In March 2015, retired Canadian supreme court justice Marie Deschamps delivered a report on allegations of sexual harassment and worse in the country’s military, one that was every bit as shocking as the independent review group findings into Ireland’s Defence Forces last week.
In her report, Deschamps found that “an underlying sexual culture” existed in Canada’s armed forces that was “hostile to women and LGTBQ and conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment”. These words were echoed in the description that Ireland’s Defence Forces “barely tolerates women” at best and “abuses” them at worst.
The parallels do not stop there. What has been different in Canada, however, is the number of the military’s most senior officers there who have lost their jobs, with two chiefs of staff among more than a dozen to depart amid accusations of wrongdoing.
The Canadian report transfixed the country, given that it found a general culture that routinely undermined and humiliated women. Incidents of inappropriate relationships between members of different rank, assaults, and reports of date rape were, it seemed, widespread.
Separate research published later that year suggested that more than one in four – 27 per cent – of female Canadian armed forces members had reported a sexual assault at some point over the course of their careers.
There were many public declarations of resolve to tackle the issue in the wake of the Deschamps report and the military launched Operation Honour.
...he was being investigated over allegations that, in 2010, he had pushed the face of a ship’s captain into the chest of female lieutenant
Speaking months later, then chief of staff Gen Jonathan Vance said progress was being made but “I’ll tell you that I’m not satisfied at all with where we are at right now. There are still incidents of inappropriate behaviour occurring. There are still victims who haven’t come forward because they don’t know who to trust or who to have faith in.”
What was not publicly known at the time was that Vance was himself involved in a long-term relationship with an army major, Kellie Brennan, with whom he had a child. The media uncovered the story in early 2021. When it was reported, he pressured her over a long period to make false statements about the relationship to investigators. He was ultimately charged and pleaded guilty to a count of obstructing justice. He was sentenced to one year of probation and 80 hours of community service.
His successor, Admiral Art McDonald, then lasted just a matter of months in the job after it emerged he was being investigated over allegations that, in 2010, he had pushed the face of a ship’s captain into the chest of female lieutenant. He denied any wrongdoing and charges were not brought in the end, but there was anger over the public campaign he mounted to get his job back. He was permanently replaced by Gen Wayne Eyre.
To date, more than a dozen of the country’s most senior officers have been forced out. Two departed after playing golf with Vance when he was under investigation. The head of Canada’s special forces gave a positive character reference to a soldier found guilty of sexual assault. Vice-admiral Haydn Edmundson, who previously had responsibility for human resources in the armed forces, is due to go on trial later this year, accused of sexual assault and committing indecent acts.
With many more victims – both men and women, but in proportional terms, far more women – having come forward, almost 1 billion Canadian dollars (€650 million) was set aside by the government to settle legal actions. But with another report by another former supreme court justice, Louise Arbour, finding that nothing like the required culture change had taken place, a point was made of filling some of the senior vacancies that arose with women.
Stéfanie von Hlatky is associate professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She is research chairwoman on gender, security and the armed forces and director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy. Von Hlatky believes this leadership change was one of a number of moves to provide a belated sense of progress.
“So you had more than a dozen general officers being targeted by allegations and that precipitated a leadership churn,” she says. “So all of a sudden the vice-chief of defence staff was a woman; all of a sudden the chief of military personnel was a woman. And everywhere you looked in the organisation, the leadership churn led to greater diversity. I think that’s one of the reasons why this time around you’re seeing more meaningful change.”
In November 2021, having just been appointed minister of defence, Anita Anand transferred the responsibility for the investigation of allegations of sexual assault in the military and the handling of any subsequent prosecutions to the civilian authorities. Later she would issue a public apology while flanked by the chief of staff and her own deputy. “I think that for the community of survivors and victims of sexual misconduct, this was a very important gesture of ownership,” says von Hlatky.
A string of measures have now been taken to address the situation. A lieutenant general has been given specific responsibility for the implementation of culture change, civilians have been given a role in military oversight (including individual reviews of officer performance), and the minister is now obliged to report to parliament every six months on progress. The systems requires constant monitoring.
“The community of survivors,” says von Hlatky, “has been really strong advocates” for these changes but “in terms of how our system works, if you don’t have that civilian oversight, and that accountability on behalf of the defence minister, it’s going to be very difficult to hold the military to account and proceed with an ambitious journey of cultural change”.
As in Ireland, the Canadian armed forces has faced these issues against a background of an existing crisis over recruitment and retention. It is too early to tell, says Prof von Hlatky, how the events of the past couple of years have impacted on recruitment given the complications of Covid and other factors, but the numbers joining up have increased recently, in part because of a strong response to a decision to open recruitment to those not yet holding citizenship.
The ongoing attempt to fill vacancies, however, takes place in “an economic context where there’s very low unemployment”, she says “and the military is not an employer that tends to thrive when there is very low unemployment”.
That is a sentiment echoed in Ireland this week as the question is raised as to how the Defence Forces can hope to address a situation in which it is more than 1,500 short of an agreed target of 9,500 personnel.
“Vacancies exist at most ranks, particularly in technical specialist appointments,” according to a statement from the Defence Forces issued to The Irish Times.
“Yes, the enlisted ranks are down by roughly 1,500 across the organisation,” says Ger Guinan, general secretary of PDForra, which represents around 7,000 Defence Forces members. “We are down approximately 400 sergeants and 300 to 400 corporals at last count.
“If you assume that all the sergeant vacancies have to be backfilled by existing corporals, that will make for 700 vacancies at corporal level, which is unprecedented in the history of the organisation. The other vacancies relate primarily to privates, able seamen and aircrew.”
The Department of Defence says the number of commissioned officers overall is actually above agreed levels but Conor King of the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (Raco) says the reality is that staffing levels in key grades fall far below what is required on the ground.
All agree that pay is not entirely the issue it was.
“We have come a long way from seven years ago when the starting pay was approximately €21,000 before tax and it’s now €37,000 before tax,” acknowledges Guinan, and King agrees that starting rates in the commissioned ranks of over €41,000 and €46,000 for school leavers and graduates respectively represent progress, although both representative organisation leaders point to ongoing issues over allowances and each takes issue with a claim by the department that “starting rates of pay in the Defence Forces compare very well to comparable rates of pay across the public service”.
The key issue, says King, is working conditions and lack of any real attempt to even monitor the hours actually being worked by Defence Forces members, despite a commitment by government to bring them under the terms of the Working Time Directive.
If you have people who are working 60, 70, 80 hours a week or in the naval service who are out at sea for four weeks at a time, all of a sudden it is clear that the basic rate is not remotely reflective of the work being done— Conor King of Raco
“So when we make the case for additional allowances, more rest times or various types of compensation to mitigate against the long and unsocial hours, we have no evidence.
“Now that has been convenient for the Department of Defence and DPER but if you have people who are working 60, 70, 80 hours a week or in the naval service who are out at sea for four weeks at a time, all of a sudden it is clear that the basic rate is not remotely reflective of the work being done.”
The peculiarity of the nature of working in the Defence Forces is reflected in a reluctance this week among those working in the wider recruitment sector to comment on the attractiveness of the roles and how the staff shortages might be addressed.
The money on offer, all acknowledged, would be considered competitive but there was an appreciation the conditions were unique and even companies who compile wide-ranging surveys of salaries across many different sectors said they were unqualified to comment.
In addition to improved pay, in any case, there have been a number of initiatives aimed at encouraging members to commit to specific duties, such as overseas tours or spells at sea, re-enlistment and retention.
Retention has been a huge issue for the Defence Forces, with around 10 per cent of a total membership that has recently dipped below 8,000 departing each year.
The buoyant jobs market is an obvious factor, with recent annual reports noting the outside opportunities available, in particular to members with specialist training, and gaps in expertise they leave behind.
King cites substantial changes to the pension as a key factor, too.
“It used to be brilliant,” he says, “but that was always kind of compensation for two things, a long career in the public service and forced early retirement.”
Now, he says, the prospect of having to retire long before a much reduced benefit can be drawn down prompts many to leave early in order to develop a second career, one that can be carried on until the State retirement age, and a second pension.
The shift has contributed to huge turnover, says King, with 50 per cent of Raco’s roughly 1,300 members having joined post-2013 and around a third having less than five years’ experience, with obvious consequences for the overall organisation.
In terms of its attractiveness as a career, the Defence Forces tells The Irish Times: “Óglaigh na hÉireann offers a chance for successful applicants to BE MORE [its emphasis] with fully funded education and training, with skills not available elsewhere that develop confidence, leadership and teamwork.”
Both Guinan and King agree a career in the Defence Forces can still be hugely rewarding but they welcome the IRG report as a stark recognition of organisational and individual failings and express the hope that it can be a starting point for dramatic improvements.
They both express admiration for the bravery of the women, and some men, who came forward to tell of their experiences. They also acknowledge that the reporting of those experiences is only likely to make future recruitment more difficult.
In 2016, the then government set a target of doubling female representation from around 6 per cent and there have been a number of specific initiatives aimed at encouraging women to either join or stay on but seven years on, representation has risen to just 7 per cent.
With recruitment rates largely unchanged – they are slightly higher among the commissioned ranks – and the total number of female members actually down, that is as much to do with the balance of men and women who have departed as anything else.
We clearly have difficulties integrating females and this needs to be sorted out sooner rather than later— Ger Guinan, general secretary of PDForra
Nevertheless, the Commission on the Defence Forces last year suggested a target of 35 per cent women, which a spokeswoman for the Chief of Staff described at the time as “ambitious”.
Asked what he would say to a young woman considering a career in the military, Guinan replies the same as he would say to a young man: to do the research, speak with current or former members in order to be sure it is the career for them but also to be aware that the independent review group report “clearly shows that the organisation needs to improve, to be more welcoming of females into the forces. We clearly have difficulties integrating females and this needs to be sorted out sooner rather than later. Be conscious of that.
“The Commission on the Future of the Defence Forces pointed to a situation where we were falling far short of meeting levels of recruitment of females that are needed. This needs to be resolved in the interests of society generally and the Defence Forces specifically.”
Sinn Féin spokeswoman on employment Louise O’Reilly says much the same thing in response to the question: “I would obviously encourage her to follow her dreams, but to go into it with her eyes wide open and to read that report before she made any decision.”
‘Totally put off’
Retired careers guidance teacher and Irish Times columnist Brian Mooney dealt with many students over the years who weighed up a career in the military, often aiming for cadetships, which have always been regarded as prestigious. But he believes it is inevitable that young women will be deterred by the finding of the IRG report.
“I am certain that girls would be completely and totally put off,” he says. “And even if they weren’t, their parents would be working hard to dissuade them of the notion.”
O’Reilly, like the representative organisations, believes the statutory inquiry now planned will be key to addressing the situation and restoring confidence. But, she says a great deal can be done in the meantime. “Some progress has already been made, but you couldn’t be asking the men and women of the Defence Forces to wait until the findings of a statutory inquiry for all of the protections they need to be put in place”.
UCD professor of human resource management Anne Keegan, whose father served in the Defence Forces, says a willingness to move forward quickly with a process that pays attention to the views of victims is of critical importance now.
“The longer things drag on, the more there is a sense that the issues are not being systemically looked at and the worse it gets, for the people in the organisation and the people who are trying to hire new people into the organisation.”
The victims, she says, deserve a quick and thorough process in which their voices are heard but the organisation must also act so as to prevent the loss of many other personnel who will also feel impacted.
“There will be people in the organisation who may not have experienced that behaviour towards themselves, but may have observed their colleagues or people they work with suffering, and that has profound negative implications on people’s ability to trust the organisation,” she says.
“That can lead to withdrawal, lower motivation, a higher chance they will leave the organisation [because they feel] their social status is lowered dramatically. I think the important thing here is the need to take a root-and-branch look at all aspects of the organisation, do it properly and do it fast.”