Fionola Meredith: Why Northern Ireland justice system must do more to protect women who are the victims of domestic abuse
Sordid act of upskirting and physical attacks are allowed to thrive with no Assembly to change laws, says Fionola Meredith
I've written here before about the vile practice of 'upskirting'. Last time, I asked: what kind of grubby little creep sticks his camera phone under an unsuspecting woman's skirt, in the hope of getting images of her private parts? Who would indulge in such a sick, salacious act?
Well, now we have an answer, and a name. Timothy Boomer is a young gentleman from Northern Ireland who was recently found guilty of taking "upskirt" pictures.
Currently aged 18, and living in Wales, Boomer was convicted of five counts of outraging public decency, in relation to videos he took when he was a pupil at Enniskillen Royal Grammar school in Fermanagh.
Other kids might occasionally play truant, or skip detention, or give a bit of lip to the dinner ladies. Fairly low-level stuff. Timothy decided that he was going to secretly and deliberately film the most intimate parts of two of his teachers' bodies.
He's sorry now, he says: "It was a wrong, horrible thing to do, and at that age I stupidly and wrongly thought it was a daredevil prank, which I genuinely meant no harm by."
But Boomer's sordid, personally violating actions did cause harm, dreadful harm, to the women he targeted.
These teachers were in a position of authority over him and he humiliated them in the most disgusting way.
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That's not a schoolboy prank, that's criminal misogyny in action.
And that's why I'm glad to learn that Boomer may have to face his teachers again, as part of the sentencing process.
Natural justice demands that instead of leering up their skirts, he should be forced to look them in the eyes as they describe the damaging impact his actions had on them.
But this is more than a morality tale about one young man's sick perversions.
It also tells a story about the sickness at the heart of the entire Northern Ireland political and legal system.
The case took years, and very nearly didn't come to court, because in Northern Ireland - unlike England and Wales - we have no specific laws against the modern crime of upskirting.
When Boomer's verdict was handed down, NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said that the case highlighted "the inadequacy of current laws around sexual harassment" and called for "clear new powers" to make upskirting an offence.
Obviously, an update to the statute book is overdue, but we won't get one because we don't have a legislative Assembly to do the business.
It's yet another example of how society is declining and laws becoming moribund, as the two main parties maintain their outrageously irresponsible stand-off.
Women are suffering in other ways too, even worse ways than having their privacy violated. Last year, the PSNI recorded its highest ever figure for incidents of domestic violence in Northern Ireland in the 12 months leading up to September 2018.
During that time, there were 31,008 domestic abuse incidents recorded.
Those numbers shock me forcibly, every time I read them.
They are almost incomprehensibly huge. And the situation has never been worse: the figure represents an increase of 5.4% on the previous 12 months, making it the highest since records began in 2004/05.
On average, police respond to an incident every 17 minutes. Abused women are having to be turned away from refuges, at times, because there just isn't the space to accommodate them.
Of course, domestic abuse isn't always physical. There are many forms of torture. In England, a 2015 law which criminalised abusive coercion and control of partners was recently tested in the case of Sally Challen, who had been sentenced to life in 2011 for the murder of her husband Richard. Last month she won an appeal against that conviction because of the years of psychological abuse she had allegedly suffered.
Challen's son, David, who fought a fierce campaign to have his mother's name cleared, has called for an urgent update to the law in Northern Ireland, to include coercive control as a crime, thus bringing here in line with the rest of the UK.
The dreadful irony is that we do actually have a new law, the Domestic Abuse Bill, which recognises coercive and controlling behaviour, sitting ready to be signed off by ministers.
Only we don't have any ministers to sign it.
Lives are being wrecked, opportunities squandered, while our so-called leaders look the other way, or trade shots over Brexit and the border.
We have to do better by our long-suffering society than this.