Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has confirmed a public inquiry into a culture of bullying and sexual abuse in the Defence Forces will be led by a serving or retired judge.
Mr Varadkar said the terms of reference for the inquiry would be brought to Cabinet “as soon as possible” and the Government hoped to see it set up before the Dáil summer recess.
Mr Varadkar declined to directly address comments from the chief of staff of the Defence Forces, Lieut Gen Seán Clancy, who said on Wednesday that he would “not have been aware” of abuse and sexual assaults against members during his almost 40-year career.
Mr Varadkar said: “I didn’t exactly hear exactly what he said so I don’t want to comment on that directly, but it is the case that, really, everyone would have been aware of allegations around harassment and bullying and sexual offences in the Defence Forces.” He said allegations – “correct allegations” – had been acted upon by governments, “so it was not ignored”.
Earlier this week a report from an independent review group set up by Government detailed allegations of brutal and “sadistic” abuse, including the rape of both men and women soldiers.
It concluded that “at best, the Defence Forces barely tolerates women and, at its worst, verbally, physically, sexually and psychologically abuses women in its ranks”.
Among its findings were that bullying, harassment, discrimination and sexual harassment continue in the Defence Forces today, with increased reports of sexual harassment among serving members.
Speaking to reporters after a visit to a housing development in Delgany, Co Wicklow, Mr Varadkar said allegations of bullying and harassment – “some of it of a sexual nature” – had been well documented on a number of occasions for the past 20 years, “so I think all of us were aware of it”.
[ Women of Honour: We need a statutory inquiry like no other ]
[ Chief of Staff never encountered issues in Defence Forces now exposed ]
He appeared to express confidence in Lieut Gen Clancy, saying the chief of staff was “somebody that is required to lead the change that is required in our Defence Forces”.
But Mr Varadkar said Lieut Gen Clancy was “going to need a lot of help from others to do so”.
“I don’t think the Defence Forces can fix this problem on their own, that is very clear.”
Mr Varadkar said what was “particularly disturbing” about the report was that the abuse was “more widespread than we feared and it is not historic, it is ongoing”.
“I think we have to face up to that reality.”
He said he was “immensely proud of our Defence Forces” but “they need to respect each other”.
The Taoiseach said the inquiry would be led by “a judge or a retired judge” and he said the Tánaiste, Micheál Martin, was “very keen to engage with the Women of Honour, the men and women of honour” and representative groups such as the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (Raco) and Pdforra.
He said the Government would “obviously love to get it up and running before the summer recess, that would be the intention, but I can’t guarantee that because it is important that we act with both sensitivity and speed but we don’t want to act so quickly that we are insensitive or get the terms of reference wrong”.