Why the Women of Honour’s bravery in the face of institutional failure should be saluted

Members of the 'Women of Honour' group (from left) Karina Molloy, Honor Murphy, Yvonne O'Rourke and Diane Byrne. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos


Something very rotten in the Irish Army has for far too long facilitated some male soldiers to be predators exploiting power and position to abuse female members of our Defence Forces.

A judge-led review has delivered one of the most damning indictments ever compiled against a so-called protective and trusted pillar of our State.

The searing report brought the group to “conclude that, at best, the Defence Forces barely tolerates women, and, at its worst, verbally, physically, sexually and psychologically abuses women in its ranks”. It is hard to imagine a darker stain on the institution charged with protecting our State than that it could not even keep female soldiers safe within its own ranks.

The Independent Review Group (IRG) was charged with looking into issues first raised by a group of female veterans. And were it not for the heroism of the “Women of Honour” such practices would not have come to light.

In its report the IRG presents extensive patterns of inappropriate and illegal behaviour within our military.

Its immediate recommendation is for a “statutory fact-finding process” to “identify systemic failures, if any, in the complaints system, to ensure accountability and transparency”.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin has agreed that the Government will move to set up a statutory inquiry into how complaints are handled. He said the report makes clear the culture within the Defence Forces is “simply and entirely unacceptable”. He added: “The experience of many women in particular within the Defence Forces has been appalling.”

For survivors of abuse, instead of having their claims investigated justly and fairly, they instead found themselves instead met with threats and intimidation. Complainants had to defend themselves against counterclaims and fabricated charges to pressurise them to drop their charges.

That it went on for so long under the noses of successive defence ministers and senior officers ought to be a source of deep shame and embarrassment for our country, especially given the exemplary service of the vast majority of those who serve. If yesterday was a black day for the Defence Forces, it was one of vindication for the women.

Some, having been abused once, found themselves betrayed all over again by the evasions and deliberate cover-ups of those trusted with their welfare. But even at the risk of being stigmatised, having their careers stopped, or their characters questioned, they persisted.

They stood up and refused to cower to the bullies. They have revealed the true heart of the warrior.

In doing so, they may have exposed the cowards who either scuttled cravenly behind the backs of their seniors, or were possibly even given cover. If ever a group of women lived up to their name, it is these.

For as Nelson Mandela put it: “Honour belongs to those who never forsake the truth even when things seem dark and grim, who try, over and over again, who are never discouraged by insults, humiliation and even defeat.”