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The Establishment of the Office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces

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The Establishment of the Office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces.
The Irish Defence Forces (in Irish Óglaigh na hÉireann) are a professional military organisation comprising the Army, Naval Service, Air Corps and Reserve Defence Forces of the Republic of Ireland. The President of Ireland is the Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces but, in practice, it answers to the Irish Government through the Minister for Defence.
The following outlines the Strength of Permanent Defence Force (PDF) and Reserve Defence Force (RDF) on the 15 Dec 2011
PDF Strength 9,460

RDF Strength 5,361

On 31st December 2010 there were 569 female members serving in the PDF constituting 5.97% of the membership.
The Irish Defence Forces have a strong tradition of service in multinational peace support and humanitarian operations, having served as part of multinational forces in Lebanon, Congo, Liberia and Chad amongst others. Since 1958 the Irish Defence Forces have maintained a continuous presence on UN peace support missions. Ireland has never colonised or invaded any other State but was itself invaded and colonised many times and for many years.
The Office of Ombudsman was established in response to a growing demand, from a number of sources, not least the members of the Defence Forces themselves, for a transparent and fair redress procedure, a procedure which was independent from the Defence Forces’ chain–of–command and from the Minister for Defence and the Departmental Secretariat.
The decision to establish a statutory and independent Ombudsman for the Defence Forces (ODF) was a historic development. The work of my Office is primarily guided by the pillars and the essential elements of Ombudsman best practices which are that the Ombudsman is: impartial, independent, fair, effective and accountable.
Every member of the Defence Forces has a right to become a member of one of two Representative Associations. PDFORRA (Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association) for the enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers and RACO (Representative Association of Commissioned Officers) for Commissioned Officers. Both organisations are empowered by statute to represent the interests of their members on strictly defined matters regarding pay and conditions of service. PDFORRA was at the forefront of the campaign to establish the Office of the Ombudsman and it is to their lasting credit that they displayed the courage and foresight to call for the establishment of my Office. It has been a source of encouragement and pride for me that the inspiration for my Office came, not only from the executive and legislature, but from the serving men and women of the military itself.
The need for an independent office to investigate complaints was made abundantly clear through the findings of a report commissioned by the Irish Government. The Report entitled “Challenge of a Workplace” found, as part of an in-depth review of practices and procedures, that there was persuasive evidence of the need for the Office of an Ombudsman for the Defence Forces. The report revealed a widespread and debilitating lack of confidence in the prevailing internal military redress procedures known as the Redress of Wrongs (RoW). This situation was described, at the time, as troubling and worrying.
There was a time when institutional problems were ignored, or worse, concealed and allowed to fester. It takes a lot of moral courage for the leadership of a hierarchical organisation to respond to a suggestion that there are serious problems by opening up to probing from an outside Office with extensive powers of investigation. A military environment is tough and challenging. Soldiers on active service must be ready to respond quickly and professionally to potentially life-threatening events, both to themselves and their colleagues, particularly on overseas duties. Because of this, military training and discipline will often impose a harsh burden on participating personnel. This fact cannot be over-emphasised. However, there is absolutely nothing in military life which justifies that any individual be singled out, victimised or subjected to abuse or bullying. On the contrary, the team spirit, which is essential to the maintenance of a military organisation, will be undermined and threatened by such practices.
In 2004, the Irish Government responded to the call for an independent system to oversee the existing redress processes and published legislation to establish the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces. The legislation was extensively debated in the Irish Houses of Parliament where it received all party support. In September 2005, I was appointed as the first Ombudsman for the Defence Forces. My job was to establish this new Office and provide it with its identity and ethos. In addition to dealing with cases that were referred to me from the very first day of establishment, the early months of the operation of my Office were also focused on the effective communication of the role and remit of the ODF to the many publics which my Office serves, especially current and former members of the Defence Forces.
From a practical perspective, the establishment of such an Office will inevitably be a very busy time. I had to devise a corporate identity, commission a specific computerised case monitoring and case handling system, produce and distribute information leaflets and design and launch a website. I felt that it was vital in the early days of my Office to visit the Air Corps, the Naval Service Headquarters and every Army Brigade, speak to members, at all levels, to describe the role, responsibility, powers and limitations of the Ombudsman in order to manage expectations. I was conscious of the need to ensure that people’s expectations did not exceed what I could provide as an Ombudsman. Visiting the camps and speaking to members also provided me with valuable feed-back on a wide range of issues.
It is important in the early days that the Ombudsman receives briefings from senior members of the Defence Forces Command and Staff as well as from the Representative Associations. My primary objectives were to learn as much as possible about the organisation and to win trust and confidence from all ranks. I believe that there is a very small window of opportunity within which to achieve this because there will be diverse views, hopes and fears about the introduction of an Office of Ombudsman. It may never be very clear just how much support there is for the Office and the only way to proceed is to endeavour to demonstrate that the Ombudsman is an agent of positive change providing transparency in how decisions are made and determining whether administrative actions and processes are fair.
From the outset, I was determined that my Office would establish a reputation for openness, accountability and a willingness to engage in constructive dialogue with members of the Permanent and the Reserve Defence Forces. I have striven to ensure that these attributes remain central to the ethos of my Office.

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