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Defence Forces have known about abuse of women personnel for 20 years

Women of Honour documentary confirms pattern of discrimination and violence continues

On Saturday last, RTÉ Radio broadcast a documentary on the experiences of women in Ireland’s Defence Forces. Retired women sailors, soldiers and aircrew spoke of grave experiences of systemic discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape.

Their disclosures of sexual violence in the Irish Defence Forces came 21 years after the publication of my own research into systematic gender-based discrimination, gender-based violence, sexual assault and rape within our armed forces.

I conducted my research as a serving officer (Captain) in Defence Forces headquarters from 1996 to 2000. Acting under the written instructions of the Chief of Staff – which have the status of orders under military law – I carried out an exhaustive equality audit of the Defence Forces. The findings were shocking. The research revealed an organisation that was completely out of step with the norms and values for equality that applied throughout the Irish public service, and throughout the international military.

The Defence Forces in the late 1990s had no equality mission statement, no equality infrastructure and no aspirations for equality and diversity. Rather, it had a raft of regulations, standard operating procedures, policies and practices that were explicitly discriminatory as they applied to women. These ranged from prohibitions on command appointments for women and their exclusion from many operational duties at home and overseas. Under its own personnel management development system (PMDS), female military personnel were denied the very experiences identified as essential for promotion by the military authorities.



The discriminatory prohibitions imposed on women ranged from the punitive to the bizarre. For example, until Mary Robinson was elected president, women soldiers were forbidden to wear trousers or to participate in ceremonial duties. Women pilots – many of whom were flying search and rescue missions in hazardous conditions in Atlantic storms off the south and west coast of Ireland – were forbidden to fly aircraft containing weapons. The reason for this ruling was that they were female. They were fully qualified and rated – accomplished – pilots. In the absence of any other explanation, for the military authorities at the time, a pilot had to have a penis to fly a plane with a weapon on board.

The many policies and practices for women in the Defence Forces – including such documents as the DF Policy on the Deployment of Female Personnel – were explicitly discriminatory and contrary to the provisions of EU and Irish law with regard to equality and equal status in the workplace. Many of the demeaning and degrading provisions of these DF policies – promulgated by the general staff – were also at variance with the aspirations for Irish men and women contained within the Irish Constitution.

All commissioned officers in the Irish Defence Forces swear a solemn oath of allegiance to the Constitution, swearing to “follow lawful orders”. The position of successive members of the general staff on women – as expressed through their unlawful and discriminatory policies – placed them in breach of this solemn oath. This was certainly the case from the 1980s to the early 2000s.

Sexual harassment

A profoundly disturbing aspect of the research that I conducted was the experiences of sexual harassment, sexual violence and rape recounted by my female colleagues. I interviewed a total of 60 women – a maximum variation sample of all ranks. Forty three were interviewed across all three services in Ireland with a control sample of 17 interviewed in Lebanon in 1999 and 2000.

Of the women interviewed, 59 out of 60 reported experiences of bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. As a young officer – 25 years before the #MeToo movement – this was the darkest period of my military service. In section rooms, offices and orderly rooms, all over Ireland and in the Middle East, my female comrades, my sisters in arms, recounted a litany of experiences of relentless bullying, hostile scrutiny, ridicule, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Most of the women I interviewed had reported these experiences through the Defence Forces’ reporting procedures to no avail. In most cases, on reporting abuse, the women experienced immediate reprisal, victim blaming and shaming. For most, the reporting of abuse was a career-ending moment. Many reported thoughts of suicide and self-harm.

When I reported my findings to the general staff in 2000, I was subjected to immediate reprisal, character assassination and isolation. The Army alleged that I had falsified the research and that I had breached the Official Secrets Act. I was threatened with criminal prosecution. An independent government inquiry – the Study Review Group 2001 – investigated the research and vindicated its findings and conclusions. They also found that some male soldiers were also targeted for sexual assault and rape.

Dignity charter

Over the past two decades, the Defence Forces have put in place a broad range of policy documents and a dignity charter for all personnel. However, from last Saturday’s RTÉ broadcast, it would appear that there has been no meaningful change within Defence Forces culture. In the past week, I have been contacted by dozens of young female soldiers and officers who continue to suffer bullying, harassment and sexual assault consistent with the accounts set out by the Women of Honour.

The root causes of this toxic culture of misogyny – and the remedies – are set out clearly in my work of 20 years ago. Despite it being on the public record – available online by clicking one link – the Department of Defence has never contacted me or engaged with me at any point in the past two decades to deal with this grave crisis. I have informed both the secretary general of the department and the Minister, in writing, that I am available, pro bono, to assist in ending this persistent and profound problem.

The Minister for Defence and the Department of Defence have stated that they are at an “advanced stage” of forming another “inquiry”. The department and the military authorities are incapable of investigating themselves. At a minimum, they must consult with the Women of Honour and involve them centrally in any proposed review or inquiry. The women must be part of the decision-making process that designs the scope and parameters of an independent inquiry. The Women of Honour must participate in the selection process of those who will lead and participate in any inquiry. If the Women of Honour are not centrally involved in the problem-solving process, there will be no solution.

Tom Cloonan is a former Army officer and lecturer at the Technological University Dublin School of Media