The two women spearheading a campaign to criminalise stalking say the problem is far more widespread than they realised, underlining the need for urgent legal reform.
Una Ring and Eve McDowell, who launched their Stalking Ireland campaign after surviving terrifying stalking incidents, told a webinar on Thursday that they’ve been inundated with emails from women, mostly, sharing similar experiences.
“We have had emails from people who have been putting up with this for years,” Ms Ring said.
Ms McDowell said: “There is a realisation that we are just the tip of the iceberg. We have been shocked by how many people have had to deal with this, and how many are still dealing with it now. This is way more widespread an issue than we realised when we started this.”
Some 700 people registered for the webinar, which was hosted by Mary Crilly, the director of the Cork Sexual Violence Centre, which is supporting the Stalking Ireland campaign. She said some 8,000 people have signed their petition calling for the legal reform, and said they are in the campaign for the long haul.
Ms Ring and Ms McDowell both spoke openly about their experiences at the hands of stalkers.
James Steele, 52, from Rosscarbery, Cork, was arrested outside Ms Ring’s home during a garda surveillance operation last July. He had orange rope and duct tape in his pockets. He was carrying a metal crowbar. He had a dildo, or prosthetic penis, strapped to himself inside his trousers.
He was jailed last February after pleading guilty to a six-month campaign of harassment, and of attempting to break-in to commit rape at Ms Ring’s home on July 27, 2020.
Igor Lewandowski, 21, was jailed last May after pleading guilty to harassing Ms McDowell at her student accommodation in Galway, and also at various other locations around Galway city on dates between May 10 and 27, 2019.
He also pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated burglary by breaking into her apartment on May 27, 2019, while in possession of a claw hammer, which he used to assault her flatmate, causing her harm.
Ms Ring spoke of how Steele fantasised about duct-taping her hands and mouth, and had searched chloroform on the internet with the view to kidnapping her.
She also spoke about the ordeal had on her family, with her son sleeping by day and staying awake at night to safeguard the house, and her daughter wanting to sleep with a knife under her pillow.
Both women spoke of the fear of having to face their stalker in the court, and of the need for longer jail sentences.
Rebecca Coen, head of research at the Law Reform Commission, said harassment, as covered in Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, is a wide umbrella, which covers everything from neighbourly disputes, at one end of the spectrum, to relentless campaigns of terror at the other end of the spectrum. But she said the Commission’s view is that stalking is of a different order - it’s very personally directed, involves fixation and obsession, and is distinguished by the fact that it’s a continuous offence, a series of actions that operate to terrorise a targeted victim.
“The power of the stalker, much like the power of the terrorist, lies in the anxiety caused in the intervening period,” she said.
She said most of the recommendations made in the Commission’s 2016 Report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety were made law following the enactment of the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act last February.
But two were not: a recommendation to make stalking a specific offence by criminalising aggravated forms of harassment, and the introduction of civil restraint orders.
UCC law lecturer, Dr Catherine O’Sullivan, said naming stalking as a specific offence matters and the introduction of the specific stalking offence in England and Wales has made a difference.
Detective Chief Superintendent, Delcan Daly, of the Garda National Protective Services Bureau, said stalkers are very difficult to profile, but he said it is very common for a stalker to have had a prior intimate relationship with the victim, that the stalker has a strong controlling or violent nature, is not keen on rejection or is obsessive and compulsive.
“What is important for the gardaí is that their concerns are not dismissed, that incidents are not looked at in isolation, that they are looked at as a pattern of offences, and where you feel fearful, please report it to An Garda Siochána,” he said.