Ombudsman seeks extra powers for military sexual harassment claims

Judge Alan Mahon says he is limited by Defence Forces Ombudsman terms of reference

Defence Forces Ombudsman Judge Alan Mahon wants to be able to investigate “certain types of interpersonal complaints, such as, for example, inappropriate behaviour, sexual abuse and sexual harassment”.

Defence Forces Ombudsman Judge Alan Mahon wants to be able to investigate “certain types of interpersonal complaints, such as, for example, inappropriate behaviour, sexual abuse and sexual harassment”.

 

The Defence Forces Ombudsman is seeking new powers to address complaints of sexual harassment in the military such as those raised by the Women of Honour group.

The Women of Honour, a group of retired military personnel, detailed allegations of sexual abuse, harassment and discrimination in a RTÉ radio documentary last year.

Appearing before an Oireachtas Committee on Thursday, Defence Forces Ombudsman Judge Alan Mahon said he had received very few complaints which would fall under the heading of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment.

However, he said many such complaints would fall outside his jurisdiction anyway, due to the narrow terms applied to his office by the Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Act 2004.

The Act allows Judge Mahon, who took up the role in 2018 after retiring from the Court of Appeal, to investigate allegations relating to areas such as discrimination and negligence.

Discrimination by gender

He said this included discrimination based on gender, such as a female soldier being denied an career opportunity due to pregnancy, but not sexual harassment or similar matters.

He said the issues raised by the Women of Honour group were “broadly matters where I haven’t had much experience”.

This may relate to the historical nature of some of the allegations, Judge Mahon said. The law stipulates a 12-month time limit on making a complaint to the Ombudsman.

He said he expected allegations of sexual harassment and bullying to increase due to the recent publicity and that he would like increased jurisdiction in order to deal with them.

Judge Mahon told the Oireachtas Committee on Public Petitions that he had asked Minister for Defence Simon Coveney to consider amending the legislation to allow him investigate “certain types of interpersonal complaints, such as, for example, inappropriate behaviour, sexual abuse and sexual harassment”.

Proactive investigations

He is also seeking the power to launch investigations on his own initiative, in cases where no specific complaint has been received.

“Such a power, which I believe would be used sparingly, would be beneficial for Defence Forces personnel, and for the Defence Forces as a whole.

“It would permit the Ombudsman to target for investigation matters in a proactive manner, detached from any particular complaints. An example might be an investigation into an issue which repeatedly arises in individual complaints, or into systemic administration failures.”

Judge Mahon said he would also like to see an amendment to the 12-month time limit for submitting a complaint, which would allow him exercise discretion in certain circumstances.

Since 2018, the judge has dealt with 163 complaints from Defence Forces members, most of which related to complaints about promotions, courses or “general maladministration”.

There was an increase in bullying complaints in 2020 but this was not repeated in 2021.

Judge Mahon also noted an increase in complaints by officers since 2019. Such complaints used to be very rare, he said.