Thousands protest across Ireland after soldier who attacked woman walks free

<span>Protesters gather in Dublin in solidarity with Natasha O'Brien, whose attacker, Cathal Crotty, walked free from court.</span><span>Photograph: Cate McCurry/PA</span>
Protesters gather in Dublin in solidarity with Natasha O'Brien, whose attacker, Cathal Crotty, walked free from court.Photograph: Cate McCurry/PA

The case of a soldier who brutalised a woman in a random street attack and walked free from court has prompted protests across Ireland.

Thousands of people marched in Cork, Dublin, Galway and Limerick on Saturday to show solidarity with Natasha O’Brien, 24, who has become a symbol of the legal system’s handling of gender-based violence.

“I chose to speak up because I couldn’t imagine the impact on other victims. This is enough. This is the time for it to end,” O’Brien told the Limerick rally.

Earlier this week O’Brien condemned a suspended jail sentence that allowed her attacker, Cathal Crotty, 22, to avoid prison and said the court case had caused fresh trauma. A government minister called the case a “watershed moment” and activists called for legal reform.

Crotty beat O’Brien unconscious in Limerick city centre on 29 May 2022 after she asked him to stop shouting homophobic slurs to passersby.

The army private, who was off-duty and had been drinking, grabbed O’Brien by the hair, knocked her to the ground and punched her at least six times, inflicting a broken nose, swelling, bruising and a concussion. Hours later he boasted to friends via Snapchat: “Two to put her down, two to put her out.”

Crotty initially claimed the victim instigated the violence but admitted guilt after CCTV footage showed it was unprovoked. O’Brien had been on her way home after working a shift at a pub. She did not know Crotty.

O’Brien told Limerick circuit criminal court the attack left her feeling like “a punching bag” and that her last conscious thought was “he’s not stopping, I’m going to die”.

She suffered persistent concussion symptoms and a sense of dread and isolation, leading to self-destructive behaviour and the loss of her job, she said. “I became numb and detached from reality, living in perpetual fear of seeing him again.”

Crotty’s superior, commandant Paul Togher, told the court Crotty, of Ardnacrusha, County Clare, had acted out of character and was an exemplary and disciplined soldier.

Judge Tom O’Donnell gave Crotty a fully suspended three-year sentence and ordered him to pay €3,000 compensation. He called the assault appalling, cowardly and vicious but took into account Crotty’s guilty plea, lack of previous convictions and the end of his army career if given a custodial sentence.

Prosecutors may appeal against the sentence. The defence force said it had begun internal proceedings. O’Brien told the media the sentence reflected a broken system because other assault cases also resulted in non-custodial sentences, which deterred victims from seeking justice.

The taoiseach, Simon Harris, commended O’Brien and said such attacks were unacceptable, adding: “We are living in a country where there is still an epidemic of gender-based violence.”

Malcolm Noonan, a junior minister, told RTE it was a “watershed moment”.

The justice minister, Helen McEntee, said a pending law will mean that a person who supplies a character reference must be willing to be cross-examined in cases of domestic or sexual violence and violence against women.

Women’s rights groups organised the protests under the banner “not one more” and called for sweeping legal changes. “A violent soldier’s career is not more important than women’s safety,” the group Rosa said. “Our justice system sides with violent perpetrators every day of the week.”