Defence Forces’ culture of ‘total disrespect’ can no longer be denied, Rape Crisis CEO says

Noeleen Blackwell said the complaints system had no place in modern life

The CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has said she was shocked but not surprised at the findings of the independent review into the Defence Forces.

Many of the details in the report had already been flagged in a thesis by Senator Tom Clonan 20 years ago, Noeleen Blackwell told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland.

There was “a lot of straight talking” in the report, she said. The report showed “again and again” that people serving in the Defence Forces, particularly women, were working in workplaces that were systematically unsafe.

The report had been worthwhile, she said. It highlighted that there were problems that needed to be addressed at every level. It had recommended a statutory process which had been on the cards for the past year.


Ms Blackwell said that the Defence Force’s complaints system, which had been devised in the 1950s and to which a number of tweaks had been made, had no place in modern day life.

There had been a culture of total disrespect and abuse, not only of women but of men as well, but mainly of women, it was something that could no longer be denied.

“So I think maybe what has changed is that Government focus, setting up that group, funding it, letting it do its report and accepting recommendations.”

Members of the Defence Forces had been scared to report what was happening to them, scared to report actual crimes for fear that they would be victimised or that their complaint would be ignored, she added.

“While this report is not investigating individual complaints, it’s looking at the whole system. And according to it, it’s heard too many reports of reprisals, real reprisals, people being made to do what they call the dirty work, people being set aside, people being told that they had to suppress the complaint.

“And in an organisation which depends on people obeying orders, people felt they had to do what that was. So people who took complaints through needed extraordinary stamina. That should not be, that’s a breach of every single right that a person has as a human being.”

Sexual harassment remained a problem in the Defence Forces, she said. “We in Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, we would say that in general that there still aren’t good enough systems. Compared to other places, the Defence Forces did not have structures in place, and the reprisals were serious and often drove people out of the Defence Forces.”

When asked if there was a role for the Gardaí in investigating some of these cases, Ms Blackwell said there was and the report recommended change in legislation to ensure that people could report incidents to the Gardaí. However, she warned that people might not be prepared to go through the legal system.

“First of all, the behaviour has to stop. I think what’s good about this report is it says action has to be taken on a number of fronts. Yes. Set up your statutory inquiry, but also fix the complaints process so that that is acceptable. People can be supported to go to the guards in the correct situation, but we cannot have a core state institution that is not amenable to justice and that the guards are not involved.

“This is an important report and can be really seminal in changing the Defence Forces for the better. Provided it is implemented and provided the resources are available for it. That will only become clearer, I presume, over time as we see where the resources are going into the various aspects, the various recommendations that are needed.

“Some of them can actually be implemented quite quickly and whatever about past abuses, the ones that can be implemented now can be useful for people who are currently serving and people who will serve in the future.”

Elsewhere, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said the State has a “duty of care” to women in the Defence Forces, and it is “key” that all the recommendations of the report be fully implemented.

Speaking at the Inchicore Railway Works in Dublin on Wednesday morning, Mr Ryan said: “We do [have a duty of care to women in the Defence Forces]. There is no hiding from the harsh words in the report. That is where we start.

“It is key that we implement the recommendations in the report. It requires a response across so many different areas. If there is a case for any criminal prosecutions, that will follow its own course. This is about the culture and the systems within our Defence Forces.

“We need women in the Defence Forces. We need the skills they bring, and we need a diverse Defence Forces.

“While a lot of people could be understandably disheartened and disillusioned by what the report highlighted, the Defence Forces and the Government are absolutely committed to changing that culture.

“There has to be space for woman and people from a whole range of different backgrounds. That’s critical so we have the strongest possible Defence Forces.”

Crucially, the 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 Government has agreed to the immediate establishment of a new external oversight body of the Defence Forces to oversee the recommendations made in the report.

Diane Byrne, a retired Army captain and member of the Women of Honour Group, told Morning Ireland there was “nothing shocking” in the report, but pointed out that Women of Honour had not engaged with the process and that the content within the report came from others.

Questioned over whether a young person, or particularly a young woman, might join the Defence Forces, she said, “not now, until improvements are made”.

“There is a sense of pride and love for the country and for the organisation,” she said. “And we do believe that that can change. There is a chance now to bring in some real change so that the men and women of this country, the younger people coming up, will get that sense of pride and they will have a safe organisation with which to work.”

“Because it is a wonderful place in a lot of ways and what it stands for is fantastic, but it’s just such a toxic culture in there at this stage that once that is changed, really changed.

“And absolutely, I would encourage people to go in and that’s why we’re there as victims, wanting to engage with the Defence Forces and wanting to engage with the Department of Defence so that we can educate them to help put the real solutions in place.

“And the only way we can do that is if we get this full, all encompassing public statutory inquiry, because we firmly believe that even our experiences isn’t enough to inform the solutions, there’s still so much more that has to be understood in terms of what the problems are.”

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter