The Government has introduced legislation making An Garda Síochána solely responsible for the investigation of sexual abuse offences in the Defence Forces.
The Bill is a response to the recent report from the Independent Review Group (IRG) detailing allegations of widespread abuse, bullying and discrimination within the military.
The IRG was established following serious allegations by a group of military veterans known as the Women of Honour.
As well as approving the transferring of investigative powers to the Garda, the Cabinet has agreed to implement several other recommendations from the IRG, including the establishment of a public tribunal of inquiry into the allegations, which will have the power to compel witnesses to appear.
Tánaiste and Minister for Defence Micheál Martin also announced the establishment of an external oversight body which will have extensive powers to monitor the implementation of the IRG’s recommendations.
Like most militaries, the Defence Forces operates its own criminal justice system. Investigations are carried out by the Military Police and suspects are tried before military judges.
The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Human Trafficking) Bill 2023 will introduce an amendment to the Defence Act 1954 which “will ensure that An Garda Síochána will have sole jurisdiction within the State to investigate alleged sexual offences committed by persons subject to military law,” the department said.
Any resulting prosecutions would take place in civilian courts rather than military courts. The only exception will be alleged sexual offences which take place on overseas missions. These would continue to fall under the jurisdiction of the Military Police as the Garda do not have any overseas jurisdiction.
The legislation goes further than the recommendations of the IRG, which said only cases of rape and aggravated sexual assault should be dealt with by the Garda. Under the Bill, all sexual offences would be referred to the civilian authorities.
Military courts typically deal with a handful of cases involving allegations of sexual assault a year. Prison sentences, which are served in the military prison in the Curragh Camp, are rarely issued.
Reacting to Wednesday’s announcement, the Defence Forces said it has already taken the “important step” of passing all alleged sexual offences to the Garda while it awaits the legislation.
Chief of Staff Lt Gen Seán Clancy said the Defence Forces “stands ready” to work with the statutory inquiry and the external oversight group.
“We are working tirelessly and making progress to ensure the Defence Forces is a workplace, where the pervading culture is underpinned by the principles of dignity, equality, mutual respect and duty of care,” he said.
“I am confident and determined that we can deliver the transformation required and build a better Defence Forces ready to meet the threats facing the State.”
However, the Representative Association for Commissioned Officers (Raco) criticised the lack of representation of Defence Forces personnel on the External Oversight Group.
Raco general secretary Conor King said it was “strange” that the department was represented, considering it had removed the previous system of oversight in 2018.
Raco and PDForra, the organisation representing enlisted ranks, asked Mr Martin to ensure the Defence Forces were part of the group.
“Unfortunately, these pleas were not heeded, which is concerning for crucial future buy in to the process,” Mr King said.
Mr Martin said work is ongoing on drafting the terms of reference for the tribunal of inquiry and that he is considering feedback from various stakeholders.
The Government is expected to approve the terms in autumn and to appoint a judge to chair the tribunal.