Shortly after the publication of the damning report on sexual abuse and bullying in the Defence Forces on Tuesday, Lieut Gen Seán Clancy gathered his senior staff in headquarters.
Nothing in the 100-page report frightened him, the Chief of Staff said, and it shouldn’t frighten them either. He said the only thing they had to fear was squandering this opportunity to reform the organisation.
Clancy’s words were well received but his sentiments are far from universal. Some officers fear the stark findings of the Independent Review Group’s (IRG) report, including that the Defence Forces “barely tolerates women”, may be the final nail in the coffin for an organisation which is already haemorrhaging personnel and struggling to attract fresh recruits.
“That’s the one thing a lot of people are saying: that this is just the final nail in the coffin,” said one military source. “It’s frightening to think about the morale in there today.”
The report makes for deeply uncomfortable reading for the members of the Defence Forces management class, serving and retired, who spoke to The Irish Times this week. Reactions range from an outright rejection of its findings, to acceptance, to optimism that it will prove to be a “watershed moment” and the start of a badly needed reform process within the organisation.
A common complaint was the IRG appears in places to treat allegations as proven fact. Sources say the question of how to treat individual accounts of abuse was a subject of debate within the IRG, which was led by retired High Court Judge Bronagh O’Hanlon.
Some members argued for an legalistic approach where it would be made clear the accounts it was sharing were only allegations while others said victims should be able to tell their stories freely.
The compromise reached was that the report should lay out the allegations in strong but generalised terms while stating repeatedly it was not engaged in a fact-finding mission. That mission would be for the statutory inquiry it was recommending be established.
This compromise made for an extremely hard-hitting report but left some Defence Forces members with a sense of unfairness. “What if you went into The Irish Times and asked everyone who has a gripe to come forward and tell their story without any counterbalance?” asked one source. “It would make any organisation look bad.”
Allegations in the report of classism caused particular offence to some officers who consider the Defence Forces was more of a meritocracy than most organisations.
However, these are issues which have already been alluded to in last year’s Commission on the Defence Forces report which recommended several measures to lessen the formal divide between commissioned and enlisted personnel.
“I can’t relate to what the report says at all. It just doesn’t match my experiences,” was the verdict from a retired senior Army officer with decades of service.
Another officer pointed to the low rate of formal sexual assault allegations over the years. The IRG report also noted this but said it was a sign of how reluctant victims of abuse were to come forward rather than a low rate of offending.
Even among officers critical of the report, however, there is a degree of self-reflection. “I’m asking myself am I blind to this stuff. Is it things we’re not seeing or choosing not to see?” said one.
A retired Naval officer recalled when he joined the organisation in the 1980s, the junior ratings accommodation on ships were invariably adorned with nude magazine pull-outs. Those went when women started joining ships’ crews in the 1990s but “perhaps they were only the physical manifestations of a thought process and a culture. That thinking didn’t go away but it was more hidden.”
Another serving senior officer said reading the report was like a punch in the stomach. “But my reaction is take it on the chin and get what good you can out of it.”
Despite criticism of some of the report’s commentary, there is an almost universal welcome among officers for its recommendations, including that of a statutory inquiry, which many believe should have been the first step. “Let it tease out the facts, decide what is and isn’t true and go from there,” said one.
In particular, officers welcomed the recommendation that they should no longer be involved in investigating internal complaints, a job almost universally despised. In place of this, the IRG recommended the establishment of an “independent complaints service” with criminal matters being referred to the Garda.
Other officers had their own suggestions, including taking a leaf out of the Garda’s book and appointing foreign officers with reputations as reformers to the general staff. The Defence Forces has a long history of recruiting from outside the country to fill skills gaps, one pointed out. Why should this be different?
Is the report a death knell for the Defence Forces or the start of a process of rejuvenation? For many in management positions that depends on what happens next.
“They have to meet it head on and address the issues. They also can’t do that while ignoring all the other problems in the Defence Forces. It has to be a twin-track approach,” said a senior officer. “Otherwise, yes, it is a death knell.”