Army whistleblower wants abuse treated as  national emergency

Army whistleblower wants abuse treated as  national emergency

Dr Tom Clonan: Toxic culture is systematically destroying people’s lives and hard-won careers while leaving the country more insecure. File picture

A former army officer who blew the whistle on endemic sexual abuse in the Defence Forces 21 years ago has called on the Taoiseach and President to treat the toxic culture and sexual abuse in the Defence Forces as the national emergency it is.

This toxic culture is systematically destroying people’s lives and hard-won careers while leaving the country more insecure, according to Dr Tom Clonan, a security analyst and academic.

The Defence Forces are not currently fit for purpose and this should be treated by Government like a national emergency, he said.

“If in any other industry or company women were systematically abused it would be a national — an international — scandal. Yet, this has persisted for years,” Dr Clonan said.

“Behind the statistics there are young people whose lives are destroyed, who are stigmatised, whose careers are destroyed.

“Essentially, one of the problems with the Defence Forces is that its culture is rooted in the 1920s. And it is not evidence-based.

“Why is this not a national emergency? Taoiseach Micheál Martin, the commander-in-chief of the Defence Forces President [Michael D] Higgins, everyone should be up in arms about this. It will fail as an organisation in and of itself, and it will fail to protect the State. All of Leinster House should be incensed by this.” 

The issue of discrimination, bullying, rape, and sexual abuse in the Defence Forces was raised by Katie Hannon’s RTÉ radio documentary, Women of Honour

Women who featured in that documentary met Defence Minister Simon Coveney last week. He apologised on behalf of the State and promised an independent inquiry to investigate their complaints.

Members of the Women of Honour group that met Defence Minister Simon Coveney last week. From left:  Diane Byrne, Karina Molloy, and Yvonne O'Rourke. Picture: Gareth Chaney
Members of the Women of Honour group that met Defence Minister Simon Coveney last week. From left:  Diane Byrne, Karina Molloy, and Yvonne O'Rourke. Picture: Gareth Chaney

Dr Clonan said that listening to these women is vital and they must be invited to define the scope and parameters of whatever independent inquiry is held. “Families are revisiting this trauma by having to speak about it publicly, it has been very difficult. Now, they must be listened to,” he said. 

An anonymous Woman of Honour told the Irish Examiner that while the meeting with Mr Coveney was “very satisfactory”, only time would tell if real change followed.

“We’re cautiously optimistic but we’re not taking our foot off the metal. We’ve been let down for four decades and trust has to be earned. We’re not just going to be appeased. But we’re positive about what was said yesterday.” 

She said that strength has come from forming the Women of Honour group.

“We are very empowered by the fact that we’re not alone, we have a lot of shared experience and commonality in how we have been treated. And there’s a lot of energy and power in that. 

"And we have been treated horrendously. There is a lot of power coming from that realisation.” 

She said that the problems identified in Women of Honour are systemic. “The data is there. It’s ongoing. They know it. How can they put on a face without acknowledging that this is still going on? The same stories are being told. That shouldn’t have happened.” 

Dr Clonan first revealed horrifying problems around sexual abuse and discrimination in the Defence Forces in his doctoral thesis 21 years ago.

“Dozens” of women and some men have contacted Dr Clonan in the last three weeks, alleging the most distressing abuse suffered in the Defence Forces. They also spoke about the serious reprisals suffered if anyone speaks out.

“This is not a historical problem. It is happening right now,” Dr Clonan said. “And the women I spoke to in the last few weeks are still terrified to speak out for fear of immediate, career-ending reprisals. 

"The Defence Forces first ignore complaints, then isolate the person, then manufacture situations to discredit them.

“We need armed forces that are fit for purpose. We need to get to grips with the toxic, misogynistic culture in the Defence Forces. New policies have been put in place but the culture has not changed. It’s a scandal.

“We need a strong, robust intellectual tradition like they have in the US, British, French armies. Currently, we do not have that here.” 

He called for non-disclosure clauses made in settlements with Defence Force members who pursued complaints to be removed so that people can finally speak out.

Despite systemic problems in the Defence Forces, Dr Cionan praised representative organisations RACO and PDFORRA for consistently pushing for organisational justice over the years.

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