Conclusions Since December 2005, the Office of Ombudsman for the Defence Forces in Ireland has provided an independent, objective and accessible means of redress for individual members and former members of the Defence Forces in addition to maintaining oversight of administrative and systemic practices.
The work of an independent Ombudsman in overseeing the provision of services and in the protection of rights is correctly perceived to represent a championing of standards of good practice within institutions over which an Ombudsman has jurisdiction. When an Ombudsman’s Office is established it may bring about immediate visible reforms but, as time passes, ongoing benefits accrue by virtue of the Office serving as a standard – bearer for good administrative practices. The presence of a properly empowered Office of independent oversight can influence how an institution conducts the management of its people and promotes acceptable standards in the treatment of its members. I emphasise properly empowered because to be effective, in real terms, the Ombudsman must be supported by sufficient powers to thoroughly investigate complaints and to do so requires a right of access to documents, installations and the power to require witnesses to attend to give information. It is also essential that no member of an Armed Force has reason to fear recrimination or adverse actions if he/she pursues a complaint.
This is especially true as regards an Ombudsman dealing with military grievances. For instance on the website of the former German Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, Reinhold Robbe, he stated:
‘Experience has shown that the very existence of an independent Commissioner to whom any member of the Armed Forces can have recourse has a positive effect on leadership behaviour4.’
In my experience, the effectiveness in real terms, of such an Office depends on both political leadership and the leadership of the institution over which an Ombudsman has oversight. I believe it is safe to say that the presence of an Ombudsman widens access to justice in the true sense of those words. Of course, this function must be distinguished from the judicial system and it is normally the case that a statutorily based Ombudsman makes findings and recommendations and is therefore dependent on the moral authority underpinning the establishment of the Office to ensure enforcement of remedies and compliance with recommendations.
The founding Ombudsman for the Armed Forces in Canada, Mr. Andre Marin, referred to this as “moral persuasion”. The Ombudsman not only depends on the willingness of the Institution under his or her remit to comply with the recommendations, but also to have had the foresight to envisage the long-term benefits to the Institution and to society as a whole. There can be no doubt that leadership and courage are essential for meaningful institutional change and reform. I include courage because that is what it takes to permit an outsider to have oversight, to have the right to enquire, probe and criticise the way you are administering your organisation or institution and make recommendations that you change your practices and do things differently.
Accepting change in the approach to handling interpersonal disputes or grievances within an Institutional workplace, particularly those with a distinct culture, requires leaders with vision, foresight and moral courage. Without a commitment to change in the long- term interest of an organisation, little would ever change for the better. My own experience can safely attribute a significant part of the progress of the work of my Office to the leadership in the Irish Defence Forces. Since I was first appointed Ombudsman, I have experienced not only open-mindedness but also a willingness to engage with positive change from the three Chiefs of Staff who have held the post since my appointment have contributed immensely to supporting the objectives of the Office of ODF. These Chiefs of Staff demonstrated an over-riding concern for the well-being and fair treatment of those under their care and command. In addition to this, they recognised the long-term benefit that flows from reforms of practices that give rise to grievance and perceptions of unfairness. It has been enlightening for me to witness such leadership in action over the critical phase of the establishment years of my Office.
As I have already mentioned, one of the reasons for the establishment of an Ombudsman was a recognition that people who choose to serve their country in the Defence Forces, with all the attendant risks that may present, deserve to have their dignity and rights respected in the workplace, regardless of the unique requirements of military service in a chain-of- command structure. It is essential that the presence of an Ombudsman is seen to augment and support progressive plans for the modernisation of an army and not in any way to diminish the command structure. My Office has strived to play a part in that goal in Ireland.
Since being appointed I have endeavoured to spend as much time as possible meeting members of the Defence Forces of all ranks and their Representative Organisations. Not only is this a vital element in monitoring awareness and understanding of the powers and limitations of my Office but it also brings me in touch with the way of life and work- place challenges of those that I am there to serve.
In conclusion, Ladies and Gentlemen, may I say that when I was reading about this whole subject of Civilian oversight in Military matters, at the time of my appointment to this new job, it was said by many commentators that a Military Ombudsman was a democratic corrective: some went further, and submitted that it was a democratic imperative.
I respectfully propose that this is the case.
“When we assumed the soldier we did not lay aside the citizen”