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Graham Dwyer and the true nature of violence against women in Ireland

This trial was about a misogynist’s criminal desire to control, dominate, harm and kill a woman – we must not exceptionalise this.

Image: Niall Carson/PA Archive/Press Association Images

JENNIFER O’CONNELL WROTE for the Irish Times on Saturday that the Dwyer trial has forced light onto the darkest part of Irish society. More than anything, I hope it forces us to confront the true nature of violence against women in Ireland.

This trial was about a misogynist’s criminal desire to control, dominate, harm and kill a woman.

We must accept that this kind of thing really happens in our society

1. We must not exceptionalise this. We must not dismiss it as unusual, or like something from a book or film.

Comparing it to the stuff of fiction is, in a way, comforting, because we don’t have to think that this kind of thing really happens in our society. A number of media reports have played on this theme, articles replete with references to 50 Shades and so on.

But this is not exceptional. It is not unusual. We may not usually hear the kind of details we have in this case but in the 18 year period from 1996-2014, 206 women were killed in Ireland (see Women’s Aid’s work on this here). Some 99% of these killings were committed by men, 89% by men that were known to the victim (partner, ex-partner, father, son, brother). Nearly a dozen women a year are killed in Ireland, usually by someone that they have a close relationship with.

A previous study of homicide in Ireland by Dr Enda Dooley, which considered the period of 1992-1996, noted that homicide between partners was on the rise and that of the 205 deaths under consideration in that period 46 deaths were by men of women, and 15 by women of men. Many of the latter were classified as a response to domestic incidents or mental disturbances (so domestic violence was the trigger in many instances). Female involvement in homicide, either as victim or perpetrator is invariably connected to domestic or intimate partner violence. (This is very different to experience of men, who are more likely to be killed following an argument with friends or acquaintances, in robberies, for revenge, or through organised crime.)

Those who think that this case was different, that it deviates from more common forms of intimate partner violence miss the underlying causes: the desire within some men to control, manipulate and dominate women. They also miss the fact that little is known about the extent of consensual BDSM relationships in Ireland, let alone the frequency with which men push these relationships beyond the consensual.

We as a society are only starting to accept that when a woman engages in a certain amount of sexual contact with a man this does not automatically make subsequent intercourse consensual. I can’t begin to imagine the difficulties a woman would have arriving a garda station explaining that she willingly participated in certain acts but didn’t consent to others.

Exceptionalising the Dwyer trial will only achieve one thing: it will ensure that we do not prevent this from happening in the future, that we do not prevent other women from being injured or killed by such men. It might make us feel a bit better about our society, but it puts women at risk.

Exploding the domestic violence myth

2. We must not forget the lesson that seems to have been learned through this case that violent men look a certain way: that is a domestic violence myth, a myth which has now been exposed. Seemingly respectable, middle class professional men are violent toward women.

According to Women’s Aid, 1 in 5 women in Ireland report that they have been the victim of violence at the hands of a current or previous partner. The true figure could be much higher. Some 1 in 3 will endure emotional abuse in the course of a relationship (it’s interesting to note that ‘coercive control’ has recently been made a criminal offence in England and Wales, but it has not been specifically criminalised in Ireland). The prevalence of violence against women is proof enough that it crosses all social boundaries.

And these are not one-offs. Three-quarters of domestic violence incidents are repeat offences and 50% of husbands who beat their wives do so three times a year. Because of the controlling nature of the relationship, the fear of not being believed, the knowledge that leaving is the most dangerous thing a woman can do, these cases are not reported readily.

Indeed, some statistics suggest that most women will endure over 30 incidents of physical violence before reporting to the police. And it is not OK to say, ‘well if they won’t report what can we do?’ Safe Ireland’s report, The Lawlessness of the Home, published this week, cites research that domestic violence is reported far less in Ireland than in other European countries. If the response and support system was better some of these concerns could be elevated, which leads to my next point.

Gardaí unfortunately fail victims of intimate partner violence on a daily basis

3. While it is tempting to praise the gardaí involved endlessly for their tenaciousness in pursuing this case, we must contextualise that. Gardaí unfortunately fail victims of intimate partner violence on a daily basis. When such women are brave enough to report these crimes, they are belittled, ignored, left unaided. Safe Ireland’s report is evidence of that. The Garda Inspectorate report on Criminal Investigation exposed this starkly. That report documents a number of particularly disturbing findings:

  • Of the 10,373 Domestic Violence Sexual Assault call-outs in the period under study, less than half were recorded. In addition to a lack of follow up, non-recording means the next time police are called to that address, there is no record of the previous call out.
  • Only 247 of those incidents were recorded as leading to an arrest, usually for breach of a barring order rather than for a crime such as assault.
  • Of those that are recorded, only 56% of domestic violence incidents were correctly recorded on PULSE, many as a different (usually lesser) offence. In one incident where the suspect had confessed to stabbing his partner it was later reclassified as a non-crime incident. Vehicle theft, by comparison, is correctly recorded 80% of the time.
  • While the average number of crimes sent for investigation is just 59%, this falls to 24% for domestic violence.
  • Arrest and follow up visit policies are regularly not adhered to.
  • The Garda Domestic Violence and Sexual Offences Unit has primarily focused on sexual offences against children.
  • The report concludes that an Garda Síochána needs to “urgently re-appraise both the strategic and operational response to DV.”

Speaking frankly, gardaí would respond that these cases don’t go anywhere, that the women invariable drop the claims, that they always go back to him and so what’s the point in pursuing them? Waste of time. Emotionally draining for the gardaí involved. Only likely to negatively impact on clear up rates. But, again, this is to misunderstand that most such women are in highly vulnerable positions. It speaks to a macho culture that is failing women.

How we, as a society, understand and respond to this case is important for the future safety of women. The question that needs to be asked is how do we change men’s attitudes to women to ensure that they do not treat women like this, not victim-blaming questions such as ‘why do so many women submit?’, such as asked in an Irish Independent article published today.

Dr Vicky Conway is Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Kent. This piece was originally published by Human Rights in Ireland.

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Vicky Conway

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