'Sense of shame' - President Higgins slams 'criminal acts' in statement on Defence Forces sexual abuse scandal

President Higgins

Senan Molony

PRESIDENT Michael D Higgins has made an unprecedented intervention on the issue of gross and persistent sexual abuse of women in the Army, Naval Service and Aer Corps — saying he fears it might be replicated elsewhere.

“As Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces, it is with a sense of shame that I read the report of the Independent Review Group,” the Head of State said in an extraordinary statement on the “criminal acts” committed.

“Those who were abused were by those who, having a higher rank, held a position of power over them in what was a deeply hierarchical organisation.”

What has been revealed in the report was not a simple set of random occurrences, he said.

The shocking disclosures had been made possible by the coming forward of “some of the bravest of the brave” to have served our country, he said.

“It is explicitly stated in the Report that there is a continuing systemic problem of incidents of bullying, harassment, discrimination and sexual harassment within the Defence Forces.

“This must be of the deepest concern to us all, including those in the Defence Forces who are anxious to serve their country to the best of their abilities and so many who are doing so at home and abroad.”

He said he particularly recognised the contribution of the Women of Honour and the Men and Women of Honour, “both of which groups I have had the privilege of meeting at Áras an Uachtaráin.”

But he equally paid tribute to all those who had brought the scandal to light by sharing their “profoundly traumatic personal experiences.”

The types of bullying described were some of the most serious imaginable, the President said.

“They include behaviour leading to suicides, serious physical assaults, very serious sexual assaults including rapes, and the sexual targeting of new entrants, particularly but not exclusively members of the cadet school during their first year.”

He added: “What is not as explicitly stated in the report, but which is clearly demonstrated by its findings, is the need for a restructuring of the relationship between officer and enlisted ranks.

“The class hierarchy was characterised as ‘the elite and the rest’ and ‘master and servant’, with all the snobbery, condescension and denigrating attitudes and behaviour that go with that”.

He added: “Such structural issues can be neither ignored nor action delayed on their reform or replacement.”

The report is at its strongest in describing the price paid for a version of ‘exaggerated masculinity’, of a preference for a hard regime over what is called ‘soft relationships,’ the Commander-in-Chief says.

“In such a vision of what the ideal member of the Defence Forces should be, capacity for human relations are accorded a minor compensatory role. This is not human relations in any meaningful sense.”

The Report “crucially affects the recruitment process, together with efforts at retention and morale,” the President noted.

“We owe so much to our Defence Forces, women and men who have served on our behalf on peacekeeping missions in zones of conflict.

“That the Irish public are among the best informed in the world on zones of conflict, and in particular the Middle East and the Israeli/Palestinian issue, is due in no small measure to the integrity and commitment with which peacekeeping has and continues to be carried out by Ireland.”

The pride which Irish people rightly feel in the over 60 years of UN peacekeeping by members of the Defence Forces is a precious resource, he said.

It was something which should be a “central emphasis” in all recruitment activities, as well as to the retention and morale of those who serve.

“I am concerned that sadly this has not always been what has been emphasised on occasions I have witnessed.”

He expressed the hope that the many young people currently considering a career in the Defence Forces will join an organisation that they can feel confident is going to be reformed — “that from their very first day as members, dignity and respect will be emphasised as the primary and driving values of those that serve our country.

“I appreciate that this does not happen at the present time, but is being defeated by what is now empirically established as systemic failure and a non-inclusive structure. That must change.”

The President welcomed the Government’s “speedy and full acceptance of the recommendations of the review”.

“The public will now expect that these recommendations be implemented in full and without delay,” he added.

“There can be no continuation of any of this deeply unacceptable, indeed criminal, behaviour.

“I wish all those who will undertake this vital task the stamina, the energy, the sense of urgency and the integrity that is needed for one of the most important tasks of transformation in our State.”

All of what he had said “is informed by my position as Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces,” he said.

“However, as President of Ireland, I am left with the greatest anxiety that this institutional failure is far from confined to the Defence Forces, and in many cases there are lessons to be drawn, and transformations to be made, that are now urgent, not only within the Defence Forces, but across our society and many of our institutions.

“We must all support every effort at such reform as will give us a truly human institutional profile, one built on dignity and a respect for both vulnerability and excellence. That is the true test of institutional effectiveness.”