Life

Radio review: Unacceptable conduct in Irish defence forces revealed

Nuala McCann

Women of Honour - RTE One

Katie Hannon's documentary on women's experiences in the Irish defence forces landed with a thump last week.

The impact has been felt right across government in the Republic of Ireland.

It was only a matter of time. The #MilitaryMeToo campaign has lifted the lid on bullying, misogyny and violence within armed forces around the world.

It was bound to hit Ireland.

Hannon's documentary does not pull its punches.

It tells the stories of serving and former female officers in the Irish army, navy and air forces who say they have been scarred by military life.

Ironically over the recent lockdown, when people have been kept far apart, these women have had time to use WhatsApp and Zoom to link up and share their experiences.

What developed was a huge sense of camaraderie and the relief to be able to speak about incidents that blighted their careers.

Hannon unearthed stories of promotions unfairly denied, unfair treatment after maternity leave, a feeling of being victimised after complaining.

The stories they recall have stayed with them down the years like the graffiti etched into the room they shared with the men that said: “Hoor” and “slut” and included graphic drawing of sexual acts with the women's names attached.

There was the story of the male instructor who had just two women in his class of 40. He found a rope, tied them together, quoted from Fifty Shades of Grey and left them like that.

The stories are so bizarre, so out of kilter from what should be commonly acceptable in the modern workplace that they beggar belief.

Take the senior non-commissioned officer on board a ship who called his female recruits in and told them they could not wear silky underwear - cotton only in case of fire - and no tampons in case they get toxic shock syndrome while at sea.

Or what about the officer who said he would never allow two females into the ribs of the ship together, in case they got distracted by dolphins.

There was the story of the young recruit summoned to the officers' mess for her 24th birthday by a superior officer who said he had a present for her.

She stood surrounded by much older senior officers and was told to open the gift.

“It was a pair of rather sexy knickers,” she said. “Written in the crotch of the knickers was ‘I wish I was here'.”

There were multiple stories of officers who were not gentlemen, of sexual assault, of men plying women with drink and trying to take advantage.

Of how, when one woman complained about it, she was basically told to forget it.

“How can you forget being sexually assaulted? A sense of humour doesn't help you there.”

Through it all, runs a stark vein of anger and humiliation at how their complaints were handled.

There is fury at being told that “This is a man's world. You're only bait.”

Some of these cases are from a time past, others are currently going through the legal process.

Hannon has said there is no doubt that the culture has improved in recent years. But it's not enough.

What these women want is an independent inquiry to establish the full extent of what happened and a hard look at the Irish defence forces.

They want defence minister Simon Coveney, on behalf of the government, to acknowledge and apologise for what happened and continues to happen.

At time of writing, Mr Coveney was expected to make a full statement … let's see.

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