Coalition: Ignore women at your peril

IT IS disingenuous of Justice Minister Michael McDowell to insinuate that the National Domestic Violence Intervention Agency, a Government-funded pilot body that for the past three years has provided invaluable support for victims of domestic violence, is somehow to blame for closing down after running out of State funding.

His department’s off-hand treatment of this agency, forcing it to operate on a shoestring, has exposed the hypocrisy of Fianna Fáil-PD pledges on women’s issues. In light of this scandal, the Government stands accused of cynically neglecting women’s issues despite making a string of promises it has failed to honour.

With women’s groups preparing to make this an election issue, the Tánaiste should be under no illusion about the level of anger among women’s groups up and down the country. Above all, the Government’s shoddy treatment of an agency operating successfully at the coal-face of domestic violence was the last straw.

A real political threat now comes from a broad church of women’s groups, among them the National Women’s Council which has 105 constituent organisations.

Undoubtedly, the really important aspect of the agency’s work was in bridging the information deficit regarding this country’s growing crisis of domestic violence. Having collated information on each incident of domestic violence, drawn from professionals including health and social workers, the gardaí and the probation service, the reports were passed to the judiciary.

Displaying the kind of political arrogance for which he has become well known, Mr McDowell, whose silence on this matter has been deafening, had the temerity to inform the public that he sees “no reason” why the support group should close.

This despite the fact that the Dun Laoghaire-based body made no fewer than 16 attempts over recent months to speak with officials at his department. Inexplicably, the agency was not contacted until last Thursday about arranging such a meeting.

Regrettably, the discussion at Monday’s long overdue session, has since been described by the agency’s development officer as “very disappointing”. Apart from offering to bail them out of the present difficulties, department officials were clearly not empowered by their political masters to give the agency a long-term guarantee.

As women’s groups know only too well, the victims of domestic violence constitute an invisible constituency. Even though an estimated 214,000 women were battered, raped or abused over the past decade, apart from getting lip service from politicians, their plight has largely been ignored.

Adding insult to injury, Mr McDowell had the temerity to announce that as a gesture of “good will” the Department of Justice was prepared to continue the agency’s funding pro-rata while Government policy on rolling out the service nationally was decided.

That’s rich coming from a Minister of Justice whose department had effectively starved the agency of funding. Though it needed only a niggardly €3 million to maintain the service, with a core workforce of four, management had little alternative but to wind it up.

The threat by women’s groups to turn this controversy into an election issue unless it is sorted out within the next three months amounts to a major political backlash for the Government as it prepares to go to the country this summer.

The promise by Minister of State Frank Fahey to release before the election a long-awaited National Women’s Strategy plus a strategic plan to address violence against women can be seen for what it is — blatant electioneering.

If the Government fails to provide the National Domestic Violence Intervention Agency with the funding it needs, it will become a lightening rod for a powerful women’s political lobby at the polls.

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