Harassment will not be tolerated in the Defence Forces, says new Chief of Staff

‘Urgency and purpose’ needed to avoid repeat, Lieut Gen Seán Clancy tells troops

Lieutenant General Seán Clancy at a  wreath-laying ceremony  at the UN memorial garden at Arbour Hill, Dublin, in May. Photograph: Alan Betson

Lieutenant General Seán Clancy at a wreath-laying ceremony at the UN memorial garden at Arbour Hill, Dublin, in May. Photograph: Alan Betson

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Harassment of any kind will not be tolerated in the Defence Forces and military leaders will face consequences for not acting to stop it, the newly appointed Chief of Staff has warned.

In one of his first acts as the State’s most senior military officer, Lieutenant General Seán Clancy wrote a strongly worded letter to all Defence Forces members, in the wake of RTÉ’s Women of Honour programme.

The programme detailed a wide range of misconduct and abuse, including allegations of harassment, sexual assault and rape, committed over the course of three decades.

Female former Defence Forces members said they had been ignored or dismissed when they made complaints. They said their careers had suffered, while their abusers had received little to no reprimand.

On Tuesday, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney apologised to the women during a meeting and announced details of an independent review of how complaints are handled within the military.

In a letter sent to troops on the same day, Lieut Gen Clancy, who replaced Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett as Chief of Staff at midnight on Wednesday, called the abuse “distressing and unacceptable”.

‘Urgency and purpose’

Lieut Gen Clancy’s letter refers to the need for “urgency and purpose” to ensure similar abuse is not “repeated or tolerated” in the future.

The Air Corps officer said he had heard stories through the media and through his own internal engagement with troops which did not describe a “psychologically safe” environment within the organisation.

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Much of his letter dealt with pointedly direct instructions to officers and non-commissioned officers on how they must not only conduct themselves, but also how they handle reports of abuse.

“Leadership must be responsible and accountable by demonstrating intolerance of any actions or omissions that fall short of expected behaviours,” he said.

“It is important that Defence Forces personnel empower all personnel to follow that lead. Inappropriate behaviour is simply not acceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Officers and non-commissioned officers have a responsibility to “manage the power associated with rank” and a duty of care to protect all service personnel, he said.

He described the Defence Forces as a loyal, tolerant and values-based organisation but stressed it must “also be an honest organisation”.

“Everyone must stand up, demonstrate moral courage and address inappropriate behaviour towards others, in particular those that are vulnerable.”

Leaders also had a responsibility to ensure all members in vulnerable situations or appointments “are protected and have a voice”.

Some serving and retired personnel, particularly women, have not experienced a “psychologically safe” workplace, he said.

“The experiences described recently in the media and through my own internal engagement are not those of the psychologically safe environment we aspire to.”

Risk

Lieut Gen Clancy warned that if the issue was not “openly and honestly” checked from now on, “there is a risk that the Defence Forces will continue to generate negative experiences for our personnel into the future”, and “this is not acceptable”.

He committed the organisation to “support, facilitate and co-operate” with the independent review announced by Mr Coveney.

Lieut Gen Clancy said he was aware inappropriate behaviours were “abhorrent” to the vast majority of Defence Forces members.

“I am confident and determined that we will all work together with a real sense of urgency and purpose to make the cultural changes that are necessary,” he said.

Asked about the letter, one of the women featured in the documentary, retired company quartermaster sergeant Karina Molloy, told The Irish Times the abuse had occurred over a 30-year period. “It is absolutely systemic,” she said.