Speaking at the Northern Ireland Assembly on Monday 12th September, UUP Justice Committee member Roy Beggs MLA took part in a debate on the issue of stalking in Northern Ireland.
Mr Beggs MLA said “Stalking is very debilitating for the individual who is at the end of it. It is unsettling; it can be very frightening; it can be a form of terrorism; and it can take over their life. They cannot have a normal life; they never feel at ease. It ought to be taken very seriously, and I am glad that there is unanimity across the Chamber today.
Why has Northern Ireland legislation fallen so far behind? It is three years since stalking legislation was introduced in England and Wales and, indeed, in Scotland. For that matter, England is already consulting on further amendments with their 2015 consultation on stalking protection orders. We clearly need to get up to date and address the issue.
Typically, stalking may involve an ex-partner who feels spurned in some way, but that is not the only format. We need to make sure that it is much wider than just domestic violence situations; it can take many, many complicated formats. Others have talked about the “stranger stalker” — someone who gets fixated. I agree with my colleague Sandra Overend that the online issue makes this problem very intrusive and difficult to manage. One of my constituents contacted me over the weekend, feeling that their life was being threatened again. In this case, it was a spurned ex-partner, so it is the old girlfriend stalking the new girlfriend and hurling lots of abuse at her. It is complicated. Someone may adopt multiple identities online, and it becomes difficult to trace.
It strikes me that this needs to be taken much more seriously by the police, whose advice to date has been “Change your Facebook settings”, and that is about it. I am gathering information and intend to make sure that a much better response is required. This has highlighted to me the fact that we need much more specific legislation, so that there is recognition of the turmoil that this can cause to an individual’s life. Even though no violence has occurred and even though it is not the ex-partner, it is simply someone whose life is being destroyed by someone who is trying to intimidate them online.
It is clear that our legislation is not enough. We need greater expertise, and, if we have specific legislation, I have no doubt that the PSNI will pay more attention to this area. They will have more specialism in this area and will be able to give better advice. They will also be able to approach people when necessary — it may be all that is needed at an early stage — to make them aware that it is a specific criminal offence. There will be a shot across the bow and, hopefully, that will be the end of it. Where people are persistent and ignore that, clearly, they need to be held to account and brought before the courts to address what they have done. We need all our citizens to be able to live in peace in their own home and to enjoy their activities online without threat of stalking or abuse.”