Ronagh McQuigg

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, incidents of domestic abuse increased significantly around the world, including on the island of Ireland as described in my recent article in the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly. The lockdown measures which were adopted by many states, although necessary to limit the spread of the virus, nevertheless had the impact of exacerbating the suffering of many victims of domestic abuse. Those already living in abusive relationships found themselves to be even more isolated and trapped in such situations; and the widespread anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of health concerns and financial worries increased tensions within many relationships, all too often resulting in abuse. The increase in rates of domestic abuse was so marked that UN Women, the UN entity dedicated to gender equality, termed violence against women during the COVID-19 pandemic as the ‘shadow pandemic’. Although in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland meritorious steps were taken to respond to the increased rates of domestic abuse, the pandemic has nevertheless exposed and exacerbated pre-existing problems with the responses of both jurisdictions to this issue.

Responding to domestic abuse on the island of Ireland during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Measures were adopted by the governments in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to address the issue of domestic abuse since the onset of the pandemic. For example, the Northern Ireland Department of Justice and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) implemented media campaigns, and the Departments of Justice and Health issued guidance stating that household isolation instructions introduced as a result of the pandemic did not apply if a person needed to leave their home to escape from domestic abuse. In addition, the PSNI led a multi-agency proactive operational response, in collaboration with the Departments of Justice, Health and Communities as well as voluntary sector partners, with the aim of ensuring a joined-up approach to the prevention of harm and the provision of support. The PSNI, in collaboration with Women’s Aid and in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, established ‘crash pads’ in Belfast, Ballymena and Lisburn to enable a safe environment of self-isolation for victims of domestic abuse suffering with COVID-19. Also, one of the most significant developments as regards responses to domestic abuse in Northern Ireland during this period was the passing of the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021, which essentially criminalised coercive and controlling behaviour. Nevertheless, in a joint statement issued in March 2021 by a number of bodies working in the area of combating domestic abuse, including Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland, it was concluded that,

violence against women is still not factored in at the highest levels of the pandemic response, not seen as a fundamental priority in the public health response we need. As the first year of COVID 19 comes to end, we cannot return to ‘business as usual’. We need a new approach, which equally protects all women and girls, and ends the societal inequalities that drive violence and abuse against them.

Various measures were also adopted in the Republic of Ireland to address the issue of increased rates of domestic abuse in the context of the pandemic. The Department of Justice, in conjunction with a range of bodies working in the area of combating domestic abuse, instigated a national public awareness campaign. Both the Courts Service and the Legal Aid Board prioritised domestic abuse and child care cases, and the Legal Aid Board established a helpline to assist victims of domestic abuse. Also, An Garda Síochána took a proactive response and established ‘Operation Faoiseamh’, the aim of which was to prevent loss of life and to ensure that victims of domestic abuse were supported and protected during the pandemic.

Nevertheless, difficulties still remained. In 2020 Safe Ireland commented that:

Domestic abuse specialist support services are a critical part of the infrastructure in Ireland to respond to tens of thousands of women and children annually. However, Covid-19 exposed decades of limited investment in these services. These organisations struggled with the challenges of relying on a small pool of staff with limited availability of relief staff, physical premises that aren’t all suitable to facilitate public health requirements and a significant breakdown in linkage to the national public health decision-making infrastructure resulting in limited access to testing, PPE and clinical care.

As Safe Ireland proceeded to remark: ‘Covid-19 has exposed very clearly the serious weaknesses in Ireland’s support infrastructure.’ In March 2021, Safe Ireland published a discussion paper entitled ‘No Going Back’ which asserted that the COVID-19 pandemic offers society ‘the greatest impetus’ in decades to change responses to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The discussion paper stated that:

We are very clear that Covid-19 does not cause domestic and sexual violence, it has exposed it. This epidemic and the arising communal empathy towards it, have, in turn, fully revealed the inadequate, siloed and poorly resourced way in which we are responding to coercive control generally, and domestic violence specifically.

Looking to the future

As was commented by the :N in April 2020, ‘The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic.’ This statement is very pertinent to the issue of domestic abuse. As was noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, the pandemic has ‘exposed pre-existing gaps and shortcomings in the prevention of violence against women as a human rights violation that had not been sufficiently addressed by many States even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic’. It is certainly the case that the pandemic exposed and exacerbated pre-existing problems with the responses of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to this issue. However, the fact that the pandemic has served to highlight shortcomings may contribute towards an amelioration in such responses in the future. The increase in rates of domestic abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic was certainly widely covered by the media, thus raising public awareness of the issues involved. The challenge for all states, including both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland, must now be to act on the lessons of the ‘shadow pandemic’ and work towards a common goal of combating domestic abuse.