Coalition needs to act decisively

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From the Irish Examiner

Monday, December 10, 2012

By calling on the Government to target attitudes towards alcohol and sex in this country, the Rape Crisis Network effectively seizes the moral high ground today  — International Human Rights Day  — by highlighting a specific issue where action is urgently needed.

As witnessed in court case after court case, there is an undeniable link between alcohol consumption in Ireland and the growing incidence of sexual assault and rape; that most heinous of crimes against women. However, it is also clear that the gravity of this scenario has yet to be grasped by key elements of society.

In marking International Day of Human Rights, the Rape Crisis Network culminates 16 days of activism on violence against women and concludes a year-long campaign focused on alcohol and sexual violence. Basically, it argues that alcohol fuels sexual violence and that this underlines the Government ’s obligation to target alcohol consumption, especially binge drinking, as well as alcohol-related attitudes that can lead to rape.

The Government has yet to convince people it is serious about tackling Ireland ’s love affair with booze, a national crisis that all too often ends in personal violence, rape, family breakdown and costs the State vast sums to treat up to 2,000 victims of alcohol-related illnesses occupying hospital beds.

The best way Fine Gael and Labour can prove their good faith in this context is by tabling the Sale of Alcohol Bill in the Dáil “as quickly as possible” as the Oireachtas Committee on Health has called on the Government to do.

Following the resignation of junior minister Róisín Shortall, fears were voiced by campaigners against alcohol abuse that the Government would drag its feet by watering down her radical measures or delaying their implementation.

Among a raft of tough initiatives, the former minister proposed banning sponsorship of alcohol-linked sports and other events by 2016, a measure likely to be resisted both by rugby and GAA interests and the powerful drinks industry. Due to come into law before the end of this year, the bill would also abolish the selling of cheap alcohol by supermarkets but has been kicked to touch by the Coalition and will not see the light of day until some time in 2013.

As recent controversies have shown, when it comes to ridding Ireland of unacceptable attitudes to sexual assault the judiciary is widely perceived as being out of touch with public opinion. Sentencing lacks consistency, clarity and balance. Following cases where men received suspended or partly suspended sentences and were ordered to pay their victims compensation, there have been repeated calls for guidelines for judges.

Such verdicts have been widely condemned and rightly so. It is vital that guidelines be provided for judges in sexual assault cases. Besides reflecting attitudes which are difficult to comprehend, the current situation is damaging to the public image of the judiciary, brings the justice system into disrepute, and undermines confidence in verdicts handed down by judges.

Against a backdrop of dissatisfaction with the judiciary and growing alarm over the Coalition ’s failure to reduce alcohol consumption or tackle its misuse, if this Government is serious about meeting Ireland ’s human rights obligations regarding sexual violence it should bring the Sale of Alcohol Bill before the House without further delay.