I wish to share my time with Deputies Ó Snodaigh and Gogarty.
Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Bill 2002: Second Stage (Resumed).
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I extend a hearty welcome to this Bill, which is not before its time. It will be universally welcomed by PDFFORA, which was so ably led by the late John Lucey, who lost his life tragically last year.
So many issues have been raised by Dr. Eileen Doyle in her report, Dignity at Work – The Challenge of Workplace Bullying, on bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment of members of the Defence Forces. The report showed that one third of female personnel suffered sexual harassment, and there were many other instances of bullying and discrimination. So often when we hear of sexual harassment we tend to think of the harassment of females, but I assure the House that it applies equally to males in many cases. Sexual harassment of males can also be quite vicious. There is a vicious circle that can be kept in place. When a bully sees the effects of his bullying, he or she is encouraged to continue in the belief that he or she is winning the battle.
Some tentative steps have been taken to implement the report's recommendations. This Bill marks a belated but major step in the right direction. Bullying does not occur right across the board in the Army. As in any organisation, a small number of people are involved, but even a small number is too many. I know of instances which commandants have nipped in the bud but there is an issue of awareness involved here. If the authorities are not made aware of bullying it is hard to get a grip on it. Situations arise in which people observe bullying but do not report it, which makes them complicit in the crime.
New laws have recently been introduced in the public service to cover bullying and harassment at work. There are major problems in the public service and I am aware of serious cases of bullying in the caring professions. This can have a severe effect on people, leading to staff losing sleep and requesting leave of absence or sick leave as they are not fit to go to work. In extreme cases people have resigned their positions while other victims have required counselling. This is a serious problem which used to be brushed aside but in recent years we have become more aware of it.
A new guide on revised policy and procedures on bullying and harassment in interpersonal relationships in the Defence Forces was issued in response to the findings of the Doyle report. There have been many well-documented cases of victimisation and bullying in the Defence Forces and the Naval Service, as has happened in the private business environment, schools and so on across the board. The cases usually involve an abuse of authority or a pulling of rank on a vulnerable individual, with ranks being closed afterwards. Soldiers generally felt they got a raw deal as they had no fully independent complaints procedure available to them and until now recourse was generally through the courts. This happened in a plethora of cases which became known as the army deafness claims. We must remember, however, that those being bullied are simply not fit to take cases through the courts. They are not prepared psychologically to do so, which is why cases have rarely gone to court.
The army deafness cases became the principal pretext for the formation of PDFORRA and were the issue on which that organisation campaigned for a long time. PDFORRA, representing rank and file members of the Defence Forces, emphasised the need to create a workplace environment which afforded everybody the dignity and respect their membership of the Defence Forces merited. The Office of Defence Forces Ombudsman will be largely instrumental in making visible issues which up to now were both invisible and crushing for the individuals concerned.
Many of those who were victimised had to carry this bullying and harassment silently and their station was a lonely one. PDFORRA was active in providing evidence of issues that had not been dealt with previously and in bringing them to the surface. The existence of the Office of Defence Forces Ombudsman will be crucial in making people aware of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, but the ordinary man in the street knows what constitutes inappropriate behaviour. People can decide to ignore a colleague or to exclude him or her. Ignoring or not talking to someone can have a devastating effect on the person concerned. It can be a form of bullying but it can be very hard to put one's finger on it. When one asks the complainant what happened, it is hard for him or her to say: "Well, they wouldn't talk to me." There is a balance to be achieved. Bullying can take many forms but its consequences can be devastating.
This Bill will make all concerned considerably more sensitive in their dealings with both subordinates and superiors. That can only serve to enhance the Defence Forces' productivity by making its workplace a happier and healthier one, which will be to the benefit of us all. By their nature, the Defence Forces constitute a hierarchical body, with a strictly regimented structure. In that context there is a need for a visible forum, such as the ombudsman, to defuse tensions and deal with various issues of concern to members. Hierarchical structures can also militate against the harmonious working of a defence force, which is something every nation needs. Our nation's security is only as good as the well-being of the Defence Forces. Soldiers on patrol depend on teamwork and trust in colleagues. If that were absent I do not know what would happen in the Defence Forces, particularly on missions to places like Liberia. If there was no teamwork and soldiers did not believe in each other the whole mission could fall apart.
The Minister's assurance that the new Office of Defence Forces Ombudsman will be impartial and independent of the chain of command and the Department is welcome. It avoids the possibility of a conflict of interest while ensuring an independent assessment of a grievance, which is very important. It is vital that the Defence Forces Ombudsman maintains the confidence of the public, and particularly the confidence of Defence Forces personnel, who will look at him or her as the final arbiter in resolving their grievances. The appointment of the Defence Forces Ombudsman is a true vindication of all that John Lucey and PDFORRA fought for.
Táimid ag caint faoi fear an phobail, ombudsman do na Fórsaí Cosanta, fear ba cóir go mbeadh sé neamhspleách, agus is trua gur thóg sé an fhaid seo teacht go dtí an staid seo go bhfuil an Bille os ár gcomhair. Dar ndóigh, beidh mé ag cur leasaithe chun cinn chun déanamh cinnte go bhfuil foralácha an Bille láidrithe, ach tríd is tríd ba mhaith linn fáilte a chur roimh an Bhille seo agus cuidiú leis rith tríd an Teach chomh tapaidh agus is féidir.
It is appropriate that the Second Stage debate on this Bill opened on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and will continue during this year's 16 days of action against violence against women. It is fitting because it was the revelations in 2001 about the unacceptable level of sexual harassment and assault in the Defence Forces which gave rise to the Doyle report and provided the impetus to drafting the Bill.
The report of the external advisory committee on the nature and extent of any harassment, bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment in the Defence Forces, also known as the Doyle report, was commissioned by the Minister for Defence on foot of the revelations of the findings of an earlier report by Dr. Tom Clonan into sexual harassment in the Defence Forces, published in November 2000. Both reports found that whereas women make up only 4% of all soldiers, approximately one third of these women soldiers suffer sexual harassment by colleagues or superior officers. Significantly, the Doyle report found that despite the current complaints procedure, many women in the Defence Forces were and are too afraid to report harassment or rape by their colleagues or superiors. They believed, and some found out, that the current internal complaints system would not result in the justice and redress they deserved.
Ultimately the Minister accepted the Doyle report recommendations in full. He acknowledged that the next phase of modernisation of the military requires dealing with this issue, that bullying and harassment have no place in the modern Defence Forces and that the Defence Forces need a new culture and values. PDFORRA has also accepted the report conclusions, and have backed the introduction of this Bill. I welcome these developments.
Apart from the introduction of a Defence Forces Ombudsman, the Doyle report made other recommendations, including the establishment of a confidential helpline, which has already been done and the establishment of a monitoring group, already done, to report back in 2004. We look forward to its progress report next year. The report also recommended the establishment of an equality group chaired by a Labour Court member and the establishment of a consultative group. I look forward to the full implementation of all these recommendations.
Sinn Féin wants many of the same standards we have promoted for a fully independent Garda Ombudsman to also apply to the Defence Forces Ombudsman. It is appropriate that the Bill proposes an ombudsman established separately from any body charged with a Defence Forces management function, or with a mandate to review the forces' efficiency and effectiveness. I do not understand why, as he considers the complaints structure for the Garda, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is resistant on this point. He should follow the lead of the Minister for Defence on this issue.
However, the Bill's provisions should go further. There must be an open, merit-based appointment of the ombudsman, selected on the basis of published criteria. The ombudsman must be adequately resourced and staffed and granted the necessary legal powers and resources to conduct his or her independent investigations. He or she must also be allowed adequate scope for investigations, empowered to investigate systemic problems, including policies and practices, and make general recommendations to eliminate causes of classes of complaints. Where determined necessary by the ombudsman, this should include matters of national security.
He or she should be empowered to conduct independent investigations on matters of public interest on his or her own volition or on the request of the Minister and without the need for a complainant. This should be compulsory in the case of certain violations involving loss of life, assault or discrimination. Importantly, the ombudsman should be granted retrospective investigative powers. In conducting his or her investigations, he or she should be authorised to question witnesses, compel document disclosure and access locations as necessary. The provisions in the Bill are mostly satisfactory in this regard, which is welcome.
The ombudsman should be empowered to determine breaches of the disciplinary code and to refer evidence of criminality to the Director of Public Prosecutions in making his or her conclusions. He or she should be allowed to resolve appropriate complaints informally, with the complainants' consent, or to resolve complaints formally by assigning penalties and remedies, including a recommendation for disciplinary action, dismissal, changes in policy or procedure or compensation to the complainant.
Information that becomes available to the Director of Public Prosecutions that indicates Defence Forces misconduct should be automatically referred to the ombudsman for investigation. Members of the Defence Forces under investigation should be afforded the full protection of due process rights. Both parties should be afforded equal treatment before the law, including full disclosure and access to legal aid if necessary.
I am concerned that the Bill's provisions fall short of these standards, particularly in regard to the lack of transparency in the appointments procedure outlined in section 2, the limited scope of functions under section 4, the limitations on investigations under section 5, the non-public nature of investigations under section 9 if the ombudsman wishes to hold a public hearing, and the non-disclosure of documents and prohibition on testimony under section 10.
However, I am especially concerned about the time limits for reporting misconduct under section 6, and that there will be no retrospective investigations. These provisions should be removed from the Bill. If they are allowed to stand, there will be no justice for the women whose circumstances were the subject of concern in two reports and whose experiences provided impetus for the creation of the ombudsman. This is unfair. The majority of people in the State want to ensure all Defence Forces misconduct or other unfair treatment should be investigated, regardless of when they happened or when the complaints were lodged.
In addition to the cases of the service women who experienced sexual harassment and assault, a number of other outstanding cases have arisen over the years, which should be addressed by the new Defence Forces ombudsman. I refer to the de Róiste case which has caused concern. I have also raised on many occasions the case of a member of the Defence Forces, Michael Donnelly, who was summarily discharged in 1975. He did not even have a right to a court martial and there was no mechanism through which he could vindicate his name. The ombudsman should examine such cases. He or she should not examine minor complaints but should address complaints of bullying, harassment, sexual assault, discrimination, defamation or cases where justice has been denied. I am not an expert in the field, but PDFORRA probably has a list of cases it would like investigated. That is why the time restrictions should be deleted.
The crisis in the Air Corps in October resulted from concerns about inadequate safety procedures and equipment in use by the search and rescue service. There was apparent victimisation of members who raised these safety issues and threats of courts martial and demotions were made. When the ombudsman's office is up and running, he or she should be allowed to investigate retrospective cases so that the full truth can be established and the issues involved can be put to rest at the end of the day.
I welcome the introduction of the legislation. Our men and women in uniform have an onerous task and deserve the best pay and conditions. Many are located in Rathmines in my constituency. We are aware of the great sacrifices they must make when they travel abroad, but many pay the ultimate price. There is a volatile situation in Liberia which was pointed out before our soldiers were sent there. However, Sergeant Derek Mooney paid the ultimate price and, on behalf of the Green Party, I express our deepest sympathy to his family. This is another example of the great courage of our soldiers who travel abroad under UN mandates. They are well trained and provide a valuable service.
A different standard of behaviour applies within the Army with which few people on "Civvy Street" can identify. This was best exemplified in the Hollywood movie, "A Few Good Men". The US army was portrayed as having a different way of dealing with disciplinary issues. It used the concept of a code red to deal with those who were not up to scratch in terms of training. Unfortunately, this is common practice. As Jack Nicholson famously said: "We do not understand it and we probably never will." That is how the Army operates.
The Bill refers to 24-hour counselling but that will be a strange concept to many soldiers. Will the Minister explain whether there is a need for counselling on a 24-hour basis? Much of the bullying that takes places results from the Army's training regime as it tries to knock people into shape. The Army must change and people's basic human rights must be considered. Bullying cannot be tolerated.
The conclusion in the Doyle report was that over 75% of respondents believed the perpetrators could get away with bullying. That is not acceptable to this House. Nobody should be allowed to get away with bullying. There must be a profound change in the way the Army operates. The report also stated that one third of the 250 female personnel surveyed complained of sexual harassment and noted that over 50% of bullying allegations were made concerning activity during training, which seems to be a vital area needing investigation by the ombudsman. I welcome the Minister's intention to examine on Committee Stage amendments recommended by PDFORRA and RACO.
In the context of our new duties within Europe, new situations may arise regarding multinational forces. We already have multinational forces within the UN. As we move closer towards a European army – we already have the Rapid Reaction Force – the situation could give rise to new complications where we would have to deal with personnel from other EU countries. Who would be responsible in such cases? Would it be the ombudsman here or the European Ombudsman?
The time limits outlined in section 6 are unacceptable. The many women who suffered must have some form of redress. Similarly, we must get answers on the De Róiste case. The issue has gone on far too long and Mr. De Róiste still does not know why he was dismissed from the Army. The continued ignorance of his situation should be resolved quickly. There is no real justice when an issue is allowed to carry on unresolved and an individual is left in the dark about the situation.
This is good legislation which is long overdue. While I welcome it, I will propose some amendments on Committee Stage. The Minister will have the support of the Green Party.
I wish to share time with Deputy Nolan.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
The purpose of the Bill is to establish the office of ombudsman for the Defence Forces and to provide for the appointment, functions and staff and to amend the Defence Act 1954. This legislation, when enacted, has the potential to offer members of the Defence Forces a truly independent forum for dealing with complaints and related injustices. No organisation has the capacity to deal effectively with all complaints involving people at different levels within the system. The Defence Forces are no different in this regard.
The new office of the ombudsman will provide an independent statutory entity to which complaints can be forwarded in cases where a complainant is not satisfied with the response obtained from military authorities to a formal complaint under the Defence Act provisions for the redress of wrongs. The ombudsman will function as an independent entity and will be provided with clear and precise statutory powers of independent inquiry and investigation closely modelled on those of the original ombudsman legislation of 1980 but reflecting the unique circumstances and demands of the military environment.
The current arrangements have provided for recourse to the informal mechanism of an external civilian complaints inquiry officer who can investigate and make recommendations on complaints of an individual nature submitted to the Minister by members of the Defence Forces. Under these arrangements the Minister has the power of discretionary reference of a complaint to the complaints inquiry officer.
The issue of bullying and harassment in the Defence Forces has long needed to be tackled. An independent confidential help line and counselling service was launched earlier this year and an independent body will design, administer and analyse an exit interview questionnaire to establish the views of Defence Forces personnel on their experience of military life. The message must go out loud and clear that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated in the Defence Forces.
This Bill also provides for the type of complaint that shall not be investigated by the ombudsman, such as where the complainant has initiated legal proceedings or has a statutory right of appeal, reference or review to or before a court, where the action complained of is or has been the subject of investigation under military law or relates to a military operation, or where the complaint relates to terms and conditions of service and all other matters which come within the scope of representation and are appropriate for discussion and negotiation at conciliation and arbitration. This section also provides that the ombudsman shall not investigate a complaint where for security reasons the Minister requests him or her in writing not to investigate such a complaint. The ombudsman may apply to the High Court for a declaration that the matter is not of such gravity as to warrant such a request.
It is relevant that we are debating this Bill after the departure of our brave troops to Liberia on their peacekeeping mission. The cause of peace sometimes comes at a price, as the loss of 83 personnel since 1960 shows. However, our Defence Forces have demonstrated over the years that they are made of the right stuff when it comes to facing security risks, particularly in the Lebanon where hundreds of our personnel faced many difficult situations over a 25 year period. When that mission concluded in 2001 it was widely recognised that the Irish handled these situations in a professional manner. I express my sympathy to the family of the late Sergeant Derek Mooney. May he rest in peace.
Irish military neutrality is a policy to which this Government is deeply attached. Ireland, however, has never been ideologically neutral or morally indifferent to the major international and security challenges of the day. Ours is not a rigid neutrality frozen in time and isolated from the evolving international security realities. Ireland's neutrality originated as an important expression of sovereignty and became practically possible with the return to Irish control from Britain of the treaty ports in 1938.
Irish neutrality has not been imposed from outside, nor is it guaranteed by international treaty. It is a policy espoused by successive Governments and its core defining characteristic is non-membership of military alliances. Our neutrality has gone hand in hand with a strong commitment to international co-operation for stability and peace. There is no conflict between Ireland's military neutrality and full and active support by Ireland for collective security, based on international law.
The progressive approach taken by Éamon de Valera in the League of Nations in the 1930s is clear evidence of this. When faced with the challenge to international security of Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia, Ireland supported actions and sanctions against Mussolini. The League of Nations was, however, unable to deal effectively with aggressor states led by dictators. This was due to the absence of the United States from the league and the weakness of its enforcement mechanism. By failing to meet its responsibility, the world descended into war. The history of Europe from 1935 to 1945 has shown that military neutrality is not enough to maintain conditions of peace and security internationally. It is also necessary to work actively for international peace and security, taking into account prevailing circumstances.
In advocating UN membership to Dáil Éireann in 1946, the former Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, emphasised his hope that the UN would be better able to act against an aggressor than the League of Nations. He told the House:
Either the time for action is going to pass in futile discussion or there must be a method by which effective forcible action will be taken.
He later emphasised:
If there ever is to be a rule of law, nations must make up their minds that they will take part in such enforcement because if there is not enforcement, then of course the duties and the rights that are guaranteed will be all thrown aside.
It is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that the safety of all personnel is at the top of the agenda. While one cannot give absolute guarantees regarding safety, we must analyse the risks involved. As well as ensuring that intensive training is undertaken, robust and modern protection assets, including armoured military vehicles and personnel carriers, must be deployed. Our troops deserve the best equipment we can give them.
Although 20 countries will be participating in this mission, Ireland is the only western one making a significant contribution. This illustrates the high regard in which the UN holds Ireland and we should be honoured that the unique qualities of the Irish peacekeeper continue to be recognised. Irish peacekeepers are among the most acceptable from the community of troop contributing states for several reasons. These include their high standards of experience and their impartiality, as Ireland is recognised as a neutral country and was never a colonial power. The Defence Forces brings over 40 years of experience to UN peacekeeping. This gives the Irish solider the requirements for peace and support operations. They have a talent for earning the trust and confidence of the conflicting parties and the local population. They have demonstrated their ability to diffuse potentially explosive situations through tact, dialogue and humour.
The Congo operation of 1960 marked the first opportunity for the Defence Forces to serve alongside other armies. This experience showed that the Irish troops were as well trained and suited to peacekeeping as any other nationality. Subsequent peacekeeping experience in the Lebanon, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and Cyprus have reinforced this conviction. Speaking on his state visit to Ireland in 1998, President Bill Clinton said:
I want to say, because I cannot leave Ireland without acknowledging this, that there are few nations that have contributed more than Ireland, even in times that were difficult for this country, to the cause of peace and human rights around the world.
I commend the Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Bill 2002 to the House. It will serve to enhance the position of the Defence Forces as one of the best in the world.
I welcome the introduction of this Bill and I hope it has a speedy passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas.
This legislation has been promised for over two years and was part of the Government manifesto. I am pleased it has eventually made its way to the floor of this Chamber. The Minister for Defence, Deputy Michael Smith, is delivering on his commitment and my only regret is that it was not delivered prior to the last election.
The Defence Forces play an important role in Irish society and their position is guaranteed in our Constitution. Since the foundation of the State, the role and function of the Defence Forces has changed. In the State's infancy, many individuals looked with suspicious eyes at the power and influence which could be wielded by the Army and some of its senior officers. Thankfully, to their eternal credit, the individuals in command of the early Defence Forces took a military role and did not interfere with in politics. This was a bold and brave decision when one takes into account the prevailing political climate across Europe in the 1920s.
Up to, and including the time of, the Second World War, the function and role of the Army was carefully monitored by politicians on both sides of the House. The 1960s was an era when new opportunities were afforded to our military personnel. Our participation in the United Nations mission in war-torn Congo was the first of many overseas duties for members of the Defence Forces. It was the start of a long and fruitful relationship with the United Nations. Subsequent to the Congo mission, our Army has taken part in peacekeeping missions in Cyprus, Syria, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, as part of KFOR and SFOR. Our longest and most identifiable mission was in the Lebanon. Recently, Irish troops have served in East Timor and arrangements are being made to send troops to Liberia. I wish to be associated with the expression of sympathy for Sergeant Derek Mooney who was tragically killed in Liberia. I wish our troops serving there a safe mission.
This new force being sent to Africa will benefit from the major investment by the Department of Defence in re-equipping our Army. The new Mowag APCs will see active service for the first time in Irish colours. This has meant changes in the structure and operations of our Defence Forces. During the past 12 years, we have also seen the emergence of representative organisations for Army, Naval Service and Air Corps personnel in the form of PDFORRA and RACO. These representative organisations play a meaningful role in the running and organisation of the Defence Forces. PDFORRA has been to the fore in seeking and promoting the establishment of an ombudsman for the Defence Forces. The late John Lucey played a pivotal role in the establishment of PDFORRA and was its forceful general secretary for many years, prior to his untimely death. He was one of the main promoters of the establishment of this office on a statutory basis. It was a source of great encouragement to him when the Minister, Deputy Michael Smith, announced that he had received Cabinet approval for the publishing of this Bill. It is tragic that John Lucey did not live to see his idea through to completion. However, it is to his credit that he pursued this goal with such vigour and enthusiasm and that it is now finally being processed into law.
In any organisation one has to be mindful of instances of unfair treatment, bullying and discrimination. While, I understand that none of these are major problems within our Defence Forces, it is known that some incidents have taken place. While there is a system in place to deal with such problems, some soldiers have lost confidence in it. It is timely that this Bill is now being debated. The establishment of the ombudsman's office on a statutory basis will give more confidence to individuals who feel they have been mistreated for one reason or another, to seek redress. The Minister for Defence must be complimented for taking on board the Doyle report and acting on its recommendations.
In the business and commercial sector, the giving of orders can be perceived as an abuse. An army, however, is different. The passive disciplines, which are accepted in the commercial area, cannot necessarily be applied to a military structure. By its very nature, the Army must have a chain of command and a clearly defined order in which operational duties and functions are carried out. There is concern that the establishment of this office will result in these military structures being diluted or weakened by the inappropriate application of this legislation. While I know that some Members of this House have concerns about some aspects of it, if during this debate areas of weakness are identified the Minister should accept amendments on Committee Stage.
The time since Deputy Smith's appointment as Minister for Defence in 1997 has been one of great change in the Department of Defence and in our Defence Forces, with the closure of barracks in 1998 and the huge problem of the Army deafness cases, which represented an abuse in some instances. I commend the Minister on the manner in which he has overseen these particular problems.
We could do worse than investigate some aspects of the manner in which some former members of our Defence Forces applied under the Army deafness scheme. I have first-hand knowledge of individuals who were encouraged to take claims against the Department by unscrupulous members of the legal profession. There are companies which should hang their heads in shame for the manner in which they brazenly went after potential claimants in order to ensure they made their claim, even though in their hearts these individuals knew there was little wrong with their hearing. If politicians are seen in a poor light because of the wrongdoings of a minority, the legal profession's reputation has been severely damaged by the selfishness and greed of a small number of its members.
It is extraordinary that umbrella organisations are prepared to stand over and defend the actions of some of these cowards. These individuals have effectively put their hands into every taxpayer's pocket. They have effectively mugged the Irish public by taking our money. The €300 million the Government has had to spend in settling some of these deafness claims would have been far better spent on re-equipping the Air Corps, Army and the Defence Forces in general.
I welcome this legislation, which is positive for the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence. I commend the Minister for introducing this Bill.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this legislation. As other Members have done, I extend my sympathy to the family of the member of the Defence Forces who lost his life so tragically. He was a young man, as members of the Defence Forces generally are. In so doing, I remember all other members of the Defence Forces who have lost their lives serving abroad or at home over the years. I appreciate their efforts and sacrifices.
We rely on the Defence Forces to back up the civil authorities and they have done so admirably since the foundation of the State and will continue to do so. Our Defence Forces are not unique in this and the same applies to many other defence forces. Our Defence Forces now frequently intermingle with the forces of other jurisdictions when serving abroad. It has been beneficial for them to meet and learn from others and I am sure the others have learnt from them also. This is part of the evolution of political and defence developments throughout the world, particularly in Europe. This will become increasingly relevant to the Defence Forces as time goes on.
I have probed these issues in the past and will continue to do so in the future. We will need to reconsider as time goes by, particularly in the next six months of Ireland's Presidency of the EU. We need to focus on these issues at every opportunity and recognise that nothing remains the same. Every new dawn brings a new challenge and a change of circumstances. If we are not prepared to change and evolve, we will be left behind in terms of our preparedness.
While some people have suggested there is no need for the Defence Forces, I profoundly disagree. In any democracy there will always be a necessity for authorities to back up the civil authorities when and if necessary.
In welcoming this legislation, I recognise the Minister is responding to something that has been sought for some time. Along with other members of the Defence Forces, the late Mr. Lucey believed an ombudsman was a necessary ingredient to deal with the issues that arise today and are likely to arise in future. While the culture today requires this, the culture in the past was somewhat different. Various other speakers have referred to this in the course of this debate.
The purpose of a military outfit is to toughen the people involved, to make them as aggressive as possible, competent, efficient, accountable and reliable. Without these important qualities, they fail to function as a military group. The degree to which they can depend on each other in all eventualities is critical to their existence, as it is to the existence of the rest of us who rely on them for defence and support. While toughening and the need to promote reliability is important, these can have the effect of pushing people into another area.
I believe Deputy Finian McGrath referred to Jack Nicholson. I do not propose to do my impersonation of Jack Nicholson and I am sure that Jack Nicholson would be unimpressed if he heard it.
Breaking the rules comes easily to the Deputy.
While I appreciate that, sometimes one goes along with the status quo. One learns over the years – this is borne out when watching that particular film – that because of the nature of the business, it is different from most occupations. It tends to encourage some degree of aggression in the individual. The important element is controlling that and converting it for productive purposes.
On a very few occasions in the past that aggression has exceeded the limits, often with tragic results. We have read of intense bullying, intimidation or aggression from within which caused serious problems for some of the people in other defence forces. While it is appalling that this should happen, that is the way it is. We have all heard of instances in the adjoining jurisdiction where extraordinary things happened in recent years, where the parents of teenagers or people in their early 20s had little recourse when their sons or daughters were alleged to have ended their lives. Those circumstances illustrate the necessity of introducing this Bill. The Minister and the military authorities are aware that where an individual feels he or she is assailed and besieged on all sides and has no recourse, things can end tragically. Unfortunately, in some circumstances tragedies have occurred.
The ombudsman will provide individuals with the opportunity to have their cases examined in an impartial manner. The complainant will be assured that he or she is being dealt with fairly. That will relieve a great deal of the tension, pressure and fear which people experience. The office of the ombudsman will represent a useful safety valve. Those within the Defence Forces who have grievances will see the issues they raise examined and reviewed. Following the process of review, they will know whether they had just cause for their complaint. The office will be able to separate the frivolous cases from the genuine. If it fails to eliminate frivolous and vexatious complaints, the entire structure will fall into disrepute.
The ombudsman will have special relevance to troops serving overseas. Members of the Defence Forces will serve overseas in greater numbers in the future and this type of service will become even more common than it has been. I hope that while serving with other nationalities in the field, soldiers will have recourse to the office of the Defence Forces ombudsman to resolve any difficulties they wish to bring to the attention of the authorities. It can be unnerving for young people in their late and not so late teens to find themselves thrust into circumstances over which they do not have full knowledge. They may not have been in similar situations before. These young men and women are entitled to the best protection and treatment we can provide. They must be secure in the knowledge that they have the support of the institutions of the State when they serve abroad.
With colleagues, I have visited soldiers abroad at various locations. We can be justly proud of our troops and the service they have given to the United Nations and the countries to which they have been posted. I have no doubt that they will continue to give the same level of service in the future. It is important to soldiers in foreign locations to know they can rely on the procedures which are available to them at home. If they can be protected by the system from bullying at home, there is no reason they should not be protected abroad. The ombudsman must be able to communicate with his or her counterparts in other defence forces. Where they do not exist, there must be a procedure whereby the ombudsman can take action.
We have all had the experience of dealing with the office of an ombudsman regarding social welfare, taxation, house grants and local authorities. I do not refer queries in that direction any longer as it takes a great deal of time to resolve a problem. These delays have been the result of staff shortages. I hope in the case of the military ombudsman that procedures exist which can be put into operation quickly and effectively. Parties to any complaint must have cases processed speedily. This is not to imply that cases should be dealt with abruptly but rather that they should be considered efficiently and effectively. Putting such procedures in place will greatly enhance the effectiveness of the office of the ombudsman.
Many Members have referred to bullying and, in some cases, unwanted sexual attention. These behaviours can arise in all walks of life. There has been a great deal of debate on this issue over the years. We must be clinical and insist that where it is made clear that attention of a sexual nature is unwanted, that should be the end of it. There should be no continued aggression, pursuit, bullying or intimidation. It has been suggested that superiors in various organisations outside the Defence Forces are in a position to take advantage of certain circumstances. I acknowledge that everybody is human, but this behaviour does not occur in the Defence Forces and it should never start. It cannot be allowed to occur because the morale of everybody involved is at stake. If a situation develops and a male or female is made to feel that they are at a disadvantage and under threat from peers or superiors, a serious problem will have arisen. The office of the ombudsman will reassure people in the unlikely event that behaviour of the sort I have outlined occurs.
The ombudsman's procedures should not interfere with other procedures. If one refers a tax or social welfare issue to an ombudsman, no other movement in respect of it may occur. As my colleague from south Kildare knows, a case may rest with an ombudsman for a year and a half or more. That would be a long time to have to wait for a dispute to be resolved. I am not too clear about what the scale of the intervention will be. What will be its schedule and timeframe in this case? Will the work of the ombudsman run concurrently with, for example, a potential court martial? Will a complaint made to the ombudsman be investigated first? I presume that a court or a court martial will be available in any event, regardless of whether the issue is brought before the ombudsman. Perhaps this matter should be teased out so that the normal sequence of events on either side is not impeded. It is something that the Minister might bear in mind. Perhaps he will refer to it in his reply as it is important to reassure those involved.
The last point I would like to make is—
I thought the Deputy's last point was his last point.
I keep coming up with last points when I am almost finished, unfortunately.
This is the final point.
It is. There should be a system of separating serious complaints from other complaints. A person who makes a complaint to the ombudsman, whether about a superior or a subaltern, should not have his or her privileges withdrawn. If the ombudsman's office is there to resolve difficulties, the person referring an issue to that office should not be blamed for doing so.
The House debated another Defence Forces issue some weeks ago, when the Minister for Defence proposed to send Irish troops to Liberia to support the United Nations peace mission there. All Members who spoke to support the motion referred to the inherent dangers involved in the mission, which is regarded by most people as possibly the most high-risk endeavour undertaken by the Defence Forces since their engagement in the Congo.
It was with great regret, therefore, that I noted the death of a member of the Army, Sergeant Derek Mooney, who was a member of the elite ranger wing. He died as a result of a motor accident 40 km south-east of Monrovia. It was an especially cruel twist of fate that this brave young man lost his life while he was working to set up a base camp for the rest of the Irish contingent, some of whom have arrived in Liberia which is still quite unstable. I join the expressions of sympathy to his parents, his fiancée, his family and his colleagues in the Defence Forces. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
It is also appropriate that I should extend good wishes for a speedy recovery to Sergeant Seán Baldwin of Newbridge, County Kildare, who was seriously injured in the same accident. Our thoughts are with him and his family at this difficult time.
It would be remiss of me, during a debate on an important Defence Forces issue in the immediate aftermath of the budget not to refer to the Government's decision to decentralise the headquarters of the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence to County Kildare.
The Deputy is "doing a Parlon".
I congratulate the Minister for Defence, Deputy Michael Smith, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy.
Fair play to the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon.
I congratulate all those involved in the process which led to the decision to locate the military headquarters at the Curragh Camp and the departmental headquarters at Newbridge.
Did Deputy Ó Fearghaíl send his leaflets out?
This logical, sound and sustainable move has been warmly welcomed in County Kildare. It comes at the end of a period of sustained investment by the Government in the Curragh Camp. The fact that the camp had been starved of cash was obvious to anyone who drove through it in the 1970s or 1980s. I am certain that the decentralisation initiative will be welcomed by Defence Forces personnel, who appreciate the unique nature of the Curragh Camp and will benefit from consolidation of investment there.
Tá áthas orm an seans seo a fháil labhairt ar an mBille. I am happy to have the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate on the Bill. Although the legislation has been in gestation for a long time, as other speakers have pointed out, it has received a welcome from all interested parties. I wish to be associated with the remarks of many Members, including the Minister, who referred to the work of the late Mr. John Lucey, who campaigned tirelessly for an ombudsman to be appointed. I did not know Mr. Lucey personally, but I met him on one occasion, the famous day in 1998 when Magee Barracks in Kildare closed for the last time. I am aware that he did stalwart work on behalf of the Defence Forces and the representative body, PDFORRA. It is appropriate that consultation on this legislative proposal has continued. I note that the Minister said he will accept amendments on Committee Stage that reflect the concerns raised by PDFORRA and RACO.
The purpose of the Bill is to establish an office of the ombudsman for the Defence Forces, to provide for the appointment, functions and staff of the ombudsman and to amend the Defence Act 1954. When this legislation has been enacted, it will have the potential to offer members of the Defence Forces a truly independent forum for dealing with complaints and injustices that can emerge. As other speakers have said, no organisation has the capacity to deal effectively with all types of complaints involving people at different levels of it. The Defence Forces is no different in this regard.
The present arrangements provide for recourse to the informal mechanism of an external civilian complaints inquiry officer who can investigate and make recommendations on individual complaints which are submitted to the Minister by members of the Defence Forces. Under the arrangements, the Minister has the power of discretionary reference of a complaint to the complaints inquiry officer. A review of this process carried out near the end of 1999 indicated that the officer was dealing with between 20 and 25 cases per annum. It was found that a particular demand existed at private and non-commissioned officer level. The process used was independent of the Defence Forces, the Department of Defence and the then Minister.
The new office of the ombudsman will be an independent statutory entity to which complaints can be forwarded in cases where complainants are not satisfied with the responses obtained from the military authorities to formal complaints under the Defence Act provisions for the redress of wrongs. The new office of the ombudsman will function as an entirely independent entity. It will have clear statutory powers of independent inquiry and investigation, closely modelled on those in the Ombudsman Act 1980. The powers of the new office will, however, reflect the unique circumstances and demands of the military environment. We must accept that the military environment is different from any other working environment.
We can see from the Liberian mission and many other missions undertaken in the past that society expects members of the Defence Forces to be ready to take major risks on our behalf and to lay their lives on the line, if necessary. They must undergo tough and robust training to take on this challenge successfully. They must be amenable and responsive to a strong chain of command. This does not mean, however, that they should be subjected to ridicule, verbal abuse, or harassment of any sort. Good military management should have regard to the dignity of each member of the Defence Forces. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case. The former Army captain, Dr. Tom Clonan, publicly exposed the issue of sexual discrimination and harassment of women soldiers.
It is to the credit of the Minister and the Chief of Staff of the Army that they moved swiftly to appoint Dr. Eileen Doyle to examine and report on these problems. We can see the justification for the provisions of the Bill when we consider that Dr. Doyle found that more than 30% of the soldiers who were surveyed had some difficulties as a result of harassment, bullying and discrimination. The Minister and the chief of staff have attempted to meet the needs of those who have suffered as a result of harassment or intimidation by establishing an independent and confidential helpline and counselling service. By enacting the Bill, the House will send a loud and clear message that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated in the Defence Forces.
It should be acknowledged that, by establishing an equality steering group to audit Defence Forces regulations and practices, the military authorities are beginning a process which should lead to greater participation by women in the Defence Forces, which is at a disappointingly low level of less than 5%.
I welcome the fact that the Bill is clear in setting out the type of complaint that shall not be investigated by the ombudsman, including areas considered inappropriate by the Minister for security reasons. It is equally important that, in such circumstances, the ombudsman may have recourse to the High Court. However, notwithstanding the difficulties which are being addressed in an honest and open way, it must be acknowledged that morale in Defence Forces is high and that members record a high level of job satisfaction. The Bill before us is one more initiative in building a secure and bright future for our Defence Forces, and I am happy to commend it to the House.
The last few weeks have been of major significance to the Defence Forces. They saw our first movement of troops to Liberia and, as an unfortunate result, the sad loss of Sergeant Derek Mooney. On behalf of the Labour Party, I would like to express my deepest sympathy to the family, friends and colleagues of Sergeant Mooney, the Minister and the chief of staff. It is obviously of major significance that such an occurrence should happen so early in a contingent's involvement in a foreign country. In the case of Liberia, there is such grave concern regarding members of our armed forces that it obviously set alarm bells ringing for families right across the country who had loved ones out there.
The Minister knows that great responsibility is thrust on him when he comes to the House to propose such a decision, and on the rest of us when we support it. It may be only for the day that we are really concerned at what has happened. Suddenly we see what has happened to Sergeant Mooney and other members of the Defence Forces in this regard. One can see how major the decision is and the degree of concern surrounding it. The House has made many decisions in that regard over the years since the first troops went to the Congo in 1960. One can see the responsibility of various Ministers for Defence, the decisions of the House to support the Minister for Defence down the years and the benefit reflected in our Defence Forces.
Down the years our Defence Forces have justly and proudly carried out their duties in many parts of the world. They have had major influence on the portrayal of Ireland as a peacekeeping nation of which each and every one of us can be proud. In latter years, many Members of this House have visited areas where Irish peacekeeping forces have been involved. One can, from contact and conversation with our counterparts in those countries, as well as ordinary people, see the benefit they derived from the involvement of Irish forces. It is to be welcomed that the decision has been made, however sad it may be that, in the early stages, we have suffered the loss of Sergeant Derek Mooney and that other members of our forces have been injured.
In the last few weeks, there have been significant changes regarding the Defence Forces, specifically, as Deputy Ó Fearghaíl has said, regarding our own constituency in south Kildare. Deputies Ó Fearghaíl, Power and I have welcomed the budget decision to relocate several Departments, particularly the Department of Defence to Newbridge and Army headquarters to the Curragh. One can see a great deal of logic in relocating Army headquarters to the Curragh, because it has always been the central focus of the Defence Forces. One can see what has happened in latter years regarding the major investment to upgrade many of the buildings. In some cases, this has involved demolishing and rebuilding them. That has had an effect on the local economy in terms of employment, material acquisition and the overall context of upgrading the Curragh. I welcome that fact. As a former spokesman on defence, I have had many debates with the Minister on that issue. There was satisfaction that the work was being done and being moved forward. There is still work to be done on infrastructure to facilitate the change.
For some time my sole concern has been the residential quarters at the Curragh which are in very poor repair. This issue has been the subject of debates in the House and questions have been asked of the Minister. I do not know what plans the Department of Defence has in that regard, whether it intends to change the Curragh to a completely military base or examine current residential quarters to see if they might be upgraded. Upgrading them may not be viable owing to their condition, yet members of the Defence Forces are living in married quarters. We will have to examine the decision to move the headquarters to the Curragh and the effect that will have on the general area. There will be a need to consider the residential aspect of such a decision to move several hundred jobs and its impact on the general Curragh and Newbridge area. However, it is the right decision and I welcome it.
Having this opportunity to speak on this important legislation, one remembers the efforts of the late John Lucey to ensure that the Minister brought it before the House. The Bill was sought at successive annual conferences by both representative associations, PDFORRA and RACO. In the debates that took place at the conferences between the Minister and the late John Lucey, this matter was always high on the agenda. In fairness to the Minister, he took on board the fact that the legislation was necessary. I do not remember any conference at which he stated the legislation was not necessary, but rather he pointed out it was a matter of time before it was introduced.
It is important to recognise the effort and time put into this legislation. I know from speaking to PDFORRA and RACO representatives that they welcome the fact that it is now approaching legislative form. It will be of major benefit to the Defence Forces, regardless of which section one is a member. The basis of the legislation is a desire on the part of PDFORRA and RACO for such a mechanism. That situation was created through the case histories brought to the associations over the years. Working within their remit as representative bodies, they were not in a position to deal with them. Had they attempted to use the mechanism that was there, they would have found it very cumbersome. That was the reason they prioritised this issue in their representations.
The workings of the present office of Ombudsman have received widespread acclaim and, as one who uses the office frequently, I thank the office for its staff's courtesy and efficiency over the years. One can only assume that the incoming ombudsman for the Defence Forces will have the same courtesy and efficiency in regard to Defence Force members. The investigative approach the current office has used has been effective.
The time taken between a complaint being made and when it is addressed is important. It is important that, when a complaint is made to the ombudsman's office, it is dealt with quickly because such complaints usually involve tension and have major implications for complainants because they will have used up every other mechanism, including their associations, and are fraught with anxiety and concern.
I am sure the Minister and the parliamentary counsel have, in the preparation of the Bill, used the experience garnered over the years by the Ombudsman. At present, when a complaint is made to the Ombudsman's office, a reply is given out immediately and there is constant contact with him or her and it is important this mechanism continues. Upon reading the Bill, one can see a relationship between it and the legislation used to establish the current Ombudsman.
Section 5 provides that even in cases involving secrecy, the ombudsman may take a case to the High Court to determine that a decision of the Minister is reflected in the decision not to permit the ombudsman to investigate it. That type of mechanism is important to representative associations in their annual general meetings and so on, in order that they can explain to members that the legislation is in favour of the complainant and the law is supportive of them in regard to their complaint, regardless of the Minister's actions in support of laws governing the Defence Forces.
I welcome the Bill. It was imperative that we recognised the Defence Forces representative associations. It is the Minister's recognition of their efforts at annual conference level which has put this provision in place. Other Deputies have referred to the need for the Bill in regard to bullying and sexual harassment, which aspects must be addressed. The mechanism has now been put in place to ensure that can happen. The Minister has the full support of the Labour Party in passing the Bill and I hope it will reach its conclusion as quickly as possible. I also hope that when it is on the Statute Book, the efforts of the various associations will be recognised, together with that of the Minister and his officials. The Bill was negotiated through a number of conferences to reach today's stage and I welcome it.
I wish to share time with Deputy Hayes.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
This is an important and welcome Bill. Having read Deputy McGinley's speech, I am fully conversant with the issues and their importance.
The Irish Army is significantly different to many other armies in that ours is primarily a peacekeeping force, which does not cause offence or take over countries. The role the Army has taken is a special one which has been recognised internationally in the number of times Irish troops have been asked to serve in peacekeeping forces. That they have done so efficiently and effectively is a credit to all those in the Army and augurs well for the new situation in Liberia where the Army is about to be deployed. The second group of soldiers to travel there is from Dundalk Barracks, and I have heard they are looking forward to the challenge and are equipped in the best and most modern manner. I am sure they will be an effective and efficient peacekeeping force there.
At the age of 16, I was lucky enough to have been able to join the FCA, although that is no longer allowed. A man from Drogheda and I were outside the billet in uniform, having finished our day's work, playing a game of splits in which a knife is thrown and the first person to fall is the loser. A strict sergeant picked up the knife, told us it was not allowed under regulations because it was a quarter of an inch too long and we were marched off by a corporal to the commandant in Gormanston. However, the commandant was Mr. Peter Sands, who is the director of elections for Fianna Fáil in Louth, and he had a word in the ear of the sergeant and told us to go off and enjoy ourselves. The commandant was our ombudsman on that occasion.
People can go to extremes in the Army when they get a little bit of power with their sergeant's stripes. It was a funny and silly occasion because it showed how much someone had grown too big for their boots and how wise Mr. Peter Sands handled the issue.
That is if the Deputy is telling the whole truth.
I am always accused of never saying anything good about Fianna Fáil, therefore, I am doing so now.
The exception proved the rule.
He put manners on the Deputy.
What happened at the previous general election is probably as a result of our good relationship. I received 47% of Fianna Fáil's transfers, even with another Fianna Fáil candidate running.
If the Deputy carries on saying such things, he could hold on to that percentage.
I hope we will take another seat the next time.
An ombudsman is necessary for the Army because of the hierarchical structure and the pressures of a modern army. As other Deputies have said, difficult situations arise and people can be deeply wronged by others who make a decision on the field in the heat of battle, which cannot be easily resolved under present circumstances. An individual could go many years under a slight wrongly put on them by someone who made a poor decision and blamed the individual for it.
It is important that this Bill should be enacted and the ombudsman appointed. It is also important for clarity and transparency of decision-making that the person appointed is apart from the regular Army. The person chosen to fill the position will be obliged to have broad knowledge of life in the Defence Forces. That should be one of the major criteria used because the person must be able to understand the type of situations that will arise. Soldiers who feel aggrieved will welcome the fact that a proper appeals process, separate from the command structure, will be in place and will be transparent, open and fair. That is the essence of the Bill.
The role of the ombudsman will be similar to that of ombudsmen in other jurisdictions. Deputy McGinley outlined the position in Canada and other European countries and the different roles played by ombudsmen in these places. If a serving soldier knows that his rights will be protected, above and beyond his natural expectation of fairness and fair play within his unit, that is good and proper.
I was previously employed as a teacher and I worked with many young people for whom careers in the Army were always attractive. The Air Corps, which was based at Gormanston, was chosen by many people from Drogheda and Dundalk because they could serve and live locally. There is a tremendous tradition of military service and commitment in Drogheda. Another politician with military connections in the town is the former Deputy, Michael Bell, who served as a lieutenant there for many years. Drogheda has many connections with the Defence Forces, particularly the FCA. The Army taught us all some of the organisational—
The Deputy is further widening the scope for vote transfers in the constituency.
Yes, we obtained 52% of them on the last occasion. That was slightly less than we would have expected. Be that as it may, Michael Bell has again entered the fray in Drogheda politics. This is an important and useful Bill and those in the Defence Forces will benefit greatly from it.
Beidh mé ag caint as Gaeilge go ceann bomaite. Fáiltím roimh an Bhille seo, agus measaim go ndéanfaidh sé feabhas mór i ngáthshaol an ghnáthshaighdiúra. Molaim an Bille, agus tá súil agam go dtiocfaidh post nua an choimisinéara nó ombudsman isteach chomh luath agus is féidir. Tá sé ana-thábhachtach go dtarlóidh sé sin.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. This is the first occasion on which I have been able to contribute on a Bill that is being steered through the Dáil by my fellow countyman, the Minister, Deputy Smith. It would be remiss of me if I did not compliment the Deputy on the job he is doing in his capacity as Minister with responsibility for the Defence Forces. We always watch with pride when he inspects guards of honour, be they at home or in some other jurisdiction. Wherever the Minister goes, he does an excellent job and takes his work seriously. Many of his duties involve supporting the Army in its peacekeeping role in troublespots throughout the world. It is a proud job for anyone to be obliged to do, particularly in light of the reputation the members of the Army have built up as excellent keepers of the peace.
I recall, as a young man in Tipperary, when members of the Army went to the Congo on peacekeeping duties. A young man who played hurling for the local parish and as a minor for Tipperary was one of those to go. There was a great deal of sadness when he left. However, there was also much joy and I remember his visit to our school when he explained what he would be doing out there. I was extremely impressed by the man whose name was Seán Warren. The Minister will recall that Seán, who was a fine looking and articulate man, died of cancer at a young age. I have no doubt that he would have reached the very highest ranks in the Army had he lived.
The Army does great work, of which it can be proud, but many ordinary people do not understand the nature of it. The Army authorities should consider sending representatives into the schools to explain to members of the younger generation the role played by soldiers and the excellent work they do worldwide. It is a pity that such visits do not occur at present because they would provide young people with living examples of those who have travelled to other parts of the world to keep the peace. These visits, and the example of those involved in peacekeeping, would engender in young people respect for law and order. Last week representatives of my county council visited the schools in the locality and handed out prizes for tidy schools and a clean environment. The presentation and the remarks made by the chairman of the council and his officials will make a lasting impression. The Army should consider doing something similar in our schools.
There is an Army barracks situated in Clonmel in my constituency. It would be remiss of me not to mention the esteem in which the Army is held in south Tipperary. People were concerned some years ago that the barracks would be closed down and I am delighted that it has remained open. I hope it will remain in place for many years. The barracks is a great source of employment for people in the town. The Army was first to offer help during the flooding in Clonmel. It has always stepped in when needed. Some years ago it became involved when the local petrol stations went on strike.
People should have pride in the Army and I am delighted that the Bill has been introduced. This is the fourth ombudsman's office to be established since the foundation of the State. The Ombudsman Act 1980 established the first such office. The pensions ombudsman was appointed under Part 3 of the Pensions (Amendment) Act 2002, while the Office of the Ombudsman for Children is covered by the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002.
It is interesting to compare the powers, responsibilities and limitations of each office. The Cabinet has less power over the Ombudsman than it will have over the proposed Defence Forces ombudsman. The President appoints the Ombudsman on the recommendation of a concurrent resolution of the Dáil and Seanad and not on the recommendation of Government, as will be the case with the Defence Forces ombudsman. The Ombudsman Act 1980, not a Minister, fixes the retirement age and compensation of the Ombudsman. He or she, apart from resigning on reaching retirement age, may be removed from office by the President in cases of misbehaviour, incapacity or bankruptcy if so recommended by the Dáil or Seanad. The Defence Forces ombudsman can be removed if a decision is made by the Government and both Houses of the Oireachtas. The vital difference between the two offices is that the President is omitted from consultation about the Defence Forces ombudsman. Otherwise, the Ombudsman is similar to the Defence Forces ombudsman in the manner in which he or she carries out investigations.
The Ombudsman Act 1980 does not contain the same accountability provisions, including requirements and provisions for appearing before committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas, contained in this Bill. The Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 established the position of Ombudsman for Children. The President appoints him or her on the nomination of the Dáil and Seanad. The term of office is set at six years and the retirement age is fixed at 67. The President can remove the Ombudsman for Children for due causes, with prior approval of the Dáil or Seanad, provided they are among those laid down in the Statute. As in the case of the proposed Defence Forces ombudsman and the pensions Ombudsman, the relevant Minister, in this case the Minister for Health and Children, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, determines compensation.
The Bills establishing the three previous ombudsman positions set the retirement age at 67 years. By contrast, the retirement age for the proposed Defence Forces ombudsman may, under the Bill, be set by the Minister for Defence. Why is that?
We must compare the proposed Defence Forces ombudsman to those established in other western democracies like Canada, the United States and other European countries. The mandate and powers of the ombudsman for the Canadian defence forces are laid down in departmental and administrative orders and directives. These are to act as a sounding board and mediator within the Canadian Department of National Defence and the Canadian defence forces, to provide information and referral for existing methods of redress within the Canadian defence forces and to assist in making long-term improvements in the welfare of employees and members of the that force.
There are numerous differences between how the Canadian ombudsman and the proposed ombudsman for the Defence Forces may investigate complaints. Whereas the latter may investigate specific cases where the normal means of dispute-resolution fails to satisfy the complainant, the former investigates complaints to review the existing process for handling complaints to ensure it is fair.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Before I comment on its detail, I would like to thank and commend our Defence Forces for their excellent work at home and abroad and, in particular, their work with the United Nations peacekeeping missions. Many have paid the ultimate price for the cause of international peace. It is important we recognise their bravery, integrity and professionalism. I thank them and their families for their efforts.
The purpose of the Bill is to establish the office of ombudsman for the Defence Forces, to provide for the appointment, functions and staff of that office and to amend the Defence Act 1954. I welcome this as an attempt to ensure equality, fairness and justice in our Defence Forces. I will come back to this issue later in the debate.
Section 2 provides for the establishment of the office of the ombudsman for the Defence Forces and for the appointment by the President, on the recommendation of the Government, of the ombudsman. This section also provides that the ombudsman should hold office on such terms and conditions as the Minister, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, may determine and specifies those not eligible to fill the appointment. The section also prescribes how the office may be vacated and provides that the retirement age will be as prescribed by regulations.
I welcome section 4, which provides for the functions of the ombudsman and sets out the nature of the complaints that may be investigated by him or her when it appears that the complaint is not likely to be resolved by the military authorities by way of the redress procedures prescribed in the Defence Act 1954. It also provides the circumstances in which the ombudsman may not carry out or discontinue an investigation. Having regard to the fact that the Department of Defence is already within the remit of the Ombudsman appointed under the Ombudsman Act 1980, while the Defence Forces are not, this section also provides that a complaint may be made either to the Ombudsman appointed under the Ombudsman Act 1980 or the ombudsman appointed under this legislation about an administrative action taken by a civil servant in the Department of Defence, but that it may not subsequently be made to the other ombudsman.
On first reading the Bill, I immediately thought of the late, great Captain James Kelly who served his country with honour, bravery and integrity even though elements in political and military circles destroyed his career. This is particularly relevant to section 5(1), which sets out the provisions for dealing with an action complained of that has been or is the subject of investigation under military law or relates to a military action. In this regard, I ask if the late Captain James Kelly would have been dismissed or have suffered so much if this legislation had been in place back then? It is essential we face up to this reality in this debate. I deplore the actions of successive Governments and Ministers in this regard. Why did successive Governments hide or run from the truth?
At the funeral of Captain Kelly, Tim Pat Coogan referred to him as the Irish Dreyfus, an apt analogy. Both army officers were sacrificed by their respective states and by unprincipled politicians. Captain Dreyfus was vindicated after a few years, was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was honoured by the French state. However, Captain Kelly spent 30 years struggling to vindicate his name. After his acquittal at the Arms Trial in 1970, he was denied his Army pension for a period by the Lynch Administration. The future looked bleak for an unemployed Army officer, but he was ably and loyally supported by his wife, Sheila, and family.
Captain Kelly was a gutsy individual who was not prepared to suffer victimhood, so he fought back. Most of his contemporaries in the Army accept he would have reached the upper echelons of his service had not politicians destroyed his career. States can easily crush individuals but they did not succeed with Captain Kelly because he fought back in every forum and won. I say won, because the legalistic pronouncements of the State, both before and after his death, may not have been as explicit as he deserved. Nevertheless, most citizens believe a great wrong was done to him, somewhat like the story of Robert Emmet, written about by detached historians as a failure, but in the minds of the people a great patriot. With his irrepressible energy, honesty and integrity, Captain Kelly was not only a beacon for Northern Nationalists, he was a beacon for all Irish people. In debating this Bill dealing with the appointment of an ombudsman for the Defence Forces, I could not miss the opportunity to refer to the great miscarriage of justice involving the late Captain Kelly.
Sections 11 and 12 are standard provisions relating to the accountability of the office of the ombudsman for the Defence Forces to the Committee of Public Accounts and others. This is in line with similar provisions in legislation governing other independent offices.
I support these sections as I always welcome and support the idea of accountability of all pubic servants, especially in our Defence Forces.
Sections 14 to 16 contain standard provisions relating to the office, staff, investigation officers, the keeping of proper accounts and their submission to the Comptroller and Auditor General. These provisions are in line with similar provisions covering other independent offices. These are old and valuable principles and we should never ignore the need for keeping proper accounts, especially where taxpayers money is concerned. It is essential that we do not lose sight of these goals, especially in light of the ongoing tribunals.
I wish to raise the issue of the role of the Defence Forces. As this is in the public eye, it is essential that we reflect on the direction this country is taking. I have no problems with peacekeeping and I welcome our intervention in Liberia. While this mission is positive, it is also risky. However, I have major problems with elements in society that want to take our Defence Forces and defence policies in another direction. I am talking about people that hold negative attitudes to the UN and seem to have a positive attitude to groups like NATO.
I have major problems with NATO and other nuclear clubs. Let us call a spade a spade – nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction. I do not want to see Ireland becoming involved with groups that hold nuclear weapons. It is essential that we tell large countries like America and Britain to get off the high moral ground regarding their presence in Iraq and the question of weapons of mass destruction. It is a pity that the governments of those countries did not get the message when more than 200,000 recently marched in London and nearly 100,000 marched in Dublin before the war.
What is happening in Shannon Airport is a disgrace. The Government's silence on it is out of order and I challenge the Minister for Foreign Affairs on it. He appears to be keeping his head in the sand so that he does not upset certain people in America. He is compromising our neutrality and our allegiance to the UN. Ireland should be trying to prevent wars and should not tip its cap to the US and Britain. While it is a question of integrity for our Defence Forces, it is also a question of public safety. It is a sad day for this country when a civilian airport is used for military purposes. This can cause a risk to the safety of all our people, but especially those in Clare and Limerick.
People often talk about public safety. I find it amazing that they do not refer to the landing and taking off at Shannon Airport of cargo aeroplanes under military control. These craft, which are laden with weapons, take refuelling stops at Shannon. I am speaking of weapons like the 28 patriot missiles carried in one aeroplane. Each of these missiles contains 44 kg of high explosives and 498 kg of rocket fuel. Substantial quantities of mark 77 airdrop incendiary bombs have been shipped through Shannon. There have been overflights of US aeroplanes, each carrying more than 40 cruise missiles across the Irish countryside. An unknown amount of bombs, explosives and munitions have carried through Ireland under US military control during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Much of this is in breach of Irish law.
There have been at least two emergencies involving military aeroplanes this year. An aeroplane carrying 221 soldiers experienced engine failure while a cargo aeroplane suffered a fire onboard. In both cases, access was denied to Irish authorities. These are potential accidents that could cause untold damage. Between January and September 2003, 92,617 American soldiers passed through Shannon Airport. I raise these issues in the interests of public safety and in terms of the foreign policy of this State.
It is important that I highlight what is happening here regarding our Defence Forces. I am reminded of the many cases where our troops have made valuable contributions, such as in Lebanon. Irish troops had a fantastic record of working with local communities and on peacekeeping missions. This is the direction in which our defence forces go.
I welcome the Bill and believe an ombudsman is urgently needed for our Defence Forces to ensure we have equality, fairness and justice. The position must be filled by someone with experience and integrity. Earlier, we discussed the valuable role the Army has played in UN peacekeeping. The Liberia mission, in which the Defence Forces are serving, is a dangerous one and we must be conscious of the risks. The Liberian conflict is political, with the use of drugs and child soldiers mixed through it. I have supported the intervention as I feel it is the correct thing to do. The way forward for our Defence Forces must always be through the UN. I hope the Minister ensures that our troops are given the maximum political and moral support, that they have professional support and are properly equipped to deal with this mission.
Irish troops have always been respected and seen as impartial and this should be a valuable weapon in this conflict. The record of the Defence Forces is one of professionalism and human rights. We all know their background in building positive relationships with local communities in different countries throughout the world. I recently visited Colombia as an observer at the trial of three Irish citizens and saw an army that was negatively involved with the local community, especially the poor. I was shocked to hear from lawyers, human rights groups and members of the Red Cross of the role of the army in the Colombian conflict. Many members of the army are linked to right-wing death squads and have killed many people and destroyed many villages. I cite this because it is not the kind of army I want to see being brought about here. We do not have such an army and I commend our forces for always retaining professionalism, impartiality and respect for human rights and dignity. Our track record in this, ranging from our involvement in the Congo to Lebanon and now in Liberia, is excellent.
It is essential that, when the position of ombudsman is filled, all soldiers within the Defence Forces are treated with equality and respect. We have a number of problems within the forces and these must be dealt with professionally. I have already raised the issues of bullying and sexual harassment and these must be taken seriously. I am confident that the person appointed to this position will take on board the views of the members of the Defence Forces.
This is a progressive and valuable Bill and I will support it.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. It has been welcomed by most speakers and, I am sure, will be welcomed by members of the Defence Forces. The Bill was published in January 2002 and provides for the establishment of an office of the ombudsman for the Defence Forces and that the holder will be independent in the performance of his functions.
The only connection my parish has with the Defence Forces is in the shape of Peadar Clancy who was a member of the organisation in the early years of the State. Clancy Barracks in Dublin was named after him and is due to be sold. There is a bust of Peadar Clancy in my native Kildysert and the people of the area are proud of the contribution he made to the Army. While I regret that that barracks are up for sale, I hope the funds derived from the sale will provide for the upgrading of other barracks for the Defence Forces. This will allow them to have comfortable surroundings.
The ombudsman will be appointed by the President, who is the supreme commander of the Defence Forces, on the recommendation of the Government. The Defence Forces consist of the Army, the Naval Service and the Air Corps, all of which have an important role. The role of the Defence Forces, as set out by the Government, is to defend the State and aid the Garda Síochána when requested. We are all familiar with the convoys of jeeps that escort the Garda squad cars and the cash transit vehicles.
The most important role the Defence Forces now play is in international peacekeeping missions for the United Nations. They serve in various countries in Africa and the Far East. They also provide a fishery protection service. They engage in search and rescue missions, run an air ambulance service and are involved in Government travel. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Michael Smith, has travelled with them on many occasions in his role as Minister for Defence.
The role of the Defence Forces has changed very much in recent times, as has society. It is important that we have modern Defence Forces capable of dealing with modern warfare. This morning on Sky News I heard that the British Defence Forces claim they too must change to meet modern warfare needs. Therefore, the issue under discussion is topical.
I note that four ombudsman offices deal with various complaints from the public. The first Ombudsman was Michael Mills, whose office was established in the 1980s. It is important that there be an independent system of appeal in respect of complaints, whether they pertain to the State or bodies under its aegis. It is only right that our Defence Forces would have an independent ombudsman to deal with the various problems that arise. It is only in recent times that the Defence Forces were granted their own representative bodies, PDFORRA and RACO. We all remember the late John Lucey, the former general secretary of PDFORRA, and the excellent work he did on behalf of his members. He campaigned vigorously for the establishment of an office of a Defence Forces ombudsman and it is fitting that this position will now be created as a result of his tireless work.
People will have complaints in any institution. As various Members have stated, complaints in the Defence Forces include harassment, including sexual harassment, and bullying. Although a complaints procedure was available to members of the Defence Forces under section 114 of the Defence Act 1954, it was a case of policemen investigating each other and was not acceptable. The introduction of a Defence Forces ombudsman will remove any bias and make the system fairer for the members involved.
The Doyle report in 2002 examined the complaints of many members of the Defence Forces and, interestingly, found that 20% to 30% of the soldiers interviewed had grievances, many of which were significant. The report was useful and helped prepare the way for the Defence Forces ombudsman.
I note from the Bill that the ombudsman will be provided with staff, including investigation officers. I hope the cutbacks in the Civil Service announced last year by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, will not affect the staffing of the ombudsman's office and that the necessary finance will be made available for this purpose and for the purchase of equipment.
I welcome certain provisions in the Bill that are in line with similar provisions in legislation governing other independent offices. These include a provision for a superannuation scheme for the ombudsman and accountability to the Committee of Public Accounts. Deputy Perry, who will speak on the Bill shortly, will note that. The ombudsman will also be accountable to other Oireachtas committees.
I understand the ombudsman system has worked well in other countries. I believe I was present in the Chamber on 25 November last when Deputy McGinley referred to successful ombudsman systems in various countries, such as Canada and Australia. I hope that former members of the Defence Forces will be able to use the ombudsman's office to address problems they have had. Through my constituency work, I have been in touch with the Minister regarding ex-Army officers from the 1940s and 1950s who still have some grievances. He did his best to investigate these matters for me.
I wish the troops well who are setting up camps in Liberia, including the Army rangers. I hope they have a safe peacekeeping mission. Like other speakers, I sympathise with the family of Sergeant Derek Mooney who was killed recently in a road accident in Liberia. I welcome the Bill and hope it has a speedy transition through the House.
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis na cainteoirí uile, ní amháin um thráthnóna ach ar an lá deireanach, a chabhraigh leis an mBille agus, go h-áirithe, iadsan a thacaíonn na Fórsaí Cosanta agus a misiúin ar fud an domhain.
I thank the Deputies who contributed to the debate, especially for their messages of condolence to Sergeant Derek Mooney's fiancée and family, for their good wishes to Seán Baldwin and for their unquestionable support of the Defence Forces in their work at home and especially on foreign missions, including the present mission to Liberia.
I indicated in my opening remarks that I propose to table a number of amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage. These will represent a positive response to certain concerns raised with me by PDFORRA after its reflection on the published Bill. The House can be assured that any amendments proposed that are fundamentally consistent with the general spirit and objectives of the Bill will be examined fairly and objectively and in a positive frame of mind.
The Bill seeks to build upon the practical experience gained from the operation of the informal complaints inquiry officer mechanism from 1996. Specifically, I have sought to address directly the perceived shortcomings within that system from the viewpoint of Defence Forces personnel. The Bill was drafted as a direct and positive response to these legitimate views.
The political commitment I made to introduce an independent ombudsman for the Defence Forces arose from the convincing and passionate advocacy of the case for a new statutory Defence Forces ombudsman made by the late John Lucey, the then general secretary of PDFORRA. Many Deputies have paid tribute to him. In effect, this legislation can be viewed as a worthy posthumous tribute to John Lucey's tireless and dedicated campaign for the provision of an independent Defence Forces ombudsman.
This legislation will in time come to be seen as an entirely new point of departure for redress procedures within the Defence Forces. It is difficult nowadays to argue against the concept of providing access for appeal to an independent authority with clear statutory powers of investigation in cases where a complainant remains dissatisfied with the official response to a complaint. The existence of other ombudsman positions within the statutory public realm challenges the lack of provision of comparable statutory arrangements for the Defence Forces. There are parameters of common sense within which such a provision must work. The occupational environment of the Defence Forces is unique and this must be reflected realistically in the legislation if we are to produce a mechanism which will work.
One consistent theme in all contributions was the Doyle report. A significant number of improvements have been put in place, as have a raft of effective mechanisms to guarantee improved circumstances. These include a 24-hour confidential helpline which has already been established and a range of measures designed to ensure the victim has a number of options which will encourage him or her to seek help. Other measures being put in place include a new policy on interpersonal relations which includes formal and informal mechanisms for dealing with complaints.
As this report was referred to on so many occasions, it is only proper for me as Minister for Defence to say that this was an exhaustive, comprehensive and searching analysis of all aspects of discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment. Ours is one of the organisations of significant size which has undertaken this exhaustive work and I am satisfied we have taken steps other organisations could benefit from in facing up to these realities. We have had a positive response at all levels as we try to ensure, as Deputies requested, that these problems are consigned to the past.
Regarding Deputy Hayes's suggestions, some years ago we began reviewing troops away from barracks before they went abroad and we have been to Roscrea, Templemore, Roscrea, Cavan and other places. This gave the public fantastic exposure not just to the demonstrative effect of what was happening on the day but to opportunities for recruitment, showing our wares and generally making the public aware of the Defence Forces. There is greater awareness now but there is always more we can do. The Army bands have approximately 400 engagements during the year, for example, many of which are in first and second level schools. I will take Deputy Hayes's suggestion on board because there are always other ways for us to improve what we do.
Deputy Gormley asked about our missions around the world. Any future situations requiring an ombudsman, a complaints officer or the involvement of the Defence Forces hierarchy will be dealt with by our Army. Complaints made anywhere will be dealt with in the same way.
I am glad we have been able to move the Bill on to Committee Stage. There are suggestions that we may be able to take Committee Stage in the middle of January and I look forward to bringing amendments we are contemplating forward at that stage, as well as dealing as sympathetically as I can with the recommendations of other Deputies.