PRESIDENT Michael D Higgins has made an unprecedented intervention on the issue of abusive and persistent sexual abuse of women in the Army, Navy and Air Corps that he fears will be repeated elsewhere.
As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, I read with a sense of shame the report of the Independent Review Group,” the head of state said in an extraordinary statement about the “criminal acts” committed.
“Those who were abused were by those who, of higher rank, held a position of power over them in a deeply hierarchical organization.”
What was revealed in the report was not a simple series of random events, he said.
The shocking revelations were made possible by the arrival of “some of the bravest of the brave” who have served our country, he said.
“The report explicitly states that there is an ongoing systemic problem of incidents of bullying, harassment, discrimination and sexual harassment within the armed forces.
“This should be of the utmost concern to all of us, including those in the armed forces who want to serve their country to the best of their ability and so many who do so at home and abroad.”
He said he particularly recognized the contribution of the Women of Honor and the Men and Women of Honor, “both groups I had the pleasure of meeting in Áras an Uachtaráin.”
But he also paid tribute to all those who exposed the scandal by sharing their “deeply traumatic personal experiences”.
The forms of bullying described were among the most serious imaginable, the president said.
“They include behaviors that lead 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 freshman year.”
He added: “What is not so explicitly stated in the report, but what is clearly demonstrated by the findings, is the need for a restructuring of the relationship between officer and enlisted ranks.
“The class hierarchy was characterized as ‘the elite and the rest’ and ‘master and servant’, with all the snobbery, condescension and derogatory attitudes and behavior that entailed”.
He added: “Such structural problems cannot be ignored, nor can action be delayed in their reform or replacement.”
The report is strongest in describing the price paid for a version of “exaggerated masculinity,” of a preference for a harsh regime over what are called “soft relationships,” the commander-in-chief says.
“In such a vision of what the ideal member of the armed forces should be, capacity for human relations takes on a subordinate compensatory role. These are not human relationships in any meaningful sense.”
The report “critically impacts the recruiting process, along with retention and morale efforts,” the president noted.
“We owe so much to our armed forces, women and men who have served on our behalf on peacekeeping missions in conflict zones.
“The fact that the Irish public is among the best informed in the world about conflict zones, and in particular the Middle East and the Israeli/Palestinian issue, is due in no small part to the integrity and dedication with which peacekeeping has been and continues to be carried out. performed by Ireland.”
The pride the Irish people rightly feel in more than 60 years of UN peacekeeping by members of the armed forces is a precious resource, he said.
It was something that should be a “central focus” in all recruiting activities, as well as the retention and morale of those who serve.
“I worry that unfortunately this is not always what has been emphasized on occasions I have witnessed.”
He expressed the hope that the many young people currently contemplating a career in the armed forces will join an organization that they can be confident will be reformed – “that from their very first day as members, dignity and respect will be are emphasized as the primary and driving values of those who serve our country.
“I appreciate that this is not happening at the moment, but is defeated by what has now been empirically established as systemic failure and a non-inclusive structure. That has to change.”
The president welcomed the government’s “prompt and full acceptance of the review’s recommendations,” in a statement that would have been approved with the government itself.
“The public will now expect these recommendations to be implemented in full and without delay,” he added.
“There can be no continuation of this highly unacceptable, even criminal behavior.
“I wish all who will take on this vital task the stamina, energy, sense of urgency and integrity required for one of the most important transformational tasks in our state.”
Everything he had said “is based on my position as commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” he said.
“As President of Ireland, however, I am left with the deepest concern that this institutional failure is far from limited to the armed forces, and in many cases there are lessons to be learned and transformations implemented, which are now urgent, not just within the armed forces, but throughout our society and many of our institutions.
“We must all support any attempt at reform that will give us a truly human institutional profile, one based on dignity and respect for vulnerability as well as excellence. That is the true test of institutional effectiveness.”