State’s first female major general takes seat ‘at highest table in the world’

Maj Gen Maureen O’Brien says her promotion shows ‘women can achieve high ranks’

Galway woman Maureen O'Brien on Tuesday became the first female major general in the Irish Defence Forces ahead of her appointment as a UN military advisor in New York.

Speaking on Tuesday, Maj Gen O’Brien said her promotion was an “opportunity for people to see, yes, women can achieve high ranks in the Defences Forces”.

Minister for Defence Simon Coveney, chief of staff Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett and Department of Defence secretary general Jacqui McCrum gathered at a ceremony at Cathal Brugha Barracks to mark Maj Gen O'Brien's appointment to the role.

She will serve as one of two military advisors to the UN secretary general on peacekeeping operations. With her promotion to major general, she has reached the second-highest rank in the Defence Forces, junior only to the chief of staff.

Mr Coveney said it was a significant day for the Defence Forces and Ireland’s influence in the UN system.

“To any young women who is thinking of the Defence Forces as an opportunity, take a look at Maureen O’Brien and what she has done. She is now a major general, influencing world affairs on war and peace through peacekeeping operations. It’s a fantastic story.”

De facto commander

Maj Gen O'Brien, who will be stationed at the UN Headquarters in New York, has served with peacekeeping missions in various positions from a platoon commander up to de facto commander of the entire UN force in the Golan Heights in Syria.

She said Irish people are particularly suited to peacekeeping. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously and we’ve never been a colonising power,” she told The Irish Times. “We can see both sides. That came across to me when I was working the Golan.

“Having empathy with either side. Not necessarily agreeing with them, but understanding their perspective.”

Asked on RTÉ Radio about career challenges because of her gender, she said: “If there are obstacles I just challenge the obstacles and I have done that all through my career.”

Maj Gen O'Brien has served seven overseas tours, including in Lebanon, Western Sahara and East Timor.

She was the first woman to reach the rank of lieutenant colonel and in 2012 she became the first female infantry battalion commander.

Ms McCrum said it was a “great day for mná na hÉireann”. She said she views her job as providing support for “all those Maureens coming behind us”.

‘Experience and knowledge’

Vice-Admiral Mellett said Maj Gen O’Brien “brings a great deal of experience and knowledge to her new role and continues to be an invaluable member of the UN and of Óglaigh na hÉireann”.

Noting Maj Gen O’Brien’s experience as “de facto force commander” in Syria, he said there is an “inextricable link between gender gap and state and intra-state violence”.

“Maureen will now bring that experience to the highest table in the world at the UN... where she will bring her experience to bear in bringing peace and stability throughout the world wherever the blue hat is worn.

Mr Coveney said the rate of increase of women in the Defence Forces is “far too slow”. Currently just over 7 per cent of personnel are women. He said the target is to get that number to “double figures at least”.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times