Easter has always been a time for the Irish Defence Forces to shine, a time when, to quote the Irish patriotic ballad, “serried files that foes may dread” would step together, “firm each foot, erect each head.”

Their duty at this time of year is to parade through the center of Dublin and commemorate the Easter Rising, and in doing so proudly display their discipline, professionalism, and readiness to defend the country against all threats.

This year was no different for that tradition, and on Easter Sunday they gathered at the GPO where at noon the national flag was lowered and the Proclamation was read. In attendance were President Michael D. Higgins, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, and various other dignitaries. 

Earlier today a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the 1916 Rising took place at the GPO, O'Connell Street, Dublin. The ceremony was led by President Michael D.Higgins, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste and the Minister for Defence Micheál Martin. pic.twitter.com/b7oWXjNu7O

— MerrionStreet.ie (@merrionstreet) April 9, 2023

But this year was different, and on a dull April day, a dark cloud hung over the attendees both figuratively and literally. For a force whose main duty is to protect the state against external threat, there now is a more pressing need and that is to deal decisively with the enemy within, namely the culture of abuse, bullying, and discrimination. 

The extent of that became evident with the recent publication of the report by an independent review group (IRG) that was set up to look into the allegations of abuse within the armed forces. However, the real impact came when RTÉ broadcast an interview with a rape victim. 

It was riveting TV as former private in the Army Roslyn O'Callaghan told her story about how she had been raped by a senior officer. It was a harrowing tale of sexual abuse followed by what can only be described as incompetence and insensitivity within Army ranks. 

"I want to go home"

Roslyn O’Callaghan, who is a retired Irish army corporal recalls her experience during a military hearing after she made an allegation of rape against a more senior member of the Defence Forces #RTEUpfront pic.twitter.com/RqYByqRCqm

— Upfront with Katie Hannon (@RTEUpfront) April 3, 2023

Coming from a proud military family, O'Callaghan ended up leaving the Defence Forces and attempting suicide while her attacker was fined €175, completed his career, and retired on full pension. She also informed us that she was told by another female member of the army that the same officer had raped her two years later.

It was a shocking tale, but sadly not an uncommon occurrence in the Irish armed forces as the programme also heard of sexual abuse in the Navy.

While rape is clearly at the apex of any abuse of women, the IRG report catalogued much more. In a survey the group carried out, 88 percent of females who responded reported experiencing one or more forms of sexual harassment. The most common forms were offensive jokes, sexist remarks, and offensive comments about their physical appearance, but shockingly, almost half reported experiencing unwanted physical contact or sexual assault.

Pregnant women were in particular picked upon, with the report noting that the Defence Forces had “no acceptance of motherhood” and that it was “career ending.” Disturbingly, the report instances occasions where women were humiliated by virtue of their pregnancy in the course of their work. They were asked to do tasks that were inappropriate, especially if they were at an advanced stage of pregnancy, and in some cases, they felt that caused danger to the unborn child. 

It is impossible to disagree with sources available to the IRG, which concluded that, at best, the Defence Forces barely tolerates women and, at its worst, verbally, physically, sexually, and psychologically abuses women in its ranks. 

Little wonder that women only make up seven percent of the Defence Forces, one of the lowest numbers in Europe. By contrast the U.S. Army has 16 percent female members. 

But it wasn’t just women who are at the receiving end of this appalling behavior. Males also were subjected to various sources of harassment and bullying – especially if they complained – including mobbing, where an individual becomes the target of systematic abuse and verbal attacks which ultimately isolate them and makes life so difficult that they resign their post, and beasting, the imposition of gruelling exercises, either in training or as punishment.

Physical violence was also reported by the IRG which included being kicked while exercising, being punched in the stomach while parading, kicked in the groin, and targeted with sadistic violence for officers’ perceived pleasure.

Newspaper reports this week also have new allegations of historical abuse against two Army officers, allegedly waging a campaign of sexual abuse against male recruits where young soldiers are alleged to have been plied with alcohol before being sexually assaulted.

The report also raises real concerns about the suicide rate among serving members of the Defence Forces, with many interviewees describing their experience of training as literal torture and saying that members of their class took their own lives. In the case of some suicides, they were told that if they were not denoted as “accidental deaths” rather than suicides, there would be adverse consequences. 

With the last survey into suicides taking place in 2005 finding a suicide rate of 8.5 percent of member deaths, the IRG calls for an immediately updated survey. 

The report is difficult reading for those who hold a rose-tinted view of our Defence Forces who are highly regarded for decades of service in peacekeeping roles in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. 

But it shines a light on what it calls all the “dirty secrets,” and much of the credit for these revelations lies with a group of women that campaigned tirelessly for accountability and a change of culture in the Army. 

The Women of Honour are former Defence Forces members who acted as whistleblowers in regard to their own experiences of bullying and sexual harassment during their military careers. Ominously they appear to have been sidelined as the political establishment acts to deal with the fallout from the report.

They have expressed shock at the appointment of the secretary general of the Department of Defence, which has had oversight over the forces, as a member of the external oversight body tasked with driving cultural change.

Under pressure also are the current top brass of the Defence Forces, with calls for them to reveal what they knew about the abuses that took place under their watch. The IRG report, in a damning indictment of current leadership states, “Everyone knows what is going on, but no one dares to admit it.”

The report blames careerism which, it said, led most commissioned officers to focus on their own advancement rather than on the organization’s objectives and the leadership of their “men.”

However, it is unlikely that the skills required to get to the top are those that are now required to rectify this appalling mess. 

*This column first appeared in the April 12 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral. Michael O'Dowd is brothers with Niall O'Dowd, founder of the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.