Paramilitaries imprisoned for domestic crimes in Northern Ireland are using their associates to continue to stalk and intimidate former partners while they are in jail, MPs have been told.
A Westminster committee heard that abuse victims find it more difficult to escape the coercive influence of their abuser, or report them to the police, when paramilitarism is involved.
Representatives from women’s organisations who support victims gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday, during a meeting in Parliament Buildings at Stormont.
Addressing the committee’s inquiry into the effect of paramilitarism in society, Elaine Crory from the Women’s Resource and Development Agency said the coercive control exerted by gunmen on women during the Troubles has not gone away.
“Sometimes (during the Troubles) there were cases of paramilitaries using the coercive control they had over their ‘own community’, to control the women in that community and to keep them in line,” she said.
“And that hasn’t gone away. Until the paramilitaries go away, it won’t go away. But it was certainly a huge problem during the conflict and, you know, all of the trauma and all of the harm from that time hasn’t necessarily been dealt with or hasn’t been dealt with well.”
She highlighted the experience of women who had been stalked by paramilitary associates of their abusers.
“People kept telling us that they had been stalked by paramilitary associates of their former partner, as well as by their former partner, and that part of the abuse was the threat of ‘well, you may get me out of this house, but you’ll never get rid of me, I will always be watching you. Even if I’m imprisoned, my colleagues on your street, my colleagues are everywhere, they are watching you and they will watch you’.
“And they would have people follow them home from the pub or sit outside their workplace or sit outside the home and sometimes the person isn’t totally sure whether the person – their abuser – is what they say ‘connected’, or pretending to be connected, because that can also carry a degree of cachet.
“So, one of the things that is a barrier to people reporting is the feeling that these people are inescapable, that the police might put one of them away but they’ve got, however many other colleagues in the same estate or however many other people across the whole of Northern Ireland.
“So you can get away from one, the main person who abused you, but you’re not totally free until the organisation itself, its power is taken away and it’s dismantled.
“So, that’s obviously something that goes beyond an individual case and it leads to that situation where lots people escape these situations, they may go to Women’s Aid for support and help, but they may never go near the police, because they know the second it becomes clear they have reported, their lives and maybe the lives of their family are in danger.”
Sonya McMullan, from the Women’s Aid Federation NI, highlighted one case where a drone was used to monitor a stalking victim in Northern Ireland.
“We had one woman where cameras were actually installed in the neighbour’s (house) across the road, so they could see them at all times,” she said.
“GPS, tracking devices, monitoring, covert cameras in houses, recording devices, buying them their mobile phones, so the Bluetooth is there and every message and phone call that’s being made, they can hear it, they can see it.
“You know, it’s just unbelievable. And one of the women whenever we were talking about the stalking consultation, there was drones would have been used above her house, you know, in the summer so she couldn’t sit out, it was constant, drones would have been watching her at all times.”
Ms McMullan said women who tried to escape abusive partners by moving to England were often found and brought back.
“We have women who have tried to leave and have gone to maybe England or other areas and they’ve just been found,” she told MPs.
“They’re brought back, they’re brought back and they stay very often.
“And for an organisation like ourselves, we feel very helpless sometimes as well because there is such a fear, there’s a fear of reporting, there’s a fear as well if that person is known within the community, that the police – I’m talking about individual police officers, not the police force – will not deal with it appropriately.”
Siobhan Harding, from the Women’s Support Network, gave evidence on the activities of paramilitary loan sharks.
She said women with “nowhere else to go” were resorting to the paramilitaries to lend money with extortionate interest rates attached.
Ms Harding said women who were unable to pay were often forced into criminal activities as a way to repay their debt, or even compelled into prostitution to pay off what they owe the paramilitaries.
“That was raised in a case study we had in our previous report, which was a couple of years ago, and a lady who had a paramilitary debt said that the paramilitaries were running a prostitution ring and that was one way of, now she wasn’t involved in that, but that was an option (to repay debt),” she said.