‘Furious’ Taoiseach demands answers from military after soldier assault case

Simon Harris said there should be no place in the Irish Defence Forces for personnel with criminal convictions.

Taoiseach Simon Harris has warned the Irish Defence Forces that there should be no place in the military for personnel with criminal convictions.

Mr Harris issued the stark message to commanders after making clear he was not satisfied with how they had handled the fallout from the case of an Irish soldier who assaulted a woman in Limerick.

The Taoiseach demanded to know if there are other members of the military who are “hiding with convictions” for domestic, sexual or gender-based violence.

EU Commissioner nomination
Taoiseach Simon Harris at Government Buildings in Dublin (Gareth Chaney/PA)

His comments came on a day when TDs in the Dail parliament in Dublin rose to their feet to applaud Natasha O’Brien – the assault victim whose case has sparked protests around Ireland.

Cathal Crotty, a serving member of the Defence Forces, walked free from court last week when he was given a three-year suspended sentence for attacking Limerick woman Ms O’Brien.

The 22-year-old solider, with an address at Parkroe Heights, Ardnacrusha, Co Clare, pleaded guilty to assaulting her on a night out in Limerick city in 2022.

Ms O’Brien, 24, was in the public gallery of the Dail on Tuesday as Mr Harris fielded opposition questions on the public controversy over the suspended sentence.

The Ceann Comhairle (speaker) of the Dail Sean O Fearghail said he was breaking with tradition to ask TDs to stand and applaud her.

After the ovation, Mr O Fearghail looked up at Ms O’Brien and said: “We are on your side.”

The Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Lieutenant General Sean Clancy, has undertaken an audit on establish whether there are other serving members with convictions for gender-based violence. The findings were due to be handed to Tanaiste and Minister for Defence Micheal Martin on Tuesday.

The Defence Forces have emphasised that any conviction in a civilian court has implications for a member of military, but the organisation said it cannot act until the court processes have been completed.

Sinn Fein Leader Mary Lou McDonald
Sinn Fein Leader Mary Lou McDonald called for urgent action (Brian Lawless/PA)

In the relation to the sentence handed to Crotty, Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions does have to ability to make an application to have it reviewed.

At the weekend, thousands of people gathered in protests across the country in solidarity with Ms O’Brien, with a further protest planned outside the Dail on Tuesday evening, which Ms O’Brien is expected to attend.

Mr Harris said he wanted to meet Ms O’Brien after the end of any further legal proceedings that may arise, and commended her for coming forward.

“We need more people to be coming forward, we need to have a zero-tolerance approach, and what we certainly don’t need is anybody being put off coming forward,” he said.

He also expressed anger at a “flurry of activity” by Defence Forces now, questioning whether it was prompted by the public interest in the case.

“It’s a harsh thing for me to have to say as Taoiseach but I feel I need to say it, would the Defence Forces be carrying out their review that they’re now carrying out was there not so much public interest in this?” he told reporters outside Government Buildings in Dublin.

“There are people in the Defence Forces who clearly knew this was happening, why did they do nothing? These are very serious questions and as Taoiseach I am not satisfied in relation to this, I am not satisfied at all.

“I am really angry about it because we are now seeing a flurry of activity but that flurry of activity is only coming about because of the bravery of Natasha O’Brien and I want to know how many other people are hiding with convictions in relation to domestic, sexual or gender-based violence.

Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns
Leader of the Social Democrats Holly Cairns said women were fed up of hearing ‘platitudes’ from politicians on ending violence against women (Brian Lawless/PA)

“They have no place, absolutely no place, in the Defence Forces.”

Ms O’Brien has thanked people for the support she has received.

“I felt completely alone after the whole ordeal in court last week but to know I have so much support, I know I have so many people behind me, that people are so proud of me for speaking up about something that I think everybody can relate to and everybody is not happy about, it’s great to be able to use my voice and hopefully make a difference because that’s why I’m talking about this,” she said on Virgin Media’s Ireland AM.

“My protest is today outside the Dail and I urge anyone that isn’t happy with our society to protest with me.”

Later, she watched on in the Dail as Mr Harris was pressed by Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald and the leader of the Social Democrats Holly Cairns on the matter.

Ms McDonald said the outcome of the court case was “shocking”.

“Women know that this case is not a standalone case,” she added.

“This isn’t an aberration, or something that happened in splendid isolation.

Tanaiste Micheal Martin
Tanaiste Micheal Martin said he will examine the findings of a review by the Defence Forces (Gareth Chaney/PA)

“This is a symptom of an epidemic in our society, a case that sadly has parallels and echoes throughout the courtrooms and the experiences and stories that women and girls carry with us throughout our lives. Experiences of not feeling safe, of not being safe, and not being able to have confidence that the system will keep you safe.

“Women are now again making our message heard loud and clear that ‘enough is enough’, women have now had enough. The reality is in modern Ireland, violence against women and girls remains far too common.”

Ms Cairns said women were sick of hearing “platitudes” from Government on ending violence against women.

“Violence against women is an epidemic and it frequently happens in plain sight,” she said.

“Natasha O’Brien was walking home with her friend, all she was doing is existing in a public space. And Cathal Crotty decided to beat her to a pulp while his friends stood there and watched. As Natasha lay unconscious on the ground and Crotty walked away he didn’t display any remorse; the opposite in fact, it seemed he felt proud.”

Ms Cairns added: “Natasha and so many other women out there are fed up of hearing ‘never again’, they’re fed up of hearing platitudes from politicians, and they’re fed up of hearing promises of reform. What they want are answers as to why the system keeps failing them and action to stop it from happening again.”

Mr Harris rejected any attempt to portray his call for zero-tolerance as a platitude.

“I’m absolutely furious at what’s happened in this country, just to be very clear, and there’s nobody in this house more disgusted than anybody else, nobody,” he said.

Protesters gather in Dublin in solidarity with Natasha O’Brien
Protesters gather in Dublin in solidarity with Natasha O’Brien (Cate McCurry/PA)

“I’m not just a Taoiseach, I’m a father, a son, a husband. Everybody wants to live in a country with zero tolerance. And nobody suggests zero tolerance is some sort of slogan or platitude. Zero tolerance is the cultural change we need to bring about in this country. And it requires every single person in this place, in the judiciary, in the Defence Forces, in our public services, in our homes, in our schools, working to bring it about.”

He said it was “utterly unacceptable” for him as head of government not to have been informed if there are other serving members of the Defence Forces with criminal convictions.

“We need to actually start speaking in plain English here, if you have a criminal conviction, you have no right to be in our Defence Forces, plain and simple,” he said.

“We need to know how many people in the Defence Forces have a criminal conviction and when are they leaving – and that is not too much for me as head of government to ask.”

Earlier, Tanaiste Mr Martin said there were members of the Defence Forces “at all levels who were appalled at what has happened”.

“There can be no toleration, there has to be zero tolerance for violence of the kind that we witnessed against Natasha O’Brien – quite shocking – and indeed, in other cases that have come to light,” he said.

“There is a process there that is meant to be followed, in respect of once the court case (has concluded), in terms of any criminal conviction, there has to be a follow-up in terms of Defence Forces dealing with that.

“So I’ve asked in the context of further cases, I’ve asked the Chief of Staff for a full report on that and when I get that report, I’ll consider any further actions that will be required.

“In parallel with that, an audit is under way in respect of any other cases, similar to that case that may be out there.”

He added: “The use of violence in the manner that was used in these cases is quite shocking, there is no excuse for it.

“And there has to be standards and values within the Defence Forces and people’s behaviour, whether one is in uniform or not, must approximate to those values and the most fundamental of all is you do not behave in such a violent manner towards women, and more generally, in society and that’s the bottom line.”

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