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Defence Forces

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 30 September 2021

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Questions (92, 94, 95, 108, 112, 130, 131, 137, 142)

Violet-Anne Wynne


92. Deputy Violet-Anne Wynne asked the Minister for Defence the status of the investigation as a result of a campaign (details supplied); if he is considering an inquiry to report back on the steps his Department has taken to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47127/21]

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Marian Harkin


94. Deputy Marian Harkin asked the Minister for Defence the mechanism of expression of interest, interview, assessment and or evaluation by which the nominees to the inquiry to investigate the disturbing disclosures of sexual violence, sexual assault and rape in the Defence Forces will be appointed given his statement that arrangements for same are at an advanced stage. [46913/21]

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Holly Cairns


95. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Defence the steps he is taking to improving reporting mechanisms for Defence Forces personal experiencing sexual abuse, harassment and bullying. [46659/21]

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Catherine Connolly


108. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Defence the status of the independent review into allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the Defence Forces; the person or body that will carry out the review; the terms of reference for the review; the timeline for the review; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47155/21]

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Holly Cairns


112. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Defence if he will establish a full independent investigation to determine the extent of sexual abuse, harassment and assault in the Defence Forces. [46658/21]

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Michael McNamara


130. Deputy Michael McNamara asked the Minister for Defence if he will outline the changes that have been made to the process whereby discrimination allegations are reviewed by his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47133/21]

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Gino Kenny


131. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Defence the current status of his engagement with a group (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47150/21]

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Mick Barry


137. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Defence the steps taken to investigate recent allegations of sexual harassment in the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47147/21]

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Alan Farrell


142. Deputy Alan Farrell asked the Minister for Defence the measures that are being taken to address claims of abuse within the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46098/21]

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Oral answers (18 contributions) (Question to Defence)

My question is to ask the Minister for Defence the status of the investigation into the claims made by the Women of Honour campaign, whether he is considering an enquiry to report back on the steps his Department has taken to date and whether he can give the date as to when it will commence.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 92, 94, 95, 108, 112, 130, 131, 137 and 142 together.

As the Deputy will be aware, a number of other Deputies have submitted questions on this important matter, to which I have responded.  In that respect, the House will be aware of the actions being taken to establish an independent review, which will be undertaken by external, independent and unbiased experts.  The review will examine the effectiveness of current policies and procedures dealing with workplace issues, such as dignity, bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination. 

I had the opportunity to meet with participants from the Women of Honour group and with a group of serving members of the Defence Forces on Tuesday of this week, where I listened carefully to their views. I have given my commitment that the serious issues they have raised will be comprehensively addressed. The terms of the review are being finalised and will be considered in light of the issues raised by the Women of Honour group and the group of serving female members at recent meetings. Further engagement with stakeholders, including the representative associations, will additionally inform the final terms of the review. We are also organising the structure that the Women of Honour will be comfortable with, I hope, in an ongoing engagement to make sure we are not missing anything for which they are asking, before we finalise the terms of the review.

Arising from the 2002 publication of the external advisory committee on the Defence Forces and the three subsequent reports from the independent monitoring group, a number of reforms were implemented in the intervening years for addressing allegations of inappropriate behaviour, including sexual harassment, harassment and bullying, which are contained in regulation and policy documents. While there has been progress in recent years, it is clear from the views expressed to me that the pervading culture and the application of the current policies, systems and procedures in place for dealing with bullying, harassment, discrimination and sexual harassment and assault have not served, and are not serving, all Defence Forces personnel well.

The independent review, which had been under consideration for several months, is timely and necessary and needs to be undertaken without delay.  It is also my intention to bring the final report from this review to Government. I know, from my discussions with these women, that they are seeking change to ensure the Defence Forces of the future is a place where inappropriate behaviour is not tolerated and where all individuals, both men and women, can reach their full potential in safety and in a positive environment. I can also confirm I am looking to establish interim solutions to support Defence Forces members, past or present, affected by these issues. Options are under consideration. Deputy Gannon and others have raised a number of suggestions in that space, which we will take on board.

I assure the Deputies that the Chief of Staff, Secretary General and I, are absolutely committed to providing a safe place of work for all employees in the defence organisation, both male and female. All individuals have a right to be treated with respect, equality and dignity in the workplace and to carry out their duties free from any form of bullying, gender discrimination, or harassment, to reach their full potential.

I ask that no assumptions be made by this House, Members or the Minister about earlier statements that this involves a minority of members of the Defence Forces. I ask that all be withheld until after the inquiry. It is dismissive, unhelpful and disrespectful to the women who have come forward. The Minister has met with the five former Defence Force members and 14 current members. Those involved in the Women of Honour campaign felt the meeting was beneficial and positive. I ask that this engagement be committed to and it should be ongoing. What will be done about those who are currently involved in the Defence Forces?

I have listened to the Minister's responses this morning and I am glad he has done a complete U-turn on the inquiry to be set up to investigate these allegations made by the Women of Honour. All of us were shocked and sickened that women of different ages had to go on public radio and bear their souls and private lives to bring about real change. When I heard a young member of the Defence Forces saying she was pinned against the counter and sexually assaulted, and all she could say to a senior officer was "Yes, Sir", it absolutely sickened me and I felt such rage and anger on her behalf. That is why I put down the detailed question to the Minister regarding the procedures and processes he will use to appoint people to this inquiry to make sure it is independent.

I welcome the inquiry and the U-turn. I pay tribute to the women and to the journalist who made the documentary. It was courageous. I listened on my way back from holidays. Three of us were in a car and we did not open our mouths as we listened to it. The terms of reference are important as well as the time within which the review will be completed, the women being central to the terms of reference, a date for its completion and publication, and a review of all the reports that have been done, with a view to publicising them. This goes back more than three decades. What happened, internally, regarding Dr. Tom Clonan's research on sexual and physical abuse? What records do the Defence Forces keep on the reporting of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment and assault? How many non-disclosure agreements have there been? Can the Minister check that and come back to us? How many cases have been brought to his attention?

Members of the Defence Forces, like everybody else, are entitled to a presumption of innocence. Clearly, a dark cloud hangs over the organisation, but that should not extend to individual members nor should there be a presumption about them. It is regrettable that anybody would suggest otherwise. With regard to the jurisdictional issue, the Defence Forces claimed at the Workplace Relations Commission that the commission did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. Will that practice continue? It is important there is confidence in the ombudsman's procedure, as it is there is confidence in the Garda ombudsman, even though there does not seem to be such in this House, among senior people, up to the Taoiseach. If people to do not get what they believe to be justice through the ombudsman, they need to be able to continue to the WRC and not have its jurisdiction questioned.

I express my solidarity with the Women of Honour. Their bravery has forced this review. Action should have been taken long before now. Sexual abuse in the Defence Forces was highlighted by Dr. Tom Clonan more than 20 years ago. He has since said:

These problems I demonstrated were systemic. In 21 years, I have never been approached by anybody from the Department of Defence.

Deputy Coveney was Minister for Defence between 2014 and 2016 when this systemic abuse was far from being a secret. No real action was taken then. I welcome the fact that action is being taken now, on foot of these women speaking out so bravely. This must be a thorough review and strong action must be taken on foot of it.

I can assure Deputies that appropriate action will be taken on the on the foot of recommendations from a review that needs to be independent and comprehensive. I am committed to making sure that happens. I am committed to ensuring the women who have been brave enough to come forward are part of the process of setting up that review mechanism to make sure everybody has full confidence in it. That is what we are trying to do.

Dr. Tom Clonan made a valuable contribution more than 20 years ago in his doctoral thesis. After that contribution there were, as I outlined earlier, quite a number of structural, systems and procedural changes occurred. There were three different independent monitoring groups. Dr. Eileen Doyle headed up that process, did a number of reports and made a series of recommendations. I was at the publication of some of those reports and recommendations when I was previously Minister for Defence. There was certainly an understanding that processes and procedures were being put in place-----

-----to try to deal effectively with bullying and harassment in the Defence Forces. Clearly, that has not resulted-----

-----in the kind of change that is needed. That is why this fundamental review is now needed to make sure we get it right this time.

The Minister will have another minute at the end to reply.

I commend the women who have come forward on their bravery. As a former member of the Defence Forces, I must say the "Women of Honour" documentary was hard listening but I was not at all shocked. I know of incidents that occurred during my short three years of service. I know first-hand these issues were not responded to and were merely brushed under the carpet. We need to send a strong message to the women of Ireland and to all women who may feel inspired or called to serve in the Defence Forces that they can do so and will be fully respected and protected.

Will the Minister commit to ensuring all who want to come forward can by removing the necessity for non-disclosures? Will the Minister also ensure the process is open to all sectors of the Defence Forces, including the Reserve Defence Force?

We have heard some ugly truths about how some people in positions of power continue, not to behave but to operate, because that is what it is: operating within a certain culture. Is it a minority or a majority? We do not know. I agree with my colleague that we should await outcomes and results.

Why have the reviews, structures and systems that have been put in place already not worked? I have no doubt there were some well-meaning people who tried hard. That is an important point, not just for the Defence Forces but for society at large.

We mentioned Dr. Tom Clonan. I wrote to the Minister, which I had never done before, to ask him, when appointing people to the inquiry, not that he appoint Dr. Tom Clonan but that he consider him with all qualified others, because of his extensive background and expertise.

Clearly, we are in this position because the processes and procedures on the ground have utterly failed. Indeed, in certain situations, they have added to the distress, the bullying and harassment. The process itself has become an abuse. That is why we are here today. I asked specific questions about the publication of the report. Will it be published? Will a time limit be set? I have asked about non-disclosure agreements. How many have there been? Have they been brought to the attention of the Minister? What is his opinion on that?

On the letter that has gone out from the new Chief of Staff, imagine now, in September 2021, he is writing to all the members to say harassment and bullying will not be tolerated. Does that not tell you there is something seriously wrong with the processes and procedures up to now?

What has been brought to the attention of the Minister or the attention of previous Ministers for Defence? I specifically asked that. Have cases been brought to the attention of the Minister or that of previous Ministers for Defence? Will the Minister clarify that?

Retired company quartermaster sergeant Karina Molloy says "it is absolutely systemic". It is not a case of a few bad apples, but systemic. Of course, misogyny is part of the DNA of armies and police forces in all capitalist societies. While that is not to say all members of those forces are sexist, it is to say that sexism is part of the culture. Wayne Couzens, the killer of Sarah Everard, was said to have indecently exposed himself on more than one occasion and was nicknamed "the rapist" by colleagues. His brand of toxic masculinity was not a deal breaker for his career until he did what he did last March.

A Government in which the Minister served explicitly excluded the Defence Forces from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014. It did not allow members of the Defence Forces to unionise or to strike. None of the above are magic bullets, but had these rights have been in place, they might have acted as some deterrent to abusers in powerful positions. These are not a few bad apples. We do not need a tweak here and there to fix things. We need systemic change to address systemic rot.

For the record, I am not making any assumptions in my statements today. If people took that from what I said earlier, I say that I am not prejudging any outcomes from an independent review. That will be a matter for a robust and independent process that involves skilled and experienced people. They will make their judgments and they will make their recommendations. We will deal with the truth of that. I just want to say that.

On Deputy Connolly's questions, we have not yet agreed a timeline. We have not even finalised the terms of the review. We are going through a process with other stakeholders, including the women of honour and including a group of women in the Defence Forces. We will also meet the representative bodies before we finalise all of that. Therefore, I cannot give Deputy the answer to those questions, but I hope she understands we need to go through a process. Rather than trying to give quick answers, we want to make sure we do this properly, give it enough time, and make sure the right people are involved in that review.

On individual cases, I have seen some protected disclosures that have come to me. I cannot speak about those publicly. I am not allowed to legally. Of course, we have a process within the Department of Defence to deal appropriately with protected disclosures when they come.