Dáil debates

Wednesday, 3 July 2024

Tackling All Forms of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: Statements


1:55 pm

Photo of Cormac DevlinCormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I call the Taoiseach. I understand he is sharing time with the Minister for Justice. They have 20 minutes.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important matter today and I thank the Dáil for allocating time.

Over the past four years since this Dáil was elected, we have worked collectively, and I hope across party lines, to address the epidemic of sexual and gender-based violence in Ireland. That is what it is: an epidemic. Through the leadership of my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and working with TDs and Senators across these House, we have together made some real and meaningful changes.

We have made stalking a stand-alone criminal offence. We have made strangulation a stand-alone criminal offence. We have doubled the sentence for assault causing harm. We have broadened the offence of harassment and have criminalised the sharing of intimate images without consent. The Minister has established a new agency, Cuan, dedicated to implementing a zero-tolerance approach to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and we now have a statutory agency charged with this. These have been important steps, but, indeed, the events of the last two weeks have reminded us how far we still have to travel.

Over the past two weeks, we have learned of the names of Natasha O’Brien and Bláthnaid Raleigh. We have learned of their trauma and their abuse at the hands of individual men but we have also learned of the cultures embedded in aspects of our society.

I cannot address specific cases and it would be inappropriate for me to do so but I believe the events of recent weeks provide us with an opportunity to have important conversations about the kind of society we live in and want to create. That starts with all of us in leadership positions. I, as Taoiseach of this great country, am determined to lead us in that process. Next week, I will chair a Cabinet committee meeting with all the relevant Ministers and senior officials on the implementation of our national zero-tolerance strategy. Getting to zero tolerance will mean difficult moments, and we have seen that in recent weeks, because no organisation in society is immune from the challenge of gender-based violence and no one gets a pass or an opt-out on this either. How each organisation, Department and each one of us responds is how we will and should be judged.

To achieve the cultural change we desperately need, we must start with transparency and accountability. People should not fear that change. They should and must embrace it. I am always particularly conscious when I discuss this issue that I am a man. It is indeed often men who perpetrate these violent assaults on women. That is why it is incumbent on men to take leadership positions and not allow the worst of us to speak for the rest of us. Zero tolerance should mean just that: zero tolerance. That stretches to the barstools, Whatsapp groups, workplace, football clubs and newspaper columns. It sadly seems in this country that there is always someone somewhere willing to defend the character of a rapist or a sexual predator. There are still far too few people and far too few men who will stand up for the rights of a victim or speak to their good name. Often, not always but often, the character of a victim or survivor is questioned, or their actions are placed under scrutiny. What was she they wearing? How much had she to drink? Did she lead someone on? Why is she so angry? These are questions often asked about a victim in the aftermath of an assault or a violent attack. These are often somewhat innocently and definitely ignorantly posed but with long-lasting damage and trauma to the people they are posed against. These are the behaviours we all need to challenge.

Every time we see or hear misogynistic behaviour or commentary, we need to call it out. Do not stay silent. Silence can be perceived as agreement. Every time we allow these statements to pass without comment, we imply this behaviour is okay, that we are all right with it, that it is just acceptable, is just the norm and is just part of society.

I know it can be difficult to be that lone voice calling out misogyny but every time we do it, we make a difference. Every time domestic or gender abuse is seen as some private matter that happens behind closed doors and is hidden, we fail victims. We allow the voices of victims to be silent.

We must be honest about this House and about the role we play in this House too. Anonymous briefings by Members of this House, which we often read in newspapers, try to portray issues such as hate-filled crime as “woke”. When did we start using that word "woke" and when did we allow that to creep in to Irish politics? These anonymous briefings to media confirm that Members needs to change their attitude too. We cannot tackle this issue if we are divided.

We cannot tackle this issue if we make a political football out of it or decide that concern for this rests somewhere on a political spectrum. I implore all of us to unite in the face of this epidemic. If we, as representatives of the people, cannot do that, how can we expect the rest of society to do so? We need to leave our political jerseys at the door and deliver the change our children and their children deserve.

As well as being Taoiseach, I am a very proud dad to two wonderful children. I am a dad to a six-year-old daughter who is kind, considerate and brimming with optimism and curiosity. As her dad, I want to ensure she never loses that hopeful optimism that people are good and kind. I am also a proud dad to a two-year old son. While he may be younger, he is a protective already, as a brother and a son. As his dad, I want him to continue to be a caring, compassionate young man full of energy and never shy of making his voice count, as we learned in this Chamber recently. However, I am acutely conscious of the world and country in which we are raising children today. It is a world where mobile phones and social media are so accessible and overpowering at times, where sexual education can be drowned out by access to pornography and where we, as parents, often feel we lack the knowledge and expertise to keep up with our own kids and the world in which they now operate.

I am conscious we live in a country in which one in four women is subject to domestic abuse. That means there are hundreds of thousands of women and children living and growing up in an environment of fear and control. I am determined to ensure our schools and universities become safe places for children who seek a reprieve from home life. I am also determined to ensure a new generation of men and women are better informed, better educated and more determined than ever to create a zero tolerance society. When I was the Minister for further and higher education, this was something I was determined to address. I directed that a national sexual violence and harassment survey be undertaken in our higher education institutions. This shone a light on issues in quite a frightening way. I wanted to better understand the experiences of students and staff in relation to sexual violence and harassment and what effective plans we could put in place. There are now sexual violence and harassment prevention response managers in all of our higher education institutions and bystander and consent training is being rolled out across the sector.

In my new role, I will continue to prioritise a whole-of-government approach to combating all forms of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The initiatives we are driving forward as part of this work will play a crucial role in shaping effective laws and policies. However, let me be clear; laws and policies are only part of what is needed. If we really want to achieve a society in which there is zero tolerance, we must change attitudes and social norms. This is how real and lasting change happens. It does not happen solely with a whole-of-government approach, although that is important. It needs a whole-of-society approach. Domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is not simply a criminal justice problem, although there are issues in that regard, but a societal problem. If we are to address it, changes need to be from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Everyone must step up and play their part. This is embedded in our national zero tolerance strategy which the Minister, Deputy McEntee, has championed. It stresses the importance of education and awareness-raising at all levels and across the board.

If we are to successfully change the attitudes that underpin domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, we have to confront some harsh realities. For years in this country, burying our heads in the sand was the national approach. Realities were ignored. Domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is an epidemic in Ireland. Let us begin by calling that out and accepting it is an epidemic in Ireland. It is unacceptable and must change. It is not a problem created by women and it should not be left to women to speak out against it.

I pledge today to play my part in delivering our zero tolerance strategy. That means, as an individual, rejecting, calling out and condemning the toxic behaviours which have, for far too long, permitted women in Ireland and around the world to suffer at the hands of men. I will do everything I can, now and into the future, to play an active part in changing attitudes and behaviours and helping to create a safe, respectful and equal society. All of us in this House, everyone in the country and every man in this country must pledge to do likewise. Today, we do it for the women whose names we do not know but who today suffer from domestic abuse. Today, we do it for the women who are forced to put on a brave face and get the kids to school but feel like prisoners in their own homes. I hope we can empower people to start to speak out and to talk about domestic abuse. I hope today we can make it clear to victims they are not alone and that this House, and people in this country, are on their side.

2:05 pm

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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This is not the first time we have had to come together in the face of violent and horrifying circumstances. The murder of Ashling Murphy continues to weigh heavily on all of our hearts and our thoughts remain with her family and partner, as well as with the families of all the other women who have been killed by men in this country.

The femicide watch list, compiled by Women’s Aid, names 20 women whose lives were brutally cut short since Ashling’s murder. We remember and honour these women as we continue our fight against a deep-rooted issue in our society that allows such violence to exist. There is an epidemic of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in this country. It has not just appeared; it has always been here and we must deal with it.

My Department commissioned the Central Statistics Office to carry out a sexual violence prevalence survey, which was published last year. The results are not only shocking but really sad. It is sad that this is where we are. The report states that 40% of respondents had experienced sexual violence in their lifetime; 21% of women had non-consensual sexual intercourse; 23% were victims of attempted sexual intercourse; and 43%, or almost half of women, were victims of sexual touching.

Since my first day in the Department of Justice, I have worked with colleagues to do what I, and all of us, can to end this epidemic and make our system a better one which is more supportive for victims and survivors. One of my first acts as Minister was to publish the O’Malley Review of Protections for Vulnerable Witnesses in the Investigation and Prosecution of Sexual Offences. I published and started to implement Supporting a Victim's Journey, a plan based on that review. This plan sets out 50 individual reforms and assigns responsibility within Government for each of these reforms.

In doing this work, above all, I have listened to the experience of victims and of those on the front line. I commend those victims and all of those whom I have met. I commend individuals like Natasha O’Brien, Bláthnaid Raleigh and so many others for speaking out and continuing to highlight areas in which we need to do more. I am working with colleagues across the Government to do just that, namely, to embed the fight against domestic, sexual and gender-based violence into every area of our work and build a truly equal and safe society.

We have driven change through a variety of measures, including comprehensive legislative reforms; the co-design with stakeholders of our zero-tolerance strategy; a significant increase in funding for combating domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and to improve our services; an increased focus on education and awareness raising initiatives; and the establishment of a stand-alone agency to continue this work. Every action has a timeline and a body assigned to deliver it.

What we have achieved in the past four years - and by "we", I mean both those working in the sector and all of us across this House - has shown the determination across the board to achieve change in how domestic, sexual and gender-based violent crimes are viewed by society, change in how victims and survivors are treated and supported, including in their future needs, and change of our laws to better hold perpetrators to account. Fundamentally, it is about the determination across the board to change societal attitudes so that we become a country in which there is zero tolerance for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and the attitudes which underpin it.

This work has resulted in progress in the last four years, although I fully accept there is more work to do. We have made progress, however. We have successfully passed laws that broaden the scope of how we define domestic, sexual and gender-based violence to ensure more forms of abuse are recognised and punishable under law. We have doubled the maximum sentence for assault causing harm from five to ten years, which is one of the most commonly prosecuted offences in domestic and gender-based violence cases. We have legislated to introduce new stand-alone offences of stalking and non-fatal strangulation because both offences are common ways in which abusers target victims. We have widened the existing offence of harassment to include any conduct that seriously interferes with a person’s peace and privacy or causes alarm, distress or harm. We have ensured the protection of the identity of victims of harassment and stalking in court proceedings.

The Sex Offenders (Amendment) Act 2023, which I commenced last year, further strengthens our already robust system for monitoring sex offenders. Other legislative reforms have extended restrictions on perpetrators cross-examining victims and have provided for preliminary trial hearings to reduce delays and improve what we all know is a hugely traumatic process for victims. The enactment of Coco’s Law criminalises the distribution and threat to distribute intimate images without consent, which is another appalling way by which abusers control victims. The roll-out of divisional protective service units across the country has been completed, meaning that in every Garda division there are specially trained officers to help vulnerable victims. We will do more to ensure that all members of An Garda Síochána have the training they need.

We have also persistently promoted raising awareness around domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

This in particular is to change societal attitudes towards it by highlighting the importance of respect, consent and equality. All of the campaigns we have run aim to prevent violence before it occurs and foster a culture that supports victims and shows that society stands in solidarity with them. Recognising domestic, sexual and gender-based violence as a global issue, we have engaged in international co-operation to share best practices and to learn from other countries.

A key element of delivering on the zero tolerance strategy is the establishment of Cuan, our new domestic sexual and gender-based violence agency, at the beginning of this year. Within the span of just one year, by passing legislation, we collectively transformed aspirations into concrete action. Cuan stands as a beacon of progress, signalling our collective commitment to address issues that have long demanded urgent attention. Its establishment marks a pivotal moment in our approach to combating domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and, above all, to supporting victims. Cuan is now responsible for co-ordinating all Government actions set out in the zero tolerance strategy and we recently published the implementation plan for 2024. Key actions this year include work on the national services development plan, working to ensure that the services in place are uniform and accessible to everybody and that there is multi-annual funding for the services so that they can plan ahead. They have fought for this for a long time.

To increase refuge spaces and safe homes, a huge amount of work has been done with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to put the right structures in place. This not just about bricks and mortar; it is about the services and supports that are needed to protect women when they take the decision to leave home. Work is also progressing to try to keep women and victims in their homes. That is where they should be, not fleeing elsewhere.

We are progressing legislative reform and evaluating the effectiveness of awareness-raising campaigns and the development of a research and data plan to support the collation of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence information across all Departments and agencies. I will focus in particular on the area of education where an emphasis on respect, consent and zero tolerance of violence is needed now more than ever. We have made strides in this regard. The new relationship sexuality education, RSE, curriculum for the junior cycle is being rolled out. We are at the stage now in the senior cycle, for those who are ready, that we will be able to roll it out in September. Beyond that, we need to be engaging with our primary school students in an age-appropriate way. I say this because, as the Taoiseach said, we have moved into a new phase in which young people have access to violence and violent pornography at the touch of a button on their phones. As we continue Government efforts, there is an onus on parents, educators and social media companies to ensure that our young people are protected by being prepared and equipped to deal with what they come across online. It is frightening to see and read research suggesting the things young people feel they are expected to do at a much younger age. We need to do everything we can to protect and support them.

Understanding the extent of the problem we face and shining a light on the under-reporting of these crimes are also key to better supporting victims. That is why my Department commissioned the Central Statistics Office, CSO, to undertake a study on the prevalence of sexual violence. I am pleased to say that work has finally begun on a survey of the prevalence of domestic violence to further help us to develop policy and provide the necessary supports and services. These studies will alternate over the coming years to ensure we have an up-to-date and clear picture of what is happening in our society.

The zero tolerance strategy also ensures that the voice of the child is heard loud and clear as we work to eliminate domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. In so many of these cases, children are victims too, not just in being a victim but witnessing what happens to their mother or sometimes their father. Unfortunately, it is generally to their mother. We have to do what we can because we know the lasting effects and the impact it has on them.

There is more to do. Our programme of reform is far from finished and when people like Natasha and Bláthnaid speak openly and honestly about finding the criminal justice system as traumatising, if not more so, than the attack itself, it makes us all determined to redouble our efforts. In the next two weeks, before the summer recess, with the support of the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, legislation will be enacted to further support and protect victims of sexual crimes, as recommended by the O’Malley review. These protections include ensuring anonymity for victims in all trials for sexual offences and extending the victim’s right to separate legal representation. There will be changes around character references and I am working towards changes to criminal legislation to address other key issues of concern for victims, including counsellor notes and issues of consent.

Further to this, work is also needed to protect those who are most vulnerable. We think of those who are most vulnerable and where there is an intersectionality, namely, migrant populations, the LGBTQI+ community and people with disabilities. This work will progress, as a priority, through Cuan.

Beyond legislative changes, I will continue to negotiate in the budget Estimates to make sure we have the funding and resources to do all of this work and more. My sincere commitment to tackling this pervasive issue remains. I know victims and survivors deserve more and I will continue working with them, with my Government colleagues, Cuan and everyone in the sector to do just that. We all have a role here and everybody must step up and play their part. I hope we can do so together.

2:15 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Here we are again, having statements in the Chamber following the news of an utterly chilling act of violence committed against a woman. We are all horrified by the brutal and barbaric assault committed on Natasha O'Brien by Cathal Crotty. The man who perpetrated this crime received a suspended sentence. The Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, has appealed the sentence and I welcome that. Meanwhile, Natasha has been left to pick up the pieces of her life, as she navigates trauma and horror.

When I met Natasha last week she told me that she found the court process even more traumatic than the attack itself. I find this shocking. It is a damning indictment of our country's court processes and one that should serve as a wake-up call for all of us because Natasha's experiences are not unique. Her story has parallels in the lives of women and girls across Ireland. Our trauma has been echoed in courtrooms throughout the State. In the last few days alone, we have heard other stories of women subjected to despicable and sickening acts of violence - vicious assault, physical and sexual violence, emotional abuse and coercive control. For younger generations, in particular, this is often compounded by online harassment and the sharing of sexual images. Women are subjected to appalling violence and then forced to relive the trauma under the glare of lights in courtrooms and Garda stations. Their private pain and distress are paraded publicly as they seek justice.

Natasha is an incredibly brave woman. Bláthnaid Raleigh from Mullingar is another brave woman who has shared her story, determined to hand back the shame to the man who raped her. There are so many brave women but women should not have to be brave. These despicable crimes should not be committed in the first place and, if they are, women deserve to have the confidence that the justice system will be there to deliver justice for them. It should be a system that supports them and has their back in their darkest days when they need it most. It should be a system that supports them and holds their distress and suffering with dignity. The failure of the judicial system to deliver justice for Natasha exemplifies and compounds the reason women are afraid to report such crimes. That is the harsh reality.

Women and girls feel the shadow of male violence throughout our lives. It is in our homes, families, relationships and workplaces and on our streets. It is nothing short of an epidemic, one shouldered by generation after generation of Irish women, by our sisters, mothers and grandmothers. Last week, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre reported receiving the highest number of calls to its helpline in the centre's 45-year history. This came just days after Women's Aid revealed it had received more than 40,000 reports of abuse of women and children last year. That amounted to the highest number in that organisation's 50-year history.

Since 1996, a total of 266 women have died violently in Ireland, with 172 of these being killed in their own homes. The vast majority were killed by someone known to them, mainly a current or former partner. Two years ago, Ashling Murphy was murdered in Tullamore as she went for a run and we gathered in this Chamber to express our determination that such a crime would never happen again. In the two years since Ashling's murder, we still cannot imagine the pain and heartbreak her family, partner and loved ones are experiencing and our thoughts are with them today.

Last week, we saw the opening of the tribunal of inquiry into abuse within the Defence Forces brought to light by the Women of Honour. These women bravely came forward to seek justice for sexual assault, physical violence and horrific instances of bullying and psychological abuse. This is an epidemic for women in every corner of Ireland, affecting women and girls across all ages and walks of life. We know this. None of us can say that we do not. Time and again, another shocking case emerges in the media. Society pays attention, politicians pay attention but then the media cycle moves on. Women feel trapped in a cycle of déjà vu and despair because women cannot move on because women have had enough. Nothing less than real and meaningful change will do. A genuine zero-tolerance approach for all forms of violence against women.

Last week marked two years since the Government published its zero-tolerance strategy for violence against women. The strategy was announced to much fanfare by the Minister for Justice. It was talked up at the time as a watershed moment but two years on, many women wonder how much it has really achieved. They would be forgiven for thinking that some of the Government’s promises have rung hollow. We need to see real change in the lives of women and girls that tackles the root of the problem, the epidemic in our society and the insidious culture that supports it, and the societal norms that mean violence can be perpetuated, facilitated and normalised in Ireland. The Government cannot wring its hands when the spotlight is on this topic before shrugging off responsibility when the story moves on. We cannot allow ourselves in this Chamber to become trapped in a cycle of outrage followed by inaction. If the Government is serious about a zero-tolerance approach, as the Minister says it is, then there are immediate actions that can be taken.

Nine counties in this State - Carlow, Cavan, Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon and Sligo - still have no domestic violence refuge. The Minister knows this. In counties where there are refuges, too often staff are faced with the outrageous and heartbreaking task of turning away women and children because they simply do not have any room for them. We supported much of the implementation of much of the O’Malley review. However, because the Government failed to put in place the required resources, the Garda, the DPP and the courts are now struggling with the weight of extra cases following that review. Those resources must be put in place so that there are sufficient gardaí and court resources to prosecute cases efficiently. We need to look at sentencing decisions and appropriate training for judges. Victims have to have confidence in the justice system. That is their right.

Women demand nothing less than a truly zero-tolerance approach. Lip service is simply not enough. Women need to see follow-through with urgent action. Another strategy that simply gathers dust on a shelf will not deliver the solutions that are needed. I know that society can do better for women and it must. We must draw a the line together - now, today - so that all women can feel safe and be safe.

2:25 pm

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I commend Natasha O’Brien and Bláthnaid Raleigh on having the courage to come forward and share their trauma that we might all learn. It is hard to believe that in 2024 women are still having to bear their souls in order to put the issue of gender-based violence onto the agenda. It is also hard to believe that it has been 31 years since Lavinia Kerwick did her ground-breaking interview with the late, great Gerry Ryan. I remember listening to Lavinia in 1993 and being shocked, although not about the rape and subsequent trial. We all knew that rape and gender-based violence were everyday occurrences, but we did not talk much about them and we certainly did not hear women on the radio talking about their own experience of rape. Thanks to writers such as Emily O’Reilly and Nell McCafferty, women’s trauma was exposed but to hear Lavinia speak about her own case in her own words was ground-breaking and there was a real belief that there would be no going back. We felt that cultural change could not be far away and that change for women was coming. How wrong we were.

We know there was no cultural shift and no big moment of societal change. If want the evidence of that, we simply have to fast-forward to Limerick in 2022 when Natasha O’Brien was battered into unconsciousness by Cathal Crotty while his friends watched. He would later boast about this vicious crime on social media. We can, therefore, say with conviction that the State has let down women like Natasha O’Brien, Bláthnaid Raleigh, Baiba Saulite, Marioara Rostas and Lavinia Kerwick. I could use my time to simply read off into the record the list of names of women who have been the victims of gender-based violence and have come forward and told their heartbreaking stories or those whose names we know because they have been brutally murdered. They deserve to be remembered but, more than that, they and their families deserve to know that there will be action.

We are two years into the Government’s zero-tolerance strategy. It seems that zero tolerance is a very long way off. Organisations such as Aoibhneas domestic abuse support in my area struggle for funding and all the while the epidemic of gender-based violence continues. We need to see more action. The Minister knows as well as I do that nothing says priority like funding. There must be funding for the DSGBV strategy. Announcements simply will not cut it.

I add my voice to the voices of Natasha and Bláthnaid by saying directly to young men, "You need to call out your peers". It is reported in a newspaper today that Bláthnaid has said that there is a demographic of young men who do not want to speak out against their peers. This is wrong and it cannot continue. Women deserve to be safe and looking at the statistics, we can see we are not safe. We will not be safe until every person calls out gender-based violence and those who perpetuate it.

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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We stand here month after month, year after year talking about dead women, raped women, murdered women and beaten women. Each time, we say “Never again, this is it now, no more. This is a watershed moment”. Then the beating, murdering and raping happens again and we do all this all over again, as girls and women’s names become hashtags or are carried on placards at candlelit vigils while we mourn.

The Cathal Crotty case and his savage beating of Natasha O’Brien is the latest outrage. The case of the lad trained by the State in combat, as appalling as it is, is not the sole outrage. In our disgust we should not forget that in Natasha’s case, it was the Judiciary that also let her down. The suspended sentence came from another male-dominated arm of the State. How is that for culture? It is the same culture that makes women fight in the courts for maintenance and in which there is more abuse, more psychological and emotional violence against women such as the lovely woman in my constituency I spoke to last week. It is everywhere. This, too, is an outrage.

This week alone we heard of a woman anally raped by her husband who was confused about consent, God love him. We heard about Bláthnaid Raleigh who was raped with a bottle. These men are entitled, are they not? The men who are confused and the men with the fists, implements and uniforms. As my party's defence spokesperson, I speak for the Women of Honour because we know rape and any sexual violation is primarily a crime not about sex but about power, control and subjugation. Fine Gael, the law and order party, has been in power for 13 years, yet we do not have data about what is going on. Talk is cheap. Action is what is needed.

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister reeled off a number of initiatives. I commend her on the initiatives she has taken but they do not deal with the embedded culture of tolerance of gender-based violence we have had in this State for decades. There are several things she can do. In fact, good things were being done in communities two decades ago to create zero tolerance of gender-based violence. What happened? When Fine Gael came into power and under the Fianna Fáil Government during austerity, all those things were cut dead completely. I commend Don Hennessy who provided training in our community and Amnesty International. We worked together with social workers, nurses, bartenders, nurses, hairdressers and across the spectrum to create the zero tolerance the Minister spoke about. It absolutely can be done if the will and resources are there to do it.

As I always say when I talk about violence against women and gender-based violence, the perpetrators have to stop. We have to demand that they stop. We have to call them out in this Chamber and in our communities. Otherwise, we are tolerating what they are doing. They are making a choice to inflict one of the most heinous crimes on human beings because they are women and because they are allowed to do it.

They make a choice because they get away with it, because the sanctions are not there, because they are not afraid to do it and because they use their power and control to keep women where they need them to be. There needs to be an entire reconfiguration of the justice system. The separation of the criminal and the family courts and the lack of communication between the two is dangerous and it is putting women and children at risk. The disconnect between the criminal and the family law system is dangerous. The delays in the family law cases where cases are dragged out for years are dangerous and are intolerable for victims. The criminal behaviour is not taken into account by the family law court even where there is a conviction and a sentence there. The orders under the Domestic Violence Act are not taken into account by the family law court. There are not enough Garda resources for those gardaí even to be able to do training on what they need to do. There has to be mandatory, appropriate training for judges as well.

Finally, will the Minister help to deal with some of the legacy cases? I am talking about legacy cases where women have been raped and tortured but their cases have not been heard properly. In some cases, you find that the prosecuting gardaí were, later on, convicted themselves. We really have to look at the legacy cases that have gone on for decades where the system has let women down.

2:35 pm

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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I am glad to have the opportunity to speak again for the Labour Party on the topic of gender-based violence. I am glad we have this opportunity to have statements. I thank all those who engaged earlier on the Labour motion we brought forward on the same topic and on the broader topic of support for victims of violent crime more generally. There was some really substantial engagement. I thank the Minister for engaging in particular on each of the eight asks in our motion. We put forward a series of eight constructive proposals for reform to strengthen our system of supports and protections for victims of violent crime, to ensure greater consistency in sentencing and to address the gaping flaws in the criminal justice system that have been exposed so bravely by Natasha O'Brien. I want to again pay tribute to Natasha, who was with us this morning in the Public Gallery. I thank her for her powerful advocacy on behalf of victims of crime, just as others have also thanked Bláthnaid Raleigh, who has spoken out so eloquently and powerfully in recent days about her own experience. Then we think also of the others like Lavinia Kerwick all those years ago, whose advocacy has also helped to pave the way for reforms. However, clearly not enough reforms have taken place. In addition to the eight specific asks we put forward this morning, there are clearly many other changes that need to be made. While the Minister's speech was constructive and engaged, there were other Government speeches that really did not seem to admit there was still work to be done but simply, in a somewhat self-congratulatory fashion, set out improvements that had been made. It is crucial that we all work together, acknowledge that there are still failings in the system and that we work together to address these. We must also acknowledge how long it takes to make these necessary changes. I am thinking back to 1993 and Lavinia Kerwick's powerful intervention that brought about important changes, such as the right of the DPP to appeal sentences on grounds of undue leniency, which was hugely important. We have seen that exercised again by the DPP in recent days. Another change was the right of the victim to bring forward a victim impact statement. There is still, however, a disconnect with the use and application of the victim impact statement. I am thinking back to campaigns I was involved in to expand the victim impact statement in order that it would apply to families of victims of homicide. That was an anomaly initially and it was one we addressed but again, it took the families of victims and the great advocacy group, AdVIC, to show that this needed to change so that families of victims of homicide would be included in the victim impact statement system. However, we still do not really have enough information on how victim impact statements affect sentencing practice. That is an area the Judicial Council should work on. We very much welcomed the Judicial Council as a reform but again, our motion this morning highlighted delays in the implementation of the work of the Judicial Council. I think the Minister has acknowledged that.

I am glad to hear in the debate this morning some clarity on when we will see some of those guidelines that should be coming forward on sentencing from the Judicial Council. I want to hear about the review of the practice of suspending sentences. That is a particular issue that has given rise to a lot of disquiet among legal practitioners, with judges using different criteria to decide on the suspension of sentences. We need to ensure the training for judges is really robust and that it applies not just to new recruits to the Judiciary but to those who may be long established as well. That is very important. We need to see an interrogation of the use of practices in sentencing that have been so widespread for so long we no longer question them. This is not just the suspension of sentences but another issue that has caused real disquiet among practitioners in recent days, which is the practice of finding facts without proceeding to a conviction. It is a practice with which, as a criminal practitioner, I was very familiar. It can be very important where you have somebody on a first time, non-violent offence before the District Court. It could be a very minor offence and a judge will find the facts and not proceed to a conviction and therefore, there is no conviction recorded. It is a rehabilitative function. However, there is a question where there is a violent crime where somebody has had the benefit of that already and it happens again. There is real disquiet about the way that has been carried out in recent days.

I was also glad that the Minister committed to moving on the multi-annual funding for refuges and for service providers of supports for victims. Of course, we also welcome the establishment of Cuan but we want to see that institution properly and adequately funded and we want to see greater urgency in the roll-out of refuge spaces, in particular in those nine counties currently without them. It is important to see progress on all of these matters. It is important that we work constructively across Opposition and Government on these issues, just as we did on the separate legal representation provision, which came about as a result of a study a number of us did in Trinity College Dublin, funded by the Rape Crisis Centre, back in the late nineties. That led to changes in the law in the Sex Offenders Act and we were really proud to be part of that. It was about expressing the experiences of survivors of rape, looking at how they had found that awful revictimisation process in the criminal courts, and looking at how we could address that and provide supports. That is the way in which we constructively work to achieve real change. Of course, the bigger piece and the bigger issue is the culture. I refer to the culture of gender inequality where we have what is that awful epidemic of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence of which others have spoken. This is a culture in which everyday sexism and sexual harassment is tolerated and in which, as the Minister and the Taoiseach has said, increasingly young boys have access to violence and porn on phones much more readily. It is a culture in which, as parents - and I am a parent of teenagers - all of us as digital tourists are so fearful that children and teenagers who are digital natives have access to a far greater array of disturbing imagery and conditioning than we had. Regarding that experience of everyday sexism, 30 years on from when I was enduring sexual harassment as a young woman working in the service industry on student holidays, a very widespread experience in the late eighties and early nineties, it is very disheartening to see young women still experiencing that level of everyday harassment and sexism. It is really disturbing. We absolutely need to stand firm. It is up to men and boys to stand firm against sexism and misogyny and to stand for equality, in every facet of our society.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, is sharing time with Deputies Bruton and Farrell.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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Again, I want to acknowledge how important and timely this motion is and to commend the Minister, Deputy McEntee, on her leadership throughout this term of Government. In the past few weeks, we have seen not only one, but two, incredibly courageous survivors of gender-based and sexual violence step up to very bravely go public about their own experiences and once again put a spotlight on this issue in a selfless demonstration of their support of and solidarity with other victims. I simply cannot express my admiration for them and for the strength they have shown while, in the words of Bláthnaid Raleigh, handing back the shame to the perpetrators of the crimes that were committed against them. However, I am conscious too that both Natasha O’Brien and Bláthnaid Raleigh are just the latest in a very long line of women who have had to first live with the trauma and the fallout of experiencing gender-based violence and then in many cases, find themselves retraumatised in pursuit of justice. A number of Deputies have mentioned Lavinia Kerwick here as well and I think of her bravery all those years ago. In the aftermath of high-profile cases like this, we often find ourselves debating the idea of character or the relevance of character references in the context of violent crimes or sexual assault but it really speaks volumes about the character of those women. They have somehow found the strength to make themselves a voice for other victims and to push us all to have the kind of discussion we are having here today.

It is an extension of the conversations that have played out on radio and on social media over recent weeks, and I hope around dinner tables and pub tables and between families and groups of friends too, because domestic, gender-based and sexual violence is reaching epidemic proportions in this country.

We cannot credibly claim to have a zero-tolerance approach to it when we know there were 40,048 disclosures to Women’s Aid last year. Behind every one of those disclosures is a woman who found the strength and the courage to share her story. There may be many thousands more who have yet to take that important first step or seek that support.

For every victim of domestic or gender-based violence there is a perpetrator, and it is too easy for us to dismiss these men as outliers or aberrations. We often, unintentionally, use language that sets them apart from the rest of us. We say they are monsters or they are evil, but those shocking statistics from Women’s Aid of 40,000 disclosures say otherwise. They are people we know, work with and socialise with. They might be friends or relatives, and they need to hear clearly now, that as legislators, as public representatives and as a society, when we say we have zero tolerance for these kinds of crimes, we mean it. Wherever their crime falls on the spectrum of domestic, gender-based or sexual violence, we will not tolerate it.

As a society we all bear a responsibility deliver that message. As men we bear a particular responsibility. Our first responsibility is in acknowledging that. We need to stop insisting we are not part of the problem and start asking how we can be part of the solution.

I want to mention one case that I know we will all be familiar with. It is 12 years since Jill Meagher was raped and murdered in Melbourne and in those 12 years her husband, Tom, has become an incredible advocate for all victims of gender-based violence. He has written powerfully on this idea of "the monster myth", saying that in aftermath of Jill’s murder he experienced an incredible outpouring of love and compassion. However, the more he felt the incredible support from the community, the more difficult it was to ignore the silent majority of victims whose tormentors are not monsters lurking on busy streets, but their friends, acquaintances, husbands, lovers, brothers and fathers.

He has said “In the war on women, this man exemplifies the extremist wing of the hateful and pervasive ideology of male sexual terrorism, but it’s the everyday spectrum of male violence that disturbs me even more." He shared a quote from a Canadian anti-violence campaigner, Lee Lakeman, which has always stayed with me:

Violent men... are not yet shamed by the harm of coercive control over women... Maybe we can rest some hope on the growing activity of men of goodwill calling on each other to change. When that group hits a critical mass, the majority of men will be more likely to want to change.

We cannot live in or accept a culture where the male perpetrator of a violent crime against a woman can take to social media to brag about his crime. We must instead shape a culture of zero tolerance. Through honest dialogue and education, we can shape a society where girls and women feel safe from the threat of domestic and gender-based violence. We need to focus on education of boys in schools to deal with the culture of misogyny. We need media responsibility and create a culture and infrastructure where women and girls can feel safe to come forward.

In my city of Kilkenny, our joint policing committee in March revealed that 126 incidents were reported from January to the end of March this year compared with 330 incidents in the whole 12 months of 2023. That is a really significant increase and the dial is moving in the wrong direction here.

Carlow is still awaiting a domestic violence refuge, meaning that victims there are referred to Kilkenny, Waterford, Tipperary or Wexford. Thankfully, the Minister has confirmed this year that a refuge containing eight family units of accommodation is planned for Carlow. I commend the campaigners who have worked hard to get that resource, and the work of Amber Womens Refuge in Kilkenny. I think of my friend, the late Susie Long, who was involved in its establishment. A new counselling centre, Acorn Lodge, has just been opened. It is a wonderful empathetic caring service for women and families servicing a much wider hinterland.

I commend the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy McEntee, on their leadership on this matter. I agree with the Taoiseach that it is not nor should it be a whole-of-government response. It is all of us here. It is all of society. We need to stand up collectively and collaboratively against gender-based violence.

2:45 pm

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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The bravery of the victims who have come out in recent days is not just to be praised. The message must sink home into every family and particularly every man and boy in the country. Much of this violence has been covered up for years and it has been in a dark corner. The Minister's decision to declare that her goal was zero tolerance was a game changer in many ways. It is not that this can be delivered within a finite number of weeks or months or years or that the instruments she has will certainly lead to it. It is a call for action that everyone must heed. We always will be frustrated by the pace of progress in changing legislation, establishing agencies, rolling out investment plans and changing the curriculum. However, I believe these are the foundation stones that in future will give victims the courage and bravery to come forward in greater numbers. They will assure them that they will be supported when they do come forward and that they will change the hearts and minds of those who have tolerated this blight in our community. I suspect we will always see these awful cases that remind us that deep in our society are these deep pools of sad bitter realities. However, the Minister must not be either discouraged or deflected by this and instead stick to her goal and strategy. It is only when our entire society has joined her in having a zero-tolerance approach that we will have made the progress we need to make.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak today on this important issue. However, its ongoing presence in the news is not particularly welcome. I commend the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and her departmental officials who have made significant efforts and progress in the lifetime of this Government to tackle domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Work achieved thus far includes Cuan, the new DSGBV strategy and the increase in the maximum sentence for those convicted of assault causing harm, from five to ten years, meaning those convicted of serious domestic abuse face tougher sentences.

We have also seen the introduction for the first time of new offences, relating to stalking and non-fatal strangulation. Importantly, we have also seen the development and implementation of the zero-tolerance strategy, with a dedicated agency, Cuan, created to help to deliver on our ambitions.

Despite this work, we still have a long way to go in order to root out domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. We must address the underlying misogyny within our society and our culture. We must facilitate the change that we need to make to build a future where all people in Ireland can grow up in a safe and supportive country. It is clear that we must change that cultural acceptance of misogyny whether it is in your face or subtle. Unfortunately, the latter breeds acceptance.

Education will play a significant role in tackling the prevalence of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. This must take place at all levels of education, including in third level education. I am encouraged by the work done in respect of this sector, particularly in the last four years.

We must also tackle the rampant misogyny and sexism that we see online and on social media. The level of harassment that women face is stark. One only needs to look at the female Members of the Oireachtas to see an illustration of that. It is all too common and is completely unacceptable. We, in this House, have a responsibility to hold social media companies accountable for inaction and demand the change we want to see. For instance, we must demand an end to anonymity online and therefore impunity online.

We all have a role to play in this effort - Government, businesses and ordinary citizens. We cannot keep repeating the mistakes of the past. We must draw a line and pursue our goals with the full rigour of the law, the Oireachtas, and ordinary decent people.

We need a system that is responsive and has integrated mechanisms to help support victims and those in vulnerable circumstances. This will require co-operation across Government and civil society, and the necessary resourcing from this House to ensure that we can best serve victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The damage caused is far reaching and knows no barrier as to age, geography or demographics. It is at every level of our society and as a country, we cannot turn a blind eye or offer excuses.

We cannot be a morally true and modern country if we do not take action and redouble our efforts to root out these crimes.

There can be no tolerance and we in this House must take a lead on that. I believe we can one day reach a place where the tide has turned on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. It will not be an easy journey, nor will it be achieved in the lifetime of one government. It is therefore incumbent on Members of these Houses to dedicate themselves to shining a light on this issue every day to create a better Ireland.

I commend the bravery of the two women mentioned multiple times by Members during this debate. According to Women's Aid statistics, more than 266 women in the State have been murdered, which is an average of approximately nine per annum. That is completely unacceptable. Those two brave women spoke so strenuously about the necessity for them to come out in front of the media, this House and others. They felt the need to do so because they felt there are systems within the State that are not operating as they should. We men must take a more significant role in calling out misogyny when we see it. I again commend the Minister and the work of Government in this regard.

2:55 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputies Mitchell and Mythen are sharing time.

Photo of Denise MitchellDenise Mitchell (Dublin Bay North, Sinn Fein)
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When the sentencing guidelines committee was brought in under the Judicial Council Act, we were promised a fundamental reform of our approach to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The programme for Government committed to tackling the epidemic this country faces. However, Ireland is still an unsafe place for women. Week after week, we have seen sentences handed down for the most horrific crimes that would not put confidence in any victim who was considering the pressing of charges. It is estimated that 80% of cases of sexual violence do not even get reported. That is a political and societal problem we all have to solve. Victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence are reluctant to come before the courts. From their point of view, they have little chance of proper justice. The Women's Aid annual report for 2023 noted 40,000 disclosures of abuse towards women and children. That is an 18% increase on the 2022 statistics. We do not know whether increases are a spike in violence or in incidents being reported, due to the lack of data being held by the Garda. We have an over-reliance on charities to carry out much of the work the State should be doing and successive Governments have outsourced the problem. We need a co-ordinated approach from the Government if we are to truly get to the bottom of this epidemic. The lack of follow-up actions in recent years increases the distrust of victims towards our political and justice system. We all need to do better for women. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, deserves credit for the most comprehensive strategy and implementation plan. However, the resources and funding need to follow if people are to see real change on the ground. We need to restore confidence for victims. We need to know, when a woman comes forward and files a report against her attacker, that she will be supported in every way.

Photo of Johnny MythenJohnny Mythen (Wexford, Sinn Fein)
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The attack on Natasha O'Brien has once again brought to light how the safety of women must be made a top priority of this Government and by all parties and none. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, has stated that a zero tolerance approach is to be adopted with regard to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and we all agree. However, how many times have we heard this? We need the Judicial Council to produce its review on sentencing guidelines, especially when it comes to suspended sentences and the criteria used in determining violent crimes. The inconsistency in this area is causing major concern to the public and feeding into mistrust of the judicial system. This manifests itself in the psyches of women and children, who feel the system is failing to protect them, as Natasha O'Brien has bravely outlined in her ongoing campaign against what most people see as a miscarriage of justice. We support her and look forward to the changes that must come about. Deputy McDonald described it as a watershed moment for all women in Ireland. The separation of powers must be respected, and the total independence of the DPP upheld. However, the DPP can seek a review of any sentences on grounds of undue leniency. We must also pay tribute to the Women of Honour and their uphill battle in seeking justice for their abuse and mistreatment in the Irish Defence Forces. There is a systemic and major underlying problem in our society. Women's Aid had more than 40,000 disclosures of abuse against women and children in 2023 - the highest ever recorded. The creation of the new DSGBV agency, Cuan, is welcome and I acknowledge the Minister's role in this. However, we emphasise the need to speed up the process of hiring staff and getting the full management programme in place. I acknowledge the €6.6 million allocated to the new women's refuge centre in Wexford town, providing 12 self-catering apartments, which, subject to schedule should open in September. We also ask that the nine counties with no refuge be provided with similar assistance in line with the Istanbul Convention. We must move quickly towards the ultimate goal, which is that no woman or child should be turned away because there is no safe shelter available. The Government must implement a zero tolerance strategy, and the recommendations by the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality and the Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality. As the saying goes, justice must not only be done but must also be seen to be done.

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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At the outset, I pay tribute to the brave women who have come forward in recent weeks to speak about the abuse they have received at the hands of violent men. We are now familiar with the story of the incredibly brave Natasha O'Brien. She is a remarkable young woman, someone who steps in when she sees something wrong. She confronted a man yelling homophobic abuse in the street and she was then brutally assaulted by a serving member of the Defence Forces, Cathal Crotty, as his friends stood by and watched. This week, Bláthnaid Raleigh waived her right to anonymity after the man who raped her, John Moran, was sentenced to eight years. She told reporters outside the courthouse that she wanted to put the shame back on him after feeling totally isolated in the aftermath of her horrific assault, going through months of treatment in a sexual assault victims’ unit as her rapist moved freely around his community. A look at the stories coming out of the courts this week paints a horrific picture of the reality of women's safety in Ireland. Two young women were raped in Dublin by a taxi driver, Raymond Shorten. One of the young women described how she thought she was taking the safe option, the option we are told to take. We are told not to walk home alone at night but get a taxi. What is glaring in this case is that he had previous convictions for sexual offences. Why was this man allowed to have a taxi licence? Why is anyone with a record of sexual violence allowed to have a taxi licence, to pick up people alone and get their home address? Does that seem safe to anyone? The NTA, as taxi regulator, needs to wake up and do an immediate review of its drivers to ensure the safety of people who step into those cars. Ireland has a violence against women problem and Ireland has always had a violence against women problem. At every step of our State's history, it has been endemic and it has been structural. We have locked women away, shamed them, abused them and silenced them. Generations of Irish women have had to endure misogyny. Culturally, perpetrators are protected and victims are blamed. Coercion and street harassment are dismissed, not to mind the legacy of mother and baby homes and repeated women's health scandals. Every few years we have an epiphany. We say, "Oh god, that was horrible", "How was that allowed to happen?" and "It can never happen again". It always happens again, because we have not taken the steps as a country to ensure that it never happens again.

Our justice system was not built to protect these victims of crime. In fact, it often seems to compound the trauma. When someone, predominantly a woman, experiences sexual or domestic violence there are barriers at every step of their journey. The first step after experiencing a sexual assault would generally be to present yourself to a medical facility. However, for women in rural areas, outside of hours medical services are barely existent. In my constituency in west Cork, as in most rural areas, there is no sexual assault treatment unit.

The reality of what that step looks like, therefore, is that someone who has just gone through an incredibly traumatic assault is then put into a Garda car, not even able to shower, and driven to Cork city.

Another initial step is often victims' experience with the Garda and reporting the sexual violence, which can be negative. The Rape Crisis Network report of 2022 found only 64% of respondents felt they had been treated in a sensitive manner by the Garda. For survivors, their initial engagement with the Garda is the first step in the criminal justice system and sets the tone for their experience going forward. Victims of sexual assault are well aware the likelihood of receiving justice is astronomically low and that is reflected in the fact only 5% of those who experience sexual violence as an adult even report it to the Garda, rising to 12% of those who experience sexual violence as a child. The number of female rape victims in Ireland is almost three times higher than the EU average, and how many of them actually receive justice?

I and so many others are really glad the DPP has decided to review the shamefully lenient sentencing of Cathal Crotty, but this is not an isolated case. There needs to be wholesale reform of how courts and judges treat sexual and domestic abuse and how they treat victims in that. We need to see reformed sentencing guidelines and know why they have not materialised. We need continuous training for judges and barristers and we need to see an end to some of the most brutal and shameful practices in courts, where victims are shamed and retraumatised at every step. I am thinking of, as we have heard, underwear being passed around the courtroom or counselling notes being used.

More than 250 women have been violently killed since 1996, and in the vast majority of resolved cases, they were killed by a man known to them. In half of the cases, they were killed by a current or former partner. People cannot leave a violent household if there is nowhere to go. We need more refuge spaces. The State is providing only about 29% of the required refuge spaces. The Istanbul Convention standard is one space per 10,000 people. Ireland provides a fraction of that. Cork city and county, with a population of more than 500,000, should have 54 spaces; it has six. Many counties have none. Domestic violence leave has been introduced, providing five days' leave, half of what was recommended. I challenge anyone to pick up their life and children, flee their home, arrange their own accommodation because the local authority will not do it for them, go to the Garda, get a solicitor, go to court and attend all the custody hearings, all within five days. That is not to mention how much harder this can be for disabled women. In a growing number of cases, victims of domestic violence lose custody, with a notable pattern of their partners weaponising the parental alienation concept.

Crucially, we need education. I was struck by the words of Bláthnaid Raleigh this week, when she stated:

I have noticed in the fallout of Natasha O’Brien’s case and my own case is that there is a demographic of men, young men, who don’t want to speak out against their peers. I have so many messages of support from people but 95% of them are from women and the rest are older men. That’s wrong. I also think there is a misconception that the perpetrators in sexual violence cases are older men. They aren’t. They are young guys in our friendship circles.

There is an immediate need for education on consent, sexual violence, coercion and online abuse. There has been an online radicalisation of young men, in particular, in recent years, which we have not got a hold of. If we are to meaningfully to address the prevalence of violence against women in Ireland, we need to address the structural barriers that enable it.

I acknowledge the work the Minister has done on this issue. As far as I know, she is the first Minister for Justice to have made it a focus. We have heard some ridiculous commentary about that in recent times, calling it "woke" and so on, but there is nothing woke about addressing the number of women being killed and violently assaulted. I commend her on her focus on it.

3:05 pm

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the House for facilitating this important debate. Previous contributors referred to watershed moments and Groundhog Day. Unfortunately, we have had those too many times. We devoted an entire afternoon in the Dáil to statements about the late Ashling Murphy 12 or 18 months ago and the issue was in sharp focus, both in the media and in political discourse. It was being spoken about in every household in Ireland. Issues then go out of focus, which is, unfortunately, how the media cycle works and how life goes. Another issue fills its place a couple of weeks later and takes over the airwaves, and it gets forgotten, which is not good enough. I am not laying that blame at the Minister's door. It is just how society works, and it is horrendous.

We are very much talking about this again in light of the brave and tenacious Natasha O'Brien, who decided she would not be a victim who takes this lying down. She is willing to take on the courts system and the State and she will vindicate her position as a victim. I do not want to say too much about that case, given it is sub judice and it would be wrong to elaborate on it, but the State has eyes on that case, and rightly so.

Like others, I think there needs to be significant investment in women's shelters. I am sure most TDs have dealt with domestic violence issues through their constituency offices, and the first fear the women generally have relates, naturally, to the splitting-up of the family and where her children will go with her. It is usually about what roof she will have over her head and, as Deputy Cairns said, in some counties it is not obvious what pathway to accommodation and safe refuge there will be for that woman. Where there is accommodation, it is often taken up, because women do not just stay in a shelter but transition to HAP housing or social housing. As we all know, that supply chain is limited at the moment, so the shelter is often chock-a-block and full to begin with, and there is no shelter for many of these women to go to. The issue will need a lot of investment.

Since the advent of the Nice treaty, lots of people have come to Ireland from eastern European countries with many from beyond the European Economic Area. We have Ukraine war refugees and people have come here seeking international protection. We, therefore, have a huge new population in Ireland, with many new languages. I recently dealt with an individual in my constituency who has nobody. She has a husband and children but she has been subjected to domestic violence on an ongoing basis. I have had to meet her privately and take phone calls from her late at night. Sometimes, she has to go down to the garden or sit out in the car to make those calls. Language is a barrier and she has limited English, and she has no family. Usually, when women are faced with domestic violence, as has been borne out in many studies, their first port of call, unfortunately, is not An Garda Síochána but their sister, best friend or mother. When they are living overseas, however, and many countries away, it is very hard for them to have an immediate support group, so there are very few people to whom this woman can go. The capacity of An Garda Síochána to provide care and support to someone like her needs to be looked at. It is very difficult for people to engage with the support services but it is even more difficult when their natural support scene is not here in Ireland but overseas.

There needs to be a deep analysis of Garda vetting. Every TD, as I said, deals with housing issues, and it is a standard feature of a housing application that once a form is submitted and lodged with the council, it goes off for six or seven weeks to the Garda National Vetting Bureau, but we know very little about what happens there. We have been told anecdotally that the most important issue the bureau looks at is whether the housing applicant has a history of drug dealing because, naturally, we do not want to land a drug dealer in the middle of a housing estate and have a potential contagion effect, with more people forming a drug habit or buying from him or her. A broader net of issues needs to be considered as part of Garda vetting. Both through parliamentary questions and at a joint policing committee level in County Clare, I have probed the types of background checks that are carried out at this phase. I know of several examples of convicted paedophiles, named in the newspaper, with court orders against them, who have served time but are able to get through those Garda vetting procedures. It is arguably far more treacherous and dangerous to have somebody with a conviction and a habit of being a sexual predator living on a housing estate than to have somebody who is dealing drugs. That needs to be looked at.

So too does the whole issue of domestic violence in the context of Garda vetting. Each time my wife was expecting a baby, I took time off work and accompanied her to the first scan appointment at the maternity hospital. I recall that after the woman has had her bloods taken and gone for a scan, she is brought into a small private room. I assume this is standard in the maternity hospital system.

There is a social worker and a nurse and they ask standard questions such as, "How is your home environment? Are you supported?", but what they are basically trying to get to is, "Are you vulnerable? Are you at risk in your home environment?" Surely that sort of question needs to be asked as well when someone is making a housing application We are allowing far too many people with shady and dodgy backgrounds to take up council housing stock that is paid for by the taxpayer who is handing them over the keys. They are living there for a lifetime, yet we are supposed to have some kind of watchdog on their application as it goes through in those initial weeks. That needs to be examined as well.

Growing up I always felt relatively safe on the streets. There were parts of this city and parts of my home county - name a town or city in Ireland that does not have this - that have parts that do not feel so safe. It was not really until the death of Ashling Murphy and the national debate that sparked that I really became aware of having male privilege, which we are often accused of, but we do. I, as do the other male Members of this House, have the privilege of being able to walk most Irish streets by night in the dark with relative safety and ease. I do it here every Wednesday night. When the voting block is over, I usually go off down the streets of Dublin to clear my head, get fresh air, and make a couple of phone calls home - some to constituents but usually to my mam and to my wife. They are usually absolutely appalled when I tell them where I am, where I am walking and where I intend to go. It is something they would never see or never think of doing.

Of everything we will discuss today, a lot of this belongs to An Garda Síochána, the Courts Service and the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, and they will deal with that. For the women of Ireland who, fortunately, do not interface with domestic violence - many thankfully will not interface with this during their lifetime - they too should feel safe going down the streets of Ireland and that is not the case for too many of them. I was quite shocked that what I would consider to be standard practice for most of the men here is not for them. They are watching over their shoulders and not feeling safe. More can be done on that. Generally, by night and even by day even, women should feel relatively safe and when going into multistorey car parks not having to stay on the phone to someone in case there is someone in there or having to lock the car door at traffic lights and so on.

There is more to be done, yet I am conscious in this debate that no matter what is done, it will never eradicate the dark depths some people go to perpetuate violence against others. It is just awful. Some of the matters being debated are sub judice. I hope justice prevails and a more robust approach can be taken.

I reiterate my point on Garda vetting and protecting those who have come to Ireland - be they EU citizens without skills in the English language, people from non-European countries, and international protection applicants or those who have come from Ukraine - that the An Garda Síochána has the still set at regional divisional level so we can also support them. There is a deficiency within the Garda in this regard and when there is no one to turn to, the last person someone would probably turn to is a garda. We need more of an initial support net to reach those people.

3:15 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Patricia Ryan is next and will share time with Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the debate, particularly on the issue of domestic violence in all of its forms. It does not have to bruise or break to be abuse. There is mental, emotional and psychological abuse; destroying the victim's self-esteem day in and day out; financial control; depriving the victim of financial independence; isolation from family and friends and any support network; and coercive and controlling behaviour. The Garda is the first line of enforcement and of protection for women and children caught up in these horrible situations but what if there are not enough gardaí in one's area or if the local Garda station is a part-time one?

Domestic abuse situations have no care for part-time Garda rosters. In my home town of Monasterevin in County Kildare, the Garda station is only staffed from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. There is one Garda car between Monasterevin and Rathangan; and Athy and Newbridge are half an hour away. The advice on the Garda website is to call your local Garda station for an immediate response if required. Do the Minister expect any woman in my constituency in an emergency situation to call 999 and simply to wait for the Garda from Kildare to get to her?

This morning, I tried very hard to get through to any one of the Monasterevin, Athy or Kildare Garda stations multiple times. I have a record of this on my phone. I received no response anywhere and the calls rang out. In desperation I called the chief superintendent in Naas headquarters who did answer, only to be directed from there to Naas Garda station. They could not, apparently, take my call and transferred me, yet again, to a call centre. Guess where the call centre was? It was in Waterford. If I was a woman who was being beaten up, does the Minister honestly think I could hang on to be transferred? This is an utter disgrace and totally unacceptable. No wonder women do not feel safe or protected. The Women's Aid, Aoibhneas and Stop Domestic Violence in Ireland agencies and support groups are amazing but they are not the fourth emergency service.

The Minister's promises and platitudes for tackling domestic violence in all its forms are useless until we have more gardaí, Garda stations that are actually staffed and calls that are actually answered. I acknowledge the work she is doing but there is a lot more to be done. It is time to actually protect women. We need more gardaí and less promises; and a zero-tolerance strategy to be implemented. I hope that by the end of business this evening someone will find a garda in Monasterevin.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I join other colleagues who have acknowledged the great bravery and courage of Natasha O'Brien and Bláthnaid Raleigh. It takes a great deal of courage to come forward and it is important because it leads to discussions such as this and to a focus on the huge challenges that are there. The scale of this problem is frightening and what is worrying is that in many respects it seems to be getting worse. The Women's Aid annual report from last year detailed 40,000 reports, which is an 18% increase in disclosures of domestic abuse compared to the previous year. This was the highest ever number received by that organisation in its 50 years. Disclosures of physical abuse had risen by 74% of economic abuse by 87%. It is difficult to establish whether this is due to an increased level of reporting or an increased level of incidence. It is very likely some of both but that scale of increase is extremely worrying and points to the depth of this problem and the scale of the challenge.

A great deal more is needed in terms of policy. Some of these issues are social as well, particularly for men and it is our responsibility to speak to our sons, brothers and friends to try to challenge the attitudes out there. A lot had been said about that and it is worth noting that the evidence supports it. A 2020 WHO survey of interventions based on dozens of studies in the areas of sexual and reproductive rights and addressing gender equality, including tackling gender violence, highlighted that when men and boys are directly included in interventions the outcomes are much more likely to be successful. There are many examples of successful interventions across the world that can be taken on board here. The research suggests that the question is no longer whether to include boys and men but how to do so to ensure they promote gender equality. That is a crucially important area.

The issue of sentencing has come up. It has long been a concern of mine that sentencing is, in many instances, inconsistent, difficult to explain and, in some cases, just inappropriate. We have seen examples of that. This is a priority of mine. I worked very hard with the then Minister, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, to secure the sentencing guidelines committee. I regret it has not proceeded more quickly. I understand the work it has to do is complex and data has to be gathered but at this point, four or five years on from the passing of the legislation, it is now time. When guidelines are in place, such as in Britain, adherence to them is strong and they have a beneficial impact. It is time for the Judicial Council and relevant committees to move on with providing guidelines. I appreciate the work is complex but it is vitally important.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Bríd Smith is sharing with Deputies Barry and Gino Kenny.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I has become obvious that courage is a contagious feature of humanity. I hope the courage these women have shown will have more contagion for those who are victims of gender-based violence, rape, etc., and allow them to speak out. Explanations were given earlier for all that is being done and they sound very impressive but there is a problem with not having timelines given to us. We know it has been more than two years since the murder of Ashling Murphy. We are not seeing an improvement in the numbers of refuge spaces and in court procedures. For example, rape victims still have to hand over their therapy and counselling notes to the perpetrator.

That has to end. It is the most cruel thing you could do to somebody who will be retraumatised all over again in court. There is also a problem with the Judiciary. I am not going to say too much about it. It is staring everybody in the face. Perhaps they need to be educated, reformed or something. There is definitely a problem with the approach and the mentality with which they face these things.

On foot of a discussion this morning on the radio, I also think we are overlooking a big trick here which is reform of the sex education programmes in schools to include consent and to include more understanding of biology. There is a serious level of violence against trans people in this country. They are something like four times more likely than you or me to experience violence. One of the highest rates of hate-motivated violence is against transgender people. About 13% of transgender people have reported being physically or sexually assaulted or threatened with violence because of transphobia. That compares to an average of 8% across the European Union. We are missing a trick on reforming the education system and doing it quickly. My concern in speaking with you here today, Minister, is the question of timing, of when we get these things done. We cannot just keep facing more never-agains every other day of the week. We do hear of them every other day of the week, even if they do not all come into this House. Natasha O'Brien and Bláthnaid Raleigh certainly jump out but there are other cases in which the names are not given. We see the cases in court every day. I want to say here publicly, shame on those who try to point the finger at immigrants, men of colour, for being the most danger to women. That is not the case at all. Those who are most dangerous to women are those who are known to them. More than 80% of transgender violence and sexual violence is carried out by partners or ex-partners.

I want to refer to a report which the Minister knows about. It was commissioned in the Cherry Orchard Dublin 10 area as a consequence of a lot of campaigning work done by my colleague, Councillor Hazel de Nortúin. I have seen the Minister at the meetings in Cherry Orchard and I know she put a lot of effort into making sure this happened. This report, "Unveiling the Shadows", really does shine a light deep into an impoverished and excluded community where the cuts and austerity hit harder than anything else back ten or 12 years ago. The Minister at the time said they were picking the low-hanging fruit first and deliberately targeted family support services, addiction support services, youth services, which had cuts of 50% to 80%. Those cuts have never been fully restored. In places like Cherry Orchard, the wrap-around supports are exactly what is needed, as intervention can be made with children who suffer the trauma of domestic and gender-based violence, as well as with the women, mostly, but also sometimes men. The problems are compounded by a housing system that is really broken when it comes to the poorest and the most marginalised. We should now start advocating for the family home to be the refuge for those who suffer, where the perpetrator is forced to exit the home and leave those who suffered the violence in the family home. Otherwise we are going to be chasing our tails, particularly since the State has provided less than half of what the Istanbul Convention outlines. I pay tribute to Councillor de Nortúin and all the brave women who are fighting hard to end the culture in this country.

3:25 pm

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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The Cathal Crotty case raises a number of issues and a number of things that need to change urgently. First is training of judges. The O'Malley report, published in the wake of the Belfast rape trial and the "I believe her" protests, recommended that judges, legal professionals and others whose professional work involves interaction with victims of sexual violence receive training. This should be broadened out to include all victims of gender-based violence. The Judicial Council appears to have commenced training but, as I understand it, it is not mandatory. It seems to be up to the judges themselves to decide whether they need it. This needs to change. The training should be mandatory. Where a judge, despite training, consistently hands down rulings that are inconsistent with the zero tolerance approach, there has to be a way of removing them from the bench. It is not acceptable to have judges who consistently hand down such rulings effectively unaccountable and in a position of authority until retirement, virtually unsackable.

The Garda Síochána and the family law system must be also accountable and subject to greater democratic check. Last year, 2,603 women in contact with the national freephone helpline disclosed that they had contacted the Garda because of domestic abuse and 48% said they had found the Garda unhelpful. Some 1,068 women had applied for domestic violence orders through the family law service and 48% noted their experience as bad. In other words, nearly half of the women who had summoned the courage to overcome fear, shame and other societal obstacles to disclose abuse against themselves and-or their children were treated in a way that lacked dignity, respect, urgency, a combination of all three, or other things. Either way, this is not good enough and it has to change.

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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They often say that a watershed moment is something that is truly life-changing, something that defines a period or event, a turning point, a starting point, an ending point, that it is change. How many times have we heard of a watershed moment when it comes to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence? If these past few weeks have shown us anything it is that we have not found the solution to the epidemic of sexual and gender-based violence in this country, and the sad reality is that no country has. That leaves us all asking how many more times there needs to be a watershed moment. How many more women and men need to waive their right to privacy to put a face to a crime? How many more women need to become household names? That is especially stark since only 5% of those who experience sexual violence have reported it. Many of those who do not report it bear the weight alone in isolation. They may feel shame or guilt, they may want to hide from it. They do not want to acknowledge their pain even though that may mean not identifying their perpetrator. As a woman, it is utterly depressing to come into this Chamber yet again to discuss this topic yet again. I spoke on this when Ashling Murphy was brutally murdered two and a half years ago. Since then, Women's Aid has revealed that there were 40,000 reports of abuse in 2023 and a 20% increase on 2022. That is because more women are speaking out and that is a good thing. They are refusing to bear the weight of this alone in isolation. They do not want to hide. They want their abusers identified.

We have had Natasha O'Brien in the Gallery after her brutal attack at the hands of an Irish soldier. We know this story. All she was doing was standing up for herself and for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. We got the chance to meet Natasha last week and commend her on her bravery in person. I am relieved that the Director of Public Prosecutions has lodged an appeal. Bláthnaid Raleigh recently waived her right to remain anonymous following her attack five years ago. She was forced to watch her attacker live a completely normal life like nothing had ever happened, whereas she retreated from life. Her right to a normal existence was taken away from her and she suffered alone in isolation for many years. The sad reality is that it is often the victim who suffers when it comes to domestic and gender-based violence. We know from CSO statistics that seven out of ten times, the victim probably knows the perpetrator. We are all tired of this. We are all sick and tired of these stories, of the horror stories. We are sickened by the experience of victims in courtrooms and the betrayal of victims' confidence and trust in the system and in the structures that are meant to be there to help them recover from trauma, not retraumatise them. It is not right that counselling notes, people's innermost thoughts and fears, can be used in a courtroom against them when they are the victim. That is wrong and it has to stop. I welcome the news that the Minister, Deputy McEntee, has committed to changing this so that rape survivors' counselling notes will not be used in evidence in criminal trials. The Minister has also brought in Coco's law to stop the sharing of intimate images without consent.

That is really important. The Minister, Deputy Helen McEntee, has been unapologetic in her approach to tackling this. She has opened Cuan, a dedicated agency that will deliver a zero-tolerance strategy across society for all forms of abuse. We want to make more refuge spaces available, and that is happening. In my area, Saoirse Women's Refuge is providing outreach services for women who need it.

The Minister has introduced legislation that creates new stand-alone offences of non-fatal strangulation and stalking. She has doubled the maximum penalty for assault causing harm to ten years. She has introduced tougher laws for monitoring sex offenders in the community, with the Sex Offenders (Amendment) Act 2023, and has provided funding to service providers at a level that has risen dramatically, from €20 million a year to €59 million a year, and I know that figure will continue rise on her watch.

We need action and change. That starts in homes, classrooms, workplaces, WhatsApp group chats and the content we watch every day with our friends and families. The Minister's plans are all based on improving prevention, protection and the pursuance of policies in this area. That is the only way to tackle this from every angle and in every way. What the Minister is doing is having a real impact. We are talking about policies, budgets and laws. We are talking change. This has to be what unites us all, namely, our desire to deliver change in this really important issue.

3:35 pm

Photo of Joe FlahertyJoe Flaherty (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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There have been two cases before the courts in recent weeks which have brought the issue of gender-based violence into focus once more and have shone a light on our ineffectiveness in dealing with the issue and supporting victims. The sad reality is that while both cases were high-profile, in the weeks and days that followed those acts of violence and degradation, several other women have endured agony and attacks in anonymity and isolation and were not able to reach out for the help and support they need.

I welcome the decision by the DPP to appeal the severity of the sentence for Cathal Crotty after he received a three-year suspended sentence for a violent attack on a young Limerick woman, Natasha O'Brien. More recently, we had the case of Bláthnaid Raleigh, who waived her right to anonymity this week at the sentencing of her rapist, Johnny Moran. Like the rest of the nation, I had to stop what I was doing this morning as I listened to this remarkable young woman speak on the "Oliver Callan" show. Bláthnaid Raleigh gave a great insight into the trauma and horror that victims have to endure. Now 26 years old, she did not feel she had the right to say she was raped as she had not seen her attacker convicted.

It seems extraordinary that it took five years for the conviction to come to pass. Bláthnaid Raleigh suffered a gruesome and violent violation at the hands of somebody she felt she could trust and then lost five years of her life waiting for trial. She shared five years in the same home town as her attacker, perhaps often seeing him at a distance on the street or in a chance encounter while her life was shattered and she was forced to live in the shadows. We appreciate that every accused person has the right to be afforded the presumption of innocence, but five years for a determination in a case as violent and invasive as this is an indictment of our justice system.

Both cases are perhaps at the extreme end of gender-based violence, but on a daily basis in towns, villages and across the country, gender-based violence unfolds at varying degrees of severity. We hear it every week in our constituency offices. Many of these cases will never come to the courts, but they are unfolding in our communities and housing estates. Over the past number of weeks, I have met several women who have suffered the degradation and violence of gender-based violence. Their perpetrators can live, seemingly unaffected, and in many cases go on to perpetrate the same crimes.

I commend the Minister. It was heartening to hear all sides of the House acknowledge the Herculean work she has done in this area during her time in the justice role. When she was in Longford she met Longford Women's Link, which is very supportive, and she is committed to a refuge centre for Longford. Work is unfolding on that, but we need to leave no stone unturned. This is one of the biggest challenges facing our country.

We have conditioned ourselves as a society to think that past acts of gender-based violence are, in the main, perpetrated by members of the church and those in positions of authority. We perhaps convinced ourselves that the worst was behind us, but the reality is that the perpetrators of today are our neighbours and maybe even our friends. As a previous speaker pointed out, in seven out of ten instances victims know their attacker.

As mentioned, I greatly appreciate the work the Minister is doing and the support she has given to Longford Women's Link. I would like the promised refuge centre for County Longford to come to fruition as soon as possible. However, I fear there is a certain creeping sense of acceptance of gender-based violence and, at some levels, it is being overlooked. I fear it is linked to the issue of consent and the prevalence of access to porn for young men and boys, in particular. They are being fed a warped sense of what constitutes consent and how they should behave.

As other speakers said, it is only two years since the tragic death of Ashling Murphy. Can we turn around and say to our colleagues in the Chamber that much has changed over those two years? Is this truly a safer and better society? If we look into the deep recesses of our souls, we cannot say that things have changed during that time.

The reality is that the names of Natasha O'Brien and Bláthnaid Raleigh will fade from our screens and newspapers. The sad reality of today's discussion is that there will be more Bláthnaids and Natashas. I genuinely fear that we have an epidemic of gender-based violence in this country. As legislators and community leaders, we and everybody in our communities need to stand up and call it out for what it is. As legislators, we need a multi-Department commitment and a statement of intent from the Government to address this issue. Many speakers referenced the two cases I have mentioned as a watershed moment, but the pain and anguish of those women and the thousands of other often anonymous victims will be forgotten and overlooked until we tackle this issue with the courage that it demands.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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We are all taken aback by the events of the past couple of days, including the revelations in Limerick and what we heard on the radio this morning, as was referenced by the previous speaker. We are all shocked by all of this and everyone feels responsible and wonders what more can be done. We can all come in here and express our disappointment, annoyance and all of that, but we have to focus on what we can deliver.

Central to that, as has been mentioned by many other speakers, is a refuge for women who had to leave their home because of domestic violence or abuse, often sexual abuse, as well as domination and a whole range of things. There is no refuge in my county, Leitrim, or the surrounding counties. There is nowhere to go. There are no refuges in Cavan, Longford, Roscommon or Sligo.

There has to be a recognition that we signed up to the Istanbul Convention and ratified it in 2019. It states that there needs to be a refuge unit for every 10,000 women and girls over the age of 15. That would mean that, in respect of the counties I have mentioned, we would want to have about six units to cover that population. There is no sign of that happening. There is no sign of even half the level of commitment to deliver that coming from the Government.

We need to recognise the issue. The lack of refuge spaces is the reason so few come forward. It has been mentioned that over 40,000 women have come forward to Women's Aid to report domestic abuse and violent incidents, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. It is likely a multiple of that figure do not come forward because they do not feel supported, and that is what needs to change. A support mechanism needs to be put in place for people in these circumstances. Many rely on families and friends, and do not go near services because the story for everyone they know is that the service is diminished and does not work for many people.

It is the same when people deal with the justice system, for which the Minister has responsibility. Many women feel left out because of all of that. I acknowledge the work Minister has done and the plans she has put in place, but we have not yet seen delivery of that. We need to put our focus on making sure that happens.

Photo of Maurice QuinlivanMaurice Quinlivan (Limerick City, Sinn Fein)
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I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the important issue of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. It requires all of us, Government and Opposition, to act and play our part in bringing about change in this area. In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about the vicious attack on Natasha O'Brien and the sentence in that case. Unfortunately, that case is not unique but it is a strong demonstration of the violence that impacts so many people, in particular women, in our society. It should never and can never be tolerated.

I commend Natasha O'Brien on her bravery throughout this period. I commend her on stepping up, speaking openly and highlighting this widespread issue to a wider audience. It takes great courage to put oneself out in front like that.

Unfortunately, her case is but a headline case. Gender-based violence is an everyday occurrence. It is an issue that can impact any woman from any and every socioeconomic group. We will, of course, always be appalled by physical violence. However, equally impactful are coercive control and the everyday misogyny women experience. Why is this still an issue in the 21st century? It is a reflection of the everyday sexism, harassment and misogyny that are present in every aspect of Irish life. Women involved in political life are often targeted with the most vile, hateful and crude comments on social media. The cruel and highly sexualised commentary used against many female politicians has been allowed to continue. Sports personalities are often subjected to comments based not on the merits or demerits of their sporting performances but on how the commentator perceives their looks. It is abhorrent that women must deal with such commentary while striving to excel in their field.

We have an obligation to prevent another generation of women and girls from experiencing misogyny and gender-based violence. There are many actions we can take as legislators but there is much more we can do in our everyday lives. Domestic and gender-based violence, if allowed to continue, can be lethal. I cannot imagine living with an ever-present concern for my safety, as so many women do in this country. It is absolutely abhorrent.

As legislators, we have made some inroads on this issue. The introduction of domestic violence leave in the Work Life Balance and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 2023 was a positive step forward. The third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence must be fully resourced. The Ombudsman for Children must be granted funding to participate in the strategy. The establishment of a dedicated agency dealing with domestic violence is welcome but it must be fit for purpose and have the autonomy to address the crisis effectively. As an immediate step, the Government must address the deficit in the provision of shelters and ensure there are adequate spaces in existing refuges. Nine counties have no shelter, as my colleague noted. Women and children desperately seeking escape end up staying in, or returning to, violent and abusive homes. Domestic abuse support providers have been underfunded for decades. Strategy and investment must turn the tide to ensure women and children fleeing domestic violence have access to refuge and the wraparound supports they need. Recent high-profile cases have led to observations that we are at a watershed moment. I hope that by working together on a cross-party basis, we can finally bring forward the seismic change that is needed.

3:45 pm

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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I welcome this debate. I concur with colleagues' comments on the amount of work the Minister has done to bring this issue to the fore and try to improve what we do, as a society and as legislators, to address it. Often, society does not even recognise the problem for what it is. Domestic violence, unless it is actually on people's doorstep, is often seen as just as a domestic incident by neighbours and others. That is unfortunate. We need much wider recognition within society of what is happening.

I recently visited the women's refuge in Wexford. The current building is basic but a new refuge will soon be opened. Paramount to progress in this area is ensuring there is adequate resourcing. Where we are letting everybody down is in the general idea that women's needs are met by women's refuges. Those refuges do phenomenal work but they can only provide for a 90-day stay. We are talking about women who have left their home, often with one, two, three or four children, while the perpetrator of the violence against them stays under his own roof. After 90 days, a woman in that situation will be evicted from the refuge. She will become homeless if she has nowhere else to go and if the perpetrator remains in the home and she cannot return there. If a victim is eligible for social housing, county councils then face the issues arising out of the housing crisis. I am not at all trying to heap this onto the Minister's lap but these are the facts we live with today. In effect, the victim is being doubled down on for doing the right thing in leaving the perpetrator of the violence against her and trying to help herself. In so doing, women get themselves into a position where they become homeless. It really is through no fault of their own.

One suggestion to address this is that step-down facilities be provided. In Wexford, for example, the building that is currently the women's refuge could be kept as a safe house, when the new refuge is opened, in which supports could continue to be delivered to parents and children. Under the current system, there are huge welfare concerns in respect of children. What is the point of providing women and children with refuge for three months before, in effect, turning them back into society without any help or support? We are not rehabilitating the children in that situation. The parent who is the victim is not supported to move on from her current situation and ensure her children move on from it. We do not have those supports in place. In fact, we do not have a policy to provide those supports. I ask the Minister to consider my proposal. In Wexford, we have the opportunity to use the current refuge as a safe house or what would, in other contexts, be called a step-down facility. When 90 days are up, women staying in the new refuge will have access to a facility that allows them to be rehabilitated and supported. We need to put child welfare officers in place to protect children. Victim parents must be able to access parental supports.

It might even be possible to support women for long enough to get them through the court system and to a point where the perpetrator, if needs be, is removed from the family home and the victim can return to it. As a society, I am not sure we can continue to do things the way they are currently done. As my colleague Deputy Bríd Smith said, the perpetrator seems to have all the rights, including property rights and everything else. As the Minister knows, it is not easy, nor should it be, to secure a barring order. However, in instances where domestic violence has been proven, it should become a lot easier. As a society, we should consider making provision for the removal of perpetrators of domestic violence from the family home until such time as we can facilitate returning the children to a situation where they have the best opportunity to remain in contact with their friends, stay within society as they know it and be rehabilitated outside of the domestic violence sphere. That is paramount to how we move forward. It is pointless to provide refuge if the other necessary supports are not in place. I think the Minister will agree with that. It is the direction in which we need to go.

We have a long way to go in addressing this issue. That is not a criticism of the Minister. We need to ensure that Cuan, which she launched in February, is resourced. It must not be hamstrung in its remit of delivering the funding required for essential services. Many of our services are failed services. Child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, have huge recruitment and retention issues. The children's disability network teams, CDNTs, are the same. There is no real service being provided because of the lack of supports for staff. As a result, they are leaving in their droves. We do not want the same to happen with women's refuges. It will cost a lot of money to ensure that does not happen. I do not want to see scrimping and scraping. Victims must not be victimised all over again because of a lack of resources. We must look at the child welfare element of gender-based violence. We must look at how we can support and nurture victims instead of punishing them. We must support them back into what we would all agree is a normal life, which is one without domestic violence or intimate partner violence. That is paramount to how we move forward.

I witnessed at first hand a situation where a mother who was the victim of domestic violence had her four children taken into care because her time in a refuge was up and, faced with becoming homeless, she was going to return to the partner who had been bailed on the charges of domestic violence against her. The response from the Garda was that the violent partner would not come into the station. When the gardaí were asked why they would not arrest him, their answer was that they were waiting for the armed response unit. That is a damning indictment of where the Garda is at when it comes to dealing with domestic violence. Again, I am not having a jibe at the Minister. I am telling her the reality of the situation. If gardaí are not prepared, as members of a front-line service, to arrest someone who is a perpetrator of domestic violence and who could be brought in for having done much worse, we have a problem within the Garda and within our prison system.

I ask that we consider providing more prison spaces. In this regard, I am fairly sure that the response to the parliamentary question I have submitted requesting the number of perpetrators on bail will result in a great discussion in itself. We are letting the victim down on all fronts. Members of the Garda are not prepared to arrest someone who has perpetrated very grievous domestic violence and the victim is being told she has nowhere to go, resulting in her having to return to the perpetrator, who should be in jail. That is the vicious circle of domestic violence today.

Ultimately, the four children who have been put in care because of the situation described are being let down by society as a whole. This is not just about gender-based violence; there are so many branches to the problem and to where we have to go not only to change society but also to make it better for everybody to live in. We have a lot to do in this regard. I commend the Minister on her efforts thus far.

3:55 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Next up is Deputy Murnane O'Connor, who is sharing her time with Deputy Troy.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister. I welcome and acknowledge her commitment, hard work and dedication to addressing this; however, as she knows, gender-based violence occurs in many forms and most assaults go unreported. We need society and the political system to address this and take an honest look at how the system responds and meets the needs of victims of violence. One key action of the third national strategy, of which I know the Minister is aware, is the doubling of the number of refuge spaces to 280.

I have had many a meeting with the Minister on a women's refuge for Carlow. I am very lucky in that I am on the committee with representatives of agencies, including Tusla, and the Garda and Carlow Women's Aid. There are so many on the group. It meets every few weeks and has come a long way. When the Minister announced this year the establishment of Cuan, the steering group that will lead in this regard, it was really important. The reason I am so passionate about this matter is that we need to move more quickly on it. The good news is that, because of Cuan, Carlow County Council and all the various agencies working together, a building has been identified in Carlow. I am really delighted about this and thank the Minister for it.

At present, there are families that have to go to other counties. Children have to be moved to other counties, which means they are taken out of school and away from their families and friends. According to the last census, County Carlow had a population of 62,000 and one of the fastest-growing populations, so we need a women's refuge in Carlow quite quickly.

The other issue I want to raise is wraparound services. All the various agencies are working on these and supports for families and children. It is a question of ensuring services are in place. We need to consider having more safe houses. This is another issue that needs to be addressed. Overall, however, much good work has been done.

Considering that we are talking about Cuan, Carlow County Council, the various agencies, funding, the timescale and the identification of a building, could the Minister give me a rough indication as to when the facility will be open? I table parliamentary questions on this every few months. At meetings I say we have come so far but that there is urgency. I realise the Minister has made a commitment to me but the need for the facility is urgent.

Affected women come to my clinics every day. Women do not speak out enough. In fairness, men are also affected. Some men have come to my clinics, albeit not in the same number as women. As men also go to various places for counselling, I also have encountered some men who have been victims of violence.

We need to have the women's refuge for Carlow. It will be able to house eight families, which is what was recommended by the various agencies. It is good that it will be able to achieve this. Progress is being made as quickly as possible. A few months ago on KCLR – the months are flying – the Minister spoke about the women's refuge and committed that it would be up and running in early 2025. It is now the middle of 2024. In the past three months, things have really started to come together. If we could have the facility ready for families to move into early in 2025, it would be great for those families, the people of Carlow, the victims and affected children. Carlow is one of nine counties that do not have a refuge. I heard a Deputy say their county might be getting a different one built, which is quite good.

My two points concern the women's refuge and safe houses. Wraparound supports must be provided for affected families and children, working together with all the agencies. To all the various agencies and groups I have worked for over the past nearly three years, I say we are getting there. I compliment them on their hard work and dedication. We are very lucky in Carlow to have had the teams we have had to bring things to this point.

I compliment the Minister. She gave me her word and has always said to me that the facility will be delivered. No pressure; I know she will deliver it. If we could make the announcement as soon as possible, I would appreciate it. I thank the Minister.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this very important debate. We are having it largely because of the courage of two women, namely, Natasha O'Brien, who was brutally assaulted by someone who wore an Army uniform and who had a sentence handed down that was inexcusable, and Bláthnaid Raleigh, a woman who had to wait five years to obtain justice while her rapist was free to live a normal life.

I reached out to the Minister earlier to tell her I met Bláthnaid Raleigh yesterday. She knows I am speaking about her today and she welcomes the fact that I am using my position to articulate, on her behalf, what happened to her and how the system could be improved. If anything positive can come out of what has happened, it will involve our having listened to the victims, having taken on board what they are saying and having implemented recommendations. It is very easy to react to something that happened last week and have a debate this week in the Dáil but the proof of the pudding will be in the implementation thereafter. Ms Raleigh said the Garda detective and the DPP solicitor who dealt with her were excellent but that on three different occasions, her trial date was changed because something else had come up or because there were not enough judges. That is not good enough. She was told it was the DPP's trial and that she was a witness. She did not feel she was a witness; to her, it was very much her trial. She was the person going through the sleepless nights and turmoil. Two and half years ago, the perpetrator was charged, and it took two and half years for that person to be sentenced. Even though the person was convicted on 17 April, the process took a further eight weeks People might say eight weeks is not a long time, but in the context of all that has happened, there is no justification for this.

Ms Raleigh said the court process was extremely traumatising – ten times worse than she ever thought it would be. Her rapist's defence had access to her GP and counselling records. This runs the risk of people feeling they cannot be honest at counselling or of their not benefiting from it. The defence can object to the composition of the jury if it is weighted too much in favour of women. I was not aware of that.

She said that she raised queries many times only to be told that that was just the system. When she heard things like that, she felt no one cared. She said that the victim paid the price time and again.

The Minister is a good person who wants to make a difference in her role. I ask her and her officials to meet Bláthnaid – she is willing to do so – to hear what changes can be implemented so as to ensure that courageous women like her, who come forward do not end up feeling ten times worse than they believed they would.

I have outlined two cases. When we discuss domestic abuse, it forces the House and wider society to scrutinise the issue. Unfortunately, violence in many forms is being perpetrated against women on a large scale.

I wish to refer to the Esker House domestic abuse refuge centre in Athlone, which the Minister visited. The people there welcomed her visit and felt that she listened and was supportive of them. Esker House is in negotiations for new premises. I hope that, when the negotiations are concluded and Esker House submits its application, that application will be fast-tracked and approved. The people at Esker House said that, even if the refuge increased its capacity, it would not be enough. They are worried about having the necessary resources. In 2023, they assisted 68 women and children with refuge and emergency bed and breakfast accommodation, 1,014 helpline calls were answered and 268 requests for refuge were received. Even with the additional capacity, Esker House will not have enough.

We must get away from the arms of the State acting in silos. When Esker House rings Westmeath County Council about a person who needs housing, that person is not a priority on the housing list and is left languishing in a refuge centre. We need a cross-governmental response to what is, unfortunately, a major issue in our society. As the father of a young daughter, I dread to think what challenges are out there. We in the honoured position we hold in this House should ensure that everything is done to minimise the risks in society.

4:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Next is Deputy O'Donoghue, who is sharing time with his Rural Independent Group colleagues.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I acknowledge the work the Minister has been doing and the commitments she has given on domestic violence and refuges for women who have suffered domestic violence. At Christmas, I visited ADAPT House in Limerick. My office staff and I go around during the Christmas season trying to help people in various areas – not only women who have suffered domestic violence, but also their children – so that they can have some normality at Christmas. We try to do that every year. I am thankful to my office staff for how they co-ordinate that with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other agencies that help people.

At ADAPT House, I saw that an area it had been using for interviews had been turned into a room for families because it was caught for space. The staff had moved equipment from a storage area and put families in there because the house was under such pressure to help them. The staff went above and beyond in that regard and I have the utmost respect for what they do. They are amazing.

Domestic violence is usually perpetrated against women, but it also affects children, as they are being moved out of their family homes and understand why that is happening. It turns their worlds upside down. The children in ADAPT House still have to be dropped off at and collected from school. Everything has to be monitored to ensure their protection as well as their mothers’.

There are very few ADAPT centres outside city areas. Rural areas should have them as well so that people do not have to leave their own areas for cities. There should be ADAPT centres within the wider counties. Will the Minister consider putting ADAPT centres in place in areas between cities where there is a trend – I hate to say it this way – of abuse so that we can keep people within their own areas?

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for arranging these statements. I acknowledge the ADAPT Kerry Women’s Refuge and Support Services, which offer crisis accommodation for women and their children who experience domestic violence and offer outreach supports to women seeking help. I also acknowledge the Kerry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre and its excellent workers, who have unfortunately had to deal with this problem for years.

I am acutely aware that the problem seems to have worsened since the Covid-19 pandemic, with the level of domestic violence having increased significantly since 2020. There have been a number of widely publicised violent attacks on women, but there have also been attacks on women and children that have not made it into the media. Sadly, they are silent victims of awful attacks. For everyone, the home is a place of safety, and women expect themselves and their children to be safe there. We touched on this matter during the debate on the Labour Party’s motion.

The Minister and her Department are leading a number of whole-of-government strategies to tackle domestic violence and I know that she is working diligently in that regard, for which I thank her. It is terribly important work. If the work that she, her Department and the Government are doing, supported by Deputies on the Opposition benches like ourselves, results in people being helped and protected, then it will have been a good day’s work.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute and I thank the Government for making time available. Clearly, the numbers are going up and something needs to be done to ensure that a woman and her children can remain in their home without the threat of being harmed. A person’s home is her or his castle. Too much of this is going on, but it is not being reported. Women are slow to leave the home because they feel it might be a reflection on them when it truly is not.

We have a serious problem in Kerry. Killarney needs dedicated accommodation to help the people who approach elected representatives seeking help. Killarney does not even have a homeless shelter. As such, people have to travel to Tralee and take their children with them. That is not good enough. The children are missing out on school.

I thank the people at the Kerry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, including Ms Vera O’Leary, and the staff at the ADAPT Kerry Women’s Refuge and Support Services and other agencies who have been doing tremendous work for many years since even before this issue was really discussed. We need to unite and ensure that these women are looked after properly. When they leave the centres and refuges, there should be dedicated accommodation for them, for example, houses in various towns and villages, to ensure that their children do not have to travel away from their schools and can be with their friends. That is important. I ask the Minister to please continue her work and ensure that people do not have to travel away from their home environments, which is something that only adds to the pain and harm already inflicted on them.

4:15 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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In the three minutes and 15 seconds speaking time I have, I will focus on my experiences and on what I have read. I will start with the seminal work by Erin Pizzey from 1974, Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear. The title captures what women were enduring. Fifty years later women are still enduring the same thing, notwithstanding the progress made in the third national strategy and the setting up of an agency. Forgive me, in the short speaking time I have, if I do not dwell on those developments but on the ongoing horror which women, some men, boys and girls are suffering.

A report was produced in 1997 that I have often mentioned, including to the Taoiseach, namely, the Report of the Task Force on Violence Against Women by Eithne FitzGerald, the Labour Party Minister of State at the time. The terms of reference were very good and one of them was to examine rehabilitation programmes for perpetrators of such violence. Of course that never happened. In the foreword, she pointed out that it was over 20 years since the first refuge was set up and the task force was to ensure women experiencing violence can have real options and added that:

Working with women and children only addresses one side of the problem. Programmes for violent men that confront violent behaviour must be ... expanded [and so on].

Nothing was ever done about that. The report goes on to tell us that the main focus of the report is on domestic violence. The term "domestic violence" is one I have great difficulty with, as the House knows. I prefer "violence" because the word "domestic" diminishes the term. The main focus of the report is on domestic violence, as most attacks on women are in this category. The foreword continues "This violence is a recurring problem, not once-off [occurrence], and it leaves its scars on [everyone, particularly] children growing up". It further tells us that domestic "violence occurs in all social classes and is equally prevalent in both rural and urban Ireland".

What also jumped out at me is Catherine McGuinness's report in the mid-1980s when she made a report on the Kilkenny incest case. A little line in that report referred to where the violence was absolutely horrific and was not unusual for the area.

Since that task force in 1997, that is, from 1996 onwards, a total of 226 women have died violently and 63% were killed in their own homes. We still have no refuges in many urban centres. One can imagine my frustration as I stand here since I was elected in 2016, and in addition to housing, health and public transport, this is a subject I have repeatedly mentioned.

I have the Manuela Programme to hand from 2007 and I can pick any woman. Manuela Riedo was a young girl from Switzerland who was murdered in Galway. Out of that, a foundation was set up which was good and there were suggestions. This Manuela Programme was very good. It was submitted but it was never taken on by the Department of Education. None of the recommendations of the task force were ever taken on and we were left struggling as TDs.

I ask that the SAVI report be reviewed, that the third strategy be brought in and that the strategies be implemented because the greatest criticism of the first two strategies is that they were never implemented. We know that. The Minister is left with this now. I ask the Minister to forgive my frustration with statements with three minutes and 15 seconds speaking time because I really want to work with her, as this is unacceptable. It is horrible for women, it is horrible for children and it is also very bad for society. We need to deal with the prevalence of violence which is just appalling in the 21st century.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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Last Tuesday week, I attended an event in Manorhamilton, County Leitrim, which had been organised in the previous 48 hours simply to respond to the sentence handed down to the man convicted of brutally assaulting Natasha O'Brien. About 200 men, women and children turned up at very short notice. They recognised that gender-based violence has become an epidemic and has seeped into the lives of so many women, children and some men. The men are fewer than women but they are still there. They recognise, as we do, that it is no longer something that is out there. It is in here. It is next door. It is in our families. It is in this House.

The people at that event were saying "No more" to gender-based violence but they were saying more than that. They were saying they need to see real meaningful change in how our judicial system operates. While it is important to say that there are many in our judicial system who are highly supportive of victims, we still have some significant gaps when it comes to appropriate training for judges and for others regarding the impact of trauma on victims of gender-based violence and how for some victims and survivors, experience of the judicial system, or at least some part of it, has been a form of re-victimisation and retraumatisation.

These people believe, as I do, that we need an urgent review of sentencing guidelines by the Judicial Council. Like many of the thousands who turned up at different events throughout the country, their message to politicians is straightforward. It is to make the judicial system a safe, secure place for victims of gender violence, increase funding to domestic violence advocacy services, improve supports for victims of domestic violence and sexual and gender-based violence. On a more systemic and societal level, they are asking that we examine the influences that are leading to the increase in gender-based violence and to implement the necessary political and cultural changes required to reduce and tackle the scourge that is damaging and destroying so many families and lives. For me personally, the cultural aspect is centre stage.

While I recognise that some good work has been done, I say once again that in the part of the country that I represent, namely, Sligo, Leitrim, and north Roscommon, there is no women's refuge. I acknowledge that the Minister is working on a domestic violence refuge in Sligo but progress is slow and I ask that it be speeded up. We also need to see plans for a refuge in Leitrim. It is equally as important. The Istanbul Convention itself speaks about the fact that we need at least one family refuge place per 10,000 members of the population. That means that we need about 512 refuge places nationally and the Minister's plan, I believe, is for 280 places by 2026. We need to increase those and to ensure that counties like Leitrim are included.

Finally, a refuge is crucial but it is but a tiny piece of the jigsaw puzzle. We need all of the services for the 95% of victims and their families who will never go to a refuge centre and organisations like the Domestic Violence Advocacy Service, DVAS, in Sligo-Leitrim are just excellent at providing those services. I hope to see extra resources in budget 2025.

Photo of Violet-Anne WynneViolet-Anne Wynne (Clare, Independent)
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I want to focus my speaking time on the high levels of demand on refuge centres such as Clare Haven Services in County Clare. In June alone, it received 54 requests for refuge for women and for every single woman and family in refuge, there is another at risk in the community pleading to gain access. Currently, the service can only accommodate six families at any one time and the point and the purpose of their services is to provide, as the service itself has pointed out, short-term crisis refuge.

As I heard that the recommendations specified capacity for eight families, there is a shortfall already there. That is having a knock-on effect. Clare Haven Services received €60,000 in funding and I have been trying to ascertain, through the parliamentary question system, where that funding will go as I am aware that there are childcare funding requirements. Maybe that funding is not from them but is from Tusla. In the past number of months, I have asked those questions and I may get a response but it does not actually have the information in the response. The only commitments I have so far is that there are no safe homes in Clare, which is a dismal prospect. It did not address whether there were plans to remedy that, which is what I am trying to find out, or whether there will be any further funding of this amazing organisation, Clare Haven Services, and the work it does. It is a great disappointment in a year where we know that there have been more than 40,000 calls placed with Women's Aid and nearly 60,000 logged in the Garda PULSE system.

I raised a particular case with the Taoiseach during Questions on Promised Legislation last week. The person had been assisted in obtaining a safety order but in total, she had only been given 22 days in the refuge centre because of demands and capacity issues. She got that extended to over the weekend, which was great, but that was a great hassle for the refuge centre because it does not know how many people will want to come in to the refuge over the weekend period.

She had to find accommodation herself in the end through as much as help as she could possibly get. The issue was that the local authority was not able to help.

The joint policing committees mentioned there was a need for local authority staff to have coercive control training. I am hoping that might be included in the plans going forward.

4:25 pm

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I will try in the time I have to respond. There has been a huge number of contributions this afternoon following on from Private Members' business this morning. As we discuss this issue, I am very conscious that, for all of us, to the very fore are victims and survivors and how we can do more to put in place the resources, supports and structures to change attitudes and behaviours, are to the fore. We have acknowledged, and rightly so, a number of young women in recent days who have come forward and shown huge bravery. There are many women as well with whom I, and others, have engaged. I am also conscious that in a Chamber that comprises 166 TDs, many of whom are women, and staff, there are victims and survivors in this Chamber. There are victims and survivors in all of our circles of friends, in our families and in any large group of people with whom we may engage in our work or in our daily lives. We do this for ourselves, our families, our friends, for those who do not have a voice and for those who are courageously speaking out as well. We are all committed, as we have seen in the debate, to doing more and to doing better.

If we are serious about keeping this on the agenda, which I know we are, when we all leave this Chamber, I ask that we keep this issue on our agenda. I will leave and continue to develop and progress new legislation but I do that in conjunction with the support of colleagues here. Much of the laws I outlined in my earlier contribution were proposals from other Deputies across other parties, An Garda Síochána and services for victims and survivors. We have to continue to do this by working together. I will continue to seek the additional funding required in this year's budget. I will seek the support of the Houses to make sure that can be approved.

When it comes to policies and the zero-tolerance plan, which is our third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, it is not a static document but rather a living, breathing document. If there are policies or actions in it that do not work, they can be changed or amended. If there are new ideas and policies, it is about including them and bringing them forward. I look forward to continuing to work with colleagues in the same way we have done for many years to try to deal with what is an epidemic in our society.

Earlier, I mentioned work that has been done. I am not suggesting for a second everything is done and there is nothing to do. There is so much more we need to do but it will take time for many of those actions to be felt and seen properly. Only in recent years, we introduced laws around coercive control. While we have rightly recognised the significant crime and impact it has on individuals, it took time for that to come through our courts, for victims to feel confident in coming forward and for An Garda Síochána, the DPP and others to recognise this. Once there was a conviction, we started to see more victims coming forward. I really hope we will start to see the taking effect of some of the laws we have passed in the past six months, such as the law around non-fatal strangulation. Of course, it is a crime to strangle another person. However, in instances where there is violence within a home, which, unfortunately, affects women mostly, and when there is strangulation, it is so often the case that the woman does not think it is serious enough or a crime in itself and therefore, does not come forward. We know - and the facts show - that a woman is nine times more likely to be killed at the hands of her partner when there is non-fatal strangulation in a relationship. By passing these new laws and by making it a stand-alone offence, I hope that, in time, sooner rather than later, we will start to see an impact in the same way as we did in the UK when these types of laws were changed. The same applies to policy and to the new funding that has been allocated to the different services. It will take time for those services to expand to be able to reach the capacity they need and want to reach. We obviously know we need to do more.

Colleagues have spoken about a top-down, bottom-up approach. That is absolutely what needs to happen. Every part of our community needs to play its part, including through education our schools to ensure that, at the earliest stage possible, our young people are being educated in an age-appropriate way and we talk about consent and healthy sexual relationships. It is about ensuring we talk with young people in order that the habits they learn, the relationships they have and the way in which they engage with each other from earlier ages can follow through later in life. I also acknowledge this is not just an issue for younger people but one that affects older people, too. That is an area in which educational awareness and the campaigns we have rolled out, and need to continue rolling out, are so important, such as the We Consent, Still Here and Know Your Rights campaigns. We need to ensure we build on those campaigns and ensure awareness raising is constant in everyday living. It is about supporting those who work on the ground. Deputies in Sinn Féin mentioned different individuals and groups who are fantastic and do fantastic work in our communities. We need to continue to support them in those innovative ways.

Many of the projects in the community safety innovation fund, which is a fund established by this Government to take money away from criminals and give it directly back into our communities, are focused on supporting victims of domestic and sexual violence. This issue is about community safety as the one place where individuals should be safe is in their homes. There are a lot of different ways we can support individuals and organisations working on the ground, not just through Cuan but through the innovation fund as well. It is about protecting and supporting our front-line services. I committed and will absolutely commit to doing more.

While funding of approximately €40 million has been put into the services and supports in the past three and a half years alone, we need to do more. We need to work with those services to ensure they can expand and support the staff and team they need to provide these vital services. It is about working with all professionals who come into contact with victims, from our gardaí, our legal profession and Judiciary to those in our healthcare professions such as our counsellors, psychologists and those working with children to make sure that, at every step of the way, training is available and that, where necessary and required, individuals undertake this training.

This concerns all of us as lawmakers and every part of government, not just the Department of Justice. While the Department plays a key role in making sure perpetrators are held accountable, the Department of housing, which has been mentioned, plays its role, which it is doing, in a significant way through the development of refuge and accommodation and in making sure our local authorities have plans, clear routes and pathways for families, women and victims to access housing when a refuge is not available or when they have spent time in refuge and need to move on. It is about the Department of Social Protection doing more. It has made progress in providing funding and supports to those who are victims. It concerns the Department of Health in making sure health professionals are available in all parts of the country to support those who need it. There is a really frightening statistic from a report from the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, which I launched last week, which states that there are more and more presentations of victims of sexual violence who have suicide ideation. We need to make sure those health supports are there for them as well. It concerns the Department of Transport because people have talked about the need to be able to get home safe. We need to make sure the measures and supports are there. It concerns the Department for enterprise in making sure practices are in place in both in the public and private sectors to call out these types of behaviours.

We also need to make sure that, in the work we do, we particularly focus on and support those who are vulnerable. All victims of domestic and sexual violence are vulnerable but there are those who are even more vulnerable, such as those who are from a minority background, migrant communities or those who are trafficked into this country. We know there is an issue of women being trafficked for social exploitation. We need to do more and we will do more. We need to protect those in the LGBTQ+ community as we know that vulnerable people, in particular, are being preyed on. We also need to protect those who have disabilities.

This is where the zero-tolerance strategy is so important. There are actions in the strategy to address many of the issues I have mentioned. It is important there is oversight. It was my number one priority to ensure this was not going to be a plan to sit on the shelf that would not be enacted or a plan with no clear timelines that did not allocate actions to agencies, individuals, Departments or parts of our community. Progress reports are being provided and I will have another progress report for Cabinet in early September. There is an implementation plan, which was published earlier this year, in which people can see very clearly how those actions are progressing and where we need to do more in areas where they are not progressing, as well as what the timelines are. I will commit to make sure those actions will continue and, as we move forward to the next national strategy, if there is further progress needed to be done on current actions, I will ensure that can happen.

The strategy itself focus on four key areas, namely, prevention, protection, prosecution and policy co-ordination. I have mentioned a lot on the prevention pillar such as education, awareness raising and protection. It is about ensuring services and supports are there. I will continue to increase funding and supports for those in our services and also for the roll-out of refuge and accommodation. I appreciate the frustration in that people are not seeing this rolled out quickly enough. We have had a situation whereby a refuge was not developed unless an organisation or group of people in a county were willing to develop one. We need to put in place a structure that makes sure that if there is no support, resource or service in an area, we can come in and work to make sure one can be developed.

That is happening now. A structure has been put in place for areas that do not have a refuge or need additional refuge and accommodation. There are very clear signs of progress and where accommodation has been identified, it has been secured and bought. Planning processes are in train and funding has been allocated so we are starting to see that progress. I appreciate that people want it to happen quicker. Anything we can do, working with Cuan, to make that as fast a process as possible, will be done.

Improving our criminal justice system is absolutely vital and this is what has brought this into sharp focus again this week. There is a need to improve our criminal justice system, to make it more victim-centred and to make sure that those working in it are trained and understand the needs of victims. We also need to look beyond domestic and sexual violence to our family courts. This is why I am so determined that we will implement our family courts Bill and that we will have separate family courts. As well as that, there will be a particular emphasis on protecting those who are vulnerable, the victims of domestic and sexual violence. There should be a crossover between the two courts and the voice of the child should be heard.

The report we published in the past few weeks will now be implemented and will make sure that when anybody issues or asks for a voice-of-the-child report or a welfare report, it will be conducted by professionals who have the qualifications. Families will not be burdened with the cost of this and it will be done in the most appropriate way possible and be well governed and managed. For so long, children's voices have not been heard at the centre of this.

In terms of policy co-ordination, Cuan will be important in implementing this strategy and bringing all of us together and keeping it firmly on the agenda, so that no matter what happens, who is in power or what is on the agenda, that this will be front and centre and will remain a priority for Government.

4:35 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. Is é sin críoch leis an Ráiteas maidir le Dul i nGleic le gach cineál Foréigin Bhaile, Ghnéasaigh agus Inscnebhunaithe.

Tá gnó na maidine agus cuid mhaith de ghnó an lae déanta againn anois mar sin glacfaimid sos ar feadh 60 nóiméad.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 4.42 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 5.42 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 4.42 p.m. and resumed at 5.42 p.m.