News & Events

'The Professional and Personal Implications of Whistleblowing in Ireland - Ethical, Legal and Personal Outcomes in Speaking Truth to Power'

17 May 2018

I served in the Irish Defence Forces as an army officer (captain) from 1989 to 2000.  During this eleven-year period, I served in a number of operational, front-line appointments at home and abroad. 

In 1995 and 1996 I served in Lebanon as an officer in command of the Irish Battalion’s ‘Mobile Reserve’.  This was the Quick Reaction Force or QRF of the Irish Battalion responding to fast-moving critical incidents throughout our Area of Operations (AO).  In the spring of 1996, there was a major escalation of violence between Hezbollah and the Israeli Defence Forces in the Irish AO.  This culminated in a punitive operation against the civilian population of Lebanon known by the Israeli Government as ‘Operation Grapes of Wrath’.  It resulted in the killing and wounding of hundreds of innocent Lebanese men, women and children.  It culminated with the massacre of civilians at the village of Qana on 18thApril 1996. 

As a consequence of experiences of anti-terror operations in Ireland and full combat conditions in the Middle East, as a young officer, I was completely immersed in the norms and values of the Irish Armed Forces – Oglaigh na h’Eireann.  In the autumn of 1996, when I returned from a short deployment as an election monitor in Bosnia, I commenced a PhD on the status and roles of female personnel in the Irish Armed Forces.

I sought and received formal written permission from the chief of staff of the Defence Forces to complete the doctoral thesis and enjoyed the support of the general staff throughout the research process.  In 1998, I was promoted to the rank of captain and appointed as a staff officer for the chief of staff at Defence Forces Headquarters.  Up to this point, I was a highly-regarded, respected, trusted and valued officer within the organisation.

In conducting the academic research, however, I uncovered shockingly high levels of sexual violence against women in the Defence Forces ranging from aggravated sexual harassment to sexual assault and rape. 

In 2000, the term ‘whistleblower’ was not in common use in Ireland.  Nor was the term ‘whistleblower reprisal’.  Transparency International Irelandcites my case as a classic example of whistleblower reprisal.   By speaking truth to power in Ireland, in seeking to highlight and end a toxic workplace culture with shockingly high levels of sexual violence, sexual assault and rape – I was faced with the destruction of my reputation, the threat of loss of employment and income and was threatened with criminal prosecution.  On a personal level, and on a professional level, the experience of being a ‘whistleblower’ in Ireland was a terrifying one.  It was one of the most traumatic experiences I have ever had.  I would not wish it on anyone.     

I welcome the recent introduction of protected disclosures legislation in Ireland and I welcome the opportunity to talk to senior managers about the experience of whistleblowing in Ireland.  It has been an entirely negative experience for me.  I would say definitively that being a ‘whistleblower’ is not good for your CV in Ireland.  Recent developments with regard to Sergeant Maurice Mc Cabe suggest to me that official Ireland has learned nothing about the value of whistleblowers in the workplace.  Whistleblower reprisal – of the most appalling nature seems to be alive and well in Ireland. 

Whistleblowers add value to organisations, institutions and businesses.  Mandatory, full disclosure should be the ethical cornerstone of every public and private sector endeavour in Ireland.  From health to financial services.  If Ireland truly recognised and rewarded its whistleblowers, it is possible that we would not owe billlions of Euro following the economic crash.  It is also likely that we would not endure the never-ending and ongoing cycle of crises and scandals in politics, banking, media, policing and health services - including the current cervical smear test tragedy.

Official Ireland does not value those who tell the truth to power.  Official Ireland does not value ethical behaviour and is hostile to those who highlight unethical, corrupt or dangerous practices in the workplace.  For Ireland to emerge from the recurring ethical and intellectual failures of the Celtic Tiger crash and its aftermath – austerity – it needs to recognise, value and reward whistleblowers and all workplace good Samaritans.  Above all, Ireland needs to teach ethics and ethical values at all stages of education from primary school to university level.  Ethics should be at the heart of the professional and moral formation of all Irish citizens and in all walks of life from financial services, to health, to policing, media and politics.


Dr Tom Clonan is a retired army captain, security analyst and author.