CLARE’S Independent TD has robustly challenged the Minister for Defence over the sector’s track record in tackling discrimination, following a ground-breaking RTE radio documentary.
Deputy Michael McNamara said that while he believed that the abuse of power within the Defence Forces, and similar organisations with a command structure, is limited to a small minority, there was still a tendency to “circle the wagons rather than tackle the problem”.
As Minister Simon Coveney answered Priority Questions (PQs) in the Dail last week, a number of deputies raised concerns about the revelations of sexual coercion and harassment detailed in the ‘Women of Honour’ documentary.
Deputy McNamara noted that his own query for the minister was on a related theme, and he asked for an update on the Defence Forces’ process of implementing recommendations on anti-discrimination law.
The Scariff-based TD drew the chamber’s attention to the findings, last December, of a Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) hearing which made a series of recommendations on preventing discrimination.
The case related to a former captain in the aircorps who was awarded a six-figure sum after a finding that she was the victim of gender-based discrimination.
The WRC recommended that information and training be provided so that such discrimination would be avoided in the future.
Acknowledging the WRC findings, Minister Coveney noted that one complaint, out of two, had been upheld in the case.
He insisted that the WRC recommendations are being taken seriously and that a working group is in place.
“The directions of the ruling are currently being implemented by the military authorities with a view to ensuring all training programmes and materials for Defence Forces personnel are fully aligned, and compatible with, the provisions of the relevant equality legislation and that follow-on actions will be progressed,” he said.
“A Defence Forces working group is established comprising membership from the Defence Forces HR, legal and training and education HQ branches as well as representatives from the Defence Forces formations.
“The working group has had 12 plenary meetings to date in addition to meetings of sub-groups. Progress is continuing in line with the timelines set out in the ruling which will be fully complied with. Basically, we are taking it seriously.
“There is a group in place. It has met a dozen times and they are making the appropriate changes in the Defence Forces to ensure that we are consistent with recommendations of that ruling.”
Deputy McNamara pointed out that prior to last year’s report, the issue seemed to have been minimised by the authorities.
“…I have no doubt that those who seek to abuse their positions of power, including in a sexually predatory way, are a small minority in the Defence Forces,” he said.
“I have witnessed in other similar institutions with a command structure how a small minority can have a large influence.
“Instead of tackling the problem, there is a tendency in institutions with command structures to circle the wagons, put a ring of steel around them and say that maybe the people did wrong but this is going to reflect badly on us all. They circle the wagons rather than tackle the problem.
“Before the WRC case crossed the Minister’s desk for a review, and the Minister signed off on the fact that there was no discrimination – and that was not the Minister personally, it was the Minister for Defence, advised by a Department with a plethora of officials down the line.
“There is clearly a problem. The Minister bears political responsibility for that. The question is how the command structure will be reviewed.”
Minister Coveney pointed out that, prior to the WRC report, he had received a recommendation from the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces that there had been no discrimination.
He said he understood Deputy McNamara’s concerns about the impact of powerful minorities.
“The Deputy’s comments on the impact that a small minority can have on large numbers of people and a potentially corrosive atmosphere within an organisation are very pertinent and is at the core of what we need to deal with,” he said.
Deputy McNamara said the case had shaken confidence in the office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces.
“…it is not unfair to say that the ombudsman has been undermined, not by the Minister but by this whole saga, and, ultimately, the WRC ruling,” he said.
“I have been around the courts a little in a professional capacity as well as, unfortunately, in a personal one, and various appeal stages change a decision.
“Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom and nobody gets every decision right all the time but there has to be an Ombudsman for the Defence Forces that people have confidence in.
“That confidence could be undermined at least by what went on up to now. There has to be a process that people feel that they will get a fair hearing from.”
While he defended the Ombudsman’s office, the minister said the WRC finding and the further recent revelations underlined the importance of a thorough review process.
“… The role of an ombudsman in the Defence Forces is important,” he said.
“What is important now, in the context of the stories that have been heard and the women who have come forward, is that we need to ensure nothing is off limits for an independent, experienced group of people who will be asked to review the systems, procedures, support and reporting structures and, indeed, the atmosphere in the Defence Forces in this area.
“We need to rely on them to make recommendations to make appropriate changes. That is the process that we are now starting.”
Fiona McGarry joined The Clare Champion as a reporter after a four-year stint as producer of Morning Focus on Clare FM. Prior to that she worked for various radio, print and online titles, including Newstalk, Maximum Media and The Tuam Herald.
Fiona’s media career began in her native Mayo when she joined Midwest Radio. She is the maker of a number of radio documentaries, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). She has also availed of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to report on development issues supported by Irish Aid in Haiti.
She won a Justice Media Award for a short radio series on the work of Bedford Row Project, which supports prisoners and families in the Mid-West. Fiona also teaches on the Journalism programmes at The University of Galway.
If you have a story and would like to get in touch with Fiona you can email her at email@example.com or telephone 065 6864146.