Irish Times

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Rise in family
violence needs analysis

OPINION/Fintan O'Toole
Irish Times

On a quiet Sunday afternoon in the main street of an ordinary Irish town, a two-year-old child, grand-daughter of the local postman, lies dead. George McGloin has stabbed his daughter, Robyn Leahy, tried to kill her mother Lorraine, and succeeded in killing himself. The event is so frightful, so nightmarish, that we would like to see it as one of those horrific but almost unique exceptions to the normal pattern of Irish life.

Yet, though it is exceptional, it is not unique. Robyn was at least the 16th small child to have been done to death in the Republic in the last 20 months. She was, after Deirdre Crowley at the end of August, the second little girl killed by a father who then committed suicide in just over two months.

Just a month earlier, Debbie Fox and her sons, nine-year-old Trevor and seven-year-old Cillian were beaten and stabbed to death at their home in Castledaly, Co Westmeath.

In September 2000, 10 year-old Alan Byrne, his six-year-old brother Shane, and their mother, Maeve, were killed by Stephen Byrne, who also committed suicide.

Without being alarmist, it seems we are dealing with something beyond a random series of individual tragedies. Whatever it is, moreover, it is not a uniquely Irish phenomenon.

This kind of incident has been on the rise in the UK, the US and elsewhere. It seems to be part of a pattern in the western world.

And although it is by no means an exclusively male phenomenon (Catherine Palmer, for example, drove herself and her two children off the pier at Kinvara, Co Galway, last year) it does seem that a majority of the perpetrators is male.

The rising Men's Rights movement believes it has an explanation. It blames feminism, and in particular the operation of the family courts which it sees as a form of institutionalised discrimination against fathers.

The movement adopts a position reminiscent of that of the fellow-travellers of loyalist and republican paramilitaries during the Northern Ireland conflict: while it does not condone the violence, it sees it as the inevitable outcome of unjust structures.

Those who adopt this position have had a fairly easy ride of late, partly because they have said things that needed saying. They have drawn attention to the fact that men too can be victims of domestic violence, and that social attitudes can force them to suffer in silence.

They have also made legitimate criticisms of the lack of transparency in the family court system. There is simply no objective information with which to test their allegations of bias against fathers in child custody cases because the secrecy of the courts does not allow for the scrutiny that every system needs. The service they have done in highlighting these two issues is considerable.

The problem, though, is that these rational arguments often come wrapped in a hateful rhetoric that feeds the kind of paranoia, rage and infinite resentment that, in a deranged mind, can seem to justify horrific violence.

A wildly exaggerated vision of a society ruled by mad feminists (the phrase of choice is "feminazis") in which men are emasculated and oppressed is being conjured up by the Men's Rights movement. If you believe yourself to be ruled by Nazis, it is only a short step to endorsing violent resistance.

The current issue of Magill magazine, for example, has a long piece by Phil MacGiolla Bhain of the men's group Amen on the appallingly high incidence of suicide among Irish men.

The subject is an urgent one, and the predominance of male victims cries out for thoughtful analysis.

Magill, however, interprets it through a strangely distorted view of a Republic in which feminists are "long ensconced in power", forming a "misandristic elite which runs this State's social policy" and producing a "society that rejects and derides manhood as, at best, an embarrassing and unfortunate condition."

The reality, of course, is that the social policy elite in Ireland is overwhelmingly male. Women make up 5 per cent of university professorships, 13 per cent of Dáil deputies, 9 per cent of the secretary generalships of Government departments, 7 per cent of the High Court and 19 per cent of the chairs of State boards. If there is a man-hating elite, therefore, it is overwhelmingly male.

It would be absurd to suggest that rhetorical distortions about the nature of Irish society cause anyone to kill children. What they do, however, is to feed into an already unstable mentality a picture of a world in which there is a vast conspiracy to deny men any kind of domestic justice. If you put wild resentment together with a paranoid sense of hopelessness, the result is bound to be explosive.

The Men's Rights movement would do well to tone down its rhetoric and talk more calmly about its legitimate concerns.

It might ask, for example, why it is that men in trouble are so slow to seek help and whether the "manly" culture it extols might not itself be part of the problem.

We know far too well on this island what happens when people wallow in a sense of victimhood, turn up the rhetoric of blame and refuse to take responsibility for themselves.

While trying to defuse the consequences of that mentality in the political sphere, we should not be encouraging it in the field of family relationships.

© 2001