less than a quarter (23pc) of bullying cases were reported with most of those saying the found the outcome of the process unsatisfactory.
  • 7pc of respondents experienced unwanted physical contact or sexual assault.
  • Only a quarter of victims reported incidents and those who did found the complaints procedure to be overly complex.
  • There are no incidents of these reports to being resolved to the victims satisfaction.
  • A quarter of personnel said they experience sexual harassment in the Defence Forces with the vast majority (88pc) of female personnel saying they were harassed on at least one occasion.
  • The most common forms of harassment were offensive jokes/stories, sexist remarks and comments about physical appearance.

The report says that cadets can be vulnerable and inexperienced and that this can result in them being targeted by “predatory older members who exploit such traits” and it adds that “women, the lower ranks and those who challenge are also at risk”.

The Defence Forces does not have fit for purpose HR standards and the report identifies a lack of trust in the policies and procedures for making a complaint was a key feature of its findings. 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.

A statutory fact finding process should investigate whether there have been failings regarding interpersonal issues between personnel not limited to but including sexual misbehaviour, the report states.

It should also examine whether disciplinary processes were abused and if access to promotion or courses were used to deter personnel from making complaints.

It will also look at whether there were issues in the Air Corps related to the investigation of air accidents and the use of hazardous chemicals.

The IRG called for the introduction of a new oversight body for the Defence Forces which would consist of an independent chair, five independent members with knowledge of defence policy, the secretary general of the Department of the Defence and one former member of an overseas military.

The report recommends setting up of a ‘restorative justice’ or ‘practice process’ aimed at “healing the wrongs” identified by the review group and making the Defence Forces a safer place to work.

Reforms of the complaint making process for serving Defence Force members is also recommended.

It is also seeking to replace the current system for lodging grievances and says there should be workplace training on sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and general dignity and equality in work.

There should also be a sanctions system for misogynistic attitudes and behaviours that is “clear and effective,” the report says.

The report notes commissioned officers and members of the Army Nursing Service can avail of private consultant appointments and private hospital treatment depending on rank and said it is “critical” that the same level of care is provided to all army personnel.

The Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) should carry out regular inspections of care provided by the Defence Forces to ensure it is up to a national standard.

The report also said adequate maternity clothing should be provided to female personnel and it calls for more family friendly policies.

“The recommendations in this report are radical and, if implemented, will be far-reaching,” the review group states.

The Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Lieutenant General Seán Clancy, commended the work of the IRG.

"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,” he said. “It is contrary to our ethos and values and will not be tolerated. We are working tirelessly to ensure the Defence Forces is a workplace, where the pervading culture is underpinned by the principles of dignity, equality, mutual respect and duty of care."

Lt Gen Clancy added: “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. I am confident and determined that we can deliver the transformation required to build a better Defence Forces for the future. We must and we will change.”

A statement from the Defence Forces continued: “The General Staff of the Defence Forces accept the findings of this report and will now work with An Tánaiste and Minister for Defence, Mr. Micheál Martin T.D. and the Department of Defence to fulfil all of the approved recommendations.”

At a press conference, 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 that existing complaint mechanisms would be reformed and that his department would prepare legislation to establish an independent complaints mechanism and an external oversight body.

He also pledged to amend the Defence Act 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.

“We would encourage people to report individual cases to the gardaí,” Mr Martin said, adding that the Defence Forces chief of staff had been clear on that.

However, only the military police will be allowed to investigate allegations of rape or sexual assault that take place on tour abroad.

“We have to look radically at command and control, we have to look at training… at how women are treated… everything has to be examined now,” he said, adding there had been a “consistent” resistance to change.

The IRG was chaired by retired High Court justice Bronagh O'Hanlon.