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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 Jan 2022

Vol. 1016 No. 6

Violence against Women: Statements (Resumed)

I do not think there is anyone here who was not shocked by the horrific murder of Ashling Murphy. It knocked us for seven. At times like this, we become aware of numerous cases of violence against women in our towns, some of which end in absolute tragedy for those women and their families.

This struck a nerve across the board. I was in Strasbourg for a meeting of the Conference on the Future of Europe at which there were numerous meetings. The matter was raised by a Cypriot colleague at one meeting, and by Deputy Niamh Smyth, me and others. It was noted that this was a requirement for a strategy not only here but also across Europe and that there is a failure across the board. Like many issues that relate to women, violence against women is an issue that is often left to one side from time to time because something else takes precedence. We cannot allow that to happen here now.

When I first became aware of this brutal crime, like many other people, I said this needs to be marked locally even though I am not always sure that does justice. I, like others, offer my condolences to the family of Ashling Murphy. As I said, this should not be something that just makes it into the television programme "Reeling in the Years"; this must be a point at which we actually do something. That applies at every level, including obviously at a national strategy level. There is an absolute requirement on the Minister and the Government to ensure that work is done.

We all know the difficulties relating to people trying to flee domestic violence and we all know the financial constraints. We need changes at local authority level. We need to look at multiple means. We need to look at means of de-escalating really bad circumstances that gardaí come across. In some cases, a person does not necessarily need to leave, the situation just needs to be de-escalated so that terrible things do not happen. All these things need to occur.

When we spoke in Dundalk about the need to mark this, as a man, I said I did not want to look like I was politicking. I did not want to look like I wanted ownership of it. Whether it was right or wrong, I and others felt it needed to be a woman who does it. We all contacted Women's Aid. Anne Larkin from Women's Aid in Dundalk came back to us. She was obviously very busy at that time dealing with the regular issues with which she needs to deal. A number of us determined that there should be a meeting of stakeholders involving the Garda, local authorities, NGOs and State agencies to discuss what can be done at a local level. Cases need to be escalated to the State and non-State bodies that need to deal with those issues. We need to give space for that, accepting that we all need to look at how we deal with everything regarding WhatsApp groups and so on. There is a particular onus on men.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate today. First, I would like to convey my deepest condolences to the family of Ashling Murphy, her boyfriend, her school community and the wider community in which she played such an active and important role.

Her needless death has touched everybody in many ways. It has raised many questions that need to be addressed: about our justice system; about gender-based violence; about women's safety; and about men and their attitudes towards women.

Over the course of this debate, we have heard from many female colleagues about their own experiences. It brings home to me that this issue affects us all. We all have a responsibility to ensure that the violent death of Ashling and the deaths of 244 other women who have died violently since 1996 result in changes being made that will ensure society becomes a safe place for women. The bottom line is that we need to have an attitude of zero tolerance when it comes to violence against women.

In my opinion this is simply not just a criminal justice issue. Preventing abusive behaviour towards women will require the eradication of certain social and cultural attitudes held by many men which contribute to women feeling unsafe. I agree with the Taoiseach when he stated that we need a sea change in culture and attitude in our society. As men we need to listen to women. Misogyny is not acceptable and needs to be eliminated from our society. To put a stop to violence and abuse towards women in Irish society we must eradicate the societal and cultural attitudes that make women feel unsafe and threatened. To do this requires a change in our cultural attitudes so that we are not all bystanders and look the other way when we see behaviour that is not acceptable to women. We must call it out for what it is. It must be no longer ignored. The bottom line is that all women bar none have a right to be safe no matter where they are or what they are doing. We all have a responsibility in this, not only society but also Government. This terrible tragedy must bring about real change.

We need to have adequate services that allow women to reach out when they are victims of domestic violence. It is absolutely wrong that nine counties have no women's refuge centre. As has been pointed out here, Government funding has been cut in many instances. This is wrong and must be corrected as a matter of urgency. Women in desperate need of help must be supported. We must ensure that at the very least every rape crisis centre and refuge centre in the country is fully funded.

The Istanbul convention standard requires that at the very least we must have one refuge space per 10,000 people. The Government must immediately put in place measures to ensure that at the very least we comply with this convention.

We also need to look at our justice system and how it deals with sexual assault and violence. The statistics are not very encouraging. There is significant under-reporting of sexual assault and violence, and detection rates are as low as 10%, the lowest in any of the categories recorded. We need to ask ourselves why this is the case. There must be reforms in this area. Women must feel safe when reporting these terrible crimes and supported in doing so. It must be remembered that they are the victims in these circumstances.

Another area that needs to be addressed is the type of violence that is played out on our television screens almost daily. I have spoken on this before and made the point that children are now seeing this type of violence nearly as normal behaviour. They are seeing it on television, on the Internet and on their phones. It is as though this violent behaviour is part of normal day-to-day life. This is where education needs to step in. It must be shown that violence is not normal and is not part of day-to-day life. It should never be glamorised. Children having easy access to porn is another issue that needs to be addressed. Children are growing up seeing porn as normal behaviour. Again, we need to challenge this and show that it is not real life.

Aggression and bullying on social media also need to be addressed. Abuse online is getting nastier all the time. We need to tackle this. Healthy debate is good but when it starts to get nasty, personal, insulting and threatening then it becomes an issue. Many female colleagues have in the past week described the abuse they receive online, which is not acceptable. Education is the key to eradicating this sort of behaviour. We must show our younger generation that this type of behaviour is not acceptable and that it is wrong. We need to demonstrate the damage it can cause.

Once and for all we must address the issue of gender-based violence. It starts with us as legislators, we must have legislation that is fit for purpose. Men must also address issues relating to misogyny. We must have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to violence against women.

The tragic and needless death of Ashling was a terrible tragedy and must never be forgotten. It is our responsibility as a society to ensure this marks a point in time where we all say enough is enough. Violence against women must end.

I will be sharing my time with Deputies Brendan Smith, Flaherty and Phelan.

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this extremely important and solemn debate, and one which, like everyone, I simply wish we had no need to have. First, like others, I would like to express my sincere condolences to the family, friends and boyfriend of Ashling Murphy and all those in this country who have been touched by the brutal effects of that tragic murder. Unfortunately, it is yet another example of a woman being murdered at the hands of a man in this country. Once again, it is utterly unacceptable.

Like many, I spent the last few weeks listening to women share their experience of male violence and intimidation. I have listened both to my colleagues in this Chamber and to the women in my life. In doing this, I have been exposed to another side of the lives of my friends and colleagues, a side I simply can never and will never experience. While I believe all men must continue to do this listening to try to understand what our female friends, family and colleagues go through on a daily basis, I welcome that beyond this listening there is an opportunity for us to continue to act more fervently in this area.

I welcome the progress the Minister, Deputy McEntee, has made ensuring that a new domestic sexual and gender-based violence strategy will be introduced into the Dáil before Easter. I welcome that stalking and non-fatal strangulation will be made criminal offences in the sexual offences Bill which will extend victim anonymity and ensure legal representation for victims. While this legislative work is crucial in creating a zero-tolerance of violence against women, we cannot rely on legislation alone to solve this issue.

Within the last year we have had a very sincere debate on domestic violence in this Chamber. A number of people made very important contributions and I was struck by one by my colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, from the Labour Party about the need for us men to be role models in our communities at every level. That is something we need to think about and we need to take our work here in the Chamber and more widely in society more seriously and we need to be more thorough. We all have a part to play in improving our solidarity. All of us in the Chamber can and must do our bit. It is the least we can do for Ashling and her family.

The brutal murder of Ashling Murphy shook this country to its core. It was a callous taking of a young life. It behoves us as legislators and as a society to ensure we act now and act decisively to address the deficiencies in the supports for women at risk of violence. What shocked most people was that Ashling was murdered in the early evening on the banks of a canal in a small provincial town. It was not the stereotypical location for a violent murder, but perpetrators of violence against women know no geographical boundaries. The threats are just as real in rural Ireland as they are in large towns and cities.

In County Longford, we are very fortunate that Longford Women's Link has managed a dedicated a domestic violence support service since 1995. Last year, it dealt with 400 women and children and a similar number in the previous year. I acknowledge the ongoing support of the Minister, Deputy McEntee, for the service and her recent statements of intent on the issue of gender violence. If we want to do right by Ashling Murphy's memory, we need to address the inadequacies and shortcomings in the service. Arguably, the biggest issues include the lack of safe accommodation. Not only are refuges needed but also appropriate and secure housing is also needed into the future. In rural areas, transport to access domestic violence support is a huge problem. Obviously, women cannot bring their children with them when they go to the Garda station to make a report and, equally, childminding is as big an issue.

We need to build local networks using services and local knowledge to create an holistic structure to support women and children. In other words, we need to build a one-stop shop structure so that women do not have to access multiple points for support. One of the significant issues arising from Covid is that we are expecting more women to come forward who have been unable to do so until now. People who have experienced intense trauma during the past two years, but have not accessed any services, will need highly specialised support.

It would be a key contributor to a suitable memorial for the late Ashling Murphy if we could say in 12 months' time that we have enhanced and improved domestic violence support services across this country. Anything less than that and we will do Ashling and the grief of a nation a serious disservice.

I join others in extending my sympathies to the family, boyfriend and friends of Ashling Murphy and, indeed, other female victims of violence not just in the recent past but over many years. I agree with those who have welcomed the detailed set of proposals that the Minister, Deputy McEntee, wishes to introduce with the help and support of both Houses of the Oireachtas to deal with some of those matters. I will limit myself to a couple of issues.

I listened to last week's debate and I listened to Deputies Bruton and Whitmore earlier today. The issues around violence against women fall into many different categories. Deputy Whitmore mentioned the casual sexism that we all see from time to time in social groups, in social media groups, on the bar stool or wherever. We certainly need to adopt a zero tolerance approach to that. More institutionalised versions of this exist within various types of organisations and in workplaces.

On the issue of violent crime, I ask the Minister, Deputy McEntee, to look strongly at the issue of sentencing. I have spoken about this previously in the House. On a fairly regular basis, we see instances of men who are convicted of some of the most heinous acts against women, sometimes involving sexual assault or very violent assaults, not receiving custodial sentences. They receive suspended sentences or other orders. That type of sentencing system cannot remain in place. It is time for the Government, with the support of both Houses, to act to ensure sentences for such offences are much stronger.

It is evident that we need an immediate strong, political and societal response to the increasing rates of violence against women in this country. I welcome the statements by the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy McEntee, last week in regard to a new strategy, new administrative structures and additional supports. When I attended the vigil in memory of the late Ashling Murphy in Cavan town, I saw at first hand the groundswell and passionate support for a proper, full and comprehensive response to this pressing societal issue. That evening, we had the opportunity to pass our sincere condolences to the Murphy family and, indeed, to other families of female victims of violence who died in similar horrific circumstances throughout this island. People want effective measures to be put in place without delay.

For far too long, I have been strongly pushing for a dedicated refuge centre for Cavan-Monaghan. The nearest refuges in which victims of domestic abuse in the Cavan-Monaghan area can be accommodated are in counties Meath, Louth or Sligo. It is horrendous for people to have to leave their home. When there are children involved and they have to travel a distance, in many circumstances those children cannot go back to their school because of the distance involved. In the review of accommodation that is to be published shortly, I sincerely hope counties like Cavan and Monaghan will be catered for. We do not want accommodation alone. We need a suite of services and proper supports, both legal and financial, for those women and for male victims where that occurs as well.

It has been demonstrated that the best outcomes arise for children when they are close to their own school. Some level of normality is retained when they can go to their own school and maintain friendships with their friends. There are significant emotional consequences for children who have to leave the home, generally with their mother, and who are cut off from normal day-to-day activities such as attending school, playing and participating in games. It is essential that in the most difficult circumstances when a mother and her children have to leave home, the children can retain some semblance of normality by attending their school, meeting their friends and continuing with the games they participate in. I ask the Minister to give urgent consideration to the provision of a refuge centre in the Cavan-Monaghan area. It is urgently needed.

Deputy Michael Collins is sharing time with his colleagues.

Much has been said in the past week of the manner of the death of Ashling Murphy, a lovely young woman whose life was cut cruelly short in a gruesome manner. This death has shocked the country and rightly so. Her family, or any family, should never have to go through this horrendous pain. I heard many strong words from outside this House and within, much of which I fully support as they were meaningful and needed to be said. Sadly, some of the commentary in this House last week was distasteful, to say the least, pointing at churches and church-run schools, which we now know had absolutely nothing to do with this shocking happening. Their statements show that they will use any mechanism possible in the House to get their sad points of view out there and, by God, some of their points of view are beyond sad. I suppose an apology from these Deputies is beyond them.

We must look for major improvements in sentencing. Yesterday, we learned of the sentencing of a man with 4,000 child images on his computer. He received a suspended sentence. When so many people who hurt women or families in such a terrible way get small sentences, it does not show a deterrent to those monsters out there who need to be shown up for what they do. Another area where parents and schools have to take better control is the mobile phone. Tablets, laptops and computers in the hands of children are like a loaded gun that the child cannot handle and lead our younger people to building up some terrible thoughts. If we cannot start with how we work with our great young people, how do we expect them to grow up and respect women and each other?

The events of the past week will never leave the minds of so many. Words are one thing, but action is needed.

People need to see this fast. It would send a message that no one from this country, or from outside this country, should think for even one second that they can get away with perpetrating a crime like this, or even a lesser crime, against a woman or any other human being here in Ireland.

Another area improvement is needed in is that of CCTV. Quite a lot of improvements in this regard have been made down through the years. Communities have set up CCTV systems. I have seen it in places like Schull and Bantry in west Cork in my own constituency. It has acted as a brilliant deterrent. It is a great deterrent and should be installed in every community. Nobody should be able to refuse a community such a system.

I made some points last week but I will use this opportunity to talk about some excellent services we have in County Kerry which deal with people, particularly women, who have been subjected to domestic or sexual abuse or violence. I compliment, and give my heartfelt thanks to, Ms Vera O'Leary, the manager of the Kerry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, and her excellent staff, who are kind, caring and considerate. I ask the Minister and her Government for assistance with the service the centre provides. We need more resources. The centre provides an absolutely brilliant service. I have seen the refuge where people are helped when there is a crisis at home or when they need urgent protection and a safe space to stay. In dealing with constituents, I have seen at first hand the kind and caring consideration and practical assistance they get. However, we need more resources.

There has been great support shown here by Government and Opposition Members but I need to see action on the ground in County Kerry. When people contact the rape crisis centre, they are referred to other agencies for assistance with different aspects of their problem but they have to go on a waiting list. My goodness. After all of what the Minister and other Government speakers have said and the very kind words they have spoken, why should a person, for instance, a lady, who rings the rape crisis centre in Kerry be told that she must be go on a waiting list for up to two months? That is totally wrong. No Government can stand over somebody in a crisis situation having to wait eight weeks. I plead with the Minister.

In case anybody thinks that this issue is being blown out of all proportion and that it is not a problem, I became aware of a completely new case only today and I am trying to assist in it. A very young vulnerable person had been sexually abused by a family member. That is hard stuff to deal with and to assist with. Imagine how hard it is for the young person who is told they must wait up to two months before they can be dealt with. I ask the Minister to please give the Kerry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre more resources to deal with the waiting list it has but should not have. I am sure every other rape crisis centre around the country is facing the same types of problems but I am obviously highlighting the issues in the county I am here to represent.

As the Minister will know, this is my third time speaking on this subject. I do so with a sense of utter frustration. I have said that. I will try to use my time positively. I have heard many statements to the effect that this is a watershed moment, that a light has been shone on the issue and that we know now. We have known for a very long time. On the last occasion, I had two minutes. I have a few extra today.

I will refer to the report of the task force chaired by the former Deputy, Eithne Fitzgerald, which was issued in 1997. It states:

The Task Force’s aim is to ensure women experiencing violence can have real options, that when they disclose what is happening they are listened to and believed, that public services are in a position to offer practical help and an assurance of safety. Women and children who have lived with violence need counselling and support

Interestingly, it also states:

Working with women and children only addresses one side of the problem. Programmes for violent men that confront violent behaviour must be developed and expanded. A society where women are not

regarded as equals, or which sees violence as a legitimate way of resolving conflict, is one where violence to women can flourish. Work with young people has an important role to play in preventing violence and abuse in a new generation.

That was written in 1997 following the first refuges having been set up 20 years previously and following the work of the organisations on the ground, particularly Women's Aid. We are now waiting for the third national strategy, which was promised before Christmas. We are also waiting on Tusla. I would really like the Minister to tell me tonight what the delay in publishing the completed report is. I understand it has been with the Government for a very long time. It has certainly been with Tusla for a very long time. I have repeatedly said that I believe in the Minister's bona fides. I respect what she is doing but why are we still saying that it will be published soon? The Taoiseach said so this morning. It is unacceptable to say that any more. Will it be published tomorrow? If not, why not? What has it shown up?

With regard to our knowledge about violence, you can pick any time. I have picked 1997. I could have picked the case of Sophia McColgan, subject of a book by Susan McKay that was published in 1998. I could have picked the case of Kelly Fitzgerald or the Roscommon case. I could have picked the Kilkenny incest case, a report on which was published by Catherine McGuinness SC, who subsequently became a Supreme Court justice. What jumped off the page in that report, which was published in 1993, was that it stated that the level of violence in that family was not atypical, or words to that effect. It was not unusual for the area.

In every single year of every single decade, we were fully aware of the extent of violence, not just domestic violence but also violence outside of the home. Everybody is hurt and diminished by that, as is our economy, the consequences of domestic violence having cost it €2.2 billion at a conservative estimate. Nobody who has been subjected to that level of abuse, particularly a woman, can participate as an active citizen in a democratic society. It simply cannot be done.

I am beyond statements. I am using my few minutes to say that I will work with the Minister. There are practical actions to be taken. The Minister should publish the Tusla report. She should make that most basic accommodation, which is necessary, available and she should make it multifunctional for the future.

I have heard a lot of talk about education. I do not know what the Department has done with regard to the Manuela Riedo programme. It was run on a pilot basis and evaluated in Galway. The pilot programme was run by the Galway Rape Crisis Centre along with Tusla and other rape crisis services. It is exactly what Deputies are asking for. The Minister should mainstream it. She should meet the people involved and mainstream the programme if she considers it right to do so. I do. I have read it. There has been a report and an assessment on it. Is the Minister aware of it? Manuela Riedo was a beautiful young girl. All of the women who were murdered were beautiful. That murder happened in 2007. It was never to happen again. The rape crisis centre in Galway and a number of others throughout the country worked closely with Tusla and the Manuela Riedo Foundation to make sure that change would be brought about. It has not happened even though the pilot project was extremely successful, if that is the right word. It probably is not when talking about such horrific violence. However, the result of that pilot programme was very positive.

Last year, the Citizens' Assembly reported and wrote to every single Deputy in the Dáil to point to its recommendations but those recommendations have been ignored. Again, they related to dealing with the perpetrator as well. What is interesting about that is that we in this Dáil, of which I was part, were so out of touch with the Citizens' Assembly when it was set up that domestic, sexual and gender-based violence was not included in the terms of reference. Can the Minister imagine that? It was not even included. The assembly and its chairperson, Dr. Catherine Day, had the sense to change those terms of reference or to at least interpret them differently. I am over time. Gabh mo leithscéal.

I thank the Acting Chairperson for the time to come back in and respond to the Deputies. I thank the Deputies for their contributions, including those who have contributed a number of times. This is also my third time to discuss this issue in the Chamber in less than a week. It is clear from the very fact that we had to extend this debate and discuss this issue numerous times just how important an issue it is for colleagues because it impacts each and every one of us. It also shows a clear determination to do better. There is no one thing we can do or no one law we can pass.

No one policy, organisation or grouping has responsibility for this. We must all work together on this issue. It will involve all of us in this House, in the Seanad, in the Government and in all our Departments working with our State agencies and our community and voluntary sector. Most importantly, this will involve working with the victims and survivors who have lived experience.

What do we do from here? How do we achieve the goal of zero tolerance of any kind of violence or abuse against women? We must first build on the work that has been done. In that regard, I appreciate that we have had many reports and recommendations over the years. Progress has been made and many structures and new laws have been put in place. The question now is how we can build on those developments. It is my intention that this third national strategy will be the most ambitious strategy to date. It will be built on four key pillars coming from the Istanbul Convention.

Prevention in that context will concern looking at education. We must ensure we implement the programmes we have that work, not just at primary level but also at secondary level and in higher and further education and college as well. We must also ensure that education takes place in our homes and that parents have conversations with children. Partners, work colleagues and friends should also have these difficult conversations.

We must also maintain public awareness of the programmes we have at national level. This means ensuring that programmes like Still Here and the programmes we are going to run on consent are clear and visible and that people are aware of the challenges that we face. Protection also means ensuring that women take the difficult step to come forward. When they do so, the requisite supports must be in place, whether that involves a refuge or the wraparound supports, including housing needs separate to a refuge, health needs or financial supports. It must be ensured that all those supports are in place when women come forward.

The prosecution aspect concerns the criminal justice system. The work I am doing on the Support a Victim's Journey policy will be a key part of this strategy in respect of how we improve the criminal justice system, most importantly to encourage victims to come forward. In addition, they must know they will be supported and treated with respect if they do so. Again, this facet is about education, new laws, strengthening the laws we have and introducing new measures to provide the supports and the wraparound service required.

Then there is policy co-ordination, which involves bringing all these efforts together and making certain at Government level that we are working with those on the ground and on the front line to ensure we have a co-ordinated approach and response. In that regard, we have given a clear commitment in recent weeks that I will be responsible not only for policy and co-ordination of the third national strategy, but also for the delivery of services and wraparound supports as they exist.

In addition, as we continue to develop this strategy and as it continues to evolve and we continue to live and learn from experience, it will be important that we take on board the lived experience and learn from the information and data that we gather. In recent years, we have seen that by listening to victims and survivors and by understanding the situations they find themselves in, we have been able to bring about new laws and new policies in this context. I am thinking of the law on coercive control, for example. Until recently, that was not seen as an issue, as a criminal offence or as something that impacted women. That type of behaviour, though, is just as damaging as the physical violence that so many women experience. This strategy is about making sure that all our policies and laws, and the supports they provide, work. We must ensure that all those aspects encourage people to come forward and that there are clear ways to prosecute those responsible for these types of crimes.

All the Deputies' recommendations, suggestions, proposals and ideas will be taken on board and listened to. I intend to strengthen and improve the third national strategy in any way possible. There is still time. I never committed to presenting or publishing the strategy before Christmas. What I had said was that we would have a draft in my Department and that there would then be further consultation, not just with the sector but also with the public. As part of this process, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and I had committed to exploring collectively all those points raised in the context of the audit undertaken in my Department to examine how all this was co-ordinated and structured in line with the refuge spaces. That was to ensure that when we presented the strategy and the new structure, we would have answers to all the questions which would arise concerning refuge spaces, such as how they would be delivered, by whom and what kind of resources they would have. Therefore, we are not delaying the presentation of anything in this regard. It is important that when we make the presentation, it is clear what the goals and objectives are, what is being done by whom, what the timelines in that regard are and that the whole endeavour is properly resourced. We intend to do exactly that in the coming weeks and months. I look forward to working with all my colleagues in this House and in the Seanad to ensure we achieve the goal of zero tolerance of any kind of violence or abuse against women or girls.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. Is críoch leis na ráitis maidir le foréigean in aghaidh na mban é sin. Ba ráitis suntasacha iad.