Women of Honour ‘pleased’ with Coveney’s response to abuse claims

Culture of harassment in Defence Forces needs to be ‘stamped out’ - Coveney

Retired captain Yvonne O’Rourke, company quartermaster Sgt Karina Molloy and Capt Diane Byrne, of the Women of Honour group, after a meeting with Minister for Defence Simon Coveney last week. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Retired captain Yvonne O’Rourke, company quartermaster Sgt Karina Molloy and Capt Diane Byrne, of the Women of Honour group, after a meeting with Minister for Defence Simon Coveney last week. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Women of Honour has welcomed comments and commitments from Minister for Defence Simon Coveney, saying it feels “he has heard us”.

In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, the group which is made up of women who allege bullying, sexual abuse and harassment during their time in the Defence Forces, said it was “pleased” by many of Mr Coveney’s comments and welcomed the proposal to establish an independent review that 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 statement said.

While broadly welcoming the “vitally important” measures announced by Mr Coveney this morning, the group said it is “disappointed” not have been consulted about the appointment of a confidential contact person overseen by Raiseaconcern organisation.

Mr Coveney had announced he will appoint a confidential contact person for former and serving members of the Defence Forces who make allegations fo bullying, discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment.

The group added it wanted to “sincerely thank” everyone for the support it received since recently disclosing as part of RTÉ’s Women of Honour programme a wide range of misconduct and abuse within the Defence Forces, including allegations of harassment, sexual assault and rape, committed over three decades. They asked members of the public to “continue to stand for change”.

Retired army captain Diane Byrne, who is involved with the Women of Honour group, told RTÉ radio’s News at One “a lot of emotion” had been raised following a documentary on such incidents and it was important that supports were in place for those who had been affected.

When asked if she could recommend a career in the defence forces at this stage, Ms Byrne said that unfortunately she could not, while she had great respect for the institution and people who served in the defence forces, it was not yet a safe place to work.

Stamped out

Earlier, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney said that a culture of intimidation and harassment continues in the Defence Forces and it needed to be stamped out.

It was a culture that allowed people to be isolated and bullied and harassed, he told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland. “That’s not acceptable to me, it’s not acceptable to the Department of Defence, it’s not acceptable to the leadership within the Defence Forces.

“We’re going to change that.

“This is a historic problem in the Defence Forces, but in my view it is also a current problem. Which is why we need to act to stamp it out now.”

Mr Coveney also said that despite an apparent decrease in such cases to “single figures”, according to official figures, because of the culture of intimidation many did not feel they could report incidents of harassment, intimidation or abuse.

“One of the problems is that there is not an atmosphere that allows people to come tell their stories, when they want to and that cultural issue needs to change. I do have data of the number of cases taken to the Garda Siochana - which shows that the number of cases has reduced significantly over time, but that clearly isn’t dealing with the core of the problem because what many people have told me is that there is a culture that doesn’t allow people to come forward in a way that they feel safe in doing that.”

The Minister said that the official number of cases was in single figures, “but that’s not the end of the story because what I’m hearing is that the structures and procedures are not there to allow people to come and report safely without feeling that they will potentially be labelled as a troublemaker or a difficult person within the Defence Forces - that is not an atmosphere that I can allow continue.”

Contact person

The Minister said the appointment of a contact person will provide a “safe place to support the reporting of alleged wrongdoing”. This person will document disclosures and guide former and serving men and women about their follow-up options.

The contact will be “entirely independent from the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence and will operate under a service called Raiseaconcern, which works with private and public sector bodies about issues of wrongdoing in the workplace, on the appointment.”

Raiseaconcern will provide the Minister with periodic updates on the number and type of cases and issues they are seeing, while ensuring all information is strictly anonymised, a Department spokesperson said. The information gathered will also inform the independent review process.

The contact person will operate until an independent review of the Defence Forces and its procedures for dealing with complaints of bullying and harassment has been completed.

Mr Coveney said his Department has also been in contact with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre to ensure appropriate counselling and supports are available to people who suffered sexual abuse in the Defence Forces.

“I have consistently said that such serious allegations should be reported to the gardaí without delay, as they are the competent authority to investigate such actions. However, I am fully cognizant of the trauma suffered by the victims and I am pleased and grateful that the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, who are professionally trained in this area,” he said.

Mr Coveney told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland on Wednesday that these interim measures are being introduced because “we are not going to wait” for the conclusion of the independent review, which he expects will begin “within the next three weeks or so”.

Mr Coveney expressed hope that the people who have come forward with their experiences of abuse, harassment and sexual violence will “believe in this review” and its terms of reference. He said he will seek for it to involve a panel of people and include international expertise.

“We do need to pick the right person to chair this and we have a number of people in mind,” he said, adding that he will liaise with the Women of Honour group to ensure they have confidence in the chosen individual.

Mr Coveney praised the “incredibly courageous” women who have spoken out against abuse and harassment suffered in the Defence Forces. Their stories have encouraged others to speak out to “fix something in the Defence Forces that is very wrong”, he added.

It is “not acceptable” to anyone, Mr Coveney said, that there is a continuing culture that allows people to be “isolated and bullied and harassed” in the service.

Women and men in the Defence Forces need a safe space to tell their stories and report wrongdoing, he said, while abusive behaviour must be “stamped out”.

Defence Forces Chief of Staff, Lt General Sean Clancy, said the interim support measures announced on Wednesday are a “first step” in addressing the issues raised. He said he is “fully committed to ensuring that the work environment of Óglaigh na hÉireann is a safe, enriching and rewarding one for all who serve”.

“There is no place for inappropriate or toxic behaviour within the Defence Forces. It will neither be tolerated nor accepted; I will not accept it, neither should any member of the organisation,” he added.

Mr Coveney said in a statement that the issues raised by Women of Honour are “extremely serious for both women and men and need to be addressed in the most comprehensive way possible”.

There must be “zero-tolerance” for any kind of bullying, discrimination or harassment, he said, adding that stamping it out is the “absolute priority” for him, the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General.