Military investigators interviewed up to 100 people over barracks event

Minister for Defence asks senior counsel to conduct external review on June 2020 barbecue

Up to 100 people were interviewed during two internal military investigations into a social event at a Dublin Army barracks during a period of Covid-19 restrictions and the alleged groping of a female soldier at the event.

Minister for Defence Simon Coveney has asked senior counsel Hugh Mohan to conduct an external review in relation to the event, given the length of time between the June 25th, 2020, event at the Defence Forces' Covid Taskforce headquarters at McKee Barracks and the internal investigations ending.

An internal investigation into the barbecue event found that it did not breach Covid-19 protocols but that the event was not appropriate in the context of the social restrictions in place at that stage of the pandemic.

Dozens of soldiers attended the outdoor social event at the barracks, which was held to boost morale among the taskforce team and other military personnel that had been working on the State response to Covid-19.

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The barbecue began in the afternoon and continued into the evening. During the evening an officer allegedly tried to grope a female soldier’s breast after he became extremely drunk. That alleged incident has been investigated by Military Police ahead of a potential court martial.

Alcohol consumption

The investigation into the event itself, which was also conducted by the Military Police, found the rules in relation to the consumption of alcohol brought in from outside the base were broken during what it called a "late lunch" that occurred between 2.30pm and 3.30pm. A number of Defence Forces personnel were reprimanded by the Defence Forces chief of staff for breaching Army rules on serving alcohol.

The investigation found no breach of Covid-19 protocols as it said that people filtered in and out of the gathering, meaning that there were no more than 15 people present at any one time, which was in line with limits under Covid-19 restrictions at the time for outdoor social gatherings.

Multiple sources have disputed this, however, saying that people continued drinking alcohol well into the evening and that there were estimated to be about 40 people present at one point.

The investigations into the event and the alleged sexual assault were said to be substantial and time-consuming, with up to 100 witnesses interviewed in relation to various aspects relating to the two lines of inquiry. Some individuals gave statements to investigators under caution.

“It was a very complex matter,” said one source.

The Defence Forces contemplated bringing in An Garda Síochána initially to investigate whether there was a breach of Covid-19 regulations. It was ultimately decided that the matter would be handled by the Military Police, with the expectation that gardaí would be consulted on the regulations when weighing up whether they had been breached.

Declined to comment

A spokesman for the Defence Forces declined to comment on details of the internal Military Police investigations in light of the fact that Mr Coveney had asked for “an independent review of the handling of the investigation into the planning and organisation of the late lunch”.

Minister of State Josepha Madigan told the Dáil yesterday that the alleged incident at McKee Barracks "has only reinforced" the importance of a separate independent review which will examine allegations of abuse, harassment and discrimination in the Defence Forces. It was commissioned by Mr Coveney and is being led by retired High Court judge Bronagh O'Hanlon.

Ms Madigan was speaking during a Sinn Féin motion in the Dáil calling for a commission of investigation into the allegations made by the Women of Honour, a group of former Defence Forces members who have been pushing for a full statutory inquiry into allegations of misconduct in the Defence Forces.

She said that Mr Coveney had “an immediate duty of care to serving members of the Defence Forces to ensure that they carry out their duties in a workplace that is safe and that the workplace culture is underpinned by dignity and equality”. She described the independent review as a “first critical step”.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent