'It's just the start': Campaigners to continue struggle against stalking amid review of law

Justice Minister Helen McEntee announced in the Dáil this week that she would publish a bill before Easter that will include new criminal offences for stalking and non-fatal strangulation
'It's just the start': Campaigners to continue struggle against stalking amid review of law

Una Ring who was subjected to sustained harassment and sinister stalking before the man responsible brought terror to her home. Photo: Larry Cummins

There is one less battle to fight but there are many others.

After an incredibly traumatic and difficult week following Ashling Murphy's killing, three women who spearheaded a campaign for a new law to criminalise stalking saw a glimmer of hope on Wednesday that signalled to them that meaningful change may be on the way.

Less than nine months since her department said new laws on stalking were not required, Justice Minister Helen McEntee told the Dáil on Wednesday afternoon that she plans to publish a bill before Easter that will include new criminal offences for stalking and non-fatal strangulation.

While stalking itself is already covered by existing law, Ms McEntee said she will propose changes to make the law “clearer and stronger”, to include the explicit reference to stalking as a criminal offence, and updating the law to make sure it includes all forms of modern communications.

It will also make it clear that stalking includes watching or following a victim, even where they are not aware of being watched or followed, she said.

In her speech, Ms McEntee paid tribute to Eve McDowell from Sligo and Una Ring from Cork, who led calls for the law change and told their story to the Irish Examiner last April as they launched their campaign.

They watched the announcement separately with a mix of emotions: joy their campaign has succeeded, relief that it happened relatively quickly, but sad that it took the killing of a young and talented school teacher to prompt action.

Ms McDowell and Ms Ring were both subjected to sustained harassment and sinister stalking before the men responsible brought terror to their homes — one armed with a clawhammer, the other with a knife, rope, and duct tape.

While both escaped physical harm — in Ms McDowell’s case thanks to a brave housemate, and in Ms Ring’s case, a phenomenal policing and surveillance operation — both believe they came close to death.

Both men were charged with, among other things, harassment, under Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997. But Ms McDowell and Ms Ring felt a stronger law was needed.

They decided last year to use their distressing shared experience to drive a new campaign for a law that defines stalking as a standalone crime, for longer jail sentences for the offence, and for more information, support and counselling for victims of stalking.

They spoke publicly about their stalking ordeals and about their campaign, which was backed by the Sexual Violence Centre (SVC) in Cork. They knew it would take time and determination but they were in this for the long haul.

Legal reforms in this area were moving in the right direction but they were moving far too slowly, as far as they were concerned, a sentiment shared by legal experts and campaigners like SVC's Mary Crilly.

The Law Reform Commission’s 2016 report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety recommended the enactment of two new criminal offences to deal with posting online of intimate images without consent - one to deal with so-called “revenge porn” and one to deal with the type of voyeurism known as “upskirting” or “down-blousing”.

Both were eventually enacted in early 2021 through Coco’s Law — the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act — which created two new offences to criminalise the non-consensual distribution of intimate images:

  • the first offence deals with the distribution or publication of intimate images without consent and with intent to cause harm, with penalties including an unlimited fine and/or seven years imprisonment;
  • the second offence deals with the taking, distribution or publication of intimate images without consent even if there is no specific intent to cause harm. This offence carries a maximum penalty of a €5,000 fine and/or 12 months imprisonment.

Enacting this law, Ms Entee paid tribute to Jackie Fox, whose daughter, Nicole, or Coco as she was affectionately known and after whom the law is named, died by suicide in 2018 following years of relentless bullying. Jackie had campaigned long and hard for tougher laws.

But the 2016 Law Reform Commission report had also recommended a separate offence of stalking, which it described as “an aggravated form of harassment”.

We asked the Department of Justice last April for its view on the campaign for a standalone stalking offence. In a statement, it said the creation of a distinct offence of stalking was examined by the department in the context of the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020.

It said, following consultations with various stakeholders and an in-depth examination of the current offence of harassment, it was clear that stalking behaviour is already encompassed in the current offence of harassment under section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997.

 Eve McDowell, whose stalker, Igor Lewandowski, stalked her first before he was arrested in May 2019 after breaking into her apartment armed with a clawhammer, and assaulted her housemate. Photo: James Connolly
Eve McDowell, whose stalker, Igor Lewandowski, stalked her first before he was arrested in May 2019 after breaking into her apartment armed with a clawhammer, and assaulted her housemate. Photo: James Connolly

“Instead of introducing a distinct offence of stalking, section 10 of the 1997 Act was amended to increase the maximum penalty for harassment to 10 years’ imprisonment to reflect the harm caused by those who engage in the most serious forms of harassment.” 

Ms McDowell and Ms Ring described the response as disappointing, and they rolled up their sleeves for a long campaign, all done in the context of the Covid pandemic.

Their campaign was boosted last September when Fianna Fáil Senator Lisa Chambers introduced the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Stalking (Amendment) Bill, which proposed a new crime of stalking be put on the statute book, with a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Both women said this gave them hope and a sense that the political tide was turning in their favour, but they reckoned it could take several more months before the bill would pass through its various stages.

Ashling Murphy

Then last week, Ashling Murphy went for a run, and never came home, and everything changed.

On Wednesday afternoon, the day after Ashling's funeral, a senior civil servant from the Department of Justice phoned Ms McDowell and Ms Ring to tell them to expect an announcement from the minister in the Dáil within minutes. They each scrambled to find a screen to watch it live.

The new law they were told last April wasn’t required, would be published by Easter, the Dáil was told. It prompted initial feelings of elation, shock and delight, followed later by a sense of sadness.

Their thoughts turned to Ashling, her family, her boyfriend, her friends and colleagues, and they wondered why it took her death for action. There is now a renewed sense of determination in them both.

“What happened to Ashling Murphy last week has paralysed a lot of us but this gives us hope that this could be a watershed moment,” Ms McDowell said.

“We’re delighted to see things are moving so quickly now. But it’s not just legislation that’s needed - we need to see support services too. So this is just the start as far as I’m concerned.

What this has proved though is that with determination, you can change things. There are so many other areas that need to change.

Ms Ring said the fact they’ve had success within nine months gives her encouragement to continue campaigning.

“It’s awful that Ashling had to die for this to happen. It often takes a tragedy for something to change. But this gives us hope,” she said.

“We will continue to advocate, to tell our stories and to publicise this issue.” 

For the crusading and hugely respected director of the Sexual Violence Centre, Mary Crilly, there was a sense of quiet satisfaction.

To get this result less than a year after the campaign started has given her hope that this could be the start of real and meaningful change.

“I have no doubt that the timing of this was all to do with what happened to Ashling,” she said.

“You can spend years working away, campaigning to get laws changed, so for this to happen so quickly is great.

“There have been ‘watershed moments’ before but I really feel that this now is the start of the movement.

It’s important that the minister has agreed to introduce a law specifically on stalking which will call this for what it is - a crime. It means that whatever happens to victims from now on, this will be a clear and standalone criminal offence.

She praised Minister McEntee who she said has shown herself to be proactive, to be open to meeting victims of crime and support organisations to get a sense of the realities on the ground, and to be open to making the required changes.

“It’s a slow process to change the law, and even slower to change a culture and attitudes but we have to keep challenging that. This is one less battle to fight but there are many others,” she said.

The SVC, University College Cork (UCC) and Tusla are conducting a major national survey on stalking and harassment experiences in Ireland that will inform the policy response.

You can complete the survey at www.stalkinginireland.ie

- If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please click here for a list of support services.

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