Can the Irish Defence Forces end their culture of sexual abuse?

Ireland has a long tradition of neutrality in international affairs. It is not a member of NATO or other international military alliances, and its military, the Irish Defence Forces, is a relatively small entity mainly deployed to multilateral peacekeeping missions. And yet, Ireland is also host to one of the longest-running and most shocking military scandals in Europe.

More than 20 years ago ago, servicemembers began sharing stories of sexual harassment and rape, psychological abuse, and a culture of reprisal against anyone speaking out. Once formal investigations began, the data that quickly emerged were horrifying.

But according to survivors and campaigners speaking out today, the reforms meant to have curbed the problem in the last two decades have done little if anything to change matters, and now the Irish government is under pressure to create a statutory inquiry that will hear witness testimony in public.

So why has changing the military’s culture been so hard? The problem isn’t just the scale of the abuse, but the Defence Forces’ determined resistance to scrutiny and institutional reform.

Tom Clonan, a former Irish army officer and now a senator, learned that the hard way at the turn of the millennium when his PhD on the experiences of female officers kicked the scandal off.

“I interviewed 60 of my female colleagues,” he recalls, “and 59 of them reported some kind of discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. One in four of them disclosed a serious sexual assault, including rape. The armed forces also had policies that were explicitly discriminatory as they applied to women and men.

“It was an absolutely shocking moment. And when my thesis was published, the army went bananas; they said I’d fabricated the research and violated the official secrets act by publishing it. It was whistleblower reprisal, though we didn’t use that language back then.”

Undeterred, he asked the Department of Defence to investigate the issue formally. The resulting 2002 report, “The Challenge of a Workplace”, found that one in three women in the defence forces had suffered harassment or assault, with more than a quarter of male members saying the same. The numbers for bullying were similarly high.

More concerning still, there was a huge gap between the number of those experiencing abuse and the number who reported it. According to the investigation’s findings, there was good reason for this.

“The vast majority of the respondents did not report the incident,” they wrote. “Of those who did it is interesting to note that rather more were unhappy with the outcome than had the complaints resolved to their satisfaction.”

In the subsequent years, the Defence Forces were forced to alter their discriminatory policies and put various safeguards in place. But then, on 11th September 2021, a newly formed group of servicemembers came forward with shocking new allegations – ones that landed the Irish military and government in scandal all over again.

A code of silence broken

The Women of Honour first came to public awareness in 2021 thanks to an eponymous RTE documentary detailing both their experiences of ongoing abuses in the ranks and the aims of their nascent campaign: to force the issue back into the public eye and hold those responsible to account.

Since they put their heads above the parapet, the Women of Honour have helped spur the government into action. An Independent Review Group (IRG) was mandated to produce new recommendations on dealing with military abuse issue. Its conclusions were released this spring, and they made for depressing reading. Among them were confirmation that women are still granted only “low status” in the military, and that “gender and particular hypermasculinities are strong organising forces in the culture”.

Plans for a full statutory inquiry are now underway, but key disagreements between the Women of Honour and the government remain. The group shared a statement with Euronews in which they say that while many of those supposed to be held answerable for “atrocities” in the ranks are being kept in the loop, they themselves have received no updates.

“The Women of Honour did not support the establishment of the IRG due to the lack of true independence and the tremendously flawed terms of reference. It must also be remembered that the explanation provided for the establishment of the IRG was the urgency in protecting those still serving and expediting the improvements needed for them.

“Unfortunately, it is evident from those still serving and still suffering that little, if anything, of value has changed – and how could it, as a comprehensive examination of the issues has not yet happened. Instead, all of us affected, serving or otherwise, continue to wait for a report from a process that may have been nothing more than a waste of another year which has seen no changes, no resolutions, and more victims.”

As they continue calling for a victim-led process, specifically one that will see key figures from the Defence Forces questioned in public, the Women of Honour remain committed to pulling together. “What the year has achieved is a renewed sense of camaraderie that stretches much further than the Defence Forces Community,” the group said in its statement.

“A stepping forward and coming together of those affected, directly or indirectly, by the deplorable treatment inflicted on so many by the Defence Forces – an organisation purported to be ‘underpinned by the values of respect, loyalty, selflessness, physical courage, moral courage and integrity’. Instead, those who actually have these characteristics are more often than not destroyed for standing up for what is right.”

Falling short

While victims, their allies and the government go back and forth on what happens next, one question is still hanging over the whole saga: how can it be that the Defence Forces are still mired in these problems 20 years after they were first exposed?

According to foreign policy academic Eoin McNamara, who has studied the Irish military closely, the fact that the military remains under relatively low pressure to strengthen its operations is partly to blame.

“Economic transformation has increased Ireland’s prominence on the global geopolitical pecking order,” he said, “but Irish society and a series of governments have been slow to respond to this – slow to recognise that the economic infrastructure that the country hosts now needs to be defended from the hybrid interference of great powers seeking to disrupt the West, most notably Russia and China.

“Because of decades of complacency and under-investment in defence, Ireland does not have strong enough capabilities to monitor and deter military intimidation like airspace violations. It does not have fighter aircraft for intercept, and its Naval Service does not have strong enough surveillance capabilities to comprehensively monitor the security of undersea telecommunications infrastructure in its Exclusive Economic Zone in the North Atlantic.”

As for on-the-ground operations, the military’s gender balance is extraordinarily skewed: as things stand, only 7% of its members are women. And as McNamara pointed out to Euronews, that is a potentially severe operational problem.

While the Defence Forces pride themselves on participating in UN peacekeeping missions, mixed-gender patrols are better placed to gain access to a whole population and boost local consent for a UN presence. So long as ongoing revelations about abuse in their ranks continue to emerge with scant evidence of change or accountability, the Irish forces will struggle to recruit and retain enough women in the first place.

A missing century

This picture of a military lagging behind in changing times dovetails with a deeper cultural problem that Clonan said dates back a full century.

“In 1922, at the end of the War of Independence, we inherited all the physical military infrastructure the British left behind,” he explains. “But for some reason, the army also adopted the cultural infrastructure of the British Army of the time. The reports of the last two decades have exposed an organisation that works on abuse of power and collective punishment – the abusive operant conditioning that you needed to get the working classes to kill each other.”

Pointing to the example of Russia’s catastrophic military failures in Ukraine – many of which have been chalked up to low morale and an abusive culture that deters infantrymen from relaying important bad news their senior officers – he explained to Euronews that today’s successful global militaries have not functioned this way for decades.

“I went to Bosnia in 1996 as an election supervisor for the OSCE, who were implementing the Dayton Accords,” he recalled. “I was working with the British Army in a Serb-held area, and as an Irish officer working with the Brits, the first thing that surprised me was just how informal they were. The relationship between officers and juniors was completely different than the equivalent in the Irish Army. Sergeants and officers could kick ideas back and forth in ways that would get junior Irish personnel court-martialled.

“The British Army is not some feminist experiment, and they’re usually regarded as operating the most socially conservative military in NATO, but even their culture is so far ahead of ours.”

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