Nation shell-shocked by soldiers' deafness claims

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Dublin government is facing huge bills as it deals with an avalanche of compensation cases taken by Irish soldiers who claim their hearing has been damaged by the noise of gunfire.

The sums involved are troubling even for a state rendered cash-rich by the extraordinary economic boom of recent years. One prediction of the final bill is pounds 350m, though there is a "doomsday scenario" estimate that it could reach pounds 2bn.

The fact that a thousand cases have already been settled for amounts averaging pounds 22,000 has led to a tidal wave of new claims. Ten thousand have now been lodged by one-quarter of all serving personnel, together with many former soldiers. They are still pouring in at the rate of more than one hundred a week, forcing the authorities to detail 80 staff to work full-time on the issue.

The net result has been a bonanza for military men and lawyers and heated debate on how many of the claims might be falsified. It has also produced a wave of criticism and ridicule of the Irish military for allegedly cashing in on what many regard as an occupational hazard.

A letter to one newspaper said: "Imagine what sport Gilbert and Sullivan would have had with the farcical notion of an allegedly deaf army suing the Crown, and the even more farcical notion of the Crown paying up." A left-wing politician commented wryly that the military had discovered "an instrument of redistribution of wealth not yet heard of in any other countries".

The chairman of the Dail's public accounts committee, Jim Mitchell, declared: "Let's be blunt about this. Anybody who thinks this is not a scam must be blind. We are a laughing stock among defence forces around the world." The ministry of defence ascribed the phenomenon, in more measured terms, to "a very litigious society, no accepted measurement system for high- tone hearing loss and a very generous judiciary".

The military personnel involved, however, say the cases arise from official negligence and real hearing damage. Since 1987, troops exposed to the noise of artillery, tanks and so on have been issued with modern ear protection which reduces the sound of gunfire while still allowing orders to be heard.

Prior to that, however, aural safeguards were rather more primitive. In 1952 a force order recommended the use of cotton wool; nine years later another order upgraded this to cotton wool "moistened with a little soft Vaseline". Plastic earplugs arrived in 1972.

Some soldiers claim they and the army were both aware that hearing damage was being inflicted. Reportedly some soldiers bought their own hearing protection, painting it in army colours, but were banned from using it because it was not standard issue.

As the trickle of claims became a flood, criticism was directed at "ambulance- chasing" lawyers. The defence minister, Michael Smith, said the state would compensate anyone with a genuine grievance but not those "whose handicap is so small that they did not notice it until they spotted an advertisement in the paper inducing them to make a claim".

The measurement of the alleged handicap is another source of contention. A defence department witness told the public accounts committee that some with perfect hearing for their age were receiving up to pounds 45,000 in court awards, saying they would not qualify for compensation in the United Kingdom or the United States. It has been reported that by the standards of the British army, only 10 per cent of claimants could expect compensation.The government is urgently trying to establish an agreed assessment system.

Senior military men have reacted to allegations of a widespread scam in what might be termed an over-defensive manner. One took grave exception to a sarcastic column in the Irish Times, responding that the "slights and cheap jibes on the legal profession can only be viewed as an attack on the very fundamentals of democracy as enshrined in our Constitution".

In the meantime, the Irish government is trying to staunch the outflow of public money which the defence minister as described as "a juggernaut careering down a hill with no brakes and preparing to run over the ordinary taxpayer".