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Irish women call for law reforms to protect and prevent victims of violence

Writes Maeve McTaggart

Victims of violent crime have called on the Irish government to reform laws which rehabilitate prisoners “at the expense of their victims,” advocate Sinead O’Leary has said. The implementation of the Parole Act – which sees the minimum life sentence extended from seven to twelve years and gives victims representation in the parole process under the establishment of a new Parole Board – has been a slow-burn since it’s signature in 2019, and survivors have begun to speak out on the re-traumatising impact of the standstill. While the Parole Board is established, the bill is not retrospective, meaning those with life sentences remain eligible for parole after seven years. 

Sinead O’Leary was nineteen years-old when Peter Whelan broke into her friend Nichola Sweeney’s house in Rochestown, Cork as the girls were getting ready for a night-out in April of 2002. Whelan fatally stabbed Nichola and left Sinead with life-long injuries, who has since discussed “the deep pain of knowing [Nichola] had died” alongside “the overwhelming physical pain I was in.” Following the random attack, Whelan returned home, had a cigarette with his mother and re-joined a congregating crowd outside Nichola’s house as emergency services arrived. “He walked up to the house, acting like a concerned neighbour,” Sinead explained, “he had the presence of mind [to do that].” 

Whelan was given consecutive sentences of fifteen years in prison for the attempted murder of Sinead and life in prison for Nichola’s murder. He has appealed his case repeatedly – going as far as the European Court of Human Rights – and has been granted day release three times, most recently in 2019. The O’Leary and Sweeney families were never notified of his escorted return to the community on these dates. “My sense of safety has been tarnished completely and will be forevermore,” Sinead says of learning her friend’s murderer had been at his home in Cork before serving even seven years of his life sentence. Whelan is now eligible for parole, but if functioning retrospectively, the Parole Act would have delayed this process a further five years. 

The Act, committed to within the recent Programme for Government, provides for the extension of mandatory life sentences and the establishment of an independent, statutory Parole Board to which victims can appeal in person. Since it’s signature in 2019, the establishment of a Parole Board has been delayed due to “practical” issues, such as insufficient funding, a lack of premises and the need to recruit board members, staff and a Chief Executive. A Project Board has been established in the Department of Justice and wants to begin this process “as quickly as possible,” a spokesperson has said. 

Victims’ advocates, often those who have lost loved ones or are survivors of violent crime themselves, are adamant that these reform measures are few and far between. The families of Sinead O’Leary and Nichola Sweeney are leading the charge to establish exclusion zones, where the perpetrator of a crime is prevented from again returning to the area. “I acknowledge that prisoners need to be rehabilitated, and in some cases reintroduced into society,” Sinead O’Leary has said, “but that should never be at the expense of their victims. The trauma of losing someone to murder has ripple effects throughout a community and throughout generations. These people need to be protected and supported and they should not have to face that murderer walking through their hometown.” 

The calls for reform and a renewed sense of urgency to implement the Parole Act in it’s entirety have gained impetus following the murder of Sarah Everard in early March. The 33-year-old went missing in London on the night of March 3 as she walked home from a friend’s accommodation; her body discovered a week later in the woodlands of Kent before a serving police officer – a stranger to Sarah – was charged with her murder. The senseless crime deeply affected many, who shared stories online and attended protests to highlight the constant threat of violence women and minority groups must adapt to, daily, citing their protective measures of a longer route home at night or holding a key poised as a makeshift defence. 

“You look at poor Nichola and you always hear all the time ‘the wrong place at the wrong time’ and like, we were exactly where we should’ve been. We were in the safety of her home, in her bedroom, in a house that she loved,” Sinead O’Leary told the listeners of Síle Seoige’s podcast Ready to be Real in mid-March. 

“When we were to go into town later that night, that’s when our parents would have been worried, that’s when they would’ve been like ‘I hope the girls are safe, I hope they get home safe.’”

The national conversation collides with the publishing of a report from Transport Infrastructure Ireland, which records that over half of Irish women avoid using public transport at night and over thirty percent are reluctant to travel due to feelings of insecurity. The report, entitled Travelling in a Womans Shoes highlights the lack of safety felt by women in Ireland, affecting how they work, study, socialise and live to combat the impact of this fear.