Women of Honour group rejects ‘shameful’ Defence Forces review

The Government announced that it will establish a judge-led independent review to look at issues in the Defence Forces.

Dominic McGrath
Tuesday 25 January 2022 19:52
Karina Molloy from the Women of Honour group (Niall Carson/PA)
Karina Molloy from the Women of Honour group (Niall Carson/PA)

A group alleging bullying, misogyny and violence within the Irish armed forces has said it is “deeply disillusioned” following a meeting with the Minister for Defence

It comes as the Government announced that it will establish a judge-led independent review to look at issues related to sexual misconduct, bullying, harassment and discrimination in the Defence Forces.

Allegations of sexism, bullying, sexual assault and rape in the Defence Forces were uncovered in an RTE documentary last year.

However, such an approach was rejected in the strongest terms by the Women of Honour group, the members of which walked out early from a meeting with Simon Coveney on Tuesday.

Simon Coveney (Niall Carson/PA)

The group heavily criticised Mr Coveney personally and said that the attitude of the Department was more disappointing “after all the Government’s talk about protecting citizens and women in the wake of Ashling Murphy”.

Retired captain Diane Byrne told the PA news agency: “The terms of reference are something that we weren’t happy with.

“It’s not addressing the issues. It’s a done deal and it is a change of words that has been presented to us as final without our input.

“We were asked for our support, as opposed to our input, and we just feel totally disrespected.”

She said the review is not fit for purpose and will “prolong getting to the truth”.

The group said it wants to engage with Taoiseach Micheal Martin instead.

Retired captain Yvonne O’Rourke said: “Our voices have completely been unheard.

“I remember coming out here in September and I was delighted because we were going to be involved with the terms of reference. We have now been told they’ve been signed off by Cabinet.

“We have said all along that we weren’t happy with the terms of reference and now we’ve been told that they’ve been signed off and they have already assigned someone to do the job.

“We just feel like we’ve been totally disrespected and that we are absolutely unheard, unfortunately.

“We went in there with high hopes today and we just feel like the rug has just been pulled from underneath us.

“A few bits of paper have changed, that’s it.”

Diane Byrne and Yvonne O’Rourke from the Women of Honour group (Niall Carson/PA)

The group also called for the Government to opt for a statutory investigation.

Ms Byrne added: “We’re still going to keep fighting and pushing for what’s right.

“There’s people suffering at this moment in the Defence Forces, men and women, who need advocates.”

The group argue that an independent inquiry is needed to avoid any conflict of interest and accused Mr Coveney of attempting to “overpower and out-wit us by sitting on his hands, dragging the talks out for months”.

The Department of Defence confirmed following the meeting that a judge-led independent review will now begin.

The Department has said the review will be undertaken by “external and unbiased experts in the field” with a membership that is “totally independent”.

Mr Coveney said in a statement: “I have been very clear in my determination to address these matters without delay.”

He said he had engaged with various groups and “these engagements have brought serious issues to my attention and I have considered very carefully the respective views”.

The minister added: “It is absolutely critical that I proceed with this review to ensure that the workplace is safe for all serving members. In this endeavour, I believe I have the wholehearted support of serving personnel.”

According to the Department, the review will advise whether current legislation, policies and procedures are effective at preventing “incidents of unacceptable behaviour in the workplace”.

It will include a review of the culture within the Defence Forces, before providing recommendations to the minister.

The department said an interim report will be submitted to Mr Coveney within six months, with a final report expected within nine months.

Retired judge Bronagh O’Hanlon will chair the review group.

The process was rubbished by the Women of Honour group.

The group described it as “nothing more than a box-ticking exercise for the sole purpose of fulfilling the public relations requirements of being seen to make some efforts toward acknowledging and reacting to the failings within the Defence Forces and wider systems whilst never actually uncovering the truth”.

“Such a process would be grossly unfair and far too reflective of past failures.

“We cannot support this and will not participate in a charade of a flawed process,” they added.

On Tuesday Mr Coveney defended the review and said a statutory inquiry could not be ruled out.

“The majority of people that I’ve spoken to are very much in favour of what we’re doing now.

“And what the Women of Honour group that aren’t comfortable with what we’re doing now are asking for, which is a statutory inquiry – that may well happen in the future,” he told RTE’s Six One.

“The terms of reference allows Judge O’Hanlon to make recommendations on how we deal with historical cases of abuse in the Defence Forces. And certainly I would be open to whatever recommendation the judge makes.”

Mr Coveney said that a rapid review was essential because as minister he has a “duty of care” to women currently serving in the Defence Forces.

“Clearly we know that there are too many complaints today in the Defence Forces in relation to isolation and bullying.

“Many people see this as a historic issue of concern. It’s a present-day issue of concern, from my perspective, and that’s why we need fundamental change.

“And that’s why there is a sense of urgency coming from me at the moment in terms of the need to set up this review body that can report back to me this year with a series of recommendations.

“If I had decided to go for a statutory inquiry we could have seen a much more legalistic process over the next two to three to four years perhaps.

“And so we may well end up in that kind of inquiry in time, but in the short term, I need a review that looks in detail at how the Defence Force operates today, and how we can improve things for the women and also for the men that serve in the Defence Forces.”

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