MLAs reveal terrifying experiences amid revelation Northern Ireland is only place in UK where stalking is not specific crime
I lay awake at night, thinking he was outside my door... MLA Hale opens up about stalker ordeal in bid to change the law
A DUP Assembly member has told of her terrifying ordeal at the hands of a stalker who refused to leave her alone and told her: "We have to keep working at this relationship."
Brenda Hale, whose soldier husband Mark was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, spoke for the first time of her experience as the Assembly urged Justice Minister Claire Sugden to consider laws to tackle stalking.
And Green Party MLA Clare Bailey also revealed how razors were stuck in her car tyres, which exploded as she left her children to school.
Breaking her silence on her six-month ordeal, Lagan Valley MLA Mrs Hale said she had lain in bed at night, thinking her "obsessive" stalker could be outside the door. Her stalker was from Dublin, in his mid-50s, always well-dressed and, Mrs Hale said, softly spoken.
"It was during the 2011 election, just two years after I had lost Mark and this man became aware of me during the election," Mrs Hale said.
"He had built up a profile of me and seen my photograph and read the stories about the war widow standing for election.
"He first approached me in Marks and Spencer at Sprucefield and offered his congratulations on my election and I thanked him and spoke to him, thinking he was a constituent.
"The first text came that same night. He had phoned Stormont and somehow got my mobile. He wanted us to meet up.
"From then on it was constant texts, always wanting to meet, but I have to admit it was six months before I went to the police, although with my military background I was always aware that the police were an option."
Mrs Hale, who was 42 at the time, said she finally realised something was "seriously wrong" when she asked the man to stop contacting her and he replied: "We have to keep working at this relationship."
"He was saying: 'We can't let what we have built up fall apart.'
"I felt incredibly vulnerable. I would lie awake in bed at night and think this man could be outside the door.
"I was also very fearful for my daughters Tori and Alex, who were still going to school by bus in the dark mornings."
Finally she went to the PSNI and believes the Garda visited the man in Dublin, and she heard nothing more.
"I don't know why I waited so long to report it.
"Obviously at the time I was beginning to learn my job as an MLA and I was still very much grieving for Mark. But unlike many stalking cases, this was somebody I did not know from Adam.
"I was very conscious that he would be able to see me when I was on television, and in Assembly debates, and online." Mrs Hale was one of a number of DUP MLAs behind a motion warning that for too long stalking has remained a hidden crime because so much of it goes unreported. Unlike other areas of the UK, stalking is not a specific crime in Northern Ireland, and tends to be dealt with as harassment and intimidation.
The Lagan Valley MLA said she had recently asked the Justice Minister to detail the number of prosecutions over the last five years.
The Department had replied by saying: "Stalking is a colloquial term and there is no specific offence of stalking in Northern Ireland."
Mrs Hale told MLAs: "If I were not so angry, I would have laughed. These people are delusional.
"They have no idea what they are doing, or else they do know what they are doing and are doing it deliberately. They know the law so well now and are using it to attack their victims.
"We must put in place a framework that enables the justice system and the PSNI to protect victims and prosecute perpetrators. The women who I have been trying to support, deserve the freedom to walk down the street, sleep without fear and feel safe in their home, and not to be made to feel as though they are wasting police time and making a nuisance of themselves.
"Stalkers are manipulative and cunning and, in some cases, use a protection from harassment order to harass and legally stalk their victims. I know of that happening right now."
South Belfast MLA Ms Bailey said that the average victim is stalked 100 times before they even report it to police, "and even then the response from the police may not be what is required".
"I know this from personal experience," she added.
"I had razor blades stuck in my car tyres, which caused the tyres to blow up after dropping my children to school.
"I decided then to report the stalking to the police, but the response was: 'What do you want us to do about it?' I couldn't answer their question, but I didn't report any further incidents."
The Green deputy leader also argued: "It is disappointing that in 2016, we are continuing to fail to take the crime of stalking seriously, leaving victims and their families to struggle alone until something more serious occurs."
Ms Sugden said that while she could not fully commit to legislation on the issue, she was "minded to consider" it.