Relief, anger, resentment: Abuse allegations split opinions in Defence Forces

‘Dozens more women’ come forward in wake of RTÉ Women of Honour documentary

Members of Women of Honour group (from left)  Diane Byrne, Karina Molloy, and  Yvonne O’Rourke ahead of  a  meeting with  Minister for Defence Simon Coveney. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Members of Women of Honour group (from left) Diane Byrne, Karina Molloy, and Yvonne O’Rourke ahead of a meeting with Minister for Defence Simon Coveney. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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Some senior Defence Force officers had believed up to recently that the issue of sexual harassment had been dealt with, that it was a problem they could see in the rear-view mirror, not up ahead.

Now, however, allegations of widespread sexual abuse, harassment and discrimination detailed in RTÉ’s Women of Honour radio documentary have left the military reeling, and split opinion among the rank and file.

The damning accusations shocked military personnel of all ranks but it was the higher-ups, who had wrongly assumed it had been dealt with, who were most taken aback.

“There’s nearly a feeling of unfairness among them, that the military has already had its #MeToo moment long before everyone else,” according to one source familiar with the thinking of the senior leadership.

They were referring to the work of former Army captain Tom Clonan, who wrote a PhD, published in 2000, showing widespread harassment, bullying and sexual abuse of female soldiers. Initially, the Defence Forces attempted to discredit Clonan and his report. It then changed course and implemented an array of oversight and reporting mechanisms in an effort to clamp down on future abuse. It was not enough.

Senior officers are now aware that the fallout from Clonan’s report may be dwarfed by the Women of Honour scandal, especially since more women have come forward with allegations. Most worryingly, some of this latest wave of allegations of harassment, sexual abuse, or bullying came after the changes that were finally brought in to the organisation after Clonan’s report.

But the General Staff – the leadership team in the Defence Forces – and its civilian equivalents in the Department of Defence are still unsure of the way forward, according to sources.

“I don’t think they’re on top of this at all,” said one senior officer.

“Between this and Jadotville, they’re punch drunk,” said the senior officer, referring to the fallout from a decision not to award medals to the men who fought in the famous battle in the Congo in 1961.

“The timing couldn’t be worse. The Commission [on the Defence Forces] is in the process of examining issues like resourcing. Now the Government can say, ‘Sure, why would we give them anything. They’re only a shower of Neanderthals’.”

He went on: “But sure the timing is never good for these types of things. Better to have it out in the open.”

The officer’s mixed feelings echo sentiments expressed across the ranks in reaction to the allegations reveal in the documentary, which ranged from women being improperly denied leave or promotion, up to accusations of sexual assault and rape.

As well as coming as a shock to some, the charges have also sharply divided opinion within the military, according to interviews with nearly a dozen serving and recently retired members.

Some have welcomed the airing of these issues, describing it as long overdue.

“I am so, so happy this is coming out now. I’ve seen the types of things described in the radio programme and I’ve experienced it to a lesser extent,” said a serving female soldier.

Others acknowledged there is a problem with the culture of the Defence Forces but resent what they see as a portrayal of all male personnel, in the words of one soldier, as “knuckle-dragging rapists”.

“There’s a real, pervasive sense of shame in the organisation. And a lot of people aren’t sure why they are ashamed. because a lot of people haven’t seen or condoned these things.”

And a minority of personnel questioned some of the women’s stories, arguing their allegations have already been investigated internally and found to be without foundation. Another male NCO (noncommissioned officer) commented: “I promise you this is not the Army I know. You can’t cough in the direction of someone without a complaint being made. But you can’t be seen to come out and say that or you’re just seen as defending rapists.”

An officer agreed: “It’s frustrating. There’s a million regulations and checks there to make sure this stuff doesn’t happen. That’s not being acknowledged.”

Minister for Defence Simon Coveney appeared to disagree, saying last week: “this isn’t simply a historic problem … it is also a current problem”.

So does Department of Defence secretary general Jacqui McCrum. When one of the women featured in the documentary, Karina Molloy, met her recently McCrum talked about “systemic” and “harrowing” abuse, and said one the latest reports of sexual harassment dates to just a few weeks ago, Molloy told this newspaper.

“The [Defence Forces] has all the policies and protocols but like most militaries, the culture may not support people reporting, speaking out or holding perpetrators accountable,” said retired captain Deirdre Carberry, who acts as a military gender adviser.

Among those serving personnel who spoke to The Irish Times, there was almost universal condemnation of the “go along to get along” brand of officer or NCO. “I curse the weak people who have had complaints brought to them who have either buried them, or done nothing with them or have been afraid to do anything about them for fear of ruining their career or their buddy’s career,” said an officer.

Some of the personnel, particularly officers, were critical of Clonan’s scathing remarks on the military in an Irish Times opinion piece which followed the airing of the documentary last month.

“Two years ago, after Tom made up with the Chief of Staff, the Defence Forces were ‘exemplars’ of accountability. Now we’re bastards again. Like, which is it Tom?” one asked.

“I was saying they were exemplars of best practice because that’s what I was given to understand,” says Clonan, who now teaches at the Technological University Dublin School of Media.

“I feel I was lied to, that I was deceived. I’ve been on the record for several years saying they had reformed and I felt sick when those women contacted me. I have found it difficult to sleep. As you and I are speaking, there are women there who are going through hell. It makes the Defence Forces unfit for purpose.”

The documentary, made by RTÉ’s Katie Hannon, has also split opinion among female members, retired and serving. While many have expressed strong support for the women who have come forward, others, particularly at the more senior ranks, have been privately dismissive of some of the allegations.

“There’s nearly a kind of a resentment in some quarters from women who feel they got where they are by just dealing with misogyny and putting the head down without making a stir,” said a female officer. “But that’s not universal by any means.”

Molloy, who was the first woman to reach the rank of senior NCO, said the response from serving women has been “excellent”, since she spoke about her abuse in the documentary. She told The Irish Times she is still in contact with members of her original platoon which comprised the first 40 women to join the Defence Forces back in 1981.

“Out of the 36 who are still alive, 10 have reached out to me to say ‘well done and hope you’re okay’.”

One of the central themes of the documentary is that reports of discrimination or abuse are often minimised or ignored. Abusers receive derisory punishments or no punishment at all, while their victims are denied opportunities for progression and feel they have no future in the organisation.

There is a broad acknowledgment, even by those critical of the documentary, that the system for making complaints is not up to scratch.

“First of all the MPs [Military Police] are not equipped to deal with these things. They just don’t have the expertise for anything above discipline matters or a punch-up. Anything at all of a sexual nature needs to go straight to the guards,” said one.

A recently retired officer made the point that Military Police officers are a part of their local chain of command rather than a standalone branch. That means a MP could be investigating a suspect who might later being sitting on their promotions board.

“If you probe too far things could, in theory, be made very nasty for you. It doesn’t inspire confidence.”

Most allegations of sexual assault within the military are now immediately referred to the Garda. This was the case when allegations surfaced recently of a female soldier being raped in a mandatory hotel quarantine facility.

However, the Military Police, and the Military Courts, still deal with some sexual matters. Only two weeks ago, a soldier appeared at a Court Martial accused of cupping a female recruit’s breast while teaching first aid techniques.

Some officers also complained of what they see as “mixed messages” about how they should handle lower-level harassment or bullying complaints. One pointed to the Defence Act of 1954 which implies that complaints should be dealt with at the lowest level possible. And some, particularly senior officers, bemoaned the cessation of the Independent Monitoring Group (IMG) in 2014, which was set up in response to Clonan’s research. The group was made up of a deputy chief of staff, a senior department official, an independent monitor and officials from the enlisted and officer representative groups. “It was very effective. There was nowhere to hide if there was an issue,” said one officer.

Two years ago, Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett, who officially retired as chief of staff two weeks ago, wrote to then minister for defence Paul Kehoe asking him to re-establish the IMG, saying that the Defence Forces was missing “a key part of our structure” in its absence.

Military and civilian leadership are perhaps right to be worried about the fallout from the latest allegations. In private, the Commission on the Defence Forces, which was established last year in response to a range of issues within the military, has been paying particular attention to issues of discrimination, bullying and negative workplace environments.

Commission members have toured every base and installation in the country. They have received few complaints of sexual assault or harassment but a large number of complaints, from women and men, relating to discrimination and bullying.

Its report, which is due to go to Government in December, is expected to focus in particular on workplace discrimination towards parents and carers, such as those detailed by former Air Corps Captain Yvonne O’Rourke who took part in the documentary. Earlier this year, the Workplace Relations Commission awarded O’Rourke the highest possible compensation after it found her employer had given her a poor performance rating because she had taken maternity leave.

Other issues expected to be addressed by the commission include the impact of overseas duty on family life, and uniforms and body armour which are not designed for women’s bodies.

Mellett’s replacement as Chief of Staff, Lt Gen Seán Clancy attempted to get off on the right foot by sending a strongly-worded letter to all personnel saying that abuse or harassment will not be tolerated. He also promised to co-operate with the independent review established by Coveney into how such complaints are handled. His points were reiterated in a Defence Forces statement to The Irish Times.

Coveney has announced that he will appoint a confidential contact person to engage with former and serving members who make allegations of bullying, discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment.

The Women of Honour group says it was “pleased” by many of the Minister’s comments and welcomed the proposed review, which will include international expertise. “For it to finally be widely accepted that there were and still are such devastating systematic problems and [a] toxic culture within the Defence Forces is a very positive move in the right direction,” the group said in a statement.

Whatever happens next, the scandal is not going away. Clonan says since the RTÉ programme aired on September 11th, he has been contacted by dozens of military women, and some men, alleging abuse. He declined to state the exact number, citing fears this may identify the complainants given the small number of women in the Defence Forces (just 7 per cent of the membership).

The allegations are “almost a photocopy of what I wrote about 20 years ago,” he said.

Clonan references his 17-year-old daughter when describing his feelings listening to the latest allegations of abuse. Would he be happy if she wants to follow his footsteps into the Army?

“To try be positive about it, I would say what [Coveney] has done in meeting these women is unprecedented.

“And Jacqui McCrum is someone with the capacity to deal with this. And to be fair, the representative organisations, Raco and PDForra, have been very good.

“But despite those things, no I wouldn’t consider the Defence Forces a safe place for my daughter. I would do everything in my power to prevent her joining. And that’s a shameful thing to say.”