Women in Northern Ireland are twice as likely to be murdered as a result of domestic violence than in the other UK nations. In some years, almost half of Northern Ireland murders are connected to domestic violence. In the 2022/23 year, of 17 homicides there were eight that resulted from domestic violence against women.
Northern Ireland is also an outlier in international terms. While Finland has the highest rate of femicide by a partner, Northern Ireland is joint second with Hungary. (A report from Eurostat that found Northern Ireland and Romania to have the joint highest rate has been challenged by the PSNI as using a flawed calculation.)
Domestic abuse of women goes far beyond murder and violence. There is a wider context of intimidation within the home, emotional abuse, bullying and coercive control. While this is not exclusively conducted by men on their female partners, this is the most common type of domestic abuse.
There has been an assumption that a significant rise in recent years was the result of the pandemic and lockdown – with partners forced to spend 24 hours a day with each other in often very restricted environments. Yet the rate of domestic violence continued to rise after the lockdown ended.
In the year ending March there were 32,875 incidents of domestic abuse reported in Northern Ireland to the PSNI. That is a slight fall over the previous year, after a consistent period of increases. Domestic abuse-related crimes increased last year, with more than 22,000 criminal incidents logged. To put that in context, there are 1.7 domestic abuse incidents for every 100 people in the population. That is in one year and that is the reported number. It represents about 20% of all reported crime in Northern Ireland.
The PSNI records figures broken down according to the type of domestic incident. The most common are violence without injury. The second most common are violence with injury. The third type is harassment. The next most common – and these are less frequent – are criminal damage, theft, sexual offences and breaches of non-molestation orders. The incidents involving violence and of harassment have increased the most.
There were eight of what are termed domestic abuse homicides recorded in the 2022/23 year in Northern Ireland, one of which was actually committed a few years before. In the previous years there were eight, nine, five, four and 11 homicides in each year. And that does not take into account suicides that followed from years of domestic abuse and coercive control – a point raised in a BBC documentary in recent days.
The council areas with the highest numbers of reported domestic abuse are in Belfast, Armagh and Derry/Strabane. There were more than 3,000 domestic abuse incidents and more than 2,000 related crimes in Derry and Strabane in each of the last two years, with the numbers increasing.
The latest Holywell Trust Conversations podcast considers the crisis of domestic violence against women, interviewing Elaine Crory, lobbyist at the Women’s Resource and Development Agency, which is campaigning against sexual harassment and violence in Northern Ireland. She says there is an underlying macho culture in Northern Ireland – itself related to the violence in the Troubles – that has enabled violence against women within relationships. She adds that the scale of the problem has often been downplayed by decision makers, while the PSNI has not always been regarded as a trusted service to report domestic crime to.
The positive news is that new laws were introduced in Northern Ireland last year, which extended the definition of domestic abuse to include non-physical abuse, including coercive control, intimidation and the psychological, emotional or financial abuse of a person, and which can also include the use of digital and other technologies. More than a thousand people have been arrested as a result. And in June another new offence of non-fatal strangulation – regarded as a warning sign of a potential murder attempt – has been introduced in Northern Ireland.
The law has also been strengthened in the Republic, which has in addition provided new obligations on employers to provide support to staff who are dealing with domestic abuse.
A new initiative from the Belfast Trust has developed a Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse Support Toolkit to support staff who are being abused at home or elsewhere. We interview the trust’s Samantha Whann and Orla Barron, who explain that the toolkit was developed in partnership with trade unions and is available to other employers.
The podcast is available at the Holywell Trust website along with previous episodes.
Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.
Paul Gosling is editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects.