Credit: Houses of the Oireachtas

The very interesting Fianna Fáil proposal on domestic violence

We can applaud, at the very least, the intent, here, even if the idea itself raises some interesting and important questions about policing and civil liberties:

On the face of it, the idea that the local gardai should have the discretion to be able to inform women if their partners have convictions for domestic violence is a good one. It’s a quick and easy way, on paper, to make women feel safer, and might well save some women from a horrible fate. Nor is it especially strange on its face: The Gardai will routinely inform people involved in gangland feuds, for example, if they believe there’s a credible threat of harm to them from other criminal elements. Women, surely, deserve the same sort of courtesy and protection as drug dealers get, at minimum.

But there are problems, too.

First, this is a discretionary power. It’s not up to the woman to ask the Gardai about her new partner; it’s up to the Gardai to decide if she needs to know. But this by its nature sort of requires the Gardai to keep track of the romantic lives of domestic abusers, and to decide which kinds of domestic abuse rise to the level that a future partner needs to be warned about. What is that level? Is it somebody who’s been convicted of assaulting a former partner in a domestic dispute? Or does it require more serious offences, like sexual assault? In other words, Gardai are to be asked to decide, here, just what level of abuse rises to the level that a woman needs to know about it. It’s not hard to imagine a scandal, a few years down the line, where some poor woman loses her life because a Garda somewhere didn’t inform her about a relatively minor incident in her partner’s previous relationship.

Second, there are, in fact, privacy concerns. After all, why don’t we just create a public, searchable list of those people convicted of domestic violence, and then women can just run the names of their potential dates through a search engine and screen out the violent ones on day one? We don’t do that because, right or wrong, that’s not how the justice system works. People have a general right to start afresh, and move on from the worst moments of their lives. The sex offender’s register is the exception to the rule, and that’s only really there to protect children from potential sex offenders.

The other thing about the sex offender’s register is that it’s not available to the general public. A relevant person or organisation has to go through garda vetting and screening for certain jobs, and presumably those on the register simply don’t apply for those jobs. What’s the equivalent mechanism for women wondering about how safe it is to get involved with a particular man?

All of this seems to me to put immense responsibility on the shoulders of Gardai. The sad truth is that it would be almost impossible to keep track of every domestic abuser in Ireland, so if a law like this was passed, it would apply, most likely, only to the most serious offenders. And that will, in time, cause problems like the one I mentioned above.

Third: At what stage does an intervention come? Is it after a man has proposed marriage? Gone on two or three dates? How is the state to know, for example, that he hasn’t been totally upfront about his past issues, or hasn’t genuinely changed? People do change (perhaps violent abusers change at a lower rate than everybody else, but still), and the idea of the state barging in to upend people’s lives and relationships on the basis of a potentially irrelevant past conviction is one that should make us pause. The intention is good, yes. The results may not be uniformly good.

There’s another point here, too, and it’s perhaps the most fundamental one of all: We’re proposing  to give the Gardai the power to warn women that the men they are in relationships with pose a violent threat to them. But why, then, are those men at liberty to begin with? Isn’t it a fundamental failure of the justice system that we might have men who the state considers to be an actual threat to the safety of citizens just casually roaming the nightclubs and tinder profiles of the country, and the only tool the Gardai have is to monitor them?

I might venture to suggest here that if there are men this dangerous at large (and sadly, of course, there are) then that’s much more a failure of the justice and prison system than it is a matter for the Gardai to warn women about.

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