Defence Forces chief concerned about oversight gaps

Independent group set up to scrutinise treatment of personnel defunct for five years

Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett: wrote to Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe to state he was ‘concerned’ that the service was missing ‘a key part of our structure’. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett: wrote to Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe to state he was ‘concerned’ that the service was missing ‘a key part of our structure’. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The Defence Forces chief of staff raised concerns about the oversight of the military, as an independent watchdog set up to scrutinise the treatment of personnel in the forces has been defunct for five years.

Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett, head of the Defence Forces, wrote to Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe in January to state he was “concerned” that the service was missing “a key part of our structure” due to the absence of the watchdog.

The Independent Monitoring Group was set up back in 2002, following a major report that found “unacceptable” levels of bullying and sexual harassment in the Defence Forces. One of the problems the report raised was, despite high levels of bullying and harassment, the likelihood of personnel making official complaints was low.

The monitoring group was tasked with assessing the force’s efforts at reform in the wake of the critical 2002 study, but the oversight group has not issued a report since 2014.

Mr Mellett asked Mr Kehoe to reconvene the body, under a new chairperson, to “further enhance” the Defence Forces’ work improving how personnel were treated.

Working conditions and morale in the Defence Forces have been under increasing scrutiny in recent months. In an outspoken interview with The Irish Times, former head of the Army Ranger Wing Cathal Berry said he had left the Defence Forces as it had been “dismantled and demoralised” by Government policy.

Beset with problems

The force has been beset with recruitment problems, and difficulties retaining members. Last year it saw the largest net drop in personnel for almost a decade, heightening pressure on the Government to improve pay and conditions.

In his letter to Mr Kehoe, the Defence Forces chief of staff said there were two main issues the independent watchdog needed to examine.

“As you are aware, despite strenuous efforts and targeted recruitment campaigns, the percentage of females serving in the Defence Forces has not reached the targets set by you of 12 per cent,” he told Mr Kehoe.

“Secondly the Defence Forces would also benefit from greater cultural diversity,” and the Independent Monitoring Group should examine how the forces could attract more “new Irish” recruits from diverse backgrounds, he said.

The correspondence, as well as internal records on current and past cases of disciplinary investigations, were released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information act.

Complaints by personnel

A Department of Defence spokeswoman said a committee had been set up to observe progress made on the monitoring group’s 2014 report recommendations. This committee included senior Defence Forces staff, department officials and officers from groups representing service personnel.

A draft terms of reference for the reconvened monitoring group was being prepared for consideration, the spokeswoman said.

The call from Mr Mellett to re-establish the oversight group comes as the Defence Forces are investigating 15 cases of alleged misconduct by personnel. In February eight of the cases were being investigated by the internal military police, one of which has been referred for a court martial.

Eleven complaints of bullying or sexual assault were made by Defence Forces personnel between 2016 and 2018, internal records show.

Seven of those complaints related to alleged bullying by staff, and four allegations of sexual assault were made against personnel.