Dáil debates

Wednesday, 3 July 2024

Gender-Based Violence: Motion [Private Members]


9:55 am

Photo of Aindrias MoynihanAindrias Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The next item is the motion regarding gender-based violence - tairiscint maidir le foréigean ar bhonn inscne. Roimhe sin, ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh Natasha O'Brien, atá linn sa Ghailearaí. Tá fáilte roimpi. I welcome Natasha O'Brien. I call Deputy Bacik. The opening speaking slot is 20 minutes.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I move:

That Dáil Éireann: commends the courage of Natasha O'Brien and the powerful advocacy that she has provided on behalf of victims and survivors of violent crime since Thursday, 20th June, 2024;

resolves to address the epidemic of gender-based violence, and the re-victimisation that is experienced by so many survivors as a result of criminal justice processes in some cases that go through the courts;

notes that:
— recent sentencing decisions have caused significant public disquiet, with serious questions about sentencing outcomes for those convicted of gender-based violence, as well as other violent crimes;

— Women's Aid recorded over 40,000 disclosures of abuse against women and children in 2023, an 18 per cent increase on 2022, and the highest ever number documented;

— the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Gender Equality both made several recommendations on improving supports for victims and survivors of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, many of which have yet to be implemented; and

— despite renewed investment in refuge places for survivors of domestic violence, Ireland is still well below the required provision under the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the "Istanbul Convention", of one family refuge place for every 10,000 of population, thus needing at least 512 places, well above the planned 280 places that will be in place by the end of 2026, once 150 new units are delivered;
recognises that:
— the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has the power to seek a review of sentences on grounds of undue leniency, and that in 2022 there were 37 such appeals by the DPP to the Court of Criminal Appeal, 30 of which were upheld;

— the principles of separation of powers and of the independence of the DPP are central to our system of justice, but that the Oireachtas must reflect on the issues within the criminal justice system highlighted over the last fortnight;

— the Judicial Council Act 2019 established the Sentencing Guidelines and Information Committee, but much work remains to be carried out to ensure the publication of sentencing guidelines;

— significant policy changes have taken place to address domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, including the establishment of An Ghníomhaireacht um Fhoréigean Baile, Gnéasach agus Inscnebhunaithe, or Cuan, a statutory agency under the remit of the Department of Justice dedicated to tackling and reducing domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, to implement the zero tolerance strategy, but much work remains to be done; and

— following the courageous work of the Women of Honour, a Tribunal of Inquiry is now underway into the complaints processes in the Irish Defence Forces relating to bullying, discrimination, harassment and sexual misconduct; and
calls for:
— a review of the practice of suspended sentences, and the criteria used for applying these to those convicted of violent crimes;

— increased urgency in the development of sentencing guidelines by The Judicial Council, clear guidelines on the use of character references, and a comprehensive database of judicial sentences;

— reforms to the courts system to better protect and support victims and survivors of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, including provision of effective training for legal professionals and the judiciary;

— consistency in sentencing and provision of access to rehabilitation programmes for perpetrators of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence;

— the introduction of a Commissioner to act as an independent advocate and voice for victims and survivors;

— a review of Irish Defence Forces regulations, in order to deal more proactively with members either accused of, or convicted of, violent crimes;

— increased funding from Government for the provision of additional refuge places, in line with the Istanbul Convention; and

— the Government to provide increased resources in Budget 2025 for Cuan, and a commitment to multi-annual funding for rape crisis centres and other domestic, sexual and gender-based violence service providers.

I am sharing time with Deputy Sherlock.

I welcome Natasha O'Brien to the Gallery. As the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach said, Natasha is here with us today. I know everyone in this House will want to pay tribute again to her amazing tenacity, resolution, courage and honesty in speaking out, not only about the horrific attack she endured in Limerick two years ago but also her experience in the criminal justice and sentencing processes and her fearless advocacy on behalf of the victims and survivors of violent crime. Natasha has done a great service to the country by shining a spotlight on an area of the criminal justice system crying out for reform. I know the Minister agrees that it really needs reform. This is an area of law, and of practice, more importantly, about which many survivors and victims have come forward over the years to speak out about their experiences. Reforms have been made but a great deal more needs to be done to fix a system that simply does not provide sufficient support to victims and survivors.

I had the great pleasure and honour of sitting with Natasha this morning, hearing from her precisely the sort of change she wants to see in the system. In particular, if Natasha does not mind me quoting her directly, the words she spoke were so clear and direct. She wants to see more common humanity in the system. That is what appears to be lacking for many victims in their experiences of going through the criminal justice system. That is what we need to change. Some changes can be made in the law. In this motion brought forward by the Labour Party, we make eight significant calls on the Minister and Government to change practice and ensure a better system that is more supportive for victims.

A cultural shift is also needed to ensure that common humanity is much more evident in the system and that judges and legal practitioners have more sensitivity towards the victims and survivors of crime before them in their courts. There needs to be a fixing of any disconnect between the experience of the victim, as expressed through the victim impact statement, and the impact that has or appears to have on the sentencing decision or outcome in the case. Some of the asks in our motion address that point specifically. I thank Natasha wholeheartedly for her bravery in coming forward, speaking publicly and guiding us as to the areas we need to see change.

We should all be able to expect freedom from violence. This requires a cultural shift. As we go about our business, commuting, working and spending time with friends, we should be able to take for granted that we can do so without fear, including in our homes. An issue Natasha's case highlighted is the real epidemic of gender-based violence, much of it happening behind closed doors in domestic settings in homes. It is deeply unfortunate and distressing that for many people, it is not the reality that they can go about their lives in safety when both in and outside their homes, they are subject to acts of aggression which can have life-altering or even life-threatening consequences. Many of those subject to violence in their homes are subject to corrosive and persistent violence. Even in recent days, since Natasha's case, we have seen reports of sentence decisions related to what one might describe as persistent ongoing harassment, abuse and horrific assault and sexual violence in homes.

The motion Labour Party TDs table today does not seek to engage in a philosophical conversation about the inevitability of violence. Underlying the specific asks we make is a call for the sort of political and cultural change required to reduce and tackle the epidemic of gender-based violence and aggressive violence more generally. We also seek to focus on how the State behaves after a person has been victimised. What should be easier to tackle and what is not inevitable is how the courts deal with victims. I stress the point about humanity and sensitivity. Far too many victims and survivors speak about an experience of revictimisation and retraumatisation through the courts. Of course, primary blame for the impact of violence, the lives destroyed and lives harmed rests with the perpetrator; that goes without saying. Responsibility for what happens next lies with the State, with us as legislators, the Government and all those charged with working in the criminal justice system. We must do better.

Natasha's experience and the attack she endured were utterly horrific. That she has put her head above the parapet takes enormous courage. We are so appreciative of her courage and the courage of some who have spoken out before. I think of Lavinia Kerwick, Jessica Bowes and, more recently, Bláthnaid Raleigh and others, who spoke out about their experiences with the hope that doing so will help us to achieve better supports and a better system for all.

As a woman and a feminist, on behalf of the Labour Party and, I think, also on behalf of all in this House, I restate my thanks to Natasha and the other brave survivors of violent crime. Of course, thanks are not enough. I welcome the Minister's decision not to oppose our motion and, I hope, to support the calls in the motion. The implementation of those calls will be crucial, as will the speed with which the measures we propose are implemented. We need to ensure we close gaps in the law and address flaws in courtroom practice which cause retraumatisation. I worked for many years in the criminal law system. I saw at first hand how ill-equipped aspects of our system are to deal with the reality of gender-based violence and violent crime more generally. I have done a good deal of work over the years with victims and survivors of crime seeking to improve systems and practices. A great deal more needs to be done.

In this motion, we call for a number of practical measures which could be taken to address some of the gaps in the system. We call for a review of the practice of suspending sentences and of the criteria for applying suspension to sentencing decisions for those convicted of violent crimes. For as long as I can remember, when I was in practice, there was concern about inconsistency in the use of suspension and what criteria judges were using. We established the Judicial Council in 2019 with a view to improving consistency. One of our asks is to have increased urgency in the implementation of the measures the Judicial Council has been working on, such as development of sentencing guidelines which we and judges themselves have been calling for for decades.

We need clear guidelines on the use of character references. I note the comments of Mr. Justice Tony Hunt in recent days about the impact character references should or should not have on sentencing outcomes. We also need a comprehensive database of judicial sentences. As many judges over the years have said, it is very difficult for them to establish baseline sentences for offences if they do not have the data on patterns of sentencing. We need more speed in the work of the Judicial Council in doing that. We also need a review of the Irish Defence Forces regulations to deal more proactively with members accused of or convicted of violent crimes. I welcome the Taoiseach's strong commitment in that regard.

Where a sentence is handed down, we see stories of the particulars of a violent crime leave the news cycle but for many victims, the impact is so much longer. Since tabling our motion last week, I have heard from numerous survivors, as I know we all have. I heard from one survivor in recent days with a particular issue which I will bring to the Minister's attention and may speak with her about separately.

The perpetrator was convicted. The victim was subjected to a very violent attack. The perpetrator has been serving a term in the Central Mental Hospital and, as a result, the victim is not entitled to information about release dates. That is something we have improved for victims of violent crime more generally. Where a perpetrator is to be released from prison, information about release dates is provided. There is a gap in respect of Central Mental Hospital detention. We need to address that. I will speak to the Minister about that issue separately. The publicity and Natasha O'Brien's courage in reporting her case has brought to quite a light quite a number of anomalies and that is just one I wanted to raise.

I acknowledge that some very welcome progress has been made on sexual violence. The Minister has led on much of it. New legislation has been passed, there have been moves to implement the O'Malley report and Cuan has been established. However, a great deal more needs to be done. The second part of our motion specifically relates to issues around gender-based violence. Domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is both a cause and effect of gender inequality. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Gender Equality dealt with a number of recommendations made by the citizens' assembly, some of which are incorporated into our motion today. We were conscious that we have to refer to gender inequality more generally and to patriarchal systems when we speak about gender-based violence. We must look at how the State treats gender-based violence.

We saw shocking statistics from Women's Aid, which are again incorporated into our motion. More than 40,000 disclosures of abuse against women and children were made last year. That is a shamefully high figure representing an increase of 18% on the 2022 figure. Women's Aid also reports that, since 1996, 266 women have died violently in this jurisdiction with 63% of those killings taking place in the victim's home. In more than half of cases where the perpetrator has been convicted, the victim was killed by a partner or ex-partner. We are very conscious of the enormity of the epidemic of not just gender-based violence, but domestic violence, violence by partners and ex-partners and violence in intimate relationships.

Despite this, we are still failing to provide refuge for those victims and survivors who come forward. More than half of domestic violence refuges around the country are full and, as the Minister will know, nine counties remain without any refuge space for women and children. Article 23 of the Istanbul Convention sets out a clear requirement to provide an adequate ratio of shelter places to population. We are falling short of achieving this international standard. Over the years, the Joint Committee on Justice and the Joint Committee on Gender Equality have looked into this issue extensively and there have been many debates in this House but there is still concern that the focus of Government and of the State is not, as it should be, on removing the perpetrator from the home. It is shocking that, in 2024, we still have to provide shelter for women and children who are forced to flee. That is wrong. We should be seeking legal ways to ensure the perpetrator is removed in the first place. However, the reality is that many women and children still have to flee from the family home and they need to have refuge space available.

Natasha said that her experience of the courts system was deeply traumatic. She has spoken about advising others that it may be really difficult to report crime. That is shocking and distressing because it is very important that crimes are reported. A great deal of domestic violence occurs behind closed doors, as does a great deal of the court procedures dealing with such violence. It is therefore vitally important that we hear from survivors about their experiences if we are to make the necessary changes. Our motion seeks to address this issue. It seeks the introduction of a commissioner to act as an independent advocate and voice for victims and survivors. That is something the citizens' assembly called for and that we on the Oireachtas committee also called for in our report of December 2022.

I would welcome a response from the Minister as to how she proposes to implement these measures. As I have said, some have been already recommended for some years now. We also want to hear about multi-annual funding for Cuan. We heard about the need for this from many of the organisations that provide shelters and support for women and children who are victims of violence. We wanted to see increased resources for Cuan in this year's budget but the commitment to multi-annual funding for rape crisis centres and DSGBV service providers is crucial because it would ensure a continuity of service provision for survivors of violent crime, which is really essential.

We have made significant changes. I will finish by referring to some of those positive changes that have been made. The offence of coercive control has been introduced, which is something for which many of us fought really hard in this House and in the Seanad. There is a new definition of "consent" in rape law. These measures have been really important in ensuring better procedures in the criminal courts and better protections for victims but we again need to look at how those measures are being implemented through Garda training and judicial and court training.

We want to look at cultural change. The cultural change that needs to take place to ensure that women are liberated from the fear of gender-based violence is the hardest issue to tackle. The Oireachtas committee and the citizens' assembly looked at a whole range of measures that could tackle cultural change. Crucial to this is education and ensuring that boys and young men are instilled with a sense of equality and do not regard women as objects in sexual terms. There is great concern about the preponderance of porn and the objectification of women through social media. Our report made recommendations as to how to tackle that issue.

We are very conscious that there has been a good deal of focus on culture within the Defence Forces. That was inevitable as a result of Natasha's case. It is crucially important that security organisations such as the Garda and the Defences Forces whose primary purpose is to protect society have robust structures in place to address any sense of a culture in which sexism, sexual harassment or abuse is tolerated. We owe a great debt to the Women of Honour, who brought forward this issue. I know that an inquiry into the culture in the Defence Forces is under way but it falls to us all, women and men, to take a stand against sexism and to tackle any sense that gender-based violence, sexual abuse or sexual inequality can be tolerated within our culture. That is the underlying issue in our motion.

10:05 am

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I will start by acknowledging the work of the Minister and the funding she has committed in respect of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, particularly the €6.3 million that was allocated in March, which will have a very significant impact for organisations such as YANA, an organisation I have worked with that covers north and east Cork. The effect of that funding will be to build up capacity in organisations such as YANA. In our roles as TDs and public representatives, we are seeing a lack of capacity and a deficit in organisations' ability to meet the needs of people who present to them. That funding is absolutely vital in building up that capacity and I acknowledge the Minister's role in assisting organisations of that nature. It is vitally important.

I will briefly speak to the issue of access to court services. I work with organisations like YANA, You Are Not Alone, and they tell me that impediments exist for people. Let us call a spade a spade; it is women in the main. Women seeking access to the courts for emergency protection orders find they are impeded in accessing services. That is based on geography. For instance, if you live in Youghal in east Cork, you have to present to the courthouse in Washington Street in Cork city. That is quite a distance to travel for any person when public transport links are not what they should be. Similarly, from next week onwards, people living in or near Kanturk who want to access a protection order or an emergency domestic order, people who would traditionally have accessed court services in Mallow, will have to travel to Fermoy. That is a distance of 50 km. Will the Minister use her influence to ensure that no impediments or barriers are put in the way of people seeking to access court orders?

That would be a good day’s work. We want to ensure that people can access courts nearest to where they live. We do want a delaying effect to take place by dint of the fact that the Courts Service, say, for instance, where they are carrying out a refurbishment, they do not seek the push the person farther away from the service. It is vitally important they have the service.

Finally, I wish to deal with the capital assistance programme, which is a very good programme. As I said, I am doing some work with YANA where we have the potential to partner with a construction company. That construction company wishes to provide, on a not-for-profit basis, adequate resources in relation to the provision of a refuge in the north Cork area. I ask that that flexibility be built into the CAS programme whereby if somebody presents with a project and does not necessarily adhere to the criteria, some flexibility is built into the system so that there is an open-minded engagement with a set of partners that come before the CAS services such that they are not kicked out of the system if they do not fulfil 100% of the criteria. I am involved with one project where we are at the early stages of engagement and we just want some flexibility built into the system. Ultimately, it is about ensuring that where people need access to refuges and where people come in who are willing to build and provide, that flexibility is built into the system in order that the service is available for people as near as possible to where they live.

10:15 am

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the initiative by the Labour Party in tabling this Private Members’ motion on gender-based violence. While these issues have been discussed both in this House and outside of it over the past number of weeks, it is important that we are having a focused discussion. Indeed, we will be having a further discussion this afternoon as well more broadly.

The motion rightly commends the courage of Natasha O’Brien. I acknowledge her and the courage she has shown over the past few weeks. To reiterate, in our collective rejection of gender-based violence in any form, it is important we all work together and, to be honest, I think we have when it comes to this issue – certainly in the time I have been in this Department.

This Government is not opposing this motion. We are supporting and working with the Deputy. This motion covers a number of different aspects of a response to gender-based violence. I welcome the recognition of the significant policy changes that have taken place to address this zero tolerance strategy, which is our third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. It was developed with the support of colleagues here but also with the sector in general and victims in particular, as well as the new domestic, sexual and gender-based violence agency, which is up and running since the beginning of this year.

As the House knows, improving our response to these awful crimes and how we support victims in particular has been a priority since I became Minister for Justice. Again, I am grateful for the support of the Government and of many Members in this House in implementing changes that seek to improve, above all, the outcomes for victims. We have made improvements. I am conscious that we have much more work to do but we have made improvements since 2020, in particular the publication of Supporting a Victim’s Journey, and we have seen key recommendations from the O’Malley report implemented, such as the roll-out of the divisional protective service units across all of our divisions of An Garda Síochána. The Garda is making good progress in its training, response and engagement with victims. We have registered intermediaries who are now there to assist vulnerable witnesses giving their best evidence in court. We have a dedicated sexual offences unit within the office of the DPP. That was only established in recent years and it will bring added value to that office.

Key to delivering on the ambition of the third national strategy is zero tolerance of any kind of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and the attitudes that underpin so much of what we see. Cuan will and has become operational this year but is really now starting to get into the body of work that it has to do. We have allocated increased and unprecedented funding year on year for combating domestic, sexual and gender-based violence for supporting victims, which includes specialist organisations to provide court accompaniment, among other things. The budget now is at €59 million, which is an increase of more than €30 million in the past three years. I have every intention of making sure, come this year’s budget, we increase that further and that services are able to spend it and expand, and that capacity is grown year on year.

To build on that work, the launch of the zero tolerance strategy and the establishment of Cuan have been key markers along the way to making many of the necessary improvements. However, we know there is more to do. This is not a two-year, three-year or even a five-year project; this is a generational change and a shift in attitudes and behaviours that will take much work and sustained effort. I am absolutely confident that we can create that change if we continue to focus on this and keep prioritising it as an issue.

We have a better sense now of what is happening and what has always been happening. The Women’s Aid report, which was mentioned, the sexual violence survey from last year and many other reports from organisations show us the reality of what is happening and bring into stark picture the women – the victims behind so many of these crimes - and reiterate how much work we need to do to support victims and survivors.

We are aiming for zero tolerance. To get there, we have to change attitudes to change the behaviours that underpin it, and this requires a new approach to education – what constitutes it, the harm it causes and the responsibility each person has in society to eradicate it. That means a fundamental change in mindset, in particular when it comes to our schools. Education is a key part of the zero tolerance strategy. We have new curricula for our junior certificate cycle, the senior cycle is now developed and primary school, while making sure we do it in the most age-appropriate way, is the next stage.

To focus on some of the issue tabled in the motion, I am acutely conscious that coming forward to report sexual or domestic violence or both can be a deeply traumatic experience for victims. I have met many women who have gone through the system and said that going through the system is more traumatic than what happened to them. The worst thing any of us can hear when someone takes the step to come forward is that the next stages are even more traumatic. We need to do what we can to improve the system to prevent that from happening.

We are all very conscious of our role in making sure we do not intervene or do not overstep the mark. At the same time, we have a role in setting our legislation and making sure our criminal justice system is more victim-centred and deals effectively with victims and survivors. To that effect, I have introduced preliminary trial hearings, which seek to reduce the unnecessary delays in our courts. We have doubled the sentence for assault causing harm. This ensures there is a maximum sentence that the Judiciary can use. We have other structures in place, in particular the DPP, where there are appeals or where are appeals are necessary in certain instances.

Regarding making sure people can access the courts, it is about more availability. The 24 judges added to the system last year will help. There is a need for 20 more as part of the overall review and I intend to move on that as soon as possible, making sure they are spread equally across the country so that irrespective of where you are, you have access to the courts and the supports and services.

The motion calls for a review to the practice of suspended sentences and an increased urgency in the development of the sentencing guidelines. They are one in the same. The work of the Judicial Council is ongoing. While we have no direct role in the work it is doing, it is important it comes back with those recommendations as quickly as possible and that they are implemented as quickly as possible. The Judicial Council sentencing guidelines and information committee is progressing that work. The Attorney General has been engaging with the committee in that regard. Two offence areas were prioritised at the outset, namely, relationship-based violence in the District Court, as well as incidents related to serious car accidents. This will be provided to the board of the Judicial Council. The sentencing guidelines and information committee expects to be ready to do this shortly. As I said, we want to see this as quickly as possible. There will be detailed stakeholder consultation with organisations and experts as well to make sure this is right. The Judicial Council has also made available as a resource to judges a database containing every sentencing judgment delivered by the Court of Appeal and the sentencing handbook. In the interim, it about trying to make sure that information is available to our Judiciary.

On calls for reforms to the court system to better protect and support victims and survivors, we are leading an ambitious programme of family justice reform. I say that because the two are very much connected. One of the first conversations I had with a victim of a very serious violent assault involved the fact she was going through the family court system at the same time, where the perpetrator was trying to gain access and custody to their child. It was traumatic and no system was talking to each other. It is important that in the development of the family justice courts there is intersectionality, overlapping and that one side is talking to the other. There is also an understanding going through our family justice system that there are victims of domestic and sexual violence and coercive control, and that abuse can continue into the courts. I hope to be in a position in the autumn to be able to progress the Family Courts Bill, looking at specialist judges, looking at specialist courts and making sure that overlaps with the zero tolerance strategy.

As for character references, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Human Trafficking) Bill 2023 before this House that will be enacted before the summer recess focuses very much on the vouching of character references in sexual offences trials. This will apply to the list in the Schedule of sexual offences and is designed to protect the victims at that stage from further traumatisation during a sentencing hearing but also to ensure that if someone is willing to put his or her name forward to a character reference, he or she is willing to be cross-examined on this and to stand over exactly what he or she is saying when somebody has been found guilty.

Training for all involved in domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, particularly those working in the criminal justice system, is a key action of the preventative pillar in the zero tolerance strategy. Quite a number of actions have been progressed, particularly for An Garda Síochána, but work is ongoing with the legal professions - barristers and solicitors. There are really positive programmes of training for the Judiciary around victim support and bias and looking beyond that to ensure newer judges are consistently upskilling. As part of the Judicial Appointments Commission Act, there is a very clear requirement that any new judges would be required to have continuous professional development and training and that they would show that as they look to seek to improve their own position.

We now have a national perpetrator programme delivered by MOVE and MEND. It includes a suite of programmes for men who have been violent. This builds on the work of Choices, which is the national domestic violence perpetrator programme that has been in place since 2017. The Probation Service is extending this approach to include offenders who have been convicted and are under its supervision. We need to do more work there, in particular working with those who are perpetrators.

Regarding the call in the motion for the introduction of a victims commissioner, we have spoken about this previously. It has been examined previously. More work needs to be done, particularly given the development of Cuan, to see how we can add benefit to the support that is needed for victims. I believe that when a victim engages with the system, he or she should know what to expect, should be confident that he or she will be treated respectfully and sensitively and that their legally enforceable rights are there and know what supports are there at every step in the process. We have been working to make sure that this information can be provided through the victims' charter and awareness-raising campaigns. The Courts Service has developed an interactive suite in order that victims can know before they go into court.

A victims forum was established and is co-chaired by a representative of the sector with my Department. This is bringing together all the groups looking at what more we can do to support and focus on victims. The next meeting of the forum is next week. Work is being done on the Defence Forces regulation. Multi-annual funding is very much a priority. As the funding has increased, Cuan is introducing a standardised multi-annual funding structure. This will be actioned by quarter three of this year. This is about very much making sure that the services that are being provided across the country have sight of what they are doing and how they can provide that service and know that funding will be there for them. This is a key part of the work that is being done. I will come back on some of the other points if I can.

10:25 am

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

This House and this country is deeply indebted to those brave victims of gender-based crime who have waived their right to anonymity to tell their own deeply personal stories. I mean women like Natasha O'Brien, who is here present and who I had the privilege of meeting this morning, and Bláthnaid Raleigh, who, again, bravely told her story on national radio. They have given a voice to countless others who like them are victims of unspeakable violence but whose voice has not been heard. Their testimony cannot be a focus for us for this week or indeed a month or a year. It must be a final impetus to this Legislature to say that we intend to do whatever is necessary to root out gender-based violence once and for all, to offer victims of such violence complete protection and to hold all perpetrators to full account.

The motion before the House has a number of specific and detailed proposals. I will deal with two of them. I will deal with places of refuge. I commend the Minister on both her statements and her actions on this issue. I am very familiar with the new refuge under construction in Wexford town. I visited the site with Deputy Bacik a few weeks ago. It is to open in September. It will be a terrific facility for the people of Wexford and I acknowledge the allocation of €6.5 million by the Minister for this important project. When it opens in September, it will have 12 self-contained apartments. I commend the work of the voluntary chair of that committee, Vicky Barron, and the chair of the building committee George Lawlor, who is the mayor of Wexford and has done so much to ensure that the money is there. There was a comment by a representative in recent times that it was lying idle. It is under construction. The money is there not only to complete it but to outfit it and it will be a fantastic facility. This is a model that should available to every community. That is the point I want to make. It is great to have that in Wexford but we must provide certainty that a safe place exists for women suffering in silence right now - sometimes in dread of staying in place but equally in dread of trying to escape. I hope the roll-out of those centres will be accelerated in order that every woman in difficulty in any part of the country will have such access.

The second issue I want to touch on is the review of sentencing. Obviously, the separation of powers is an essential feature of our democracy but just as the courts must be independent and each judge must make an individual decision on each case before her or him, there must also be a consistency about the courts. We established the Judicial Council to ensure proper training and proper consistency. This council has set up a sentencing committee to review and provide guidelines to the Judiciary. In April, the Supreme Court determined that guidelines on personal injuries issued by the Judicial Council were valid only because they were endorsed by specific legislation passed by the Oireachtas. Equally, when the guidelines on sentencing are completed, they must have that legislative underpinning. We must expeditiously provide that legal underpinning as the work goes on. There is a significant volume of work to be done. Deputy Bacik referenced it in terms of the in-depth empirically grounded understanding of current sentencing practice. That is not available. Nor do I believe that the sentencing committee of the Judicial Council has the capacity to do that. I hope that the Minister would make reference to this in her comments today and talk to the Judicial Council about whether it needs additional staff, the support of her Department or the support of the Courts Service to provide that analysis as expeditiously as possible. It must be assisted in its work.

Those two points are just two of the issues that we can deal with as an Oireachtas to ensure there is consistency in sentencing practice, that people cannot say "well there's a judge who will be more lenient or better than another", that there will be an understanding that the courts act consistently and, finally, that there is a place of refuge for everyone who needs it.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I also welcome Natasha O'Brien to the Dáil and thank her for the remarkable contribution she has made since speaking about her own experience - speaking up and speaking out. It was a great privilege to meet Natasha this morning. I would not have met her if it was not for what happened to her and her bravery in speaking about what happened to her. This goes to the heart of the debate we are having here this morning. Similarly I pay tribute to Bláthnaid Raleigh. Anybody who heard her testimony to Oliver Callan on the radio this morning could not but be moved by what she had to say in describing her experience and her experience of the judicial process. Yesterday, the issue of the shortage of judges was raised. There were many delays. It is five years since that vile crime was perpetrated against her and it took five years for the case to be heard, the perpetrator to be prosecuted and sentence to be handed down, so we do need more judges to hear these cases.

I will share a short personal experience I encountered a few weeks ago. I was walking to a local pub to meet some friends on a Saturday night. That walk would usually take about five minutes but on that night, it took me an hour and a half. It took me an hour and a half because I encountered a woman sitting on a wall outside her home.

The woman had encountered domestic abuse and a violent attack at the hands of someone she lives with. A young man had stopped when he saw what was happening and he saw her literally being kicked out of the home. He stopped to help. I stopped to help. We brought her across the road and took her to some degree of safety until the emergency services arrived. I called an ambulance and An Garda Síochána - it was a busy Saturday night in Drogheda - and she was taken to safety. A few days later I saw bags outside of that home. I do hope the woman is okay now and that she has been embraced by the services that we have. I hope she is well and doing okay and I hope that the perpetrator is held to full account as should be the case in any decent society. I share this story because of the very ordinariness of that evening and someone just encountering a situation like that on the way to having a drink with friends at a pub. This happens far too often. It is a feature of our society, it is completely unacceptable and it is wrong. I think about this incident a lot. I have thought about it a lot over the past few weeks since I encountered that situation. It just has to stop. Women are attacked and assaulted in all kinds of ordinary circumstances, if I can use that term. It has been said by many people that we are a much more equal society now and women have more equality. We do not have full equality in this society because people do not have the freedom. Women do not have the same freedom I have to walk down the street feeling safe. Why should a woman, in broad daylight, have to pretend to be on her phone to give her some degree of safety because of the fear that far too many women have while walking down streets in this country?

In 2022, the Central Statistics Office said that more than twice as many women than men cited safety concerns as a reason for not walking more frequently. What kind of a place have we become? The World Health Organization said in 2021 that globally there is an epidemic of gender violence and that it is "devastatingly pervasive". There were 60,000 emergency calls to An Garda Síochána last year to report domestic abuse. As described in our motion, Women's Aid states that more than 40,000 disclosures were made in 2023 of abuse against women and children. This is the highest number ever recorded. We know that this is just the tip of the iceberg and that while these are the cases recorded by Women's Aid and other agencies it is not even half the story.

I will conclude in the limited time I have available. There is an absolute responsibility on all of us as men to call this out and to show example. Sexism and misogyny is unacceptable in any format or any form in this country and in any circumstance. I welcome the zero-tolerance initiative but it requires funding. The Cuan approach is absolutely what is required. To make that a reality, it does need to be funded. Sexism and misogyny needs to be called out in all its forms all the time. We as men have a responsibility to do that, to show example, and to lead by example.

10:35 am

Photo of Pa DalyPa Daly (Kerry, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

There is no getting away from the enormity of the challenge that faces us in dealing with domestic, gender-based and sexual violence. I recall working in the courts and dealing with quite a few cases where there were breaches of barring orders, protection orders and the like. It was the exceptional case, probably only 5% of cases, that actually went forward to conviction and the giving of evidence. It was only in cases where there was a lot of supports and extra supports given to the person who had made the complaint and who was surviving - if one could call it that - ongoing domestic violence and who was able to come to court and give evidence. There is an enormous challenge there.

As other speakers have done, I pay tribute to all victims and survivors of domestic, gender-based and sexual violence who have come forward in recent times. Their courage and determination in talking about their experience is very admirable, especially those who have done so recently. Women from migrant and Traveller backgrounds experience violence at even greater rates. They experience a double disadvantage. A recent report from the Immigrant Council of Ireland highlighted the vulnerability of migrant women whose migrant status depends upon a husband or partner and who are then faced with the possibility of becoming undocumented, homeless and without means of support. They need even more support.

We in this House should all remember the horrific experience of Urantsetseg Tserendorj. Her death only 100 yards from where the Dáil was sitting in the Conference Centre should also be remembered. Ms Tserendorj was a worker coming home late at night and was the victim of a totally unprovoked assault and was murdered.

We need to look beyond individual cases and names. Last year Women's Aid received the highest number of calls in its 50-year history to its helpline. The Rape Crisis Centre also experienced an increase on the Covid years of 2021 and 2022, years that also had a very high number. I pay tribute to the work done over the years by Catherine Casey in the Adapt centre in Tralee, and Vera O'Leary who has recently retired from the Kerry Rape Crisis Centre after working there for approximately 40 years.

One of the most shocking points is the total lack of data related to this issue. There is no real clarity on whether the recent greater demand on front-line services is a result of greater amounts of violence or greater reporting and disclosure. We have no idea how many go on to report violence to An Garda Síochána and then fall out of the system, and why that is. Conviction rates are difficult to ascertain and sentencing is opaque. Large-scale data on that are still totally absent. The Judicial Council is currently undertaking research to allow it to gather data but it is catching up on the UK's sentencing council and the work done in the UK. This is a matter for the Judicial Council. Anyone who has sat on a joint policing committee will know that it is impossible to find proper statistics, even on a local level, relating to this type of criminality and violence.

The relevant committee of the Judicial Council is made up in the majority by judges but it is a matter of public policy. The annual report of the council has given some information about the published guidelines. It again references the need more data requirements and it notes the data deficit and that research is in the early stages of it. Compare that to the sentencing council in the UK, which is a much larger body, is very active and is a great resource for finding general information about sentencing of all types, of all ages and all genders. We need to provide whatever support is required to ensure that the work is completed. There is a huge need for proper understanding. We all know about the difficulties in legal aid and the shortage in finding solicitors to advocate for people who face this difficulty.

It is important to bear in mind that sexual violence affects more than just women. A recent report from the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre makes the crucial point that there is a worrying trend of a toxic agenda that typifies men as being aggressive, strong, dominant and unemotional. As referenced in the debate last night, however, we need to learn more about the abuser. Men are serving sentences and no work is being done with them to discover why it has been brought up to this point. That work and research needs to be done in the prisons.

Photo of Pauline TullyPauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I first pay tribute to Natasha O'Brien and Bláthnaid Raleigh for speaking out about the violent crimes perpetrated against them, and in Natasha's case for the injustice she endured in our court system. I was disbelieving when I heard that court decision first of all. I was so angry afterwards as were so many women throughout this country. Unfortunately, Natasha is not the only one who does not get justice in our court system. We need to see improvements. I acknowledge there have been some improvements on gender-based violence and support services for them but they are not moving fast enough. For example, there are still nine counties in this country without a refuge. Two of those counties are Cavan and Monaghan, which I represent. Our court system needs immediate reform. The sentences being handed down are not acting as a deterrent to this type of behaviour. I am regularly contacted by women who are living in fear of a court decision. Violent former partners are frequently granted unsupervised access to the children.

Mothers have informed me their children are crying. They are begging not to be sent on the visit with the father. They are anxious for days leading up to it. However, if the mother does not send the child, she is the one found to be in contravention of a court order. Mothers have told me a toddler has been left in a dirty nappy for the day, of children not being properly fed and about psychological abuse. The court decisions need to be child-centred. It must be about what is best for the child. A child has a right to see a parent, but a parent does not have a right to see a child if that is not in the best interests of the child. I have been told by women in a certain part of the country that if they need, for example, to go to the family law court for an extension to a barring order and they find out a certain judge is presiding that day, they do not bother because the judge always sides with the man. I am not talking about the judge in Limerick, I am talking about a different part of the country. This is happening throughout the county. There needs to be a more robust and accessible complaints procedure and some sort of oversight of decisions in this case. Rape victims are not reporting the rape in many cases as they feel they will not get justice. The fact is the victim of rape must testify and the person accused of rape has a choice and they still have access to a victim's notes from a counselling session. That is totally unfair. The time it is taking to bring these cases to court is far too long.

10:45 am

Photo of Paul DonnellyPaul Donnelly (Dublin West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I commend the Labour Party on bringing forward the motion and I also commend Natasha O'Brien. I listened to Bláthnaid Raleigh on the radio this morning and nobody could help but be moved by the shock and horror of a situation thousands of women face every weekend. The level of trust they put in their own judgment is now questioned and it is questioned all the time. They think, "Will I be safe? This person seems okay". If they are going into a taxi on their own, they wonder whether they will be safe. There are the conversations we have with our kids. I have said many times that if you are getting into a taxi and have not called, take a picture of the driver and his or her details. That is where we are. That is the society we are living in. We say, "Do not walk home on your own". No woman should face those questions and questioning themselves every single day, in every situation they go into when they go out at night or go out during the day or go for a jog early in the morning time. They ask, "Is this a safe place? Will I be on my own? Can I get out? Is there a straight road and are there no turn-offs where I can go?" That is the reality of the questions women face every single day.

The Women's Aid report states tehre were more than 40,000 disclosures to its freephone helpline and face-to-face services during 28,638 contacts. That is an 18% increase on the previous year and the highest ever recorded by the organisation in its 50 years in existence. There are things that have changed, things are moving on and there is more recognition and more awareness of all this, but it is a really bad situation there for women and we need to look at this in a much deeper way. We can look at the newer things people have to face. There is the surveillance and these little tags that allow people to monitor others. It is very simple. They can be bought for €60 or €70. An awful lot more needs to be done.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the opportunity to contribute. I begin by calling out the actions of the man who assaulted Natasha O'Brien, the man who gave him a reference and the man who decided beating a woman unconscious was not worthy of a custodial sentence. The Tánaiste said yesterday we need to see a change in culture to end domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and he is right. That change of culture has to happen at every level of society. A change in culture has to mean women are not treated as second-class citizens and that women are not viewed as powerless. Since 9 April, 11 promotions have been made by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste and ten of them have gone to men. Last week, the Tánaiste promoted five men and not a single woman. He is talking about cultural change, but we need more women in senior positions in government, we need their voices at the Cabinet table and we need women to be front and centre of government. We need to send out a clear message to the men who view women as second-class citizens that they are not and we need to show that. It is time for change and it has to start with a change in culture led by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste and by all society.

The other issue I wish to touch on is that women who flee domestic and gender-based violence with their children often feel they have no choice but to leave their home county. I have dealt with a number of such cases. In one case in particular, a lady fled with her children from Kerry to Cork, only to be refused access to the housing list because she had no local connection. This needs to change. There should not be a local connection clause stopping women and women with children fleeing domestic abuse from being housed. That would be only one small step in helping them get help when they are fleeing abuse.

Photo of Mairead FarrellMairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Labour Party for bringing forward this motion. It is extremely important and it is really good we are having this discussion. It should be something we continue with and not have only when it is especially in the news.

We often hear in the discourse on violence against women that women deserve to feel safe. I have heard throughout the past number of weeks this concept that women deserve to feel safe, but it is imperative we ensure women are safe in our communities. Women should be safe in public, on the street, in our workplaces and indeed at home. It is not just that we feel safe but that we are safe. That is what we want to see. We have never been able to provide that level of safety to women in this State. If we look back through history, we see State apology after State apology for the way women have been treated, yet we still do not have the adequate refuge spaces for women seeking a safe haven. We are still forcing women who have survived horrific violence to seek justice in a system that simply does not put their safety first, does not provide proper support and often leaves women feeling alone, powerless, with their pain and trauma not being listened to.

We know the majority of violence is done by men who are known to the victim like a partner, friend or family member. Whether or not the women in question felt safe in those relationships prior to the abuse, the reality is they were not safe; they were violently betrayed by people they trusted. As women, we know this. We have built networks and tactics to keep each other safe and we have come out in numbers to make our anger and grief heard. I especially acknowledge all the people who have come out in solidarity with Natasha O’Brien over the past two weeks, particularly the women who have refused to stay silent in the face of this mistreatment. However, there is still much more to do and we need to ensure we build on that collectively, organisationally and that we ensure we are safe in this State.

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I also thank the Labour Party for bringing the motion before the House. I also thank Natasha and Bláthnaid and other women who have got this issue back on the agenda again, because we as public representatives must ensure every woman feels safe, going forward.

Considering all that has been discussed this morning and what will be discussed later when members make statements on tackling all forms of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, it is fair to focus for a moment on the third national strategy. I want to focus on the way the proposed involvement of the Ombudsman for Children in the new strategy was handled, which led him to announce in January he was removing his office from that proposal. The Department of Justice approached the office of the ombudsman and asked whether it would consider overseeing the actions about children in this action plan. Over the couple of years since there was an over-and-back between the Department and the ombudsman on the matter of providing extra resources for the role, which the Department initially said would not be a problem. After the first year of this, nothing had come from the Department of Justice, so the Department of children was contacted, only to tell the ombudsman it had no knowledge of it. The Department of Justice ultimately admitted it was not going to happen and sought to pass it off to the Department of children. The ombudsman told me he was left with the impression at the time that the Department was giving credibility to its actions by using the ombudsman organisation.

What we saw here was the Department's failure to live up to its initial commitment of adding to the strategy the valuable input of the ombudsman and then seeking to relinquish itself of its responsibility for not doing so. In correspondence after that, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, told me that he was prepared to continue working with the Department of Justice, the author of the strategy and the implementation plan, the Ombudsman for Children's Office, OCO, and how it can contribute to the working of the strategy. It is far from a commitment to actually make the resources available to enable the ombudsman to dedicate the time needed to make a difference to those for whom this strategy is devised. When will the Minister commit to doing just that? Otherwise, the message that is being sent from here falls far short of putting words into action.

10:55 am

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

If anyone was in any doubt about the issues we have regarding domestic or gender-based violence, anyone who has heard Natasha O'Brien or Bláthnaid Raleigh speak could have absolutely no more doubt. This should not be surprising to us. I commend those women and many others. The Minister has put a great emphasis on this issue but we all need to accept that, as a society and a State, we are nowhere near to where we need to be, even if we are talking about women's refuges and the fact that nine counties do not have them. When issues come to me or my office in County Louth, there is a significant impact on the people in my office, councillors or me when we have to deal with the issues. We are dealing with women in particular who are in absolutely dreadful circumstances and have lost control. We do not necessarily always have the tools. Recently, one of our longest-serving councillors in Dundalk and I met a lady. All I can say is that it is lucky that she is still alive.

We are obviously dealing with domestic violence issues. We are dealing with the issues in society. We need to address where the heads of young men are. We need to call out the issues online. We know about brain plasticity and the fact that the brutal content can impact and change how people's minds work. None of this is good enough. There has to be a case where none of this is acceptable. We need to make sure that the rape crisis service in the north east, Women's Aid Dundalk, and whatever services the State provides are properly resourced.

The circumstances women find themselves in can be very different. They can involve people in private housing or rentals, including rentals from councils and approved housing bodies. The resources are not necessarily there. The housing crisis puts these women under more severe pressure regarding the choices they have. Many of these issues are exacerbated by drink and drug-taking, which can obviously lead to a greater element of danger. It really needs to be addressed.

Deputy Daly spoke about the lack of data. We need to make sure that we have the data and resources. We do not have the resources and we need to make sure we do right by Bláthnaid, Natasha and the many others.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Labour Party for tabling this vitally important motion. Men's violence against women is insidious. It was in January 2022 that I last recall this Dail gathering in a time of great national grief and astonishment at the brutal murder of a young woman at the hands of a violent man, to say the words "never again", and use language along the lines of zero tolerance and advancing calls for systematic cultural change. On that occasion it was Ashling Murphy, a young school teacher brutally slain at the hands of a violent man while simply out for a run. We are now two years into the State's promises of zero tolerance, but where are we now? The answer to that is probably best captured by the fact that last week, we heard the words "never again" once more. More than that, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has reported receiving the highest number of calls to its helpline in the centre's 45 year history. That figure came just days after Women's Aid revealed that it received more than 40,000 reports of abuse of women and children last year, amounting to the highest number in the organisation's 50-year history.

As we know that men's violence against women will not be addressed without men ourselves challenging the culture in which it is allowed to thrive, which is a point that was made once more this week by Bláthnaid Raleigh following the sentencing of her attacker, I want to reference Tom Meagher, a man who gave many of us, including me, the language to understand better the pernicious nature of this epidemic that is destroying the lives of women every single day in this country. In Tom Meagher's essay, "The Danger of the Monster Myth", which I believe he released on White Ribbon Day in 2012, he delved into the cultural narrative that depicts rapists and perpetrators of sexual violence as monstrous outliers, fundamentally different from ordinary men. He argues that this myth serves several harmful purposes. First, it creates a false sense of security among the public, who come to believe that only identifiable monsters commit such crimes, thus allowing ourselves to ignore the fact that most sexual violence or violence against women is perpetrated by seemingly normal men within familiar contexts. I back that up by using the Women's Aid statistics once again, of how one in four women in Ireland who have been in relationships have been abused by a current or former partner, and the 35,570 disclosures of abuse against women and 4,478 disclosures of abuse against children. That advances the belief that it is not just the monsters we see in the newspaper.

In that same essay, Meagher draws from a tragic personal experience, noting how the man who raped and murdered his wife, Jill, an Irish citizen who was living in Australia, was initially perceived by both Tom Meagher and the public as a monstrous figure. This reaction, while understandable in its emotional immediacy, ultimately obscures the reality that sexual violence is deeply embedded in everyday social structures and attitudes. By relegating perpetrators to the realm of the monstrous, we as a society absolve ourselves of the responsibility to examine and change the cultural norms and systemic issues that foster environments where such violence can occur. This myth of the monster allows society at large to absolve ourselves of the collective culpability by finding some aspect of the perpetrator that we can use to individualise the rotten fruit from the poisoned orchard in which we all reside. In the case of Ashling Murphy, the nationality of the attacker was focused on initially. On so many other occasions, such as the tragic murder of Clodagh Hawe, we first have to hear that a man who murdered his wife and children, was "a community man who snapped" or about his mental health, to the point that his destruction of a woman's life becomes secondary to the reason for which he did it. Last week, through the courage of Natasha O'Brien, whom I acknowledge in the Gallery, it was the perpetrator's profession that was focused on in narratives.

I was somewhat disappointed, although I suppose it is understandable in certain contexts, that when the Taoiseach was talking about how we have to root violence against women out of our armed services, he somewhat gave the impression that it is okay everywhere else. Those Women's Aid and rape crisis centre statistics indicate that this is far more insidious. If we root it out of the armed forces and have zero tolerance there, we must also go much deeper and root it out of all of society.

This myth prevents meaningful progress in addressing sexual violence and violence against women because it directs attention away from the more common and insidious forms of male violence that permeate society. There must be a call for a reframing of the issue, urging a focus on the ways in which ordinary men are conditioned to exert power and control, often through subtle and socially accepted forms of aggression. We must also see how the justice system and media can in some places perpetuate this monster myth. Sensationalised portrayals of violent criminals reinforce the notion that such individuals are fundamentally different from the average person, thereby neglecting the broader spectrum of behaviours and attitudes that contribute to a culture of violence. There is a culture of violence here, which is shown in those devastating figures from Women's Aid and the rape crisis centre. That culture was best encapsulated in that horrific phrase, which I am sorry for using once again, "Two to put her down, two to put her out".

We talked about the courage of Natasha O'Brien when she intervened in the homophobic abuse that was being levelled at a person walking along the street. That intervention then proceeded to vicious assault on her while other men simply watched on. The perpetrator of that crime then took to social media to brag about it. He felt no danger that what he was saying would be called out.

We must want and demand harsher sentences for a crime of that depravity. However, I am equally terrified of the culture in which a person like that was enabled and what we must do to stop the next ones from emerging.

Zero tolerance should be a minimum expectation, but we must go much deeper and call for a shift in societal perspectives. We must recognise the ordinariness of perpetrators and the everyday cultural practices that support gendered violence. We must seek to dismantle the monster myth. Society can begin to do this by addressing the root causes of sexual violence and work towards creating safer and more equitable communities. A number of different suggestions have been made for how we do that. I believe it must start in early years education and continue in primary schools and secondary schools. We still do not have an effective relationships and sex education, RSE, programme in schools, nor do we have effective ethics courses. Principals the length and breadth of this country have called for effective psychological supports and counselling services in schools to address trauma but also to combat the toxic culture in which young people are emerging into a society in which, while it is changing and evolving fast, the culture of violence against women still permeates.

I have spent most of my time talking about confronting the monster myth culture, but that should not take away from the responsibility of the State, which is failing in a number of ways. Nine counties are still without refuge centres. We do not have appropriate data.

I listened to Bláthnaid Raleigh this morning. I joined the protest led by Natasha O'Brien. I cannot begin to comprehend their courage. We must also acknowledge that we seek to protect the anonymity of those women who are victims of crime and who choose anonymity as the best approach and suited to their needs. We must protect anonymity while advancing harsher sentences. We need an ombudsman for victims, as has been suggested by the Judicial Council.

11:05 am

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I call People Before Profit.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I wish to share time with Deputies Paul Murphy and Mick Barry.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Labour Party for bringing forward this important motion. I truly commend Natasha O'Brien and Bláthnaid Raleigh for their incredible bravery in the face of the vicious assaults and traumatisation they have suffered. There are many things that one could say but in the very short time that is available to me, I will focus on the bravery and courage of Natasha and Bláthnaid in speaking out and urging our society to reject the sort of horror and violence they suffered. That is probably the most important action that could be taken when our society and successive governments have failed to address the toxic culture and ideology of misogyny, prejudice and violence that can lead to these sorts of horrific attacks and then the failure to give justice to the people who are the victims of the attacks.

There are many things we could say about our failure, including the lack of refuge places. My own area is one of the nine counties that does not have refuge places. The Istanbul Convention requires that my area have 48 places. We were promised 24 places and are being given 12 which will not be completed until the end of this year. We can talk all we like about these issues but we are not actually delivering changes. Adult counselling services are woefully lacking in terms of adult community health for victims.

There is a lack of psychological counselling in schools. Successive governments have failed to advance legislation such as the Bill we put forward on the need for objective sex education in schools, which was blocked by the Government. I heard Bláthnaid Raleigh say this morning that one of the things she was urging is precisely that we do something to address the education of young people. We talk about it and we do nothing.

I want to pick up on the connection between Natasha sticking up for LGBT people and then suffering a violent attack by somebody who was abusing LGBT people and then thought it was okay to beat a woman unconscious and boast about it afterwards. A judge did not think this was worthy of serious sanction. Even now, people online are attacking Natasha and trying to essentially justify the violence she suffered. We must do something about people in far-right groups who are actively promoting ideologies of hate, dehumanisation, misogyny, anti-LGBT prejudice and other forms of dehumanisation.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I pay tribute to Natasha O'Brien. She is an inspirational individual to millions of people across this country. She did not have to intervene to stop the homophobic abuse. Lots of people did not do so. Lots of people would just walk on, but she chose to do it. She was then subjected to a savage assault by someone who is supposed to be there to defend us, as a member of the Defence Forces. That injustice was then compounded by another massive injustice done by the so-called justice system, which refused to give a prison sentence to the man who did it. Then we had the patronising words of the judge saying she should be happy that he had pleaded guilty. It would have been completely understandable if at that point Natasha had said she had had enough, was not going to get any justice and would not speak out any more. Instead, she put herself on the front line repeatedly and spoke out about it in a way that is so impressive and can change the conversation on this issue.

We should not have a system where Natasha O'Brien, Bláthnaid Raleigh or anyone else feels the need to speak out. They should not have to put themselves in that position to fight for justice but, unfortunately, they do. We live in a deeply patriarchal, sexist society. Gender-based violence and murder are the extreme expression of that but not the only expression of it. The truth is that this patriarchy has deep roots in our society. Capitalism did not invent patriarchy. It took it up from feudalism but then moulded it to its own purposes by using the free labour of women predominantly in the home and the underpaid labour of women in the workplace. It is for this reason that we need a movement led by people like Natasha, Bláthnaid and many others to fight to uproot the sexist and patriarchal society we have.

The final point I will make is about the Defence Forces and the Garda. I do not think it is too much to ask that people who are convicted of assault or other violent crimes should not be in our Defence Forces or the Garda, in positions of power and authority. That is a very simple ask. It is bizarre that some people who set themselves up as defenders of the Defence Forces are saying they are offended by that call being made. It is not a slur on the vast majority of members of the Defence Forces or anyone in a position of authority who obviously have nothing whatsoever to do with this. It is targeted at those who are responsible.

This also extends to the Garda. I am aware of a currently serving garda who was convicted of an assault on 11 December 2019. He punched someone repeatedly in the face and continues to serve as a member of the Garda.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Misogyny, toxic masculinity, far-right ideology and anti-transgender rhetoric are what researchers from Dublin City University's anti-bullying centre were fed back within two minutes of registering fake accounts as teenage boys with TikTok and YouTube Shorts. TikTok recommended 76% toxic content after being watched for an average of just two hours and 32 minutes. You would want to be very naive to think there is not a strong connection between this kind of stuff and male violence against women.

Andrew Tate is typical of the creators of this toxic content. Describing how he would react if a woman accused him of cheating, he said: "It's bang out the machete, boom in her face and grip her by the neck." Facing rape charges in Romania, he said: "I'm not a rapist but I like the idea of just being able to do what I want. I like being free". Tate had been banned from Twitter – X - but he has been reinstated by X's new owner, the world's richest man, Elon Musk. His videos across all platforms had been viewed 11.6 billion times by 2022.

I will make two points in the time available to me about these issues. First, the promotion of content which boosts male violence against women is big business. It is very profitable. Regulation can be a step forward but, at the end of the day, you cannot control what you do not own. The big social media platforms must be taken into public ownership and put under the control of society.

Second, people need to get organised and fight back.

Misogyny and male violence against women are not just down to a few bad apples; they are woven into the fabric of capitalist society. We need to fight back against them, but that fight must go hand in hand with a struggle for system change.

11:15 am

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I too compliment Labour on bringing forward this very important motion. In all truth, only for Natasha O'Brien, Bláthnaid Raleigh and others having spoken out, we may not be talking about this today. I commend Natasha on speaking out. We have to reflect on what is happening and all the things that are wrong.

The first issue I will speak to is the judicial system and how we can have such a violent crime go to the courts and a judge decide that because a person is in the Army and has pleaded guilty, he should not be given a custodial sentence. The message that sends out is totally dangerous. I know that, as politicians, we cannot interfere in the judicial system, but we do have a role in appointing judges, and it is important when judges are appointed that they are accountable for their decisions. The biggest outcry I have had come into my office is the fact that a judge could hand down a sentence such as this and treat the matter so trivially when it is so serious. There is an onus on us all in this House to re-examine the performance of our judges and how they are monitored in their judgments and their performances in order that we have a judicial system that works properly. People, I think, became really upset when they read the judge's decision. I think that was when people really got annoyed. I do not know what the judge was thinking, but if he was thinking he was protecting the Army or a man's livelihood in the Army, he had the wrong end of the stick entirely. That needs to be called out for what it is.

The second part of this debate relates to how we treat women who are abused, including sexual abuse and violence in the home, and what assistance they get. For instance, in Galway county, we do not have any refuge centre. There is one in Galway city, but if a woman's children go to school locally and have to be taken away from their home for protection, there are very few services out there to protect them. They find themselves in the eye of the storm in trying to fight to get supports, whereas they should be embraced and brought into a system that will protect them properly. A piece of paper referring to a barring order is not much use if there is such a problem.

The Garda has a huge part to play in this. We do not have enough gardaí in the country and we have to look at that and at how we can incentivise more people to take up a career in the Garda. Whatever else is happening, we have large towns now that do not have a strong enough complement of gardaí. For instance, I heard lately from a constituent who rang the Athenry Garda station but whose call was answered in Clifden. The Garda tells us that is the system it has now. If you need somebody in an emergency and you ring the Garda hoping to get Athenry or Tuam and the call is diverted to and answered in Clifden, you will wonder when somebody will come out to you where you have the problem on the ground. I hear, "The garda's car is out at the moment, so we will have to wait for it to come back to go out again and see what is going on." That is the reality of what is happening on the ground, and I am not crying wolf. We do not have enough gardaí. I know there are plans to increase garda numbers but, at the other end of it, I know that a huge number of gardaí are coming up to the end of their time and are just delighted to get out of the force because morale is so low. There is therefore a huge job for us, the Department and Garda management to make sure that gardaí are in an attractive place to work and a good career and that we will not find in five years' time that we are not able to man a lot of our Garda stations.

When we look at what has happened in recent months, and with the publicity these cases that Natasha has spoken about have got, it is important for us not to just have a big discussion about it here. We will have more discussions this afternoon, the Minister said. That is the talk, but the talk then has to be over. There should be a cross-Oireachtas committee put in place, chaired by the Minister herself, maybe, to see how we can actually change things, not just on a tokenistic basis but on a basis that we might deliver effective measures that will stand up with the bravery women have shown and have continued to speak about. We owe it to them now to make sure that whatever we do, we do not just talk about it. It is important that, whatever time is left in this Dáil session, we use that time to good effect in order that Natasha can say we have had some improvement in the system, we have some improvement in the protection of women and we have some protection for their children. We also want to make sure the perpetrators of these crimes realise that there is a consequence and that it is a serious one. There is a body of work to be done there. I know the Minister is not opposing the motion but supporting it. That is the right thing to do, but we have to do more than that. Together, within this House, there are 160 TDs. It is time we said this is not a political issue any more but a serious protection issue that we need to address. I look forward to seeing what will happen in the coming weeks on that.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The next group is the Rural Independent Group. Richard O'Donoghue, Danny Healy-Rae, Michael Healy-Rae and Michael Collins are sharing time.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Natasha O'Brien for coming here today. After what happened to her, the first phone call I got about it was from a man, Evan, who said he had spent time with Natasha in Lourdes on their school trip, where they went out to help people with disabilities around Lourdes. He said that she is a lovely girl and that he was absolutely disgusted by what happened to her. What followed on from this, however, when the person who caused the harm to Natasha and beat her unconscious was brought before the courts, was a court decision on a suspended sentence, even though he admitted guilt. That prevented him from being dealt with by the Army, a legal loophole preventing somebody who has committed such a serious crime and admitted the guilt of doing it from getting a custodial sentence.

We have seen in recent years the amount of violence against women. Ashling Murphy, God rest her, was out for a run. I am glad the Minister is in the position she is in because she can empathise with this. Our garda numbers are depleting. We need to encourage more men and women to join our Garda service. I need the Minister to lead this in such a way that we know the people coming in to protect us will be protected while they are getting into the Garda service and will be given a place to live while they are being trained in the service, a place where, with all the inflation, they can actually live and be trained such that we encourage the right people to come into the Garda service. I plead with the Minister to encourage that.

11:25 am

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

In recent years, there has been a big rise in the number of abuse cases against women and children in Ireland. This shows that we urgently need to make big changes in the criminal justice system to deal with this problem.

People have been upset by some recent decisions about punishments for people found guilty of violence against women and other violent crimes. The Natasha O'Brien case is clear evidence of that. There is growing worry about the practice of giving suspended sentences to people found guilty of violent crimes. The Director of Public Prosecutions can ask for a review of sentences if she thinks they are too lenient. In 2022, the DPP made 37 such appeals to the Court of Criminal Appeal, 30 of which were successful.

The Judicial Council Act 2019 set up the sentencing guidelines and information committee but there is still a lot of work to do to make sure sentencing guidelines are published to deal with violence against women in Ireland. We need to take many different actions, including making changes to the law, giving more money to support services and changing society. The Government also needs to take strong action, including putting into action the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Gender Equality, reviewing sentencing practices and making sure there are enough refuge places in line with the Istanbul Convention. Only by doing all of these can Ireland hope to effectively fight against the violence against women and make sure justice is done for all victims and survivors. Parents should not have to warn their daughters every time they want to go to an event or go outside the door.

We need only look at the Sophie Toscan du Plantier case in my community in west Cork to see how it has gone. The Garda Commissioner has a cold case review under way. For how long do these reviews have to go on? The family needs justice for that woman. I have brought this case up in the House on numerous occasions but my voice is falling on deaf ears. The Minister for Justice needs to deal with that case.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Labour Party for giving me the opportunity to say a few words about this very serious matter. Clearly, Natasha O'Brien has highlighted the unfairness of the decision taken, which was not proportionate to the crime that was carried out against her. Judges need to be allowed to have a bit of discretion but in this case the decision was totally wrong. The whole of Ireland are up in arms about it and something has to be done to ensure this does not happen again.

The records show that violence against women and children has increased. Clearly, something has happened in the past couple of years. One of things that has happened, sadly, is that more people are drinking at home. There is no such thing as a measure or a half one; it is a mug or a cup of alcohol. Drink should not be an excuse and people should not be doing it anyway, but I feel this violence, or a certain amount of it anyway, is coming from that.

We need places for women and children who need refuge when situations such as this arise. We do not have such places, or enough of them anyway, in Kerry. The people who come to me in conditions of serious distress have nowhere to go.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I, too, thank the Labour Party for allowing Deputies to have a debate on this very important issue.

I thank and compliment the people in Kerry who provide refuge, safety, advice and comfort, in particular, to women and children who are the victims of crime of all different types. These people are being dealt with at the most vulnerable time in their lives. Perhaps there have been domestic disputes at home that have finished up with them having to leave the family home. We will forever, in Kerry, be indebted to people, such as Ms Vera O'Leary, who have operated these centres for decades and gardaí locally who deal with awful situations.

We have to look at exactly what is happening. In 2023, Women's Aid recorded over 40,000 disclosures of abuse against women and children. This was an 18% increase from 2022, marking the highest number ever documented. This alarming statistic underscores the urgent need to address the issue of gender-based violence in Ireland. We all must unite in saying this will not be tolerated. Women and children should feel safe, whether at home, on the streets or wherever they are. We have to think of people who are vulnerable. Whether it is alcohol related or drug related, it is not an excuse for anybody to hurt or injure these people in this way.

We must ensure there are resources available. On behalf of Kerry, I make a plea that the resources we require are provided, be it in Killarney, Tralee or Listowel, the major towns in Kerry. Those who provide call-up lines, advice clinics and shelters need more funding. I know that from first-hand experience because I deal with them on a regular basis. I am making that plea on behalf of those organisations, not only in Kerry but around the country.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the motion and thank the Labour Party for bringing it to the floor of the Dáil. It links in well with the statements on gender-based violence we will have this afternoon.

It is clear that the State provides a level of services and supports that actively endangers women. Successive Governments have not funded domestic and gender-based violence services properly and they have not provided the infrastructure we need. These are political decisions that make Ireland a less safe place for women.

As has been said, one in four women in Ireland is subjected to domestic abuse. Women's Aid received over 40,000 disclosures of domestic abuse in 2023, the highest ever recorded in the charity's 50-year history. Nine counties have no refuge. Under the Istanbul Convention, we need at least 512 new refuge places to fulfil the need for one family refuge place for every 10,000 of population. This figure is far higher than the planned 280 places. This is not good enough. At the launch of Cuan earlier this year, the Minister for Justice stated we had to be realistic about how many refuge spaces we could create in the next two years. Being realistic, when we combine the lack of refuge spaces built by the State, the housing crisis caused by a lack of public funding by the State and rising domestic violence rates, we can see a serious failure of the State to protect women.

The Mercy Law Resource Centre report last year into social housing and domestic violence showed that domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness. Despite this, the Government does not record those families in the homelessness data. They are not considered. This is another example of the immiseration the housing crisis imposes on vulnerable people.

The Government is allowing women facing violence and abuse from their partners to choose between keeping a roof over their head or risking homelessness in a broken housing system. Of course, the less access you have to resources, the less wealthy you are and the fewer options you have. Any Government that is serious about tackling this issue would recognise that we are in the middle of an unprecedented housing crisis and that, at a minimum, we need to meet our requirements under the Istanbul Convention, if not much more.

This lack of serious is also reflected in the legal system. This is seen in the shocking sentencing in Natasha O'Brien's case and the continuing leniency shown towards abusers and perpetrators. However, it is also seen in family law. I salute all the women who are affected by abuse.

A report earlier this year by the Department of Justice showed that domestic violence is not considered in custody decisions, as though, somehow, domestic violence and the welfare of the mother have no relevance to the welfare of the child. Meanwhile parental alienation, a phenomenon which is used in custody decisions, has no real basis in fact and is being pushed by independent experts with no real qualifications or experience. This shows the clear difference in who is listened to in the courts system. It is a case of "Yes" to unqualified independent experts and "No" to women experiencing domestic abuse. This is directly facilitating post-separation abuse which, research suggests, is experienced by 76% of women who have left an abusive partner. It also shows the clear lack of seriousness with which the issue of gender-based and domestic violence is treated.

A number of recommendations were made recently. They include establishing a panel of State-employed, qualified, regulated and accountable experts overseen by a board; the provision of an increase in pre-court supports for separating parents, including parenting when separated courses; and the establishment of a children's court advocate to inform children about the legal process and assist them in having their voices heard.

Will the Minister implement that? Whether it is the courts, police or funding of gender-based violence supports or family refuges, what we see is a system that, at best, provides totally inadequate levels of support and care, and, at worst, reinforces violence.

11:35 am

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I also thank the Labour Party for bringing forward this motion. Women in this country have been failed over and over again by our judicial system, our health system, our education system, the Defence Forces and us as legislators. Each day we fail to address the rise in gender-based violence, misogynistic views and male-supremacy content online, we fail women all over again. Reports of gender-based violence seem to be daily occurrences here. News outlets rarely go a week without reporting multiple stories of gender-based violence, stories so horrifying that it is sickening to know these reflect only a small percentage of this epidemic.

My heart breaks for these women, what they are forced to go through and how often they are expected to relive it. It is deeply unfair that they are constantly retraumatised, so often do not get the aftercare and support they need and were not protected in the first place. It should not be a burden to be a woman, yet this country makes it so and, sadly, there is no safe place to be a woman. Women in every corner of this country have experienced gender-based violence. In my constituency, the Donegal Domestic Violence Services organisation gets five to six new calls every week from people seeking access to its services. The organisation says it works with "an average of 100 families each month to offer support with court, child access, accessing homeless supports and providing emotional one to one support for victims of domestic abuse".

On multiple occasions in this Chamber, I have raised the fact that the Donegal Rape Crisis Centre has had to apply for funding from the RTÉ toy show appeal to enable it to reduce the age of access to its services from 14 to 12 because of the high demand for services for younger people. This year, the centre will receive €16,000 from the appeal for therapies for 12-to-18-year-olds affected by the trauma of sexual violence. What happens if the toy show goes on to somewhere else? Will this all stop?

It is devastating that in County Donegal, children as young as 12 are now contacting the centre to report incidents of sexual violence. In many cases, the offending party is of a similar age. This shows that not only is there a rise in the number of young people experiencing sexual violence but also a rise in the number of young people perpetrating sexual violence. This is incredibly upsetting. We need to talk directly to our young boys and men about this situation because this problem lies with them. We cannot continue to put this burden on women. The responsibility lies with us men to deal with it.

I agree that this issue can be addressed to some extent through our education system but I do not believe this approach alone will adequately tackle the issue. We focus so often here solely on policy and legislation yet forget the most important step - implementation. This House is very good at this as well. Many TDs have called for this issue to be addressed in the classroom, but if we were to look at the new SPHE specification, we would see that many issues such as gender equity, gender stereotypes, sexual imagery online, unhealthy and abusive relationships, setting and respecting healthy boundaries, seeking, giving and receiving consent, the influence of popular culture and the online world and the influence of pornography on young people's understanding, expectations and social norms in relation to sexual expression are already a part of the curriculum. What exactly, then, are we calling for?

We cannot vaguely state that addressing this problem is the responsibility of schools. We need to be active and analytical in addressing this issue. We all have a role to play in addressing gender-based violence. We should be asking how this curriculum is being used and taught. Can one class taken once a week counter the hours of misogynistic content young boys are seeing on social media every day? Can anything? Why does the Government refuse to demand transparency from social media companies about their algorithms, which we know are contributing to this rise in misogyny?

We all need to hold ourselves accountable here and look much deeper if we are serious about tackling gender-based violence. We must do more than talk and make the right noises here in the House. We must actually ensure that actions are put in place to make the tackling of gender-based violence does happen. We must move beyond dealing with these issues in the classroom. They must be dealt with everywhere, including in the workplace, in the social environment and right across the board.

Photo of Violet-Anne WynneViolet-Anne Wynne (Clare, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I commend the Labour Party on bringing this well-thought-out motion before the Chamber. It allows us to pay tribute again to the fantastic Natasha O'Brien and the focus she has ensured has been placed on this extremely important societal matter. I also pay tribute to all the victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. I commend the great courage and bravery they have shown in surviving.

I listened to the Minister earlier and it was important to hear that there is a greater need within the criminal justice system for collaboration. I must criticise a lack of training in domestic, sexual and gender-based violence among our judges. They take the bench because they are legal experts but their expertise in the life-long ramifications of these crimes is sorely lacking. The judicial system needs to catch up and mandate training. I am astounded that this gap exists. It adds testament to the fact that simply not enough regard is given to victims in the courts or afterwards. This is simply not good enough and I feel this issue needs to be addressed urgently.

In talking about collaboration, I feel it is apt to mention that there is an urgent need for strict collaboration between local authorities to ensure women have somewhere safe to go. Far too often, we are experiencing cases where there are zero opportunities for step-down accommodation when they must leave the refuge services. I hope to expand on this issue in my statement later today. In the context of this motion, I point to the increases in the number of domestic abuse calls registered in the Garda PULSE system. There were nearly 60,000 calls, which is a rate of one being received every ten minutes.

Locally, at the most recent meeting of the JPC, we heard that victims come from all social classes and we are seeing a year-on-year increase, with 242 cases in the first quarter of this year alone. In the briefing, it was alluded to that it can take victims up to eight attempts before they succeed in leaving such a domestic violence situation. Every single return caused by the lack of a safe bed is a failure.

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I express many thanks to the Labour Party for tabling this important motion on gender-based violence. I acknowledge the deeply-considered contributions of all the speakers here. Many important issues have been raised and I know the Minister, Deputy McEntee, will address many of them later this afternoon when we will be hearing statements on tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

As the Minister, and colleagues, outlined earlier, the Government is not opposing this motion. We all agree that domestic, sexual and gender-based violence has absolutely no place in our society and we need to maintain the momentum to keep the process of change moving. Discussions today have focused on what is needed to prevent retraumatisation from being experienced by victims engaging with our criminal justice system. We know the courts can be daunting places for victims. As the Minister of State with special responsibility for law reform, I have been supporting the Minister, Deputy McEntee, to improve our legislation and supports to try to make the courts a little less daunting. We have increased funding for supporting victims through the system; progressed initiatives to raise awareness of the rights provided for in the victims of crime Act 2017, and explained this in the Victims Charter; and are progressing the recommendations of the O’Malley review through the Supporting a Victims Journey initiative.

The motion today touches on several judicial aspects concerning which neither the Minister, Deputy McEntee, nor I can play any direct role. The separation of powers is a cornerstone of our system of criminal justice and needs to be upheld to the highest degree. Sound constitutional reasons exist for the practice in this House of Members not criticising individual judges or saying anything that could be construed as an attempt to influence individual cases. The blurring of this separation can slowly chip away at a democratic society. Nonetheless, we as the Government are responsible for ensuring that the system as a whole is effective and vindicates the rights of victims. This is an ongoing work, with significant reform being carried out, and the Government is committed to ensuring we achieve this objective.

The motion calls for a review of the practice of suspended sentences and an increased urgency in the development of sentencing guidelines by the Judicial Council, clear guidelines on the use of character references and a comprehensive database of judicial sentences. As the Minister, Deputy McEntee, informed the House earlier, the Judicial Council’s sentencing guidelines and information committee is progressing work on sentencing guidelines. As the House knows, the Judicial Council’s sentencing guidelines and information committee has the function of preparing and submitting draft sentencing guidelines to the board for review. It also monitors the operation of sentencing guidelines and collates information on sentences imposed by the courts in an appropriate manner.

The committee comprises eight judges nominated by the Chief Justice and five lay members appointed by the Government. This committee decided it would produce guidelines for specific offences and classes of offences, and two areas identified as important both by serving judges and by the members of the committee have been prioritised: offences of domestic violence and violence in the context of a relationship; and fatal driving offences.

The committee engaged South East Technological University to carry out a research project with judges in the District Court on domestic violence offences. I understand the final draft of that report was delivered to the committee three weeks ago and that the committee has accepted its key recommendations relating to the sentencing of relationship violence cases in the District Court.

The committee intends to proceed to the next phase of guideline development, which will involve consultation with stakeholder organisations and experts. The committee will then provide draft guidelines to the board of the Judicial Council, which it expects to do before the end of this year.

On fatal driving offences, it is expected the committee will be able to produce draft guidelines relatively shortly, after the production and submission of the guidelines on domestic violence and violence in a relationship. Thereafter, it is proposed to produce further guidelines dealing with other offences on a regular basis. While the work under the remit of the Judicial Council is not something I or any elected official can interfere with, the House can be sure the process of developing sentencing guidelines is under way in a systematic fashion.

The Minister referenced that the Judicial Council has made available as a resource to judges a database containing every sentencing judgment made by the Court of Appeal and a sentencing handbook. For 16 years the Supreme Court, more recently followed by the Court of Appeal, has produced a series of guideline judgments on the approach to sentencing for particular offences and classes of offence. There is also a series of judgments dealing with factors that can apply to sentencing for any offence. The committee has produced a guide to all of these judgments which is available on the Judicial Council website. It has also prepared a database containing every sentencing judgment delivered by the Court of Appeal since its establishment ten years ago, searchable by name or offence.

The director of judicial studies of the Judicial Council, Mr. Justice Charleton, has supervised the compilation of the sentencing handbook, which runs to almost 500 pages. It was distributed to all judges on 10 June this year in hard copy and is also available in soft copy. It deals with serious offences, normally those triable on indictment, and its principles are also relevant where such offences are triable on a summary basis.

One of the roles set out in the Judicial Council Act 2019 is responsibility for the provision of continuing education for judges. The Act provides for the establishment of the judicial studies committee to facilitate that training. While the Government has no role in these matters, I have been advised the work of the judicial studies committee has involved conducting training events on sentencing and bail, as well as seminars and workshops on avoiding retraumatisation of victims, unconscious bias, coercive control and other relevant matters. In many of these courses, civil society groups that work with victims or those directly affected by the relevant issue were consulted in the design and took part in the delivery of the course. Comprehensive training is now provided by the council to all judges on appointment, in addition to the training provided to all serving judges on an ongoing basis.

The work of the Judicial Council complements the work of the Department undertaken to improve the system. We need to look at the improvements and work under way as a whole. While we know more has to be done, we are making progress. The roll-out of further training under the zero tolerance strategy for all involved in domestic, sexual and gender-based violence work and the establishment of dedicated family courts will complement the system reforms.

I will continue to work with the Minister, Government colleagues and Cuan to reform the system and promote behavioural change in society and on legislative change and increasing support for victims. All of us in this Chamber have a common goal and that is to make the system better. While we will never be able to undo the suffering experienced by victims, we must continue to do our utmost to ensure they are supported, treated with respect, cared for and given the information needed on services and safeguards. We must ensure their journey through our criminal justice system is as good as it can be, while remaining mindful it can be a traumatic time for people. We must minimise the burden of seeking justice and prevent further revictimisation. While we will not always agree on matters in this House, we all agree that we need to keep the momentum of change going and work towards a society with zero tolerance for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. This Government is committed to getting there.

11:45 am

Photo of Duncan SmithDuncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank all contributors. On the issue of sexual and gender-based violence and violence in general, you always think there is a case that will be a tipping point and kick the State into action to put in place measures ensuring it never happens again. Unfortunately, that is not the case and with the assault on Natasha O'Brien we are again debating and discussing this and retraumatising the victim.

As has been summed up, Natasha intervened to help a member of the LGBTQ community who was being abused. She was brave enough to do that and then received a horrific, violent attack which knocked her unconscious and caused huge injury. She then had to go through the Courts Service for the perpetrator to be given a suspended sentence. This is what shocked the nation. The perpetrator gets to step back into his life and move on. Natasha had two options, both of which meant she would have to live with the trauma. One option was to step back into her life with her trauma and move forward but she bravely chose - and I commend her on it - to step forward onto plinths, steps, stages and radio programmes and into the Dáil Chamber to have her voice heard about her experience and how she has been victimised and retraumatised by the system.

We as a Chamber are reactionary. When issues come up, we reflect it in the form of debate and questions but the Opposition cannot bring measures forward. That is for the Government to do. With this motion, we wanted to strike the right balance and put forward proposals that could be implemented and delivered upon. I think the Minister of State should agree with that. It is not just the bravery of Natasha O'Brien's contributions to debates on this but the rawness of those contributions which has struck us all to the core. When this debate and the statements later finish and we are talking about other issues in the Chamber next week and the week after, the Minister of State and the State agencies involved must be pushing forward with solutions so Natasha's bravery is not in vain.

I will speak on a couple of substantive points. We have not seen the legislation making changes relating to character references but they have a chilling effect. Anybody who provides a character reference for an accused in an assault case should be open to cross-examination by the defence lawyers and barristers. Be they a public representative or anybody else, they should not be able to write something on paper attesting to someone's character and not be cross-examined on it. We need to look at the rules around public representatives giving character references. Public representatives are not allowed to sit on juries because of the separation of powers, yet they can give and have given - and probably will again unless we do something different - character references for accused in assault cases. We need to lead by example. If, as the Minister of State says, we are to make courtrooms less daunting for victims, that is one step we could take.

There is also the presence in the courtroom of people in power. Senior members of the Defence Forces were in the court for this case. That was not because they provided character references but was in relation to Defence Forces procedures. That is under review and needs to change. People have been in courtrooms wearing uniforms or blazers of elite schools or elite sports clubs. All of this has a chilling effect, makes the victim feel isolated and alone and strengthens the position of the accused. We need to change that. For a victim to go into a courtroom is, I can only imagine, one of the most challenging, difficult things they could do. To feel unsafe, unheard and unsupported in that courtroom is something we as a State can change.

Deputy Daly raised the extra vulnerability of those of migrant and Traveller backgrounds. It is a salient point and we need to see that being worked on.

I thought Deputy Barry's point regarding toxic masculinity was really interesting. It is a lens through which we do not look at this enough, and that is that toxic masculinity, misogyny and violence against women is big business online. Social media companies are making a fortune on the back of the likes of Andrew Tate and many others. We can have disagreements on the regulation and the tactics for tackling this but it has to be tackled because it is a multibillion euro industry. The end results are manifold and one example is what happened to Natasha O'Brien. Deputy Canney is also correct in what he said about the fact that we are only talking about this today based on the incident with Natasha and her bravery. Gender-based violence is happening every day of the week. We do not see the majority of it but the figures bear repeating. Some 15% of women in Ireland who were surveyed in 2014 had experienced physical or sexual-based violence. In 2023 there were 40,048 disclosures of abuse made to Women's Aid, including 35,500 reports of domestic abuse against women and 4,478 reports of abuse of children, marking an increase of 18% from 33,990 disclosures in 2022. In 2022, An Garda Síochána received 53,737 calls to respond to domestic abuse incidents, a 9% increase from the 49,477 in 2021. It should be noted that in relation to increases in administrative statistics, there is uncertainty as to whether they are the result of more incidents of domestic violence or an increase in reporting of domestic violence. Either way, the arrows and the trends are going up, not down.

The Tusla review published in 2022 and a number of other people have focused on this - it is included centrally in our motion - found that there are only 141 family refuge places, fewer than just 30% of the higher standard of family places required by the Istanbul Convention. We should have 476 of these places. It is clear that the Minister has placed gender-based violence and domestic abuse as a policy priority for her term as Minister. It is clear that she is working hard to deliver in this area but we are still miles behind and there is a postcode lottery based on whether a person can avail even of the 30% of the recommended number of domestic violence refuges. We are so far behind in this country. Ireland is unsafe for many. It is particularly unsafe for women. In this motion we have put forward some proposals which we feel if delivered would make it somewhat safer. We are happy that the Minister is not opposing the motion and is in fact going to support it. Hopefully she will deliver on it. I commend one last time in this debate, Natasha O'Brien, Bláthnaid Raleigh and all the brave women who have had to step forward after their experience of violence and of our judicial system. They have had to come here and to other places to tell their stories and for us to listen and for the Government to act, which I hope it will do

Question put and agreed to.