There’s nothing quite like a good election, and the last couple of weeks have given many of us food for thought and conversation. Is the Green Wave real? How do we encourage greater female participation in politics? Will the Big Two dominate forever in West of Ireland politics, or does anyone have an interest in taking them on? How do new candidates persuade people to vote for them and not incumbents? Is the loss of posters a good or bad thing? And are “they” really “all the same”? We could talk all day about it and it wouldn’t get any less fascinating, but here are a few things that jumped out at me throughout the election campaign and count.
This article originally appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday, 18th April 2018.
A relationship with a close friend came under strain a few years back, when he was adamant in his opposition to the marriage equality referendum, and I was just as adamant in my support for it. We talked, we debated, we argued, we cried (well, one of us did) and ultimately we fell out. He went his way and I went mine and we each cast our votes according to our consciences. Afterwards, we reconvened. We didn’t talk about the issue ever again. And things have changed. I see him differently now, even though he’s the same person. He sees me differently too. And I miss the way things used to be, but we can’t go back.
This article was originally published in The Mayo News on 24th October 2017.
Last week, amidst all the talk of inclement weather and hatch-battening, it was reported by Ellen Coyne in the Irish edition of The Times that Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan had quietly reneged on a promise made by his predecessor, Frances Fitzgerald, to fund an updated report on sexual violence in Ireland. The first Sexual Assualt and Violence Report (SAVI) was carried out in 2002, and was groundbreaking both in its methodology and the insights it provided into the dark and murky world of sexual violence, as well as estimating the prevalence of the problem. (Hint: a lot more prevalent than many would like to acknowledge).
This column first appeared in The Mayo News on 1st March 2016.
While the 2016 General Election campaign itself failed to set the world on fire, the public’s interest was finally ignited precisely 48 minutes after the polls closed, when the Irish Times’ exit poll gave us a hint of just how much the political landscape was set to alter.
This article was first published in The Mayo News on 19th January 2016.
Raising your voice to an overworked nurse in the middle of the A&E department, teeming with patients, crammed with beds and trolleys; that sounds like a pretty obnoxious thing to do. Yelling at her as she tries to do her job sounds like the height of ignorance. But when you’re sitting in the waiting room and a relative calls you from inside the emergency department to tell you they urgently need your help, it means something’s not quite right.
Everyone knows A&E is a busy spot. But in our visit over Christmas, a result of a respiratory illness, my relation was seen surprisingly quickly. In the midst of their assessment, they suffered a severe asthma attack. They were helped to a small room at the back of the department and sat in a chair, with the promise of relief to come via a nebuliser, a device that uses oxygen to break up a liquid medical solution to deliver relieving medicine directly to the lungs. They were left alone. As the minutes passed, they started to feel faint, as they struggled to get air into their lungs. And no-one returned.
So when my phone rang, I knew something was amiss. Confused, by the time I made my way into the department – where I wasn’t technically meant to be – and located them, their distress was evident. Although I tried to appear calm, it was obvious that help was urgently needed.
I ran to seek assistance from someone – anyone. I hijacked a nurse, already occupied, and begged her to help. And when she started asking perfectly reasonable questions like the patient’s name, the location of their file, the identity of the original nurse, panic got the better of me. And I raised my voice to that nurse. That tired, overworked nurse near the end of a long shift, trying to do her job in what can only be described as horrendous conditions – to yell at her to forget the files and to please, just help, right now.
And she did, without batting an eyelid. And within seconds the oxygen was flowing, and with it, a tiny bit of relief amidst the chaos. The blood returned to all our cheeks. We thanked her profusely.
As we waited in the room for a doctor to arrive, both trying to calm ourselves, I got my bearings. I went to find water, and the corridors strewn with people on trolleys. One man was starving, he said. No food for hours. In the waiting room, the coffee machine was broken, the snack machine was broken and the toilets were out of order. There was nowhere to get a bite to eat.
Across the way lay an elderly gentleman in a gown. “When will the doctor see him, do you think?” asked his wife. “I’m afraid there are eight other people ahead of him,” said the nurse apologetically, “that need attention more urgently.”
When the doctor arrived, he was young and gentle and tired. Sensing our distress, he spoke in soft and reassuring tones, explaining what he was going to do and why. And we started to feel safe again.
And the mystery of why the original nurse didn’t return, or administer oxygen when all the equipment was right there in the room, was never solved, because it didn’t matter, and because I didn’t trust myself not to raise my voice again. Maybe someone else needed attention more urgently. Perhaps, with a hundred other things on her plate in the midst of that madness, she just forgot. Nurses are human too.
I chatted with the porter as he wheeled the trolley down to the deserted X-ray department. “I love coming down here for a bit of a peace and quiet,” he said. “That place”, he gestured, “is like a zoo.” A doctor had been assaulted in a row earlier in the day, he said.
We were lucky. After treatment, we escaped in a matter of hours. I drove back down the road feeling fortunate to have a passenger. I wondered what would have happened had I not been there. Perhaps it would have been fine. But perhaps not, and that’s the thing.
They say this is a country in recovery. But its health system is very ill.
Patients deserve – at the very least – to feel safe in A&E. To know they are getting the best possible care, not to feel at the mercy of an overcrowded system. Medical professionals – among them many unsung heroes – deserve to feel safe and have sufficient resources to work to the best of their ability.
And none of them deserve to be yelled at while doing their jobs.
With a mere few days to polling day, you’d be forgiven for being under the impression that we were voting on just one issue on May 22nd. Coverage of the marriage referendum has been so comprehensive, relentless and so repetitive, that it’s all the more surprising that media haven’t been focusing on the other choice being presented to voters – the proposal to lower the age of presidential candidates to 21 – if for no other reason than to just give us all a bit of light relief. But it’s highly likely a significant proportion of the population aren’t even aware they’ll be handed two ballot papers on Friday week. A fine example of democracy in action.
As fatigue begins to set in though, it’s likely we’ll see some half-hearted efforts in the next few days to publicly debate why we should allow 21 year-olds – people who may not even yet have started their first job – to run for President of Ireland.
The reactions to the proposal to date have tended to be predictably dismissive and a bit disparaging, which is disappointing. Granted, this isn’t the most pressing change that needs making in Ireland, but at a time when politics is crying out for an injection of youthful enthusiasm, the scorn that’s been instantly heaped on the suggestion without any detailed consideration subtly demonstrates how we really regard our young people. Surprisingly, even youth organisations have been relatively quiet on the matter, instead preferring to focus on the marriage referendum – which ironically, is a campaign with which young people have thus far engaged on levels rarely seen before. But perhaps they’re just being smart by not channelling their energy and resources into flogging a dead horse when there’s a far more pressing issue on the table.
Why is this amendment even being put to the people? Well, the issue arose during the Constitutional Convention, a forum of 100 citizens established in 2012 to discuss amendments to the Constitution. The Constitutional Convention had also sought amendments on housing rights, social security and healthcare services, but this was somehow deemed more appropriate. It’s a funny one; but it’s likely that the government felt backing a contentious, divisive and ground-breaking Constitutional amendment such as allowing two people in love to officially declare their commitment to each other a risky enough manoeuvre without creating further havoc. Best to play it safe on this one, because let’s face it, this government is already all too familiar with the sensation of egg drying into their whiskers.
So, what discussion have we heard to date in #PresRef, as it’s known in the online sphere? Well, the main assertion is that no-one aged under the age of 35 could possibly have the life experience, capability or maturity expected to carry themselves with dignity in this position of great importance. The majority seems to concur. Apart from perhaps the fact that allowing someone to become President in their twenties means you might get landed with paying the Presidential Pension for a few extra years, that, incredibly appears to be the sum total of the debate. Pretty incredible for something as important as a Constitutional Amendment.
The debate has failed on any level to counteract this argument by pointing out the inherent ageism, laziness and unfairness of it. We are not voting on whether or not we will have a 21 year-old President, though given the level of opposition to it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a Yes vote would automatically propel one of Jedward into Michael D’s still-warm seat in the Áras come 2019. I can tell you, however, I’d far sooner see either one – or both of them in there – than the likes of Dana.
The key argument for voting YES to the Presidential amendment is that the current system is anti-democratic, because young people don’t even get the opportunity to present themselves to the electorate. They are currently automatically excluded based on an arbitrary number, rather than getting the chance to be elected or rejected on their merit, or lack of. There is no good reason for this, but plenty of good reasons for our young people – many of them perfectly talented, hardworking, intelligent and capable – to be given the opportunity to put themselves out there. They deserve, at the very least, not to be excluded from this process. And in fact, the key objection to this referendum should be that it proposes to continue excluding adults aged 18-21 from running for Presidential office – the only justification apparently being that it will then mirror the age at which you can become a TD.
So it’ll be two emphatic Yeses for me, because I want to see Ireland becoming a place that’s fairer and kinder, and it strikes me as more than a little hypocritical to be voting for inclusiveness in one referendum while simultaneously opposing it in the other. But the joy of democracy is that we all have our say, so on Friday week, wherever you stand, be sure to have yours too.
An abridged version of this post appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday 12th May 2015.
This article was originally published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 9th April 2015.
Spring is in the air, bringing with it longer days and glorious sunshine. But mixed with the scent of fresh cut grass and cherry blossom, there’s the distinct whiff of a general election, and while in theory, we’re nearly a year away from returning to the polls, politicians are already in full-on electioneering mode. One intriguing element of the next election will be the influence of gender quotas. All political parties will face losing half their funding unless at least 30% of candidates put forward are women.
A drastic measure? Consider this. 566 candidates ran in the 2011 General Election. 86 were women. 25 won seats, meaning that under 14% of our TDs are women – abysmal by international standards. Women’s skills and experience are therefore not proportionally represented in decision-making that affects everyone. This, despite acknowledgement that balanced political participation by both sexes means fairer, more effective democracies – something, surely to which we should all aspire?
So why aren’t women running for election? Commonly cited as barriers to proportional female representation in Ireland are the Five Cs: Cash, Culture, Childcare, Confidence and Candidate Selection. These five factors are interlinked, each impacting the other to create barriers to female participation.
Take cash, to start. Running for election is expensive. Women are economically less well-off then men (this is a fact!). Employments rates drop significantly when children arrive, and many women – who generally still bear primary responsibility for family life – balance this by working part-time, restricting public involvement. Last year, Mayor of Tralee, Pat Hussey resigned from Fine Gael, citing gender quotas. Women, he claimed were being “pushed in” by his party, excluding more experienced members. Mr Hussey, incidentally, claimed to have no problem with women joining councils, but felt factors like babysitting would make it prohibitively expensive for them – an attitude which sharply undermines the role of men in childcare. Which in turn, leads me to culture – the core of it all.
Women battle culture all the time. They’re expected to do more. We have higher expectations of them. Female politicians aren’t just judged on performance, they’re also critiqued on image, appearance, even their voices. When are male politicians subjected to such scrutiny? You can see why confidence, the fourth C is a factor. A key objection to quotas is that women will be selected purely to “make up numbers”; not because they are the best possible candidate. Essentially, a fear that quotas will elect incompetent women at the expense of good men. The economic crash doesn’t say much about the competency of those running the country at the time. Where was accountability and meritocracy then? Why are we now suggesting that women need to prove competency, where men never had to?
Finally, while all of the above contribute to candidate selection difficulties, there is a supply and demand problem. Parties select election candidates, so selector attitudes can contribute – if male candidates have been the norm, breaking the mould can be hard. However, a lack of supply of female candidates putting themselves forward (for the reasons above) restricts those who do want to run women. The vicious circle continues!
So is imposing gender quotas the means of breaking this cycle?
I’m not fully convinced. Quotas are a crude measure, which ignore the issues underpinning the problem. Rather, we need to address barriers that dissuade women in the first place. Childcare, for example, should be viewed not as a female issue, but as a family one. Family-friendly policies may help, but however – and here lies the critical argument! – unless women are adequately represented in the first place, who will drive the change necessary to attract more women into politics?
Evidence also suggests that increased visibility of females in politics can mobilise women, resulting in greater involvement. So while gender quotas aren’t in themselves the answer, I can’t help feeling that – as a temporary measure – they’ll help fast-track some reform necessary to encourage involvement, and so are worth a shot. I therefore reluctantly find myself in favour. Recognising and addressing the issue is a vital first step, so here’s hoping that the outcome of quotas can prove that this is more than just tokenism, and will result in solid, positives outcomes for society as a whole.
This article appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday 9th December.
Last weekend, the Catholic Bishops of Ireland distributed a 16-page document to all 1,300 parishes in the country, outlining their opposition to same sex-marriage, in light of the imminent referendum on same-sex marriage due to take place in Spring 2015. In this lengthy tome, the bishops suggested that same-sex marriage is contradiction in terms, because marriage, by its nature is a “committed relationship between and man and a woman which is open to the transmission of life.”
The debate on same-sex marriage has been rumbling away in the background on social media and the airwaves over the past year and is set to ramp up after Christmas, when campaigning from both “sides” will begin in earnest. Let’s call a spade a spade; it hasn’t been pleasant to date, nor will it continue without causing considerate, disproportionate hurt to many. I can’t cover the entire discussion here, but some of the arguments are questionable, so within the constraints of this column let’s lay some facts on the table.
First things first – the same-sex marriage referendum is concerned with granting civil marriage to same-sex couples, not Catholic marriage. That’s an important distinction. While many wedding ceremonies take place in churches, those that don’t hold exactly the same legal footing – it’s all about that little piece of paper you sign at the end. (And of course, the small fee.) So while Catholic bishops are perfectly entitled to express their opinion on same sex-marriage, the passing of the referendum will – reasonably – not oblige the church to facilitate it.
Secondly, who defines marriage? It doesn’t fall within the Catholic Church’s remit to do so – in fact, claiming it is a little cheeky given its existence outside Catholicism, and given that the first recorded marriage contracts pre-date Jesus himself by about 600 years. Marriage can mean different things to different people – for some it’s about love, other about taxes (both equally troublesome, if you ask me). For more, it’s about children, for others it’s not. To suggest that procreation is central to marriage doesn’t reflect the reality of many marriages today, and is unfair, even hurtful to those married couples who don’t want children and those would love to have children, but can’t.
Children – the big one. One of the central tenets of the Catholic argument against same-sex marriage claims it could effectively “deprive children of the right to a mother and a father”. Now, let’s get this straight (no pun intended). This Referendum is not about parental rights. Many children currently don’t have a mother or father, or either. Others live in unsafe homes with both. Gay people routinely have children, gay couples in Ireland can foster children, and gay individuals can adopt children. The imminent Children and Family Relationships Bill provides for allowing same-sex couples in civil partnerships to jointly adopt, thus protecting those children should something happen to one parent, and is likely to be passed before the referendum takes place. And the obviously, unmarried people – gay, straight, whatever – have children all the time. So this argument simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny on any level, I’m afraid.
Finally, for those who would suggest that civil partnership in its current form is sufficient protection for gay couples, there are over 160 statutory differences between it and civil marriage, many centering around finance, taxation, even the home.
The fact is, allowing lesbian and gay couples – our own families, friends and colleagues – to pledge their love and commitment, secure their futures and those of their children won’t change or affect any existing or future marriage of a man and a woman. Other people’s finances, family lives and bedroom activities are their own business – nothing to do with a Church that with all its own problems, can surely find something more constructive and Christian to do with its time. Ultimately, if you don’t like gay marriage, no-one is forcing you to have one. But if you believe in equality, it surely stands to reason that everyone should have the same opportunity to be miserable.
I’ll be voting ‘yes’. Will you?
Update: January 2016
This post was originally intended to deal with the way society quietly contributes to and colludes with a culture of violence against women in ways that are often so subtle, we don’t even notice. Be it “casual sexism”, the acceptability of men catcalling or abusing women on the street, the common tendency to imply that survivors of sexual assault somehow are partially to blame, the frequent disdain towards feminism, the objectifying and abuse of women in the media, as well as workplace cultures and media cultures that continue to quietly reinforce the myth that somehow women have less to contribute. All of the above elements are intertwined, and all play their own role in the way women are treated in society.
I also wanted to look at the low reporting levels and the frequently sentencing of crimes of violence against women, to examine the way the courts contribute to this culture. I have looked at reporting below; but the list of unduly lenient sentences became so long and unwieldy that I have now removed it, and it is available here.
Reporting of crimes of violence against women.
There’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate that violent crimes against women are significantly under-reported. It’s difficult to obtain exact statistics, but it’s estimated that, as few as one in five incidences of domestic assault are reported to Gardai. The Sexual Abuse Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report (2002) published by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre found that disclosure of sexual crimes was startlingly low – just 7.8% of women experiencing adult sexual assault had reported to Gardai. Bear in mind that prosecutions and convictions for reported crime are very low also – according to the Garda Recorded Crime Statistics report 2007-2011, published by the CSO, there were 1,992 sexual offences recorded in Ireland in 2011. Court proceedings were taken for 318 (16%) of the offences recorded (with 244 pending at the time of publication), and convictions were returned in 54 cases. 54 convictions. That’s a conviction rate of 16%. Out of all offences reported, that’s a 3% conviction rate.
Why is this the case? There are a myriad of reasons. Firstly, identifying an assault in the first instance can be an issue – sometimes women aren’t aware that what they have experienced is actually an assault. Many don’t know where to go for support (over a quarter, according to SAVI, would not know where to turn). The reporting process itself can be traumatic. A victim of crime may have enough on their plate just dealing with the fact that they have been assaulted, without embarking on process they may not feel able to cope with. The burden of proof usually lies with the person who has been attacked, survivors are often afraid that they will not be believed, or that they will in some way be blamed for encouraging or provoking the attack. And if someone who’s been affected by a crime does decide to go down this road, conviction rates are low. The ordeal of reliving their experience on the witness stand under cross-examination can prove too much of a deterrent. If the perpetrator is convicted, sentencing is inconsistent at best.
Even the 2014 Garda Inspectorate Report recently demonstrated just how flawed process are within the force in terms of recording, classifying and following up on domestic violence, and also demonstrated that within the force, “some members displayed negative attitudes towards domestic violence by referring to calls as problematic, time-consuming and a waste of resources.”) So it’s clear that there is a massive problem.
Take the following scenario. To report a sexual assault women need to contact the gardai, and probagly get to a garda station. Depending on who they deal with, they might be given detailed, sympathetic information about the process ahead. SAVI indicates that lack of information from gardai and medical personnel was the main source of dissatisfaction with services – with gardai in particular providing inadequate explanations of procedures being undertaken, and medical personnel needing to provide more comprehensive information regarding services and options. Upon arriving, they’d be advised not to wash, remove their clothing, or brush their teeth. They might be injured – missing teeth, for example, or bleeding heavily. They’d need to be medically examined, but because facilities are under-resourced, they may need to wait for hours to be examined. They may even need to travel to a certain unit to be examined (there are just seven specialist Sexual Assault Treatment Units in Ireland). This is all in the immediate aftermath of an assault.
In terms of reporting, journalist Deirdre O’Shaughnessy gave an excellent and detailed account of the reporting process, pointing out that it is often a fraught one for survivors, who can frequently feel like they are peripheral to the process. Deirdre has included two case studies on the reality of the reporting process which are well worth a read. (Notably, Deirdre also explains that legislation on mandatory reporting of sexual abuse, while designed to prevent re-offending, can place the onus on survivors of assault who are already struggling to deal with the abuse, to ‘save’ others. This legislation will also introduce mandatory reporting for social services, agencies and public sector organisations dealing with abuse victims, a move that may potentially dissuade them from seeking assistance or counselling for fear they may be inadvertently starting a legal process that they don’t feel ready or able for.)
We’ve already seen that once crimes are reported, it’s a long road to prosecution and conviction, and the process can sometimes take years. Over the past few months a trend has become apparent in the way crimes against women are treated in Ireland by the courts. Lenient and inconsistent sentencing in particular is a concern, and I’ve detailed in this separate post just some of the more unacceptable examples of sentencing reported in the past few years. There are undoubtedly more, and the number of judges referenced indicates that this problem is ingrained in the judicial system.
Sentencing is not the only problem. Take the case of Danny Foley, a bouncer from Listowel, who in 2009 was jailed for five years for sexually assaulting a 22 year-old woman. Before he was jailed, approximately 50 people in the courthouse lined up to embrace him and shake his hand – in front of his victim – before he was jailed. Foley later lost a bid to overturn the conviction.
Where is the incentive for survivors to report, and sometimes be forced to relive their ordeal face-to-face with their attacker on the witness stand, when rapists and violent criminals, receive what appear to be minimal custodial sentences, sometimes none at all? When victim-blaming is rife, what does that say to a woman? What does the commercialisation of crimes say to potential rapists – giving them an option to pay a “token” of compensation in lieu of a spell in jail? That they can pay a price for their victim’s consent? The consistent theme of judges commenting on offenders’ previously “good characters” indicates that such assaults are viewed as a mere slip-up, an indiscretion, a minor mistake. Nowhere is there evidence to show that any of the members of the judiciary referenced above demonstrated an appreciation of the impact a sexual crime can have on a woman.
So what’s to do be done?
There’s a lot to do, and less than ever to do it with. But we owe it to those women who have had to endure the physical and psychological trauma of a violent assault, to ensure that we start sending a strong message to them (we are on your side, not your abuser’s) and to abusers (this is not acceptable and you will be severely punished).
When violent or sexual crimes are committed, we need to immediately stop victim-blaming, or implying that women attacked violently were in any way responsible for their assault be that in how they might have dressed, where they were or what they might have been wearing. They were not. The only people ever responsible for violent crimes are those who commit them. This is indisputable – yet we still see fit to imply that women who have been assaulted Jane Ruffino, mentioned above, has written this piece, entitled 10 things you should do when confronted with violence against women, and it’s worth a read.
Female survivors of violent abuse need support, and somewhere they can go for practical advice or counselling in a non-threatening and confidential environment. Organisations like Women’s Aid, the Rape Crisis Network and the Rape Crisis Centres as well as many smaller organisations do excellent work, but in the current environment are fighting harder for a smaller slice of the funding pie. Wexford Women’s Shelter and the Midwest Rape Crisis Centre have both had to close for periods of time due to lack of funding.
The need for sentencing guidelines, particularly in the area of sex crimes is being examined. As already mentioned, the Law Reform Commission is calling for a re-examination of mandatory sentencing however it would also surely be prudent for the judiciary, who undoubtedly have a difficult job to do, to be versed in the very real effects of sexual crimes against women, and to bear in mind the message their sentencing sends to both perpetrators and victims of crime. It is worth noting, however, that in a 2013 report, the Irish Sentencing Information System (ISIS) conducted research which suggested that sexual assault sentences in Ireland are not in fact too lenient, and that rapists who have either pleaded not guilty, failed to show insight into the nature and consequences of rape, or those who inflicted violence, were typically given a sentence of at least nine years in jail. Relatively few sentences were seen as lenient, according to the report, and those that were tended to be highlighted in the media.
There have been a number of calls for training of judges with regard to rape sentencing, particulary from within the Rape Crisis movement; however these have proved fruitless to date. In a 2014 interview on RTE Radion 1 with Seán O’Rourke, retired High Court Barry White rejected the idea of judges requiring training, saying: “I don’t believe that judges need training in relation to sentencing, in cases of a sexual nature. There may be judges who are inexperienced in dealing with crime, who find themselves sitting in the Central Criminal Court, from time to time, but most judges who sit in the Central Criminal Court have had long criminal experience, have had substantial criminal practices over protracted period of time. And they are fully aware, as to the parameters within which a sentence should be imposed.”
The mounting evidence would suggest that they are less aware of the implications of their decisions.
Aside from this, we need to take control ourselves and start creating a culture change. A change in perspective from ‘punishment’ to ‘prevention’, and educating our children, especially our boys, about consent. That means thinking about the way we treat, regard, discuss and behave towards women. All of us, men and women alike. We need education. We need to think about how we speak to our children, how we speak to each other in front of them and instil in them a different mentality than that which exists in society towards women presently.
If our judiciary don’t take it seriously, if our police force don’t do it seriously, if our government doesn’t take it seriously, if a significant proportion of the population at large doesn’t take it seriously, it’s time that those of us who do stepped up to the mark and started making Ireland a safer, better, more just country for everyone living here.
I wrote this post a couple of months back, about a friend. Someone to whom I owe more than I could put into words here. The reaction I received was astounding, heartening and saddening all at once. Too often, we hear tales of domestic violence, abuse, murder in the media, and they’re just that. Stories. I wanted this post to be about a real person. Not just a photo in the paper, to be forgotten next week. I wanted it to remember someone I knew for a small time, but who made a big impact. Someone who had a family and friends, people who cared about her, and were devastated at her loss. For the sake of sensitivity, however I’ve changed some details and disabled comments (something I never do) so as to make her less personally identifiable.
I’ve mentioned her before in this blog, but she was a colleague and a friend. Compassionate and clever, she had studied hard and was looking forward to a career helping others. I can’t do justice to her personality here, but she was the type of person you’d want by your side in a time of crisis. Gentle and softly spoken, she projected an air of quiet confidence and empathy that you knew would make her an excellent carer. She was weeks away from her formal graduation when she was murdered by her partner, seven years ago this month. She was in her early 20s.
I’d met her partner a handful of times. It had struck me what a strange combination they were. I’d heard her justifying what seemed to me like his bad behaviour more than once, and it had arisen in conversation among friends. In personality, he appeared her very opposite – everything she wasn’t. She didn’t speak much about him, but we sensed an ill-ease and a tendency to placate. We saw less of her socially. In hindsight, the warning signs were there.
But we never expected things to end up like they did.
Seven years on, I still feel angry. So angry with him, for doing what he did, to her family and friends. For thinking he could prevent her from living the life she wanted. I feel sad. Because undoubtedly, the world lost a truly wonderful person – someone who would undoubtedly make the world a better place, which is all she wanted to do. (Though I’d argue that in her short time, she did just that.)
And I feel guilty, even now. For not doing more. Even though we weren’t particularly close, it had occurred to me that she might have been in an unhappy relationship. I didn’t make the effort I could have. To stay in touch. To talk. It happens all the time, though. People meet people; relationships begin. Things change. Who, in their right minds, could ever have contemplated the outcome?
Violence towards women is in the news every day. Every single day.
Recent statistics, particular pertaining to Ireland, are scarce, but research indicates that one in five women in Ireland, who have been in a relationship, have been abused by either a current or former partner. One in five. Picture yourself, with four of your friends. Statistically, that’s one of you. Since 1996, 190 women have been murdered in Ireland, and of these, 116 women were killed in their own homes. In those resolved cases, over half were murdered by a partner. According the WHO, most violence globally against women is perpetrated by an intimate male partner, and women who have been physically or sexually abused have higher rates of mental ill-health, unintended pregnancies, abortions and miscarriages than non-abused women. One in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.
So many things contribute to the culture of violence against women. Far more than I could squeeze into one blog post, but allow me to touch on some of them below.
- Victim-blaming. It’s amazing how often we hear about the amount of alcohol that might have been consumed by the victim, how well she knew her attacker, what she might have been wearing. The ONLY person that bears responsibility for a violent attack is the attacker. No-one else. Ever. This can’t be said often enough.
- Focus on the victim – especially if the victim is physically attractive. Reeva Steenkamp, anyone? We need start focusing on the perpetrators of crimes, and condemning their despicable actions, in the strongest possible way.
- Public forgiveness of male instigators – Stan Collymore, Chris Brown are two prize examples. How these two have wormed their way back into public affection is beyond me, but there they are, being rewarded with media roles and record company support. As what they did can be forgotten, like it had only temporary consequences. It didn’t.
- Jokes about domestic violence. “You can beat your wife, but you can’t beat the craic” – really? Language and discourse is so very important. Jokes about domestic violence are everywhere, yet many of us are nervous about calling them out, for fear of being labelled dry. I can’t take a joke? Yeah, cos getting your face smashed in is priceless. Women partake in this humour too. You need to stop and think. It’s not funny.
- Social media responsibility – or lack of: Sites like Facebook deem it acceptable to allow pages glorifying and joking about domestic violence, as detailed here (warning – graphic images) under the guise of freedom of speech. Incidentally, Facebook also recently removed Jane Ruffino’s excellent post about domestic violence, stating that it contravened their terms of service. Go figure. An excellent campaign instigated by Women, Action & the Media is currently pointing out to advertisers that their ads are appearing on such pages and calling on them to pull ads until Facebook revises its policies and guidelines. And it’s working. There is such a thing as bad publicity, it seems.
- Consequences. Sentencing for sexual crimes in Ireland is inconsistent at best. with some worrying trends emerging in terms of inexplicably lenient sentencing for perpetrators. There have been no fewer than three cases in the last few months of attackers escaping prison sentences if they paid a financial penalty. See HERE, HERE and HERE for examples. I can’t articulate how angry I am about this, and about the message it sends to both attackers and victims. Essentially, it’s putting a price on women’s safety. The legal position, where the onus of proof is on the victim, and they, not the perpetrator are cross-examined, is a deterrent to prosecuting perpetrators, and essentially ends up re-traumatising the victim. Fewer than 5% of sex attackers in Ireland are convicted.
Like many other injustices, every single one of us has the power to make change. How?
- By calling out unacceptable behaviour, be that a tasteless joke, or a sexist remark or misogynistic comment. Language is so powerful. Domestic violence jokes just aren’t acceptable. And let’s face it, there are plenty other things to laugh about.
- By looking out for your friends. If you suspect something’s not right, keep an eye. You don’t need to interfere, but let her know you’re there. Do not judge. You might lose patience with someone who’s constantly justifying bad behaviour, but you never know when she might need a friend who won’t judge her. Just be there, and be ready to listen.
- By not being afraid to intervene and call the police when you hear your neighbour screaming because her partner is beating her. It IS your businesss.
- Noting that psychological abuse can also be extremely damaging, and can happen along with, or without physical violence. It erodes self-esteem and the scars, just because they’re internal, are no less deep. It’s abuse, and it’s just as appalling.
It’s also important to note that violence against men, perpetrated by women or other men, is an issue that is very real, and is rarely ever acknowledged or addressed with any degree of seriousness. It should be. And no-one should feel unsafe in a relationship.
What happened taught me two very valuable lessons. Look out for your friends, and look out for yourself. I try to look out for my friends. I often fail dismally, but I’m more aware. I fervently hope that if any of them ever felt they needed to talk, they know they could turn to me. I really, really hope so. And when I found myself in a situation a while back that saw a partner I adored starting to become both obsessive and possessive – checking my messages, monitoring my online activity, questioning me about who I was talking to and spending time with, I knew, despite how strongly I felt about him that I had to get out. I’m not suggesting it would have had a similar outcome, nor that he was capable of being violent, but his behaviour scared me and my instinct screamed at me to leave. Maybe I panicked, but I was scared. I caught a glimpse of the life that potentially lay ahead, and I fled.
Violence against women does not discriminate. It can happen to any of us, regardless of age, wealth, class, outlook. My friend was beaten and murdered in her own home, where she should have been safe. Since she died, over 70 other women have been murdered in Ireland – roughly half of those at the hands of their partners.
If you’re reading this, and you need help, it’s there. People care. Check out Women’s Aid, or the Rape Crisis Centre, and know that it doesn’t have to be like this. If you’re reading this and don’t need help, be vigilant. And know that even you, through your words and actions can make an impact, good or bad.
You may remember I wrote a response in reply to Breda O’Brien’s piece on marriage equality a few weeks back.
My piece sparked a discussion on twitter with David, an old friend of mine, and a far greater thinker than I could ever hope to be. While himself an endorser of marriage equality, David wondered, with sound reason whether there were a better way of making the argument Breda was trying to make, and indeed, if there were any merit to the arguments being made against marriage equality.
What David says:
“I’m curious whether there is a distinctively conservative, non-question-begging argument against marriage equality that should trouble those of us who endorse marriage equality. It might seem odd that I’d be interested in that question. If I think that we ought to have marriage equality, shouldn’t I be happy that opponents of marriage equality use such terrible arguments?
You’ll find David at @_d_o_b_ on twitter.
So much has been said and written on the marriage equality debate of late that I was reluctant to add my voice to the melee. Mostly because those who have written and spoken have done so regularly and in far more articulate and comprehensive terms than I could possibly hope to do within the confines of a single blog post. Colm O’Gorman, for example, every time he speaks on the issue does sterling work in debunking myths. And this piece by Carol Hunt in today’s Sunday Independent says it so much better than I ever could. With biscuits. However, reading Breda O’Brien’s defence of the status quo in yesterday’s Irish Times left me so bewildered that I felt compelled to reply.
It’s fair to say that Breda’s ideology and my own beliefs do not normally correspond. However, no matter how disagreeable her beliefs to me, I can acknowledge that O’Brien is occasionally capable of making a sensible argument. In fact, I roundly applauded her piece on suicide and alcohol, published in January this year. Which makes it all the more remarkable that such a meandering piece could possibly, in O’Brien’s mind, advance her own cause.
O’Brien writes in reply to a piece published by the same newspaper by Fintan O’Toole, which suggested that the arguments against marriage equality were so flimsy that they essentially amounted to bigotry. O’Brien’s response was to argue that these arguments were not bigotry; rather that liberals like O’Toole were blind to the merits of conservative values and arguments, which in essence suggest that appeals to the greater good (“even, in this case, a child-centred good”) trump those “liberal” values of equality, choice and fairness.
At least O’Brien is admitting that, at the very least, opposing marriage equality is unfair.
I don’t know where to begin in terms of pulling apart her arguments. Many of them speak for themselves. But while they have already been addressed comprehensively, point by point elsewhere, I’ll reply to a couple that jumped out at me.
Firstly, there’s the lazy invocation of the tired old “liberalism vs. conservatism” argument. As well as being patronising and reeking of moral superiority (the essence being that conservatives make deeper, more rational considerations and that the former does not understand the rationale of the latter’s arguments) it takes no cognisance of the fact that 75% of the population, who support legislating for marriage equality, are rather unlikely to all classify themselves as liberal. This is not – or should not – be an argument based on political ideology, and on why conservatism apparently trumps liberalism when it comes to the greater good. Rather, the essence of the pro-equality debate is to show that we, as a society, value all members equally, regardless of their sexual orientation. To reduce it to a mere ideological argument exposes the detachment of those at the heart of the opposing debate from why this is actually important. It’s one-dimensional and, I would go so far as to say, irrelevant.
“Thoughtful conservatives are not bigoted, or intellectually inferior, or vile: they just see the balance of values differently”, says O’Brien. Indeed. In fact, if I were a thoughtful conservative, I would be deeply embarrassed by the fact that O’Brien claims to represent conservatives on this issue. Indeed, You need only look to New Zealand to see that some conservatives are capable and willing to embrace positive change.
O’Brien also says she believes marriage is a solemn covenant. So do I. So, I would wager do many of those gay couples who take the massive step of standing in front of their family and friends, publicly declaring their love for each other, and indicating their intention to commit to each other in a partnership for the rest of their lives. Based on love, that commitment to me is a sacred one (though crucially, there is nothing saying it has to be either sacred or based on love).
O’Brien states, however, that “society has a major stake because it provides the most stable environment for bringing up children, a physical and spiritual expression of the couple’s love.” This is incorrect. Obviously – and this has been effectively addressed a thousand times – this definition glaringly excludes those marriages that do not have children. It also, with no justification, calls into question those families who successfully bring up children without being wed. Rather, I see society’s stake in marriage as essentially ensuring that the contract I enter into, of my own free will protects me and my partner and my home – and any children we may have – should anything happen to either of us. This, in addition to how I personally view marriage. The fact remains that civil partnership does not extend the same protection to same-sex couples. And it should. So yes, marriage is a personal relationship, but this is precisely why the state should take an interest.
It’s also churlish and petty of the Catholic Church to try to blackmail the state by implying they will refuse to carry out civil ceremonies in tandem with Catholic ones, as they have always done. Sadly, it’s also disenfranchising no-one but their own practising members.
O’Brien insists, once again that a “child needs both a mother and a father”, despite there not being a shred of citable evidence available in the public domain that suggests that children do not fare just as well with same-sex parents. She suggests that in times when these ideals are not met, people “usually do their very best, and most times, the child turns out fine”. What a thinly-veiled, patronising insult to one-parent families, for example, to suggest that their family unit is less valid or desirable or even potentially damning to a child than the two-parent mother and father ideal. How judgemental. Legislating for marriage equality does not, as O’Brien suggests in a further challenge to the credibility of her own argument, declare that having both a mother and a father has no intrinsic value. And anyone who would suggest so is guilty of some rather poor spin.
(Interestingly, no argument either for or against marriage equality I have seen takes cognisance of the fact that children are not solely raised within the home. Rather, many influencers of children during their formative years are outsiders – be this extended family, teachers, youth group leaders, or indeed those further afield like say, media figures. So, just like those who confirm to the “ideal” family unit, parents in same-sex partnerships are not entirely responsible for how their children turn out.)
O’Brien’s piece then descends into further farce as she ties herself up in knots over the use of language and makes bizarre references to fictional characters like Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Wonderland in an attempt to legitimise her argument. Language is powerful, she says. Yes indeed, Breda. Language is very, very powerful. And language that says clearly to members of our society that they are not – or indeed, should not be – equal or entitled to the same legal rights as others is powerful AND damning.
The most worrying aspect of the fact that O’Brien and the Iona Institute are allowed apparently unfettered access to our national airwaves on an almost constant basis, despite, in this case a lack of any relevant qualification, raises questions about the media’s difficulty in attempting to find qualified dissenting voices. While I for one am perfectly happy to see the Iona Institute rolled out as frequently as possible, because no-one does a better job of undermining their own arguments than they do themselves, ultimately the loser is society. Arguments not rooted in fact only serve to disarm the legislative process and the poor quality of opposition debate contributes to a corresponding decline in quality of legislation.
Ultimately, and happily, we all know that change is on the way. Even old conservative Ireland is gradually recognising that legislating for marriage equality won’t stop the world from turning, and will not impact on them in any meaningful way unless they choose to avail of it. But they are realising that it will make a positive difference to the rights of others, in addition to telling them that we respect and value them and their love equally. And that day is not far away.
I’ll leave you with this – a humorous and emotional celebration of marriage equality and what it really means by – you guessed it – a conservative.
The discussion and debate around Savita’s inquest this week has been criticised for the level to which it has been hijacked and politicised by the two sides of the debate – the “pro-life” and the “pro-choice”. (Terms, incidentally, I detest.) Indeed, the crassness and closed-mindedness of some of the commentary has been nothing short of disrespectful in its militant determination to push its own agendas. Many of the pro-life side blatantly and robotically ignoring the fact that Savita was refused a medical termination was a key factor in the outcome. Many in the pro-choice camp ignoring the fact that in turn, medical negligence has clearly also played a large role. The complexity of the inquest means that both the abortion issue and the standard of the medical care received by Savita are relevant, and to deny either amounts to a deliberate obfuscation of the story in order to pursue a personal agenda. Which in itself is disingenuous and counter-productive, even disrespectful. This is not to mention the glee with which certain elements are attacking Catholics en masse, in what amounts to another form of thinly disguised bigotry. Not that certain members of the church can claim any degree of critical thinking in the debate, such is their adherence to tired Catholic dogma at the expense of the more Christian values of compassion and care.
However, we do need to have this discussion. And happily, we are hearing a little more from those who occupy the middle ground. Listening to and watching coverage of the debate on abortion in the Irish media over the past 20-odd years, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no middle ground. That everyone is either pro-life or pro-abortion. I have even heard arguments rubbishing the use of the term “pro-choice”, suggesting that those who use it are simply, “pro-abortion”, and why dress it up? This does a great disservice to the large proportion of people who may or may not personally agree with abortion, but fervently hope that they are never faced with that decision, and would not seek to deny others the choice of making it. I think of all the discourse I have read around abortion since November, Johnny Fallon summed up my own feelings best in this piece published in the Irish Independent. The issue is far from clear-cut, and despite what political commentators insist, I would hazard a guess that most reasonable, compassionate Irish people feel like this and above all, hope it is a decision they are never faced with.
What irks me most, I think within this debate, is that, within the pro-life lobby – apart from the frankly ludicrous women-queuing-up-to-have-abortions scenario they appear to envisage – there is little recognition of the fact that even if abortion were readily available in Ireland, it is a path that many women, even those facing an unplanned or unviable pregnancy would not choose. Even among those who advocate for choice, it’s a safe to suggest that for some, it would not be a choice they would make personally. Equally, what irritates me about certain elements of the pro-choice campaign is the inherent assumption that all pro-lifers are driven by a religious agenda.
Meanwhile, what scares me the most reading Savita’s story, is that as a woman of childbearing age, under current Irish law, I can present to a hospital, in physical and emotional pain, be told that my baby is going to die, and be forced, against all my wishes and instincts, to comply with a standard procedure – natural delivery – that prolongs that pain. Under Irish law, in this situation, I don’t have a say in my treatment. Whatever your views on abortion, forcing a pregnant woman who is miscarrying to carry through with a natural delivery (and placing her at a higher risk of infection) when there are medical options available to hasten the procedure is, in my mind, wrong. The thought of it terrifies me – Praveen and Savita are described as “begging” for a termination. How needlessly traumatic. I’m not medical expert, but I can see no moral or ethical reason why she should not have had the choice of a medical termination in that situation. And I see no reason either why a middle-aged midwife should feel she has to apologise for explaining the cultural basis of our laws to a distressed woman why it is that her wishes had to be ignored.
Incidentally, neither do I, as a citizen of a supposed democracy, should I feel I should have to consider before attending a doctor whether their own personal beliefs will prevent me from accessing all the information I need to decide what course of action is best for me. While it’s natural that doctors hold personal beliefs, based on their own ethical and moral code, at the very least they should be obliged to provide information and contacts on all options, including abortion, should a woman seek them.
Using Savita’s death to call for “Action on X” makes me feel uncomfortable, however. In fact, I have serious reservations about leglisating for X in its current form, but that’s a discussion for another time. My understanding and belief is that even had it been already enshrined in legislation, it would have done little to prevent Savita’s death, as it was not believed her life was in danger when the termination was requested. Had Savita been granted a termination when she sought one, however, and not been left vulnerable to infection for so long, it is likely and arguable that the sepsis which killed her would never have set in. (It is also likely, that had it been a surgical termination, she would have monitored more closely). That she did not, and was not is a direct consequence of our abortion laws. And who is to say that Savita is the first, or will be the last?
Ultimately, I am in favour of full choice for women when it comes to abortion. Yes, abortion “on demand” (what a dreadful, dreadful term) should be available, if a woman decides it is the option she wants to pursue. I believe that any woman who honestly thinks an abortion is the best option for her should receive the necessary physical – and more importantly, psychological care, firstly to make that decision and secondly, to deal with the implications if she does. While I may hold my own beliefs, I cannot in good conscience say why they should prevent others from making a decision that involves their own body, based on their own instincts, conscience and beliefs. I would greatly welcome a referendum on full abortion; however I cannot imagine that happening in Ireland even within my lifetime.
I’ve been accused, perhaps justifiably, of passing the buck on this before. How I can advocate giving people the choice to “kill an unborn child”? Do my beliefs extend to giving women the option of third trimester abortions? Where I would draw the line and at what stage does an “embryo” or “fetus” become a “life”? Again, I have my own beliefs, but I still maintain it’s not for me to say. In the absence of proof, I’m not the one who should draw those lines definitively for others. All I can ever do is try, in as much as is possible, to control my own situation, and live by my own conscience and moral code when it comes to such matters, and importantly, allow others the freedom to do the same. And certainly where others are not in a situation to control their situations (e.g in the case of a pregnancy as a result of rape, or where a pregnant woman has been told her fetus is incompatible with life) who on earth am I to deny them the means of dealing with it in the way they feel is right?
The bottom line is that with abortion, no-one can ever claim to be really right.
Whatever your opinions on abortion, or indeed on religion or healthcare in Ireland, it is important and respectful to remember that at the heart of the evidence we are hearing this week lies a tragic story of a beautiful, healthy young woman, two bereaved parents living half a world away and a heartbroken husband who has lost his wife needlessly. With her, he lost the promise of a family, and whilst dealing with his own grief he has had to fight to have his story heard and believed. In doing so, he has done this country a huge service by making us confront an issue we have conveniently ignored for far too long. That should not be forgotten.
Photo: D.B. Patil (www.thehindu.com)
This is a letter I have today written to my local representatives in government, and have published here, for wider circulation.
Reading Marese McDonagh’s piece in today’s Irish Times has made me so angry. Angrier than I ever recall being over the past five years. Enough is enough.
Because I have had a home, and income, my health and my independence, I selfishly haven’t done enough to protest against injustices over the past five years. But this is my tipping point. I can’t stand by any longer.
I write to you, as my local representative in government, including the link below to an article in today’s Irish Times.
If you have not already read this article, I urge you to take just two minutes to read it in detail. Absorb it. And think about what it really means. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who is housebound and dependent on an hour of help a week to maintain just their basic dignity. Really think about it.
I urge you strongly to reconsider the decisions this government has made with regard to the provision of home help cuts in our country.
Enough is enough. What your goverment is doing to the weakest and most vulnerable in our society is wrong, and it has to stop. These cuts must be reversed.
No, providing for the most vulnerable in our society won’t help the economic recovery. But the way we care for our elderly tells, more starkly than any economic indicators ever could, the type of society we really are.
Is this really the type of society you want to preside over? Really? The type of society that will leave an incontinent woman lying alone in a bed, waiting for her home help to arrive to attempt to restore her some dignity in the space of half an hour? Really? Is this really what we have come to as a country?
Yes, families have responsibilities to older members, but sadly, these responsibilities for whatever reason are not always met. That absolutely does not mean it is acceptable to abandon the people who have called this country home for decades, who have contributed to its economic growth, have raised children and grown their businesses here. To leave them to the mercy of their own physical and mental frailties. Like it or not, we have a duty of care towards these people. They are our parents. Our grandparents.
As a direct consequence of your actions, thousands of our elderly will become directly reliant on the HSE to provide them with care, at the expense of those with chronic illness. Can you not appreciate how short-sighted this is? Remember, this is the same HSE that thinks it is perfectly acceptable to place cystic fibrosis patients, at high risk of infection, in shared wards and in rooms with shared facilities. In a hospital that is suffering with a severe outbreak of the winter vomiting bug. A HSE that has already shown itself, many times over to be inept at bed management. Yet you appear to fail to realise the potential impact of adding more long-term patients to the system, both in terms of bed availability and overall standards of care.
Is this really what you want to leave as your legacy? Really?
We will all be old one day. We may not all be privileged, or have a voice to speak up for ourselves. But we will eventually all succumb to the limitations of our bodies, and possibly even our minds.You cannot in all good conscience argue that this should mean our dignity should also be sacrificed.
This is only one of a number of letters I could have written. I could have written in anger about how your government has not delivered on your promises on mental health. How education aids for those who really, really need them are being cut, quietly, all around the country. I could have written about how your government continues to justify the payment of €30+bn of OUR money to a dead, gambling entity, in order to fulfil the conditions laid out by our European friends. I understand that patience is necessary when dealing with Europe, and that demonstrating prudency and economic discipline can only help in our quest for debt restructuring. But what you are doing to achieve this is wrong. Wrong on so many levels.
I’m a “middle earner”. I’m not well off. By no means. I drive a car that’s 10 years old, can’t afford health insurance and have a certain level of personal debt. But for goodness’ sake, I have a job and an income and I am not reliant on anyone to care for me, and I can stand up for myself when I feel I am being unfairly treated. I’m the person you should be targeting for cuts and levies, if it needs to be done. No, it wouldn’t be popular with voters. I know, and am not dismissing the plight of many middle earners – particularly homeowners – are already under severe pressure. But we are not confined to beds or empty houses with no independence. What you are doing is not right. It is just not right.
I’m tired of being angry. I’m tired of feeling that we are merely postponing the inevitable sinking of our society. But I’m not tired enough to stop fighting for the care of those who need and deserve it the most, and, as representatives paid by us, to represent the interests of EVERY citizen in this country, neither should you.
I want to know what you, as a paid public representative are going to do, to restore this tiny amount of dignity to our elderly by restoring home help hours to their previous (already woefully inadequate) levels. Writing to you is the first step of many. I, like many others have been silent for too long already. I will not stop until I hear evidence that you are taking definitive action to improve the circumstances of those fellow citizens who rely on their home help to provide them with a minimal level of dignity.
I await your reply.