Whose Violence? Which Women?


On International Women’s Day 2019, former Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan TD, announced Ireland’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention committing the Irish Government to prevent and combat violence against women, including domestic violence. Article 5 of the convention states explicitly that “[p]arties shall refrain from engaging in any act of violence against women and ensure that State authorities, officials, agents, institutions and other actors acting on behalf of the State act in conformity with this obligation.”

Unpublished Dóchas Centre reports

Since then, two serious reports on conduct within the Dóchas Centre have been submitted to the current Minister for Justice. But neither report will now be published. The former, a “three-day monitoring report,” has been with the Department since August 2020 and its publication has been on hold as the Minister wanted to consider the report in light of the latter. The second report, an investigative report ordered by Minister Helen McEntee, was submitted by the Inspector of Prisons in February this year. With the likelihood of any publication in a timely or transparent manner now extinguished, it raises serious concerns over both the Department of Justice’s ability to to fulfil its remit on gender-based violence and the State’s commitment to the Istanbul Convention.

Recent rhetoric about accountability and transparency has been just that.

Bullying and harassment in Dóchas Centre

So what do we know about what has been happening in the Dóchas Centre? Eighteen months ago, Mick Clifford reported on incidences of xenophobic bullying, harassment and intimidation which became public in a Chaplain’s report. As an international legal document, the Istanbul Convention understands violence against woman broadly to include domestic violence, sexual harassment, and psychological violence. While likely related to a small number of staff, this conduct likely falls within the definition provided by the Istanbul Convention which Minister Flanagan ratified on behalf of the State. But something serious must have happened to prompt the direct ordering of an investigative report by the Department.

If reports into conduct within a closed institution for women deemed worthy of investigation are mothballed on a shelf due to “legal advice,” than an accompanying explanation must also be forthcoming. Are there ongoing criminal investigations based on the report? Are there security risks to the safe custody of the women in the Dóchas Centre? An allusion to legal advice is not sufficient when the stakes are so high.

Combatting violence against which women?

Following the recent high-profile murders of women in Ireland, the Department of Justice has been tasked with being the lead department on combatting violence against women, declaring that there would be a “zero tolerance in our society of domestic sexual and gender based violence.” 

Yet a key attribute of many of the women who end up in our prisons is a history of being subjected to violence and abuse, often since they were children. A UK penal inquiry, published earlier this week, showed that more than half of women in prison reported experiencing emotional, physical or sexual abuse in childhood. And more than half reported being victims of domestic violence as adults. 

Whose violence? Which women?

The decision to not publish the two Dóchas Centre reports undermines the Department of Justice’s stated commitment to combat violence against women. Whose violence? Which women? It appears as if violence within State institutions is not subject to “zero tolerance” and that women in prison are viewed as less worthy of a zero tolerance approach; even though this violence against them is compounded by their earlier experiences of it.

Last month, the Department of Justice completed a public consultation for the Third National Strategy to combat Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. With the ongoing ‘masculination’ of female imprisonment – overcrowding, reduced out-of-cell time and increasingly sparse family visits – occurring in Ireland, the Minister can find additional examples of violence against women much closer to her door that it is within her control to prevent.