Defence Forces ‘barely tolerates women’ and sexual and physical abuse common, review finds

Government commits to full statutory inquiry as Tánaiste speaks of ‘watershed moment for our Defence Forces’

Senior officers in the Defence Forces failed to bring about change across the military and presided over a toxic culture in which women were “barely tolerated”, sexual and physical abuse were common and bullying formed part of the training process, a damning independent review of the organisation has found.

Crucially, the Independent Review Group’s (IRG) concluded many of the issues it had highlighted endured to the present day. It also found many members of the Defence Forces had lost trust in their leadership and were still unwilling to come forward and make complaints, even in non-criminal cases.

The Defence Forces was “unable or unwilling to make the changes that are needed to provide a safe working environment . . . that affords dignity and respect to members in compliance with the law and with good leadership and management practice,” the group concluded.

The IRG, established in 2021 to investigate matters first raised by a group of female veterans known as the Women of Honour, stopped short of recommending a statutory inquiry to better explore its findings and chart the reforms required. However, the Government has committed to establishing such an inquiry.


The Women of Honour group welcomed the IRG report, under chairwoman Ms Justice Bronagh O’Hanlon, saying it was now vindicated.

“We are happy to have gotten a form of statutory inquiry. I think we have to go back in to verify with the Tánaiste [Micheál Martin] . . . what exactly the type of statutory inquiry that he is going to hold,” said Karina Molloy, one of the group who met with Mr Martin.

“We have all lived through it. We have lived through the abuse and the physical abuse, the mental abuse, so there’s nothing that’s shocking in there. It’s shocking for a civilian to read,” Ms Molloy said.

The Tánaiste said he was “shocked” and there was “also a degree of disgust” at what the report detailed. He said the report was “a watershed moment for our Defence Forces.”

“Today is a very challenging day for our Defence Forces. I understand that, but it can also mark a new start.” He said he was keen personal experiences could be brought before the tribunal of inquiry. The Government has also agreed to the immediate establishment of a new external oversight body of the Defence Forces to oversee the recommendations made in the report.

Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Lieut Gen Seán Clancy “commended” the work of the IRG. “The findings of this report are stark and we need to change,” he said “There is no place for any form of abuse, or failure to act on any form of inappropriate behaviour in the Defence Forces. It is contrary to our ethos and values and will not be tolerated.”

The IRG report points to an outdated idea of soldiering and military culture in the Defence Forces. The skills required in the increasingly complex security climate were mismanaged and overlooked in favour of physical ability. The ideal soldier was regarded as a man who could run fast and carry heavy loads and the Defence Forces regarded “alternative thinking as suspect”.

The report says sexual attacks – including rape – were detailed by many of the serving and former female personnel it interviewed.

“The Defence Forces struggle with gender, displaying hypermasculinities and pockets of deeply misogynistic attitudes and behaviours,” the IRG says.

Male and female members alike were targeted for physical attack, especially if they were perceived to be somehow acting outside the culture or sought to challenge wrongdoing, including criminality, or authority within the Defence Forces.

The IRG used a survey to gather data and interviews were also conducted with former and serving members of the Defence Forces. A total of 527 serving members of the Defence Forces, or approximately 6 per cent of all serving personnel, responded. All of the survey responses and interviews were voluntary.

People with “specialist expertise” was also interviewed and submissions accepted from individuals and groups, including the senior Defence Forces leadership. Along with the chairwoman, retired High Court judge Ms Justice O’Hanlon, the IRG was comprised of Jane Williams, a specialist in public sector management, Simon Boyle SC and Don Hegarty, former human resources director at GlaxoSmithKline.

* If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Rape Crisis Helpline (1800-778888) or the Samaritans (116123 or

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times