Two women, who were subjected to stalking by men they scarcely knew, have launched a campaign to have a specific offence of stalking introduced on to the statute book with longer sentences for the crime than that currently available to prosecutors.
Una Ring (43) from Youghal in Co Cork and Eve McDowell (21), a student at NUIG, were both subjected to terrifying campaigns of stalking and both saw their stalkers receive similar sentences, of seven years with two years suspended, after they had each been convicted of harassment.
The women, who established contact with each other after they had both spoken separately on The Ryan Tubridy Show on RTÉ Radio One, have now teamed up and, with the support of the Cork Sexual Violence Centre, have begun a campaign for stalking to be recognised as a separate offence with significant penalties.
Ms Ring told The Irish Times that they had launched a petition as first step to getting the Government to urgently enact clear and concise legislation making stalking a crime in Ireland and one that carries a sufficient penalty to deter anyone from engaging in it.
“On the rare occasion that stalking is prosecuted in Ireland, it is prosecuted under harassment laws. The terms ‘stalking’ and ‘harassment’ are sometimes used interchangeably, but they can be very different,” said Ms Ring who saw her stalker, James Steele jailed for five years for harassment.
“Harassment is unwanted behaviour from someone else that makes you feel distressed, humiliated or threatened but stalking is more sinister and distressing – when James Steele was messaging me that was harassment but when he turned up at my house with a crowbar that was stalking.”
Ms McDowell said that since people heard how her stalker, Igor Lewandowski (21) had been jailed for five years after he stalked her at various locations around Galway and broke into her flat with a claw hammer, she has been contacted by many women who had similar experiences.
“I would say at least 10 to 15 people contacted me directly and I know there were others who contacted The Ryan Tubridy Show to tell of similar experiences after both Una and I told our stories – it’s far more prevalent than people think and that’s why we need this new legislation.”
Ms McDowell pointed out the Law Reform Commission recommended in 2016 that stalking be defined as a separate crime to harassment but legislation has yet to be introduced, unlike in the UK where legislation has made stalking a specific offence resulting in a rise in prosecutions.
In the UK, where someone is convicted of stalking and they put someone in fear of violence or cause serious alarm or distress, they can be jailed for up to 10 years whereas the maximum sentence here for harassment under Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act is seven years.
Mary Crilly of the Cork Sexual Violence Centre, which is backing the campaign and the petition, which now has almost 1,000 signatures, said that stalking is often minimized whereas it can be hugely intrusive, disturbing and terrifying experience for those subjected to it.
“I think stalking is a huge problem and when Una and Eve contacted me a couple of weeks ago, I asked them about their experience and who did they contact and why wouldn’t they contact us? And they said they would never contact us because they weren’t sexually assaulted.
“Here at the Cork Sexual Violence Centre, we would have had calls from people who would say that they had people following them but they didn’t know what to do – I think there’s a huge vacuum out there for people who have this happen to them.”
Ms Crilly said that those who contact the centre to report harassment or stalking would indicate a mixture of people being behind it – from ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends through to people they may know casually know from work or their neighbourhood and others they scarcely know.
Ms Crilly said she was surprised that the Government had not included a provision to make stalking a separate crime when it recently introduced new legislation making revenge porn a crime. She believes it needs to move now on the issue as a matter of urgency.
“We would hear women, particularly girls tell us how their friends seek to minimize stalking by saying things like: ‘Oh you are so lucky to have one so interested in you that they are following you.” It’s not being taken seriously in the way it needs to be taken seriously.
“And it is a serious problem because if a guy is followed up the road and being stalked, his fear is that he is going to be assaulted and have his head kicked but for women, if they are stalked, the fear is that they will be raped or sexually assaulted.”
Stalking Ireland, the campaign group set up by Ms Ring and Ms McDowell is holding a webinar on May 6th that will be addressed by both women as well as experts while they also have set up a website and the petition can be signed at https://my.uplift.ie/petitions/legislation-for-stalking-in-ireland-now?s=03