Wednesday 23 October 2019

Lorraine Courtney: 'Johnson's neighbours feared for someone's safety - of course they had to call the police'

Boris Johnson is the Tory frontrunner to be the UK's next prime minister. Photo: REUTERS/Hannah Mckay/File Photo
Boris Johnson is the Tory frontrunner to be the UK's next prime minister. Photo: REUTERS/Hannah Mckay/File Photo
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

There is something about domestic rows that makes people freeze. Disturbance within the home, happening in a private space, is a grey area and so we pretend we didn't hear it. For too long, intimate partner abuse has been considered a personal matter we shouldn't get involved in.

In the early hours of Friday morning, a neighbour heard shouting at the flat Boris Johnson shares with Carrie Symonds. The neighbour knocked on the door and when there was no answer, phoned the police. Was the neighbour right to intervene? Lots of people think not.

Today, we are increasingly crammed into cities and often our neighbours' business becomes our own, whether we like it or not. Your neighbours' shouting could be just a regular fight, or it could be something more dangerous: it's hard to tell when you're hearing it through a wall.

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You could knock on the door and ask if everything is OK - to let your neighbours know that you're there and are listening. But what if it's just a normal argument and you're being a busybody? What if you make things worse? You could phone for help but you risk wasting Garda time and embarrassing your neighbours.

I like to believe that if I saw some cause for concern in the street I would take out my phone and call the local Garda station straight away. But when you're home alone, trying to decide whether you should get involved, it's easy to assume someone else is intervening instead.

'The Attitudes to Domestic Abuse in Ireland' (2008) was the first report of its kind carried out here. Commissioned by Cosc, the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, the report found that just 38pc of respondents said they would help a neighbour being subjected to domestic abuse.

Respondents were also asked whether they thought other people who had witnessed domestic abuse would report it to gardaí. Almost three-in-four felt that other people would be unlikely to make a report. The main reasons given for this were the feeling that they should not get involved in other people's business (88pc) and fearing that they might make matters worse (75pc).

Boris Johnson's neighbours have been criticised by some people for calling the police, but when it comes to hearing screaming next door, what is the official advice?

"Each individual case needs to be judged individually, and it's up to the person at risk to identify what is safe for her," says Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.

"In this case, it wasn't possible to speak with the woman, so the neighbours took a precautionary step of ensuring that the authorities were notified because they assessed that the woman could be in danger. Ideally, people will take their lead from the person that seems to be in danger."

Sarah Benson, director of Women's Aid, says that if someone has concerns for the safety of another person, they should contact the authorities.

"What we should be asking ourselves is what is the cost of doing something? And what is the potential cost of doing nothing?" she says.

"You could be saving a life or saving somebody from serious harm or injury. Just because violence is happening next door doesn't mean that we don't have a social responsibility as a community."

A very worrying detail in the Boris Johnson story is that the police denied an incident had happened until being told the 'Guardian' newspaper had the case number. Our country still fails victims of domestic violence and intimate partner violence too, not just in the way people excuse men, but in a failure to confront the fact that domestic violence is as common a fixture in the average Irish home as the hotpress.

Safe Ireland's research 'The Lawlessness of the Home' (2015) showed that the different layers of the justice system, from gardaí to judges, failed to give the majority of women the time and attention necessary to properly analyse her specific case.

It told us that women were not taken seriously and that their allegations were not fully investigated.

The Garda Inspectorate Report in 2014 told us that some gardaí referred to domestic violence calls as problematic, time-consuming and a waste of resources. Most worryingly, it told us that the law is often applied differently.

Benson says there have been positive developments with the Garda Domestic Abuse Intervention Policy 2017 and the roll-out of special divisional units aimed at investigating specialised crime types, including sexual crime, child abuse and domestic abuse.

"Women's Aid has been providing training for An Garda Síochána and we are seeing good responses. We hope that with these new units we'll have a higher level of awareness of the dynamics of domestic violence," she says.

We all need to show more compassion and concern for the people who live around us, even if our location is the only thing we have in common.

Sometimes your neighbour really needs your help. If you overhear a fight, reporting it is always better than letting it go.

Women's Aid's 24hr National Freephone Helpline is 1800 341 900 and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre's National 24hr Helpline is 1800 778888

Irish Independent

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