Women of Honour tribunal opens with urgent appeal for witnesses

‘Honour is a cardinal virtue in the Defence Forces. It means doing what is right,’ Ms Justice Ann Power says in opening statement

Left to right: Roslyn O’Callaghan, Diane Byrne and Honor Murphy, members of the Women of Honour group, outside The Infinity Building in Smithfield, Dublin, where the first public sitting of the Tribunal into the Defence Forces was held on Monday. Photograph: Barry Cronin

A judge-led tribunal examining the complaints process around sexual abuse and discrimination in the Defence Forces has begun with an appeal for potential witnesses to come forward.

The Defence Forces Tribunal held its first sitting on Monday afternoon, when Ms Justice Ann Power announced that she has received written assurances from the Defence Forces Chief of Staff and the Minister for Defence that there will be no retribution against serving members who come forward with statements.

The tribunal’s establishment follows allegations of widespread abuse and misconduct in the Defence Forces made by a group of women veterans known as the Women of Honour, as well as allegations that complaints were covered up and that victims were penalised.

Ms Justice Power is the tribunal’s sole member, though she is assisted by three senior and three junior counsel. The process is expected to last up to three years and will comprise both public and private hearings.

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In her opening statement, Ms Justice Power said the tribunal will examining the effectiveness of the Defence Forces’ complaints process relating to allegations of “discrimination, bullying, harassment, physical torture, physical assault, psychological harm, sexual harassment and any form of sexual misconduct, including sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault and rape.”

It will determine if complaints of abuse were “actively deterred” and if there were reprisals against those who did come forward.

The tribunal will also examine the complaints process in relation to the use of hazardous chemicals in the Air Corps and wider Defence Forces.

The process will be investigative rather than adversarial, Ms Justice Power said. “It is not about winning or losing but establishing the truth.”

The tribunal will not make any finding of fact in relation to potentially criminal matters. While it may hear evidence of abuse, it is not concerned about whether the abuse actually occurred. Rather, it is tasked with examining the complaints process which followed.

She said the tribunals task is both daunting and urgent and that it may decide to issue early reports based on a representative sample of testimonies on a particular issue.

Proceedings will be broken into five stages, beginning with a fact-finding stage, during which the tribunal may enlist its own investigators. It will later move on to oral hearings before beginning work on a final report which will be presented to the Taoiseach.

Ms Justice Power referenced tributes in the Dáil to the veterans who previously came forward with allegations of abuse.

“Honour is a cardinal virtue in the Defence Forces. It means doing what is right, and standing up for the truth, the whole truth, even if it means standing alone,” the judge said.

Some people have already come forward to assist the tribunal, she said. “Others may have chosen not to do so but may still want the whole truth to be heard.”

She appealed to anyone with relevant information, whether it be positive or negative, to come forward with a written statement and “assist the tribunal in establishing the truth.” The deadline for written submissions is August 16th.

While the hearings will generally be held in public, there will be provision for legal teams to make applications for private sessions, she said.

Several members of the Women of Honour were in attendance for Monday’s hearing, including the group’s spokeswoman Diane Byrne, a retired Army captain, who welcomed the opening of the tribunal and appealed for witnesses to come forward. “Putting a voice to something that you’ve buried and held alone for so long and joining with other people has a huge effect.”

She said she hopes people take the opportunity to come forward “so they can live their lives without the weight of trauma hanging around their necks.”

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times