Wednesday 22 May 2019

Elaine Byrne: We are not all cherished equally in this benighted republic of ours

Those old attitudes which saw women incarcerated for being pregnant linger on in parts of our society, writes Elaine Byrne

WE live in a Republic. It was once proclaimed that Irishmen and Irish women have equal rights and that the children of the nation are cherished equally.


"He heard some screaming... he said he never heard anything like the screaming, that it was just, he never heard anything like it."

The words of Marge, the mother of the man who interrupted the vicious, violent sexual attack by a middle-aged multi-millionaire on a young teacher.


It comes from the bottom of the throat. A raw, base, primeval animal instinct. An ugly, disgusting sound that serves only to repulse. The last line of defence. A sound that should never, ever be borne witness to.

The attacker's name was Anthony Lyons. Not that it matters.

The Irish Times described him as "an aviation broker", the Irish Independent as a man "well respected and well connected in the aviation business" and the Irish Examiner as "successful" and "high profile."

But in our Republic, "money talks".

The victim's grandmother used those words outside the court after the multi-millionaire was ordered to pay €75,000 in compensation to the woman who pretended she was pregnant in a desperate, begging plea to stop her hurt.

The multi-millionaire was convicted of sexual assault and received a six-year sentence with five and a half years suspended.


Although he "rugby tackled this young lady to the ground in a dark area under trees on a quiet road", Judge Desmond Hogan said the multi-millionaire was "hitherto of good character".

Under this Republic's judicial system, €75,000 afforded this wealthy aviation businessman a suspension of five and a half years of his sentence. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre described this "unusual step" as one where "a person with money" avoids a lengthy custodial sentence which ultimately "brings into question the fairness of the criminal justice system as such an option is not available to a person with no money".

In other words, if you don't have money, you don't have recourse to the same justice because you can't afford to pay like those "people of means". "People of means." Those are the words used by a member of this Republic's judiciary to describe a multi-millionaire.

But the victim of the well-heeled Griffith Avenue perpetrator did not want his money. She wanted justice. This is the statement her mother issued to RTE's Liveline.

"My daughter, the victim, made it known through her barrister, a month before the sentencing that she did not want any compensation, if it would in any way reduce the sentence."

The attitude of many in this country towards sexual offences is extremely alarming. A 2008 Irish Examiner/Red C survey found that 41 per cent believe that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she is drunk or has taken illegal drugs. Another 37 per cent believe she bears some responsibility if she flirts extensively with a man while 26 per cent believe it's

her fault if she wears sexy or revealing clothing.

In other words, she brought it on herself.

According to the Rape Crisis Network Europe, Ireland has one of the lowest rates of conviction for rape in the EU.

Most rape cases do not get to court, the evidence is not sufficient or complainants withdraw their complaints. But when they do, Ireland has a high success rate. The Director of Public Prosecutors annual report for 2010 showed that of the 29 cases of rape which were heard, 23 of the rape suspects were convicted.

My hero is a friend of mine called Ciara (not her real name). Full stop.

I did not know how to describe a woman's scream until she testified some years ago in the cold brown box of the circuit court about her rape. We were good friends in college and she granted me the privilege of her trust to sit and listen to her five-day rape trial.

Her attacker, like every other man accused of rape, was not obliged to take the stand. She had to. When 'Ciara' was cross-examined, the barrister for the defence asked her about her sexual history, what she wore and what she had to drink. The onus was on her. It was her fault.

Her attacker did not have to account, at all, for his actions. The barrister asked her if her "injuries" were consistent with "straddling a gate". Because that's what women do. We straddle gates.

I swear, but that disgusting use of the English language will remain with me until I die. I get so f***ing angry now thinking about it again.

Straddling. A gate.

He then asked her about the rugby poster on her bedroom wall. The rapist was from a well known sporting family. Middle class, well known, respectable and all those other words we use to disguise and dismiss the truth.

The implication, of course, was that someone like that, from that background, with that pedigree, a man of "means", would never do such a thing.


'Ciara' stood up for me and every other Irish woman by virtue of going to court. A courage we can only salute.

But she did that, even after Justice Daniel Herbert's controversial verdict about the convicted rapist, Paul Leech, in 2002. The learned judge decided that "no actual injury was inflicted on the victim, other than rape".

Other than rape.

"It was just something that happened between them but it went too far." Justice Daniel Herbert actually said that, only 10 years ago.

The disparity in sentencing is appalling. A consistency of approach is essential in order to maintain public confidence. Justice Hogan justified his recent lenient decision in the Lyons case because of "mitigating factors". There are no guidelines regarding what should be treated as aggravating or mitigating circumstances or the extent to which they are brought to bear on a sentence. No reasoning is provided to explain the underlying rationale of the sentence.

It is the judge's discretion.

People believed my friend all those years ago, she came through it and he did not get away with it. By brutally raping her, he stole a part of her life. She got some -- some -- of it back by exercising the judicial system on him, or at least tried to.

This Republic stood idly by and said nothing when Irish women were committed to the Magdalene laundries because of their "poor moral character". We did nothing when our pregnant women were forced to undergo symphysiotomies, a procedure in which the pelvis is broken during childbirth, many without their consent. We did not shout stop when Dr Michael Neary preformed totally unnecessary hysterectomies on young women. This Republic dismissed Donegal woman Brigid McCole who was unnecessarily infected with Hepatitis C.

No more.

These attitudes are not in the past. They linger on. And they do not apply exclusively to victims of sexual crimes or of medical negligence.

Last week, twentysomething reporter Niamh Horan wrote on the front page of this newspaper that a man twice her age and weight threatened her with a broken glass when she approached him.

The man was the Priory Hall developer Tom McFeely. A former IRA member who served 12 years in the Maze prison. The response on Twitter? She brought it on herself. She deserved it.

Frank Fitzgibbon, the fiftysomething editor of the Sunday Times, said this on Twitter:

"Tough lesson. Guess she should have asked his permission before sticking her camera in his mug."

Niamh was to blame. It was her fault.


The National Rape Crisis 24-hour Helpline can be contacted at: 1 800 778 888

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