Tuesday, 21 September 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I am sharing time with Senator O'Loughlin. We will take two minutes each. The issue I want to raise relates to the documentary "Women of Honour" broadcast on RTÉ's "Saturday with Katie Hannon" programme a couple of weeks ago. It was with shock and horror that we listened to the accounts of the women involved. They were former serving members of the Irish Defence Forces. They spoke about horrific ordeals including sexual assaults, discrimination, rapes and many other injustices they suffered when they were serving members of the Irish Defence Forces. These were perpetrated by other members of the Defence Forces. It was even worse to hear how they were treated subsequently when they raised those issues with their commanding officers and tried to bring them up the line of command. Their words fell on deaf ears. There were too many instances to be considered one-offs or rarities. Unfortunately, it seems to have been quite common, particularly in the early years when women first joined the Defence Forces.As a former member, who spent 13 years in the Reserve Defence Force, I can attest to there being quite a macho culture within the organisation but I was still extremely shocked to hear what those women had been through. We have to listen to the victims and we have to frame our response by taking into account what they are looking for in terms of redress and a resolution to this. What we cannot have is the Defence Forces or the Department of Defence investigating themselves. There must be a fully independent inquiry into all the allegations and the culture in the Defence Forces, with a view to stamping out and eradicating that culture and providing closure, compensation and resolution to the victims.
I also take on board that these women have the full support of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and the National Women's Council of Ireland for that independent review, one where they are fully involved in choosing how it takes place. I ask the Minister of State to confirm that the Government will initiate, through the Department of Defence, a fully independent review in consultation with the women of honour.
As the Minister will be aware, the documentary programme, "Women of Honour", sent shock waves through the military and defence community right around the country, particularly in south Kildare where many members of that community reside. This documentary was a damning account by female operatives, both active duty and retired. These women detailed sexual assault and harassment from their male colleagues and supervisors in addition to a level of job discrimination against female members of the Defence Forces, especially those with children. These are not new allegations. Similar allegations have been made in the past. Recently on KFM Radio, Dr. Tom Clonan detailed his experience as a whistle-blower within the Defence Forces when he released his research into sexual misconduct in 2000. His allegations were not baseless or random but were contained within a full doctoral thesis that included in-depth interviews with more than 60 women who were soldiers, sailors and air crew. This research was presented to the Chief of Staff 21 years ago and nothing was done. Not only was nothing done, Dr. Clonan was treated like a pariah.
One of the most concerning aspects of this story is the alleged attempt by senior personnel to quash allegations of misconduct. It is clear the culture within the Defence Forces needs to be reformed and a more open and transparent mechanism is urgently needed to review allegations of any sexual misconduct. I acknowledge the announcement that an unbiased review will be conducted but it must be independent and transparent. That includes the personnel chosen to review the allegations. This review must have the confidence of every member of the Defence Forces and must be open to public scrutiny. The days of quiet back room dealings are over. The review must be transparent, must be public and must deal with the allegations effectively.
I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Defence who, unfortunately, cannot be present. The Minister, who is currently out of the country, has asked me to pass on his apologies to the House. On his behalf, I welcome the opportunity to respond to Senators Chambers and O'Loughlin on what is an important matter. The Minister and I have listened with concern to the women who recounted their experiences on the "Women of Honour" programme broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 on 11 September 2021. Like many others, I was deeply struck by the personal accounts given in that programme. The Minister has reiterated in the strongest terms that all members of the Defence Forces have the right to be treated with respect, equality and dignity, and to carry out their duties free from any form of sexual harassment, harassment or bullying.
As the Senators will be aware, progress has been made since the 2002 report of the external advisory committee on the Defence Forces, The Challenge of a Workplace. There have been three reports from the independent monitoring group, IMG, since the publication of the report in 2002, the latest in 2014. Practices and procedures have been put in place within the Defence Forces to address allegations of inappropriate behaviour, including sexual harassment, harassment and bullying. These practices and procedures are set out in regulation and policy documents. Support services have been put in place for members of the Defence Forces. Trained designated contact persons are available to provide confidential support services to personnel.In addition, a range of other support services are available to personnel and their families, including the personnel support service and the Inspire 24-7 helpline.
It is accepted, however, that further work needs to be done in this area. Extensive discussions have taken place in recent months on the terms of an independent review. This will examine the effectiveness of current policies and procedures for dealing with workplace issues such as dignity, bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination. As recently indicated by the Minister, the independent review will be conducted by independent and unbiased personnel. The draft terms of reference are being examined in light of the recent RTÉ programme, "Women of Honour". As the Senators may be aware, the Minister sought to meet the participants of the show, and he is very pleased they have accepted his invitation to meet them. A meeting will also take place this week between some of those participants and the Secretary General and senior officials in the Department of Defence. These meetings will provide an opportunity to hear the views of the women involved.
The Minister again urges those who may have suffered a serious wrong of a criminal nature, whether recent or historical, to report their concerns to An Garda Síochána, which has the lawful authority, skills and resources to investigate such matters. The Minister, the Government and the defence organisation are committed to providing a safe place of work for all employees. The proposed independent review and the outcome of the Commission on the Defence Forces, whose work is under way, will be important tools in fulfilling this commitment.
I very much welcome the fact there will be a meeting this week. Ultimately, those involved in "Women of Honour" will decide whether they are happy with the terms of reference and the review group that has been set up. We will take our lead from them, as I hope the Minister will as well. It is important to note that while the vast majority of the defence community love the organisation, they are disgusted and appalled by what they have heard, and they stand with those women, including all the representative organisations such as RACO, PDFORRA and RDFRA, which I hope will also be consulted and brought on board.
The power dynamic between a young recruit or cadet and somebody in a senior officer position is very unbalanced. What we heard in those stories was an abuse of that power, of authority and of rank. They have brought shame on the Defence Forces as an organisation and on those who have served and are still serving, and that needs to be addressed. We have to take our lead from the victims and ensure that whatever process is put in place is to their satisfaction, and then we will support it.
I would appreciate if the Minister of State could outline what specific support services he mentioned have been put in place. While I welcome the meetings that will take place between those involved in "Women of Honour" and the Secretary General and senior officials, it is important the issue of attempts by senior personnel to quash allegations of misconduct would also be discussed. What are Minister's intentions in regard to dealing with that?
I assure the Senators the Minister, the Government and the Defence Forces are committed to providing a safe place of work for all employees. It is important the Minister meets the programme's participants to listen to their views. I very much welcome that and take on board the points raised by the Senators in that regard. I reiterate that, irrespective of when such matters of a criminal nature may have occurred, the Minister has been clear in his advice that such serious allegations should be reported to An Garda Síochána, which has the powers and expertise to undertake the necessary investigations. I strongly urge anyone who may have been subject to any such alleged abuse or harassment to seek professional help and guidance, which is available from State agencies such as the HSE and from registered charities that specialise in this area.
To respond to Senator O'Loughlin, the designated contact persons within the Defence Forces are also available to support personnel. In addition, the personnel support service, PSS, within the Defence Forces assists members and their immediate family with the provision of information and advice on areas including stress management, counselling and referral options. I take on board the points raised by the Senators, and I am delighted to get the opportunity to have this matter aired in the House. I assure them of the process that lies ahead. It is important, in light of all the concerns raised, that the process concludes soon.