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‘We’re turning a big ship’: What has changed in Irish society since Ashling Murphy’s death?

Front-line services have called for greater action on the government’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ strategy

LAST UPDATE | Jan 12th 2023, 9:37 AM

TODAY MARKS THE one-year anniversary of Ashling Murphy’s death.

The 23-year-old school teacher was fatally attacked while jogging along a canal near Tullamore on 12 January, 2022.

While it sparked an outpouring of grief, it also ignited anger that such an attack could happen.

In recent weeks, more high-profile incidents have occurred with the deaths of Natalie McNally in Lurgan, Co Armagh, and Bruna Fonseca in Cork.

Speaking on the day of Ashling Murphy’s funeral, then-Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil that he wanted a zero-tolerance approach to violence against women.

In June of last year, the government published its ‘Zero Tolerance’ strategy to tackle domestic, sexual and gender based violence.

‘Big Ship’

Noeline Blackwell, the CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC), told The Journal that the strategy underscored how a whole of government approach is needed.

Blackwell said the strategy, which has four pillars and over 150 actions, emphasised how “there was going to be no magic bullet that would fix a problem that was endemic in our society”.

“One pillar is the protection of those who had suffered violence against women and gender-based violence,” explained Blackwell. “A lot of that [includes the DRCC's] work in terms of therapeutic support for people, the National helpline, and helping people when they’re going through the court system.”

She added there are also actions around prosecution, prevention and policy coordination.

While Blackwell said she could “give out about all the things that aren’t done so far, because an awful lot remains to be done”, she acknowledged that “we’re turning a big ship here” when it comes to gender-based violence.

“And all of the actions of the ship have to move together.”

The DRCC CEO said “shocking” incidents like Ashling Murphy’s killing “allow a conversation to take place publicly”.

This happened after Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual misconduct and the #MeToo movement happened, after Ashling Murphy’s killing, and after high profile rape trials.

“Society suddenly was appalled at the way in which we failed to protect or even to understand those who were victims of sexual and domestic violence,” said Blackwell. 

However, while Blackwell acknowledged that “the societal conversation will move from one thing to another”, she said it is the “government’s duty to keep their eye on the commitment made last June” with the zero tolerance strategy, particularly given how many people gender-based violence affects. 

“Government seems to be committed to making change, but it’s not going as fast as some of us would like and as fast as is needed to protect more.”

Court system

Orla O’Connor is the director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland. She pointed to the family courts as one area where change is not happening fast enough.

“Long term societal change is needed, “she told The Journal, “but also short term changes like in our family courts, because there’s a huge transformation needed there to protect women.”

“We need changes within our family court system, so that we prevent the risk that women are currently at, particularly around domestic violence.

Blackwell took a stronger line, saying: “Our court system is still not fit for purpose, but our gardaí are being better equipped to investigate these cases as we go along.

And more cases are being brought forward by the DPP where people are reporting, but it’s still a very cruel system.

Blackwell claimed that the court system was “never structured properly to deal with intimate violence” and “needs a lot of improvements so that cases are heard in a reasonable way, and victims are treated properly.”

She also noted that organisations like hers are now better equipped to help women going through the courts thanks to recent governmental funding.

Last week, Justice Minister Simon Harris announced funding of €5.25m for organisations like the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Blackwell called for funding like this to be administered on a “structured basis” so that organisations like the DRCC know what they are doing year to year.

And while she acknowledged that structural changes like the court system “will take time and is taking time”, she adds that eventual change “will be very visible” when it’s done.

Statutory agency

Meanwhile, she urged the Justice Minister to adhere to the current timeline that is in place for the establishment of a statutory agency for domestic, sexual and gender based violence.

This agency is due to be in place by 1 January, 2024, and will coordinate the implementation of the Zero Tolerance strategy.

In response to a question from The Journal while speaking to reporters yesterday, Minister Simon Harris said that the creation of a new statutory agency “is absolutely still the intention and that remains absolutely on track”.

The strategy also committed to increasing the maximum sentence from five to 10 years for assault causing harm – one of the most common charges in cases of domestic abuse.

This was due at the end of last year, and National Women’s Council director Orla O’Connor said it needs to be made a priority.

The Justice Minister said: “We are going to have a number of really important pieces of legislation that I expect to pass the Oireachtas between now and the summer, including legislation that will double the maximum sentence for assault.”

‘Momentum’

O’Connor described the Zero Tolerance strategy as “ambitious” but called for a “real focus on implementation so that the momentum is not lost”.

“There have been positive developments since Ashling Murphy’s death, but the energies now need to focus on actually implementing that strategy,” said O’Connor.

She noted the strategy recommends significant changes “in terms of trying to create a very different society, with changes to our primary and secondary school curriculum and third-level institutions.”

O’Connor said this “societal and preventative change needs to happen now”, but was concerned at the pace of change.

“This change needs to happen in our schools and workplaces and in sporting organisations, there has to be a whole of society approach and we’re definitely not there yet.”

However, she pointed out that there was “some progress on things like refuge accommodation”.

She said that gender-based violence was one of the “key things” highlighted in the aftermath of the killing of Ashling Murphy. “No one in government was really taking full responsibility for gender based violence,” O’Connor said.

“There was a decision made that it is the Minister for Justice who has overall responsibility. So the accountability and responsibility is important.”

Education

In addition, both Blackwell and O’Connor pointed to the need for change within the classroom.

Blackwell in particular expressed concern about the way in which consent is taught, as well as teaching around pornography.

“Education in our schools hasn’t changed since 1999,” she said. “We need better education for our children about relationships and harmful behaviour and how to cope with harmful behaviour.”

However, she acknowledged that Education Minister Norma Foley “is making some progress in the area.”

But Blackwell added that children are not being taught about consent in schools, unless it has decided to run a consent programme. She said a lot of her work is around “helping people to better understand what consent means, so that so that people can really grapple with the realities that a lot of non-consensual sexual activity takes place”.

She is also worried about the harmful impacts of smartphones on young people, particularly young boys. “If someone has a smartphone, they have access to pornography,” said Blackwell, “and they are being targeted by pornography.”

“So if a child has a smartphone, even if they’re not looking for it, they often come across it. It’s pornography which is abusive in attitude and behaviour, but where are their alternatives.”

Blackwell said that “for the most part, children don’t talk about it at home… So many children are getting most, if not all, of their education from pornography.”

While people might say children are digital natives, they are not being taught to deal with this type of situation, she said. She emphasised the importance of emotional development for children in understanding “healthy and unhealthy relationships, to understand the difference between abuse and respect”.

Orla O’Connor of the National Women’s Council also worries about an inability to reach young male students. 

“It’s vital to engage boys and young men, and it’s something we haven’t been successful at doing in terms of tackling gender-based violence,” said O’Connor.

In the aftermath of Ashling Murphy… some sporting organisations contacted the Women’s Council to look at how they could start to have conversations within their groups.
We haven’t found a way to engage boys in these conversations, and in this vacuum, you have figures like Andrew Tate and you have boys looking to him as role models and wanting to be like him.

“We have to have this in our school curriculum, but also in other places as well like youth groups and sporting organisations [and] having a different conversation about what it means to be a boy in terms of positive role models.”

Speaking to reporters yesterday, the Justice Minister noted that the zero tolerance strategy involves “providing proper sex education”.

He added: “There are very clear actions in the strategy in relation to reform of the Junior Cert curriculum and we also intend to change the primary school curriculum.”

‘Societal conversation’

In the aftermath of the tragedy of Ashling Murphy’s death, Blackwell said that it is important that a “societal conversation” was begun.

“In a very bleak scenario, if there is something that came out of the killing that we can point to, it is that societal conversation. Her death elevated the societal conversation, so that more people are concerned about creating a better society.”

Reflecting on the anniversary, Blackwell remarked that we must also think about those close to Ashling and what the date means to them: “One of the things I really think that we have to remember is how hard first anniversaries are for the family, as well as for friends.

“Any first anniversary is hard, but with this being a semi-public one, it is particularly hard on her family and friends, and I wish them all the best.” 

A national 24-hour helpline, operated by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, can be contacted on 1800 778 888.

- Additional reporting by Tadgh McNally