Diarmaid Ferriter: Sexual abuse in the Army has been ignored for decades

Why does it take a broadcast to prompt a sense of urgency to act upon systemic abuse?

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

In researching her 2007 book, Irish Women and the Second World War, historian Mary Muldowney spoke to a variety of women for whom the war opened new paths, including those who travelled to Northern Ireland or England to take up war work.

One of those women, Ethel, a Dubliner, was 21 when she went to Belfast to enrol in the women’s auxiliary air force, qualified as an electrician and spent the war years repairing aircraft. Ethel recalled being proud of her service in a British uniform and said of a later reunion with her former colleagues: “I wasn’t anybody’s wife or anybody’s daughter or sister, I was me and it was marvellous. It’s nice to be yourself once in a while”.

Recounting these stories, suggested Muldowney, was important as they challenged the enduring image of women’s role during the war as primarily “the inspiration for warriors”, or the description of women by the president of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1985 as “the keepers of the flame of humanity”.

When, during that same period, it was suggested in southern Ireland that women should be allowed to take on non-combatant roles in the Irish Army, an Army chaplain demurred, arguing that “whatever use women might have in the forces was overridden by the moral dangers involved”.


It was to be nearly 40 years before female cadets were accepted into the Irish Army, the first being commissioned in April 1981. In response an Irish Times editorial suggested this was evidence of Irish society taking “one further step in recognising the undoubted talents and abilities of those who comprise more than half our population”. They remained mostly under the radar, however, and the imbalance endured; in 2018 there were 591 women in the Irish Defence Forces, accounting for 6.5 per cent of the 9,057 personnel working in the Army, naval service and air corps, and the air corps comprised less than one in 20 women.

Poverty line

In the 1980s, women’s relationship with the Army was largely publicly defined by the campaigns of Army wives for better pay and conditions. These women “declared war” in 1988, for example, as members of the National Army Spouses Association, when 500 of them marched on the Dáil, doing what their partners could not. The average soldier, they pointed out, was living on or below the poverty line, and the women’s role, it seemed, was once again to keep the fire of humanity burning.

Within the Army, however, the conditions some women were enduring were horrendous. The scale of that has been public for a long time; it has been more than 20 years since media coverage of former Army captain Tom Clonan’s doctoral thesis, Women in Combat, researched between 1996 and 2000 at a time when senior Defence Forces officials said they were “satisfied” with complaints procedures. A high proportion of the women Clonan interviewed had been subjected to sexual harassment and worse. “The nature of the alleged assaults ranged from touching to allegations of attempted rape and rape,” Clonan wrote, and “all of the women were critical of the manner in which the Army handles such incidents”.

The report of an external advisory committee on the Defence Forces published in 2002 vindicated Clonan’s claims, yet almost 20 years on, it has been deemed necessary to establish an independent external review of the issues. In 2002 then chief of staff Lieut Gen Colm Mangan said the advisory committee report “gives the vital detail and a strategic basis to go forward and ensure that we don’t continue any unacceptable practices”, while then minister for defence Michael Smith praised “the speed and openness with which the problem is being faced”.

Fully exposed

These were examples of the common tendency of Irish officialdom to make premature declarations about how hidden histories have been fully exposed and learned from. Katie Hannon’s recent RTÉ radio documentary Women of Honour highlighted that despite various initiatives and improvements in the Army, including an independent monitoring group, designated contact personnel for complaints, a dignity charter and an ombudsman for the Defence Forces, there is still bullying, harassment and reluctance to use complaints procedures. As Minister for Defence Simon Coveney asserted in announcing the new review this week, “this isn’t simply a historic problem … it is also a current problem”.

As has so often been the case in recent decades, it has taken the airing of the personal testimony of women to create the necessary urgency to meaningfully confront a deep-rooted, damaging culture and to recognise, in the words of the late Mary Raftery in relation to institutional abuse, “this is no mere failing of a past era”. Why does it still take a broadcast to prompt the necessary urgency when the details have been known about for decades; when the abuses, in the words of Karina Molloy, one of the first cadets commissioned in 1981, were “absolutely systemic”?