'Woman could hold top Defence Forces role in next 10 years'

In 2015 the Defence White Paper set a target of having 15% of the Defence Forces strength made up of women within 10 years — however the target is less than halfway there
'Woman could hold top Defence Forces role in next 10 years'

Private Sarah O'Neill from Cork on night/day exercises at Ballymullen Barracks. Picture: Domnick Walsh © Eye Focus LTD 

Mark Mellett believes his title of Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces could be held by a woman in the next 10 years, and there's no doubt many of them are progressing quickly up the ranks.

However, there remains a lot of work to be done to ensure that a promise to have far higher percentages of women in uniform comes to fruition.

In 2015, the Defence White Paper set a target of having 15% of the Defence Forces made up of women within 10 years. Now, in 2021, that target is less than halfway there.

Figures released to The Irish Examiner show that on average women make up just 6.96% of their forces.

A further breakdown shows that there are 603 women in the Army (7.2% of that force), 39 or 5.19% in the Air Corps, and 68 in the Naval Service, which has the highest percentage at 7.34%.

The latter figure may raise a few eyebrows, as it is widely considered that the Naval Service is the least family-friendly of the three wings of the Defence Forces.

Indeed, women have excelled in it in the past year, which shows they can do the job as well, if not better, than men.

Roberta O'Brien was promoted to the rank of Commander, the first woman to ever hold such a lofty position. In 2008 she was appointed the first female captain of a navy ship, commanding LÉ Aisling.

Sub-Lieutenant Tahlia Britton became the first female member of the naval diving unit, successfully completing a course which is only surpassed for physical and mental endurance by that undertaken by those entering the elite Army Ranger Wing (ARW).

Meanwhile, Patricia O'Sullivan, from Ballydehob in West Cork, became the first woman in the navy to be promoted to the rank of Chief Petty Officer (CPO). She served twice on migrant rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.

Vice Admiral Mellett pointed to the great achievements of these women in the Naval Service and also highlighted the role of Brigadier General Maureen O'Brien in the Army. 

“I would love to see more women in higher ranks (like her). She was in Syria with the UN force dealing with ISIS (Islamic State fighters), the proxy wars going on there and all in a culture which was anti-women,” Vice Admiral Mellett said.

First woman promoted to general rank

Brigadier General Maureen O'Brien became the first woman promoted to general rank in the Defence Forces in 2019.
Brigadier General Maureen O'Brien became the first woman promoted to general rank in the Defence Forces in 2019.

Brigadier General O'Brien returned home last month after an 18-month deployment as Acting Force Commander of the UN mission, UNDOF, in Syria.

On Sept 16, 2019 she became the first woman promoted to general rank in the Defence Forces.

A native of Galway and graduate of UCG, she was commissioned an officer in 1983, with her first posting to the 4th Infantry Battalion in Cork, returning to the Cadet School some years later as an instructor.

In the interim she's held many different positions while climbing up the ranks.

She broke her first 'ceiling' in 2011 when becoming the first woman to be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. 

During her career, Brig-Gen O’Brien has amassed extensive overseas service including tours to Lebanon (UNIFIL), Western Sahara (MINURSO) and East Timor (UNTAET). 

She also served with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Sarajevo.

Women are also slowly coming up the ranks of the Air Corps, but haven't, as yet, broken the glass ceilings as their sisters have in the other two services.

Meanwhile, a young woman who has just qualified from Army recruit training will join her father in the 1 Brigade Engineer Group.

Private Sarah O'Neill was among 45 recruits who recently 'passed out' at a ceremony in Collins Barracks, Cork. 

Unfortunately due to Covid-19 restrictions families weren't allowed to attend. However, her father, Sergeant Robert O'Neill, was able to as he's stationed in the barracks.

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