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Helen McEntee cracks down on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, as she prepares to welcome her second child

Protection, prevention, prosecution and policy are all key to minister’s plan for zero tolerance

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Justice Minister Helen McEntee. Photo: Gareth Chaney

Justice Minister Helen McEntee. Photo: Gareth Chaney

Justice Minister Helen McEntee. Photo: Gareth Chaney

It’s been such a long time coming that it’s well overdue. But finally, a plan has been hatched to tackle a problem that has been the scourge of our society.

To much fanfare, Justice Minister Helen McEntee on Tuesday announced the strategy which promises a “zero-tolerance” approach to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

With a budget of €363m, the five-year programme of reform is nothing if not ambitious. It’s the third strategy of its kind launched in recent years to tackle such violence, with the minister readily admitting she drew much from the work that pre-dated her tenure.

But how optimistic is McEntee about the practicalities of the changes promised?

“This has been two years in the making. We wanted to get it right. It was very important to speak to all the stakeholders, and get the views of victims of domestic violence in particular. I think for now, the strategy certainly does [go far enough]. But it will be reactive.”

The minister said tackling domestic and sexual violence has always been on her radar — and it was in fact the first body of work she undertook when she was given the Department of Justice portfolio.

“The first area I focused on when I came into the department was domestic and sexual violence. We all have all had experiences, or are aware of family or friends that have had these not-so-nice experiences.”

She acknowledged that not all such criminal incidents end up “in the criminal justice system”, and that she never thought she would “have the opportunity” to introduce the measures now on the table.

It’s been a busy period for the minister. Aside from finalising this strategy, she announced in June that she and husband Paul Hickey were to have their second child. She is already a mother to Michael, whom the couple welcomed into the world in April 2021 when she became the first woman to have a baby while serving at Cabinet.

She went on to take six months of paid maternity leave. Does she intend to take longer or less time this second time around?

“Yes, six months again.”

Who will step in and take over the justice portfolio in her absence? Last time around, Heather Humphreys temporarily took over and was generally well received.

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“It hasn’t been discussed,” she explained. “And that would be a matter for government.”

Under the new plans, maximum jail sentences for domestic abusers will double to 10 years, while the number of refuge spaces for women, children and men fleeing attacks in the home are also set to double.

One notable absence in the far-reaching strategy is a measure to introduce further sentencing guidelines in the judicial system for those convicted of rape and other serious sexual offences.

This matter is due to be tackled by the Judicial Council as part of its overall work on sentencing guidelines, but the minister cannot be unaware of the light sentencing in some instances for rape offences — especially when compared to crimes such as theft.

“You do sometimes wonder at the sentences for some crimes. But I’m very conscious of my position and that of the judiciary. I am very much a believer in reform and rehabilitation. But where serious crimes occur, there must be serious penal sentences.”

The minister said the judiciary has “flexibility” and “options” to apply lengthy terms for those convicted of serious sexual crimes.

She agreed, however, that crimes of a sexual nature could be under-reported, due to low prosecution rates and the perception of lax sentencing tariffs.

Elsewhere, the minister said she has full faith that An Garda Síochána will eventually dismantle the Kinahan organised crime group with the assistance of international police forces, including the US authorities.

Asked about plans to give gardaí permission to use facial recognition technology in murder, missing persons and child sex-abuse cases, the minster insisted the technology would be used sparingly.

“It will be very specific and on a limited basis. Only a very small number of people will have access to it, and it will greatly reduce garda hours spent going through CCTV.

"When DNA technology first came out, some people thought that was an invasion of privacy. Remember, this technology can also be used to exonerate people.”


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