Domestic violence — the issue revealing the arrogance of power

WITH two totally unrelated strokes of a pen, the Government has managed to do what it has failed abjectly to do in the past decade, and that is to put domestic violence seriously on the political agenda.

The importance of this issue was so far off the political radar as far as this Government is concerned, it wasn’t even a blip.

The National Domestic Violence Intervention Agency (NDVIA) was in danger of closing its doors because it had been refused funding so modest it could only be described as peanuts.

The NDVIA is now being given paltry funding of approximately €30,000 over the next three months.

The agency is something akin to a fire brigade providing emergency support services to victims of domestic violence — female and male — and creating awareness of a huge problem that was largely hidden for far too long.

The extent of it can be measured by the fact that more than 250,000 people are the victims of domestic violence annually.

By way of contrast, the Government announced an €11.4 million aid package to support Palestinian refugees, representing an increase of almost 25%.

Ireland had already increased its aid to the Palestinians by a total of 40% last year, to €6.4 million. The money will fund the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) for three years. This agency helps more than four million refugees across Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

The humanitarian aid will target the vulnerable population affected by conflict and make a real difference to the lives of Palestinian families.

Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern made the announcement in Bethlehem at the start of a four-day visit to the Middle East. “Today’s decision will involve a further significant increase in our overall assistance in 2007,” he said.

There is no doubt the Palestinian refugees are desperately in need of whatever aid we can afford, but that should not preclude domestic funding for a vital organisation such as the NDVIA.

What is offensive is that quite a lot of money can be found without any hassle for overseas aid, which is commendable, but a major problem on our own doorstep is virtually ignored.

Yesterday, a spokesperson for Justice Minister Michael McDowell said an offer was made on Wednesday to fund the agency pending a decision on long-term funding.

Unless McDowell imagines that domestic violence is somehow going to disappear, it goes without saying that the agency will continue to need funding. Of course, it’s all a matter of election priorities — and domestic violence isn’t one of them.

The Government’s (including McDowell’s) attitude to the agency is one of sheer arrogance, if not contempt.

On Tuesday, after a derisory offer was made and rejected, some official in McDowell’s department made another offer by phone. This was accepted. The call was made just 15 minutes before the agency was due to hold a press conference to announce its closure, and the reasons why.

To add insult to injury, the offer made is only for three months.

The NDVIA hasn’t a clue what will happen after that, and the future for it — and at least 250,000 victims of domestic violence — is bleak.

I suspect Gráinne Healy, project development worker at the NDVIA, was being either charitable or diplomatic afterwards when she said the past few months had been “a very difficult time” for them and blamed “a mismanagement issue of the project within the government department”.

Mismanagement would be a kind description because for the past 10 years this Government has done very little except pay lip service to one of the most harrowing situations that exists in this State.

McDowell, in what only can be described as a gratuitous insult to every one of the victims, said his department, as a gesture of “goodwill”, was prepared to keep the agency’s funding going while Government policy was decided.

With an arrogance characteristic of the Government he represents, he added: “There is no excuse for winding it (the NDVIA) up and gestures of this kind would have no effect on Government policy. They will only damage the people we are trying to assist, and that is victims of domestic violence.”

The sheer hypocrisy and callousness of that statement is so breath-taking it was hardly surprising his PD colleague Fiona O’Malley was dispatched on a damage limitation exercise.

Two days ago, Gráinne Healy wrote in the Irish Examiner: “The treatment of NVDIA (or rather its mistreatment) reflects a consistent refusal of Government to prioritise domestic violence as criminal and to protect victims and effectively sanction offenders” .

She was writing on the very day that the closure was barely averted — at least for the next three months.

BACK in 1999, the failure of both the civil and criminal justice systems were highlighted, and the Department of Justice agreed to fund a pilot project that led to the establishment of the NDVIA.

The CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop, said it was “imperative” the NDVIA was supported and allowed to continue its work.

“As one of the frontline agencies responding to the terrible consequences of domestic violence, we are calling on the Government to please support the continuation of the work of the NDVIA and make the monies available,” she said.

The agency was promised €3 million when it was set up in 2003 to run an intervention model to help deal with the problems in court cases.

To give an idea of how the Government viewed the relevance and importance of its work, the agency had to survive for more than three years on a miserable budget of €440,000 — or less than €150,000 a year, from which four staff members had to be paid. That’s McDowell’s idea of funding for this vital agency.

In fact, he earns substantially more than that himself annually.

It is not just on the question of domestic violence that the Government has an appalling record but in the entire area of sexual assault and violence generally against women.

Basically, it’s a cynical question of voter power. Even with an election around the corner, the Government still couldn’t care less about domestic or sexual violence against women — or men for that matter — and that was very evident in the way the NDVIA crisis was dismissed — or as good as. Compare that with the urgency surrounding the consultants’ dispute at the moment — although it too has been allowed drag on for two years.

The frightening prospect is that, apparently, Fianna Fáil could be within reach of an overall majority after the general election according to the latest opinion poll conducted by Red C for the Sunday Business Post.

While Fine Gael showed a decrease, Bertie Ahern and his party made a strong showing.

Through its own callous neglect of the issue of sexual and domestic violence, the Government has ensured a phalanx of organisations, including SIPTU and women’s groups, will now make it an election issue.

They include Women's Aid, the NDVIA, Rape Crisis Network Ireland, the National Women’s Council of Ireland and the National Network of Women’s Refugees and Support Services.

This is a formidable alliance and, despite the polls, the Government is far from home and dry. It may well in the end fall victim to its own arrogance, like all politicians who have been in power for too long.

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