Opposition TDs call for statutory inquiry into Women of Honour allegations

Independent review now ‘operational and proceeding without delay’, Minister says

Opposition TDs have called for a statutory inquiry into accusations of misconduct in the Defence Forces, describing allegations outlined by the Women of Honour group as "gross violations".

An independent review is now "operational and proceeding without delay" as "a critical and necessary next step" in addressing the serious issues, Minister of State at the Department of Defence Jack Chambers has said.

The Women of Honour group expressed disappointment after meeting Taoiseach Micheál Martin last week that a review would go ahead rather than a statutory inquiry.

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

Sinn Féin tabled a motion in the Dáil on Tuesday evening calling for a commission of investigation to be set up to examine allegations of sexual abuse and harassment in the Defence Forces.

The party’s defence spokesperson Sorca Clarke said the “only ask” of a statutory inquiry had been ignored and “instead an internal review is the only show in town”.

“The Minister [for Defence Simon Coveney] and his officials are trying to convince not only the Women of Honour but the rest of us that it is perfectly reasonable and not insulting at all, to dilute the only ask of the key stakeholders, an ask made so that no one else would go through the experiences that they did,” she said.

“How are these women, who chose to serve this State and were repeatedly let down by structures and successive Governments, expected to have faith now in a review where nobody is compelled to engage or attend and will rely entirely on the goodwill of potential conversations.”

Sinn Féin TD Paul Donnelly referenced a recent revelation that dozens of soldiers attended a social event at McKee Barracks in Dublin in June 2020, when pandemic restrictions limited outdoor gatherings to 15 people. During the evening an officer allegedly tried to grope a female subordinate's breast after he became extremely drunk and is currently under investigation by the Military Police ahead of a potential court martial.

Mr Donnelly said there seems to be “a sense of entitlement and lack of a fear and accountability” in the Defence Forces.

“This must be dealt with, senior officers and the department and the Government must do better,” he said.

Labour TD Brendan Howlin said without a statutory inquiry, "with all the powers of compellability", an adequate investigation of the serious cases of abuse and misconduct put forward are "highly unlikely to be fully ventilated".

“If we want to know the full facts and find how these things happen and what the consequences are, we need a statutory inquiry to look at these matters,” he said.

People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny said many of the allegations outlined by the Women of Honour were “heinous in nature” with women “subjected to gross violations”.

He said there was an obligation on the State to investigate the allegations and there had to be rigorous scrutiny, which could only be done through a public inquiry.

"That's what the women want and they're the most important voice in all of this," Mr Kenny said.

Mr Chambers said while the independent review has the support of stakeholders, including serving members of the Defence Forces, he was aware the Women of Honour have expressed their disappointment and are seeking the establishment of a tribunal of inquiry.

He said the Government is not ruling out a further body of work in the future to examine the allegations of historical nature.

Mr Chambers said the review group is being chaired by recently retired High Court judge Bronagh O'Hanlon and also contains senior counsel Mark Connaughton and HR specialist Jane Williams.

He said an interim report is expected within six months and the final report within 12 months which will be brought to Government while emphasising the concerns of the Women of Honour were “not being ignored”.