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Dublin: 9 °C Saturday 1 November, 2014

Aaron McKenna: Domestic violence is just that – violence. Why not treat it that way?

In Ireland, as with most social issues, we treat the matter of domestic violence as a pariah topic that occasionally gets an airing. It’s just not good enough.

Aaron McKenna

RYAN TUBRIDY SNATCHED headlines during the week after an interview with a self-confessed domestic abuser. After hearing details of the abuse meted out to his wife, Tubridy told the interviewee that he would come over to his house and break his legs if he had done it to a woman in his family.

The man, known as Chris, detailed how he beat up and abused his wife over an extended period of time. It was a sickeningly fascinating examination of the motivation and mind of an abuser, even an apparently repentant one, some 20 years after being convicted for his crimes.

Chris was pointing out that abusers are not given much by way of support to change their behaviours, which is a fair point. Punishment for a crime is one thing, but reforming the criminal where possible shouldn’t be ignored. In a broader sense, simply talking so openly about domestic violence was a shock to the system. We spend so much time ignoring it, and yet it produces such a visceral reaction in even the most mild-mannered of right-thinking people when we do hear about the topic.

‘Other people’s business’

Domestic violence is, in many ways, unlike any other form of violence against a person. As a society we do not deal with it particularly well. It is ‘other people’s business’, and we don’t interfere in that as a rule. A report recently indicated that some 70 per cent of domestic abuse cases go unreported, either by the abused or those who may have knowledge of it.

Our standard response to domestic violence is to evacuate women and children to shelters, away from their abuser. Given the familial relations involved, criminal and victim will often – out of necessity or Sophie’s choice – find themselves in close proximity to their abuser even when a crime comes to light.

It is a serious crime and must be treated as such

And yet, domestic violence is quite like any other form of violence: A person is attacked, psychologically or physically, by another. Oftentimes it happens over an extended period, turning into torture as much as isolated periods of violence.

Fine Gael Senator Tony Mulcahy gave an impassioned contribution to an Oireachtas committee hearing on the topic in February, starting by saying: “From what I can remember, my father was a thug and a bully.” As he pointed out, even today the Gardaí are rarely enough called in to scenes of domestic abuse; and when they arrive, it is not treated like most other crimes.

Arrive in a shop to find the shopkeeper bloodied, things smashed up and the perpetrator still there and it seems a fairly open and shut case. Arrive in a home, however, and all of a sudden we’re talking about taking the abused person out and handling the whole thing with kid gloves. Indeed, we have a housing crisis at the moment for women in particular who are suffering domestic abuse.

As Senator Mulcahy pointed out, we have plenty of space to house the perpetrators: in prison cells. Why should an abused individual become a refugee for having the audacity to get kicked around their home?

The causes of and solutions to domestic violence are complex. But in Ireland as with most social issues, we treat it as a pariah topic that occasionally gets an airing and a bit of a charitable whip around to make us all feel better; like something is being done.

What Mr Tubridy proved is that most of us would, ourselves, get violent thoughts in our heads about the perpetrator of such abuse when we are confronted with the stories of it. Ignoring the topic or occasionally giving it some focus for a committee or a report isn’t going to help much.

We need to confront ourselves with the reality that thousands of people are being beaten up in their own homes, now, today, tonight, this week and next. We need to empower the Gardai to do more when they come across a scene of domestic violence; and as a society, we need to raise our hands when we see obvious signs of domestic abuse around us.

The latter piece is, perhaps, the most uncomfortable. It’s one thing for us to say someone else should do something, but another to confront it ourselves. Not to get too Godwin’s law on it, but there are many cases in history where people have scratched their heads afterwards and said, ‘Really, society at large didn’t see that going on?’

In Ireland, do we really think that people didn’t know about abuse at industrial schools? Or laundries? Could there possibly be thousands of people suffering domestic abuse today, and nobody notices it?

Those being abused often cannot help themselves, they are so mentally broken down by their abusers and trapped by their perception of circumstances. We might help them the same way as we should someone being attacked in the street, by running and getting appropriate help.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

Read: Tom Meagher on Late Late Show to take stand against men’s violence towards women

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