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Any review of misconduct in Defence Forces must include department and Minister

The military does not make its own rules: responsibility for oversight lies with the Government

The recent publication of the independent review group (IRG) report on alleged misconduct in the Defence Forces has rightly shocked the defence community and the nation. The priority must be to support victims and to prosecute individual perpetrators. While acknowledging that the majority of Defence Forces personnel conduct themselves in an exemplary fashion, we must also empower the Chief of Staff and create appropriate structures to prevent recurrence of such incidents.

The defence apparatus in Ireland consists of three components: the office of the Minister for Defence, the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces. Early indications from the scoping exercise suggest that there have been governance failings at all three levels.

With this in mind, three actions are urgently needed.

First, reinstate the independent monitoring group. This was set up more than 20 years ago to establish best practice. The multidisciplinary group, chaired by Dr Eileen Doyle, was chiefly responsible for a decade of improvement in interpersonal behaviour in our military. A new internal grievance procedure was created, instructor teams in military training institutions were professionalised, counsellors for trainees were appointed and an independent ombudsman for the Defence Forces was established.


A series of ombudsman’s reports pointed to sustained progress over the years and Ireland was soon recognised worldwide as an exemplar of independent oversight of military conduct. Inexplicably however, the independent monitoring group was slowly but deliberately wound down after 2014. This happened against the advice of the military authorities, Defence Forces representative associations and Dr Doyle. To date, no one has been held accountable for this retrograde decision. Furthermore, pleas from uniformed personnel to reconstitute this group have been ignored. Why?

The perception has been created that Defence Forces structures and internal complaints mechanisms are not fit for purpose and that this failure lies solely with the Defence Forces. The report fails to recognise, however, that the military does not make its own rules. On the contrary, it dutifully adheres to the rules and regulations as imposed on it by the Department of Defence and approved by the Oireachtas. Therefore, if there are failings in procedures, then it is the collective responsibility of the entire defence apparatus to rectify this through adequate oversight and resourcing.

Second, establish a statutory inquiry with appropriate terms of reference. The IRG was a scoping exercise rather than a fact-finding inquiry. Aside from the accusations of sexual misconduct there are also concerning allegations of bullying and abuse of power. In order to protect the victims of such abhorrent behaviour and to pursue justice, the allegations it uncovered need to be established in fact. Otherwise, we risk making sweeping generalisations and engaging in negative stereotyping of entire cohorts of people based on the reported actions of a few. This is increasingly likely when those criticised are denied the right of reply. Because no chronology is attributed to the allegations in the IRG report it is unclear whether the reported incidents are historical or more recent in nature and whether the allegations reflect the organisation in 2023 and current standards of conduct.

There have been failures in governance at all levels and the impact of cutbacks on staffing numbers has made the situation even worse

As these facts are clarified, consideration might be given to granting the Chief of Staff powers to suspend personnel pending investigation, without prejudice to the outcome, should sufficient preliminary evidence warrant this. Such powers are already given to the Garda Commissioner but do not exist in the Defence Forces.

Third, establish an independent, external oversight body for the Defence Forces. While I welcome the recent announcement by the Tánaiste to establish this body, I share the concerns expressed by other interested parties regarding the inclusion of the secretary general of the Department of Defence. This addition completely undermines the integrity and the credibility of the oversight body and ensures that it will be neither independent nor external.

Incredibly, the performance of the department was not scrutinised as part of the IRG process. Thankfully the Tánaiste has stated on the Dáil record that the department will also be subject to investigation during the statutory inquiry. It is therefore utterly inappropriate that the head of the department would be part of a supposed independent, external oversight body.

As outlined above, there have been failures in governance at all levels and the impact of cutbacks on staffing numbers has made the situation even worse. In 2012, the Defence Forces command and control structure was dismantled. Furthermore, political oversight of the defence apparatus was significantly diminished with the downgrading of the Minister to part-time status. Numerous military installations were closed without consultation and troop numbers have been slashed. Thus began an exodus of highly experienced supervisors and mentors and set in train a staff retention crisis from which the Defence Forces has yet to recover.

I concur with President Michael D Higgins’s statement that sadly misconduct is a societal issue rather than unique to one organisation. Recently reported incidents in the Health Service Executive, An Garda Síochána, media organisations and the university sector support his assertion.

Accordingly, let us support the new structures being put in place to ensure that allegations are properly investigated, and confirmed abuses are stamped out, not just in the Defence Forces but across the wider public service.

Cathal Berry an Independent TD and member of the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence. He is a former Army officer