The use of firearms in domestic abuse cases in Northern Ireland has virtually disappeared following ceasefires and decommissioning, according to a major new study from Ulster University
Despite difficulties, there has been a "very marked change" in access to, and trust in, the ability of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to investigate domestic abuse, particularly in nationalist/republican communities.
The “Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies: Insights and Lessons from Northern Ireland” study to be launched on Thursday is the first to compare domestic violence before and after the ending of the Troubles.
Led by Emeritus Professor Monica McWilliams, the report finds that domestic abuse victims have benefited from the fall in violence and the wider social changes that have taken place since the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
However, the greater confidence shared by victims that cases can, and will be investigated means that PSNI figures now show that 29,166 incidents of domestic violence in 2016/17, the highest-ever.
A study carried out by Prof McWilliams in 1992 detailed how membership of paramilitary groups increased the level of power and control available to perpetrators of domestic violence, as well as the belief that they could operate with impunity.
Conducted with support from the Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland, the report is based on interviews with 56 women who were victims/survivors of domestic violence in 1992, and 63 women 24 years later in 2016.
The use of guns to threaten victims was a “main feature” of the 1992 report, while in 2016 just 4 per cent of victims reported their use.
In 1992, participants reported “incidents in which a firearm was held to their heads, threats by partners saying they would get a firearm, and refuge workers recalled seeing women with circular bruising on their necks caused by a firearm’s muzzle”.
Cases were also cited where husbands, or partners copied the Russian Roulett' scene from the film Deer Hunter, where the trigger of a firearm held to the victim's head would be pulled but without the victim knowing if a bullet was inside.
The 2016 study found that perpetrators of IPV were no longer able to draw readily on paramilitary connections (real or fictitious) to control their intimate partners as they were in 1992, and paramilitary-style attacks are much less likely to be used to punish perpetrators.
Decommissioning reduced the availability of weaponry, while a shift in police attitudes and responses towards firearms means police are now more likely to remove legally-held weapons immediately, it found.
In 1992, victims felt unable to call the police, particularly in nationalist or republican communities. Often, police did not respond when they were called, fearing that they were being lured into ambushes.
The 2016 study found a high level of trust in police from all communities, including nationalist ones, while a majority of victims were happy with the PSNI’s response. Unlike in 1992, there were no reports that police had failed to arrive when called.
Impact of quotas
The findings illustrate the “significant impact of the Patten Commission’s reforms, and in particular the impact of the introduction of quotas for Catholic police recruits following the 1998 peace agreement”, the report found.
Legislation incorporating coercive control and psychological abuse should not be delayed any further in Northern Ireland, it stated. The report also found that a strong link continues to exist between domestic violence and poor mental health. A quarter of victims have tried to take their own lives.
Sexual violence in domestic violence is “much more prevalent” than official statistics suggest, with almost half of the 2016 participants reporting they had been raped by their intimate partner. However, two-thirds of victims in 1992 and today complain that GPs are “not helpful”.
“Weak responses” by GPs were criticised as representing “a significant missed opportunity for identifying and intervening” in situations of domestic violence. Equally, experiences of social workers were negative, with two-thirds of victims in 2016 unhappy.
Social workers said they are “overwhelmed by the number of referrals”, “could not handle caseloads”, and that they often felt “helpless” to assist victims. The report called for extra training and help for healthcare staff.
Northern Ireland’s “more conservative and religious” attitudes impacted on decisions taken about domestic violence, with nearly half saying that religious attitudes had shaped their experiences of domestic violence.