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Defence Forces

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 27 January 2022

Thursday, 27 January 2022

Ceisteanna (98, 102, 113, 122, 124, 146)

Emer Higgins


98. Deputy Emer Higgins asked the Minister for Defence the progress made at addressing the serious concerns arising from the experiences of some members of the Defence Forces, in particular, women serving and retired; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3639/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Fergus O'Dowd


102. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on the progress at combating all types of harassment in the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3628/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill


113. Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill asked the Minister for Defence the progress at tackling inappropriate behaviour in the Defence Forces arising from concerns raised in 2021 by a number of serving and retired personnel; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3645/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Catherine Connolly


122. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Defence further to Question No. 92 of 18 November 2021, the status of the independent review to examine the effectiveness of the policies, systems and procedures currently in place for dealing with bullying, harassment, discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the Defence Forces; the details of his engagement with a group (details supplied) to date in 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3920/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mick Barry


124. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on the contacts he has had with a group (details supplied); his views on the demands made by the group to take a stand against a culture of sexism in the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3918/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Thomas Gould


146. Deputy Thomas Gould asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on the date of his last meeting with a group (details supplied). [3963/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (15 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Defence)

This series of questions is about the response to the serious concerns arising from the experiences of members of the Defence Forces, particularly women. I acknowledge the Minister has given a detailed answer to Deputy Clarke already under priority questions. My focus is on the independence of the measure the Minister proposes, whether the chair will be free to write about the scale of co-operation she has received in her work, and the speed with which that can be done.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 98, 102, 113, 122, 124 and 146 together.

As I outlined earlier to the House, on Tuesday last, following Cabinet approval, I announced the establishment of a judge-led independent review group to examine issues relating to sexual misconduct, bullying, harassment and discrimination in the Defence Forces.

The overall aims of the review are to advise on whether the current legislative frameworks, policies, procedures and practices for addressing incidents of unacceptable behaviour in the workplace are effective; independently assess whether the pervading culture in the workplace is fully aligned with the principles of dignity, equality, mutual respect and duty of care for every member of the Defence Forces; and provide recommendations and guidance on measures and strategies required to underpin a workplace based on dignity, equality, mutual respect and duty of care for every member of the Defence Forces. This independent review is seen as a critical and vital next step to ensure the workplace for serving members of the Defence Forces is safe, where there is zero tolerance of unacceptable behaviour and where we learn from historical experience.

My Department and I have engaged extensively in recent months with the Women of Honour group and with other stakeholders, including both serving and former members of the Defence Forces, the representative associations, PDFORRA, RACO, and the Reserve Defence Force Representative Association, RDFRA, and with a second group representing former members.

These engagements have brought serious issues to my attention, which indicate it is not just an historic issue we are dealing with. Incidents of alleged unacceptable behaviour are continuing to occur. Current and former members of the Defence Forces have been clear that the culture that is pervading and the application of those policies, systems and procedures for dealing with unacceptable behaviour have not and are not serving all Defence Forces personnel well.

The most recent engagement with stakeholders took place on Tuesday afternoon last where I provided an update to stakeholders on the Government decision to proceed with the independent review. This was the seventh meeting, as I said earlier, at senior level that has been held with the Women of Honour group since last September, three of which I personally attended.

Current and former members of the Defence Forces have welcomed the review, and while I acknowledge the disappointment expressed by the Women of Honour group, which has been seeking a commission of inquiry, I am strongly aware of the need for immediacy of action to ensure the safety of serving Defence Forces personnel.

I want to be clear this does not preclude Government from considering further bodies of work that may be necessary. The review group has been specifically asked to advise on whether further work is required to examine issues of an historical nature and to make any recommendations regarding how this might be pursued.

The review group will provide me with an interim report in six months. A final report is expected within nine months. I will bring the final review report to Government, which may consider any further bodies of work that might be necessary, taking into account the findings of the independent review group. Thereafter, I intend to make the final review report public.

I wish to reiterate my commitment and that of the Secretary General and Chief of Staff to ensure every member of the Defence Forces can carry out his or her duties in a safe and respectful workplace based on dignity, equality and zero tolerance for any kind of unacceptable behaviour.

Having spoken to the chair of this review group who is a former High Court judge, I can assure Deputy Carroll MacNeill she will be insisting on full co-operation and I expect that will very much be in the report if she is not getting that co-operation. If there needs to be new structures that have compellability powers etc., I assure the Deputy she will have no hesitation in making those recommendations if so needed.

That is the key point for me, that she is free to express whether she has received co-operation. That is one of the key concerns around a statutory inquiry or otherwise.

I ask the Minister to recognise, of course, in his capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, that today is Holocaust Memorial Day. It may have been marked by another Deputy in advance of me mentioning this. It is an opportunity to commemorate this event solemnly and the 6 million Jewish victims and other communities who were persecuted by Nazis. For the Minister for both Foreign Affairs and Defence, Deputy Coveney, with his European counterparts, it is an important part of preventing crimes against humanity and stopping antisemitism throughout Europe. I invite the Minister to recognise Holocaust Memorial Day in the Dáil today on such an important occasion.

I welcome the Minister's comments that if the chair of the commission feels there is a need for compellability, that will happen. That is the key process.

I regret very much the Women of Honour are not in negotiation with the Minister now and I urge him and the chair of the commission to engage with them. It is important given the clear suffering and harassment they endured and the appalling treatment they got that they would have confidence in the process.

On compellability, if somebody is asked by the judge to come before her and if that person does not turn up, that should automatically trigger compellability.

There can be no ands, ifs or buts about it. If they are called, they must go. I fully appreciate the efforts the Minister is making but I also appreciate the strong and determined resolution of the Women of Honour group to hold people to account, which is what he wants to do as well.

We are now in the crazy position where those who came forward in the documentary that was broadcast on public radio have indicated they will not participate in this independent review. The Minister stated a review is being set up to examine “whether the current legitimate frameworks, policies...are effective”. Clearly, they are not, which is why the women had to appear on radio. He stated it will “independently assess whether the pervading culture in the workplace is fully aligned with...dignity”. Clearly, it was not. Finally, the review will provide recommendations, and I have no difficulty with that.

We are setting up a toothless tiger with no power to look at policies and procedures that clearly failed the women, about which they, the independent monitoring mechanism and I have all told the Minister. Furthermore, I understand that last week, appearing before an Oireachtas committee, the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces, Mr. Justice Alan Mahon, asked for his remit to be extended in order that he could investigate harassment. Something is seriously wrong with this independent review.

Why did the Women of Honour group feel they had no alternative but to walk out of a meeting with the Minister on Tuesday? Does he agree that, one week after all the contributions in this House about a new culture of tackling sexism and misogyny, this is really not a good look for him or the Government? The women did not just leave the meeting quietly; they said afterwards that they felt they had been blaggarded and disrespected. They said they were not allowed to ask questions at the meeting or to have any input. They said the meeting was a fait accompli and a waste of their time. I want to hear the Minister's response to those points the women put forward.

There were a number of questions. Of course, I recognise Holocaust Memorial Day, and I will attend an event this afternoon, and another event on Sunday, to mark the Holocaust. I look forward to attending those events to mark the horrors of the Holocaust and to ensure it will not be forgotten in any way.

On the other questions that were asked, we are trying to get the balance right in respect of getting a report with recommendations that have teeth in order that I, along with the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General, can begin the process of implementing those recommendations on the ground before the end of the year. I did take advice on whether I should set up a commission of inquiry and was advised against that by a number of people who are very credible in this space. Many have endorsed the approach I am taking and I am being advised on the journey to get there. Of course, I regret that women in the Women of Honour group have not welcomed the fact we are setting up a review and instead wanted a commission of inquiry. I hope they will talk to Judge O'Hanlon and her review group and will get reassurance from that.

Nevertheless, I point out to those women and everyone in this House that, if the independent review makes a recommendation for setting up a commission of inquiry or some other structure to deal with historical cases, or for compellability to get answers in certain areas, we will act on that, and we will have those recommendations by the end of the year. My fear was that, if we had set up a commission of inquiry, the process would have become a legal one very quickly and may well have gone on for two or three years, and I would not be back before this House with recommendations before the end of the year to act on. My motivation and bona fides here are solely on the basis of listening to all the groups I have spoken to. It is driven by a duty of care I have to the 600 women who are employed in the Defence Forces today, who are very anxious that I get on with this job of reform-----

Those women support the Women of Honour group.

-----and get recommendations.

I certainly do not want to drive any form of division. I have absolute respect for the Women of Honour group. We met for one hour, after which the meeting concluded. I am available at any point to meet the group again, should they want to meet, and to answer any questions they may have. I hope, as I said, that this new review group will be able to build a relationship with this group of women, who have shown extraordinary courage to be able to highlight these issues and drive change in the Defence Forces.

It is important, when somebody makes a complaint about harassment or any other form of bullying or unwanted activity, that the person has the capacity to have that raised, heard and acted on quickly. Speed is one of the most important factors in respect of being heard, having access to justice and having the matter resolved quickly.

I welcome the Minister's availability and his commitment to meeting with the Women of Honour group and to engaging with the chairperson. We all have the same objective. We want change and accountability, sooner rather than later. Obviously, I do not speak for the Women of Honour group, but we need to ensure they will be satisfied. If there were a commitment at the meeting with the chairperson that the matter would be looked at objectively, which will be the case, there could be a parallel process. Some of the issues the Minister raised are different from those a commission of inquiry could examine, particularly in the case of historical circumstances, individuals, processes or matters that were separate to changes that are needed now and into the future. There is room for negotiation and action in that regard.

I have the most serious concerns about what is happening. I have no concerns about the judge, and I ask the Minister not to waste my time telling me how good she is. I know the judge, and that goes without saying. My difficulty relates to setting up an independent review with no power and no terms of reference published, and the terms we know about from the Minister's press release beggar belief. I refer to the suggestion the review will examine strategies and policies that have utterly failed. That is an insult.

The press release indicates that witnesses can come forward. We saw how witnesses came forward to the formal commission of inquiry and all the problems that entailed. How will witnesses' testimony be treated when they come forward? Will their experiences be recorded? Will they be quoted in the report and so on? That was missing from the press release. Where are the terms of reference and who has had an input into them? Can we see what they are and return to them? A review with no statutory authority is being set up and Deputies are standing up and saying we need urgent action, but the urgent action has never happened. There is a litany of utter failure by the system and the governance that are there. We want to know why that happened, not to look at idiotic policies that were never enforced. Why and how did this happen?

The Minister knows how serious these allegations are. For example, one woman with 31 years' service has stated that 27 of those years were stained with harassment, bullying and inappropriate remarks. She has also said she suffered an attempted rape. These women want a statutory inquiry. They want the power to compel witnesses. They want to see the men who did these things to them be made to answer questions. They want an inquiry that can access documents. I support their call 100%. It is a shame the Minister is not doing that, not in the dim and distant future but now.

Will he explain how he thinks he can organise an effective review that gets to the bottom of these issues and allegations given the victims have decided not to participate, because they have no faith in what he is doing? Will he explain how the hell he thinks he can make that work?

First, the whole point is I am not making that work. This is not a review that is being undertaken by the Department of Defence. It is a review being undertaken independently, with an independent chair, a former High Court judge, and a very experienced HR reform consultant, who has spent the last 12 months looking at some of these issues already through her work with the Commission on the Defence Forces. The whole point is to take it out of the Department of Defence, the Defence Forces and, quite frankly, the political sphere and to ask an experienced group of people to consult widely having been given broad terms of reference with which they are happy. We have learned from other countries in a context of those other countries responding to these issues in their defence forces to try to ensure we have terms of reference that are broad and based on international experience as well as our own.

I know Deputy Connolly says we should not raise the issue of the competence of the judge. I have spoken to the judge and she is satisfied from the terms of reference that she will be able to do a substantial piece of work. Of course, if there are problems along the way, I will hear about that and we will have to make changes, and if she recommends new structures, then we will respond to that too. The whole point is to try to get recommendations back to me and to Government so we can act on those as soon as possible. We hope to be able to do that and to have an interim report in the summer and a final report before the end of the year, which is what we are trying to do.

After all the fine speeches last week, we have to listen to that. It is unreal.

Question No. 99 answered with Question No. 97.