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Defence Forces

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 30 September 2021

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Questions (93, 103)

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

93. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Defence the number of protected disclosures relating to the Defence Forces that have been made to the office of the Minister for Defence in the past ten years; the subject matter concerned; and the action that was taken on foot of the information supplied to him or his predecessors by serving or former members of the Defence Forces or by members of the public or departmental officials. [47070/21]

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Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

103. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Defence if his attention has been drawn to any members of the Defence Forces who has made protected disclosures to him or his Department and who has been victimised as a consequence; and the action that has been taken to ensure whistleblowers have full protections. [47071/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Defence)

My question is how many protected disclosures relating to the Defence Forces have been made to the Minister or previous Ministers for Defence in the past ten years, and the subject matter concerning those protected disclosures. I understand the Minister cannot go beyond that, but I will follow up with a further question.

I thank the Deputy for the questions, which are linked to Deputy Connolly’s question, and this gives me a bit of time to answer it.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 93 and 103 together.

In accordance with the terms of section 22 of the Protected Disclosure Act 2014, an annual report on the total number of protected disclosures made in the preceding year is prepared and published on the Department's website. This report is required to be prepared and published not later than 30 June in each year in relation to the immediate preceding year in a form which does not enable the identification of the persons involved. The report contains the number of protected disclosures made to the public body; the action, if necessary, taken in response to those protected disclosures; such other information relating to those protected disclosures; and the action taken as may be requested by the Minister from time to time.

The following are the numbers of protected disclosures received in the years 2014, to date. In 2014 it was two; in 2015 it was three; in 2016 it was two; in 2017 it was 11; in 2018 it was four; in 2019 it was four; in 2020 it was 12; and 2021 it was ten. These numbers relate to the total number of disclosures made to the defence organisation. They are not broken down further into the allocation of the disclosure, which is in keeping with the confidentiality requirements specified in the 2014 Act. The making of a disclosure by a member of a formation does not necessarily mean the disclosure relates to that formation. No civil servant in the Department of Defence has made a protected disclosure. Section 16 of the Act provides that, subject to exemptions, "A person to whom a protected disclosure is made, and any person to whom a protected disclosure is referred in the performance of that person’s duties, shall not disclose to another person any information that might identify the person by whom the protected disclosure was made."

On this basis, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the specific detail that may identify a discloser. Information disclosed to me relates to a broad range of issues, including administrative, financial, regulatory, and health and safety issues. This latter category includes bullying and harassment.

Each disclosure is assessed by officials in a joint civil-military protected disclosures office. Based on their initial assessment, courses of action are recommended to me. These can include the use of internal procedures where information relates to personal employment matters, the appointment of an external reviewer or the transfer of information to appropriate statutory authorities that have powers of investigation, that is to say, An Garda Síochána or others.

The Protected Disclosures Act 2014 provides for independent mechanisms whereby claims of penalisation for making a disclosure can be adjudicated. In the case of members of the Defence Forces, the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces is empowered to deal with claims of penalisation. Based on the above, I am satisfied there are sufficient safeguards and processes in place to provide protection to disclosers.

The linked question, No. 103, asked if the Minister's attention has been drawn to any members of the Defence Forces who have made protected disclosures to him or his Department and who have been victimised as a consequence, and the action taken to give those whistleblowers full protection. I know of one whistleblower who was discharged on Monday. The reason for his discharge was he was regarded as a maligner and an idler. I will not disclose his name because I have not spoken to him directly to allow this. He is no longer a member of the Defence Forces. He was discharged as a result of an illness he got while in the Defence Forces. He was marginalised and regarded as a person who was of no benefit to the Defence Forces.

There are quite a number of such individuals. Another former Defence Forces member has sent emails to me, which I know the Minister has received as well, and he has reminded him 70 times of a litany of sexual abuse of male members of the Defence Forces. The discloser has written to a number of people about this. The allegations made are serious in the extreme, and some of them could stand up in court. I understand the Minister's hands are tied. However, there are whistleblowers, three of whom have been discharged from the Air Corps in the past three years. That suggests there is something odd going on.

I am somewhat limited in what I say, because if I comment on the content of any protected disclosure I have received, I am at risk of identifying somebody or of breaking the law, and I obviously do not want to do that. All I can say is we have a system in the Department to deal with protected disclosures. Our Secretary General takes that very seriously. We act on protected disclosures as we deem necessary and appropriate in a way that is consistent with our legal obligations. There is an absolute obligation on us to protect those making a protected disclosure regardless of the issues they raise and to keep the details of their protected disclosure confidential in the appropriate way, and we will continue to do so. Sometimes it results in the setting up of an investigation. Sometimes we refer a file to An Garda Síochána. Sometimes we ask a senior counsel to make recommendations in advising us how to proceed. There are different ways of responding to a protected disclosure but we need to protect the individuals involved.

I understand that, and that is why I was trying to be careful in my own comments that I was not identifying, but I know of some of these protected disclosures and what is contained in them because they have made them to me or to other Members of this House. Some of these disclosures relate to the Air Corps and some to the Army. Some of them have been found to be correct in the information they presented to Ministers, yet no action seems to have been taken.

I presume the Minister accepts it is a big step for somebody in one of the military establishments to go against the chain of command, to go outside the circle, and that means he or she does not have faith. Does the Minister accept there are quite a number of members of the Defence Forces who do not have faith in the internal mechanisms to address problems within the Defence Forces, problems as serious as racism, sexual abuse and bullying, as we have seen from earlier questions?

From my experience, when people join the Defence Forces, they are loyal to the Defence Forces and to the country. That is why they serve their country. Part of their training is to reinforce that loyalty to the system they are part of, which involves a command structure that is very different from any other form of employment. For someone to go against that means he or she is effectively going against the grain. This week I met serving members of the Defence Forces as well as the women of honour, and it takes a lot of courage to speak out in the way they are doing so very directly to me. In many ways, they are committed and loyal to the Defence Forces and its future. Speaking out or issuing a protected disclosure against an organisation you are committing a career to is something that needs to be taken very seriously, and it is

Questions Nos. 94 and 95 answered with Question No. 92.
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