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Statement by President Higgins on the report of the Independent Review Group into the Defence Forces

Date: Fri 31st Mar, 2023 | 13:19

“As Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces, it is with a sense of shame but also so much hurt for those serving women and men who had dedicated their lives to serving our country and to working as international peacekeepers and who have been abused while serving as members of the Defence Forces, that I read the Report of the Independent Review Group.

Those who were abused were often abused by those who, having a higher rank, held a position of power over them in what was a deeply hierarchical organisation.

What has been revealed in this report, a report made possible by the coming forward of some of the bravest of the brave to have served our country, was not a simple set of random occurrences. It is explicitly stated in the Report that there is a continuing systemic problem of incidents of bullying, harassment, discrimination and sexual harassment within the Defence Forces.

This must be of the deepest concern to us all, including those in the Defence Forces who are anxious to serve their country to the best of their abilities and so many who are doing so at home and abroad.

May I particularly recognise the contribution of the Women of Honour, the Men and Women of Honour, both of which groups I have had the privilege of meeting at Áras an Uachtaráin, and all those who have brought these issues to light by sharing their profoundly traumatic personal experiences of abuse within the Defence Forces, both within and outside of the structures of the review.

The types of bullying described in the Benchmarking Survey, which was conducted in 2022 and is referenced in the Report, are some of the most serious imaginable. They include behaviour leading to suicides, serious physical assaults, very serious sexual assaults including rapes, and the sexual targeting of new entrants, particularly but not exclusively members of the Cadet school during their first year.

What is not as explicitly stated in the report, but which is clearly demonstrated by its findings, is the need for a restructuring of the relationship between officer and enlisted ranks. What is identified in the report as a ‘class system’ – to quote its own words, “The class hierarchy was characterised as ‘the elite and the rest’ and ‘master and servant’, with all the snobbery, condescension and denigrating attitudes and behaviour that go with that”.

These structural issues that exist are ones within which those holding rank will have experienced both prospects and experience of promotion, consideration and exclusion. Such structural issues can be neither ignored nor action delayed on their reform or replacement.

The report is at its strongest in describing the price paid for a version of ‘exaggerated masculinity’, of a preference for a hard regime over what is called ‘soft relationships’. In such a vision of what the ideal member of the Defence Forces should be, capacity for or experience of human relations are accorded a minor compensatory role. This is not human relations in any meaningful sense.

All of what is contained in the Report of the Independent Review Group of course crucially affects the recruitment process, together with efforts at retention and morale.

We owe so much to our Defence Forces, women and men who have served on our behalf on peacekeeping missions in zones of conflict. That the Irish public are among the best informed in the world on zones of conflict, and in particular the Middle East and the Israeli/Palestinian issue, is due in no small measure to the integrity and commitment with which peacekeeping has and continues to be carried out by Ireland and the good relationships between those who have served and their communities, and the information shared with their own communities on their return.

The pride which Irish people rightly feel in the over 60 years of UN peacekeeping by members of the Defence Forces is a precious resource and something which should be a central emphasis in all recruitment activities, as well as to the retention and morale of those who serve. I am concerned that sadly this has not always been what has been emphasised on occasions I have witnessed.

I hope the many young people currently considering a career in the Defence Forces will join an organisation that they can feel confident is going to be reformed. That from their very first day as members, dignity and respect will be emphasised as the primary and driving values of those that serve our country. I appreciate that this does not happen at the present time, but is being defeated by what is now empirically established as systemic failure and a non-inclusive structure.

That must change. I welcome the Government’s speedy and full acceptance of the recommendations of the review. The public will now expect that these recommendations be implemented in full and without delay. There can be no continuation of any of this deeply unacceptable, indeed criminal, behaviour. I wish all those who will undertake this vital task the stamina, the energy, the sense of urgency and the integrity that is needed for one of the most important tasks of transformation in our State.

All of what I have said is informed by my position as Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces. However, as President of Ireland, I am left with the greatest anxiety that this institutional failure is far from confined to the Defence Forces, and in many cases there are lessons to be drawn, and transformations to be made, that are now urgent, not only within the Defence Forces, but across our society and many of our institutions.

We must all support every effort at such reform as will give us a truly human institutional profile, one built on dignity and a respect for both vulnerability and excellence. That is the true test of institutional effectiveness.”