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Defence Forces’ problems are of a seriousness beyond the bleakest Garda scandals

Analysis: Only outsiders stand a chance of changing ‘toxic male’ culture in Defence Forces

It is no exaggeration to say the revelations on Tuesday about the culture - including sexual and physical attacks - across the Defence Forces represents one of the darkest days in the organisation’s 100-year history. Rather than uncovering pockets of malpractice or even a number of serious attacks, the Independent Review Group (IRG) has unmasked a toxic culture that demands immediate action.

The group makes clear efforts by those at the top of the Defence Forces to make changes have not worked, adding the organisation is “unable or unwilling” to reform. Crucially, it also makes it very clear many of the problems endure to the current day.

For his part, the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Lieut Gen Seán Clancy, “commended” the work of the IRG under chair Ms Justice Bronagh O’Hanlon.

“The findings of this report are stark and we need to change,” he said. “There is no place for any form of abuse, or failure to act on any form of inappropriate behaviour in the Defence Forces. It is contrary to our ethos and values and will not be tolerated.”


The issue for Lieut Gen Clancy, who joined the Defence Forces in 1984, is that, despite his words on Tuesday, it is now clear there are plenty of places for serious abuse in the Defence Forces. There has also been a place - apparently at the centre of the culture - for an unwillingness to properly investigate allegations when personnel managed to steel themselves to complain, which has been rare.

The IRG has done the State real service in exposing how the values of a bygone era - long considered outdated and destructive by most of the rest of Irish society - are still found in the Defence Forces.

An irony is that the senior officers who excelled - or were certainly promoted up the ranks - within that culture over the last two or three decades are the very ones now responsible for bringing about radical cultural change so badly needed. How they will be able to achieve that is very unclear, to say the least.

It seems light needs to be shone into the dark corners, of which there are many, in the Defence Forces and that only outsiders - independent, non-military investigators and oversight agencies - stand any chance of succeeding. The problems within the Defence Forces, quite frankly, are of a scale and seriousness that the Garda force could not rival, even on the bleakest days of its most controversial chapters in the last 20 years.

The IRG doesn’t just point to bad things happening in the Defence Forces, it concludes the very ideas underpinning its culture - the types of people and values it believes are desirable - have created a destructive and unsafe culture.

“The Defence Forces places a huge emphasis on masculinity, identifying the Irish soldier as male, extremely strong, and a fast runner,” the IRG report says. “Furthermore, the Irish soldier is lean and brave, with physical and moral courage and integrity. These characteristics would fit many superhero characters of Marvel fame, as well as the strong male lead characters of movies and television, including the Band of Brothers series and most war movies. Such a characterisation can inspire and attract males who identify with that form of masculinity, but brings with it dangers that have to be managed, as this report identifies.”

In another section, about a supposedly progressive and dynamic military in the year 2023, the IRG says: “So-called ‘soft skills’ are not valued or considered relevant. Physical skills are considered the most important basis of assessment, with intellectual capabilities rated as much less important. Flexibility and alternative thinking is suspect. In training and continuing assessment, speed and an ability to carry heavy loads are the key measures of capability, irrespective of role.”

The “dangers” brought about by attracting men “who identify with that form of masculinity” spring, or rather seep, from the pages elsewhere in the report. Those sections speak of bullying leading to suicides. Some of these have been covered up as “accidental deaths”. Female personnel were raped and sexual assaulted, had their drinks spiked and photographs secretly taken of them when they showered. Sexual attacks took place on overseas missions, in barracks, naval boats and other locations. Female members were also sidelined and targeted for having babies.

Aside from the gender-based bullying and the sexual and physical violence, classism was also rife in the traditional military system “officers” presiding over mere “men”.

“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,” the IRG notes.

It certainly is “a life less ordinary” as the Defence Forces recruitment slogan goes.

* If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Rape Crisis Helpline (1800-778888) or the Samaritans (116123 or