Women of Honour group accuses Coveney of ‘mishandling’ abuse inquiry

Veteran group welcomes meeting with Taoiseach to discuss bid for statutory investigation

 Women of Honour members Diane Byrne, Yvonne O’Rourke and Honor Murphy leaving the Department of Foreign Affairs following their meeting with Minister Simon Coveney on Tuesday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Women of Honour members Diane Byrne, Yvonne O’Rourke and Honor Murphy leaving the Department of Foreign Affairs following their meeting with Minister Simon Coveney on Tuesday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

The Women of Honour group of Defence Forces veterans has accused Minister for Defence Simon Coveney of an “attempt at white-washing” by resisting a statutory inquiry in allegations of abuse in the military.

The women, made up of former Defence Forces members who have detailed allegations of sexual abuse, harassment and discrimination, have been highly critical of the Minister’s decision to set up a judge-led independent review.

In a strongly word statement on Wednesday, the women described as a “fait accompli” a meeting they held with Mr Coveney the previous day. They said they were not allowed ask questions or have any input. “The Minister has blackguarded and disrespected us given the nature of our personal disclosures.”

The Women of Honour said the group appointed to investigate the allegations did not have the tools to compel witnesses or documents.

“The issues require a legal process not a review. A one-year-long administrative review does not have the statutory protections required for such sensitive investigations to be effective and is just kicking the can down the road of pointlessness.”

The group welcomed a commitment by Taoiseach Micheál Martin to meet them next week following what they said was “mishandling” of the issue by Mr Coveney.

The women walked out of the meeting with the Minister on Tuesday after an hour and afterwards called it “a waste of time”.

The Permanent Defence Forces Other Ranks Representative Association (PDForra) and the Defence Forces have both previously expressed support for the external review.

Mr Coveney said the review will be undertaken by external and unbiased experts in the field, the membership of which will be “totally independent in undertaking its function”.

Retired judge Bronagh O’Hanlon has been appointed chair of the group, while Jane Williams of SIA Partners and Mark Connaughton SC were also appointed.

An interim report will be submitted to the Minister within six months with a final report expected within nine months.

Speaking following the announcement, Mr Coveney said “it is absolutely critical that I proceed with this review to ensure that the workplace is safe for all serving members. In this endeavour, I believe I have the wholehearted support of serving personnel.”

The Women of Honour Group said “ we will not participate in the Minister’s review as it is pointless and shameful. In effect, he is proposing a review that would see his own department review itself, progressing in a manner that would heavily bias any process before it even begins.”

Separately, the Minister also announced an independent assessment of the the handling of accusations of sexual abuse made by retired army sergeant Anthony O’Brien.

Mr O’Brien has alleged he was subject of sexual abuse by a senior officer while in the army. He has also collected allegations of abuse from others which he has passed onto the Government.

Mr Coveney announced senior counsel Ruth Fitzgerald was being appointed to “conduct an independent assessment of the specific actions taken by the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces on foot of extensive correspondence received from a retired Defence Force member, in relation to allegations of sexual abuse”.

The Department of Defence said this will be “a discrete assessment” and the outcome will be made available to the group examining the Women of Honour allegations.

Serving and former Defence Forces members impacted by workplace abuse have also been reminded a confidential contact person has been appointed to assist them.