Minister for Defence Simon Coveney has said that a culture of intimidation and harassment continues in the Defence Forces, and it needed to be stamped out.
It was a culture that allowed people to be isolated and bullied and harassed, he told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland. “That's not acceptable to me, it's not acceptable to the Department of Defence, it's not acceptable to the leadership within the Defence Forces.
“We're going to change that.
“This is a historic problem in the Defence Forces, but in my view it is also a current problem. Which is why we need to act to stamp it out now.”
Mr Coveney also said that despite an apparent decrease in such cases to “single figures”, according to official figures, because of the culture of intimidation many did not feel they could report incidents of harassment, intimidation or abuse.
“One of the problems is that there is not an atmosphere that allows people to come tell their stories, when they want to and that cultural issue needs to change. I do have data of the number of cases taken to the Garda Síochána — which shows that the number of cases has reduced significantly over time, but that clearly isn't dealing with the core of the problem because what many people have told me is that there is a culture that doesn't allow people to come forward in a way that they feel safe in doing that.”
The Minister said that the official number of cases was in single figures, “but that's not the end of the story because what I'm hearing is that the structures and procedures are not there to allow people to come and report safely without feeling that they will potentially be labelled as a troublemaker or a difficult person within the Defence Forces — that is not an atmosphere that I can allow to continue”.
Mr Coveney said that he would be announcing the appointment of a confidential contact person to assist former and serving members of the Defence Forces who make allegations of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace.
The contact person will operate until such time as an independent review of the defence forces and its procedures for dealing with complaints of bullying and harassment is completed.
The Minister added that the Department of Defence will also be working with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre to provide appropriate support and counselling to serving and former members of the Defence Forces who have suffered sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape in the workplace.
The confidential contact person will be drawn from outside the Defence Forces and will act independently of the military chain of command and the Department of Defence, he said. Someone who will listen, and put together a report on each case, reporting to me periodically, outlining issues that are arising.
Mr Coveney said that the culture within the defence forces that allowed people to be bullied and harassed had to be stopped. It was not acceptable to him.
It was important that such behaviour be “stamped out” and that the defence forces adopt a zero tolerance policy. The confidential contact — which will operate under a service called ‘Raise A Concern’ will be an interim measure as Mr Coveney said he was not prepared to wait for action and wanted the service to operate until a complete independent review was concluded.
Women and men in the defence forces needed a safe space where they could tell their stories and report wrongdoing, Mr Coveney added.
Retired army captain Diane Byrne, who is involved with the Women of Honour group, has said they are “generally pleased” with the announcement by Mr Coveney.
Ms Byrne told RTÉ radio’s News at One that “a lot of emotion” had been raised following a documentary on such incidents and it was important that supports were in place for those who had been affected.
However, she said they were concerned because they were not aware of the organisation who will operate the confidential contact service. “It will take a bit of time to look into this.”
Ms Byrne said that they had not been consulted in advance about Raise A Concern, but they were "very hopeful".
“The most important thing is that people who need help will get it,” she added.
The confidential contact person system was a ‘stop gap’ until an independent external review could be completed, she said, adding: “The system is broken, there are a lot of victims out there.”
The review “has to happen soon,” Ms Bryen said, and the Women of Honour group was hopeful they would be involved.
“We are now looking for action, but there needs to be accountability at all levels.”
When asked if she could recommend a career in the Defence Forces at this stage, Ms Byrne said that unfortunately she could not. While she had great respect for the institution and people who served in the defence forces, it was not yet a safe place to work.