Miriam Lord: Another watershed moment? Maybe this time it will be different

Special Dáil session on violence against women was compelling and heart-gripping

Bloody typical.

You spend years talking about watersheds and then none of them come along at once.

But that’s always been the way.

No wonder speakers on the unvarnished subject of “violence against women” sounded doubtful about what exactly will result from the latest round of Government commitments sincerely announced in the wake of the latest crime to shock the nation.

And who can blame them?

Down through the years the promises made on the floor of the Dáil have been many but the track record poor.

Maybe this time it will be different.

Another woman dead. Another national outpouring. Another round of TDs solemnly and resolutely announcing a watershed moment.

They didn’t do this for the optics. On Wednesday, every politician who stood up in the chamber to declare the death of Ashling Murphy as the beginning of a major turning point in the State’s strategy against gender-based violence meant every word that they said. On this issue, they always do.

As a compelling and occasionally heart-gripping session drew to a close, Galway’s Catherine Connolly added her voice to the overwhelmingly female chorus of hope against hope.

As women we see ourselves and feel an anger and fear that is all too familiar. I am sure I'm not alone in this House when I say I cried many times this week

And yes, maybe this time things will be different. But one sensed she won’t be holding her breath.

Time and again, “watershed” moments have been declared on the floor of the Dáil following a particularly heinous act, resulting in little action down the road.

“I come from the city where Manuela Riedo died in 2007 – 17 years of age, barely a wet day in the country. That was to be a watershed,” she recalled, adding it followed on from the task force on violence against women in 1997. “That was to be a watershed too.”

Harassment and abuse

The women TDs (for it was mainly women) contributing to the specially scheduled session on the Dáil’s first day back after the lengthy Christmas break spoke powerfully of their personal experiences of harassment and abuse from men. But like deputy Connolly, they were under no illusion that the death of Ashling Murphy will herald an instant, miraculous change in State policy.

What was different this time was the tone of the discussion and the depth of emotion in the contributions. There was an overwhelming sense that years of pent-up anger, frustration and plain weariness was finally tumbling out and onto the historic record of the House from the women of the House.

The Taoiseach spoke well. “Enough is enough” was his message. He sat through most of the debate, which lasted over two hours. Even allowing for the reduced numbers allowed in the chamber owing to social distancing requirements, there seemed to be a very poor attendance from male deputies.

Micheál Martin was followed up by Helen McEntee, the Minister for Justice. “In Ashling, we see our sisters, our daughters and our mothers. In her family, we see our own,” she said.

“And as women we see ourselves and feel an anger and fear that is all too familiar. I am sure I’m not alone in this House when I say I cried many times this week.”

The Minister outlined the wide-ranging measures, legislative and otherwise, she intends to combat the problems faced by women. In a Dáil discussion marked by a collegiate sense of solidarity and purpose, her proposals were welcomed by colleagues from all sides but – understandably given past experiences – with a certain degree of pessimism.

Justice system

Many references were made to the chronic lack of places in domestic violence refuges, to reports promised but not delivered, to inadequate sex education, to the treatment of victims in the justice system and to the systemic failure to address a culture which permits low-level abuse and harassment of women by men.

But it was the heartfelt accounts of the personal experiences of women deputies which made listeners catch their breath. This was a first for the Dáil chamber. Speaker after speaker, such as Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte, her voice shaking with emotion, telling of a sinister telephone threat from a man in the middle of the night.

“There is no reason that someday it might be me on the news. Whenever you see it, call it out. Call it out.”

Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly summed up the feelings of frustration conveyed by her fellow TDs over their years of pleas and protests, their simple desire to be allowed to go about their lives without fear, as men can do. She is sick of it, sick, tired and totally fed up.

At one stage, as he called another speaker, the Ceann Comhairle could barely struggle out the words. It was a unique onslaught from the women of Dáil Éireann and he looked a bit stunned, even if he wasn’t the target of their ire.

Fine Gael’s Jennifer Carroll MacNeill couldn’t conceal her anger at the men who cry “not all men” and who have had “their little feelings hurt” by the outpouring of anger and pain from women.

Those hurt by the discourse in recent days should “take a hike”.

“They can just take a hike. Take a hike!”

‘Onus on men’

Gary Gannon of the Social Democrats told men it was time they woke up to “the lies they tell themselves . . . There is an onus on men to end this scourge.”

Some of the men who spoke seemed to be on a learning curve, which is a good thing. Fianna Fáil’s Cathal Crowe had just heard the phrase “it’s not all men but it is all women”. He repeated it again. “It’s hugely eye-opening”.

Independent TD Cathal Berry said men have to challenge the bad behaviour of other men, “because the standards we walk by are the standards we accept”.

He quoted the singer Michael Jackson. “I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways.”

Sinn Féin’s Rose Conway-Walsh had a useful suggestion, given the fears so many speakers have that the issue will fade away again when the story dies down.

“Can we bring this back on the floor?” she asked, wondering if the subject and the progress made by the Minister could be brought back for discussion every two months or so for the rest of the year. “We cannot afford to let this slide.”

Indeed, when you hear the Minister promising to bring in legislation before Easter which will criminalise stalking and non-fatal strangulation (Patrick Costello of the Greens had earlier asked when it might be ready), the case for urgent action in this area is unassailable.

The Minister ended the debate by talking about her hopes and dreams for her nine-month-old son: “And in the last week I promised myself – no matter what he is or who he is – that he will respect women, that he would call out these type of inequalities and he would stand up when he sees this type of behaviour in the future.”

Maybe this time real change will happen.

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