It sounds like the plot of a horror film, but it happened in real life.
This weekend I reported on a horror attack that happened in Strabane, County Tyrone, where a 38 year old woman was assaulted with a cordless drill on a public street after dark.
You read that right. The woman, who has been named as Brenda McLaughlin, is described as a “beautiful, gentle soul” by her friends, sustained the life threatening injury at around 2:00 A.M. on Saturday morning, just after closing time for the town's night clubs.
Police arrested a 17 year old man close to the scene and said they believe his attack may have been motivated by homophobia. “We are exploring a possible homophobic motive for the crime and we are appealing for witnesses to get in touch with us,” Detective Sergeant Brian Reid told the press. “This was a brutal attack and the injuries sustained by the victim are extremely grave.”
In recent years homophobic incidents have spiked in the town. In 2013 the Donegal News reported that homophobic incidents there had tripled there over the previous 12 months. But local LGBT community members said that the rise was due to an increase in reporting rather than incidents. Either way, it's clear the place has a problem.
The truth is that in many places in the north homophobia is still seen as an acceptable prejudice and out-groups of every kind are frequently violently targeted there, but even in that lamentable context the Strabane case is uniquely horrifying.
A council worker cleans blood from the scene of last night’s assault on Railway Street in #Strabane. A 38-year-old woman was attacked with a cordless drill at 2am. Her condition is described as critical. Police say they are questioning a teenager in connection with the incident pic.twitter.com/ru9toT9OET— Leona O'Neill (@LeonaONeill1) May 5, 2018
Over the past decade hate crimes against gay people across the north have spiraled and hundreds of homophobic incidents were recorded last year alone, police statistics show. The PSNI recorded 264 incidents with a homophobic motivation in the year to June 30. Of those incidents, 152 crimes were committed, including violence, theft and criminal damage.
But because the north is governed by the DUP, who mostly espouse Christian fundamentalist views, the hate crime laws there are much less stringent than in England and Wales and the conviction rate in Northern Ireland is ostentatiously low.
Almost no one is ever successfully prosecuted under Northern Ireland's hate crimes laws. This despite the fact that Northern Ireland has eight reported hate crimes every day. More need, less response, in other words.
Unfortunately I’m willing to bet every openly gay person in Strabane has been threatened or physically attacked at least once. When the rate of attacks is that high across the wider society it sends a signal. Homophobia is never just an attitude after all, it’s an intent.
“The victim has since told medical staff that she heard the noise of the drill and felt her head being twisted,” a PSNI detective told the court on Monday. “There does appear to be some sort of hole in the skull but I cannot say how severe it is.”
Some sort of hole in the skull. On Monday there was no mention of a hate crime charge although every news report suggested homophobia was a motive for the attack. District Judge Peter King told the court it was a “grossly violent, inexplicably violent incident.”
It was grossly violent yes, but inexplicable? I'd take serious issue with that. When a society regularly dehumanizes a minority group isn't it tacitly setting them up for abuse? Can anyone really claim to be surprised when some self appointed vigilante takes it upon themselves to teach those scapegoats a lesson?
The woman who was attacked last night in Strabane had her skull drilled into by her attacker. Local SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan says the details of the attack left him physically sick pic.twitter.com/WrI6EZ4Bt7— Leona O'Neill (@LeonaONeill1) May 5, 2018
Ciaran McGuinness, the solicitor for the accused teenager, told the court on Monday that his client had told police he had homosexual relatives and did not bear any ill will toward them. That's the 'some of my best friends are gay' defense. But that would only work if you hadn't drilled a hole into someone's head.
District Judge King wisely observed that there was a risk to the public from the teenager and remanded him in custody. Meanwhile the accused, reportedly wearing a tracksuit in court, appeared emotional and hugged his mother in the public gallery afterwards.
Was he sorry for what he did or was he sorry for the consequences? When you're told that your prejudice is socially acceptable you can be stunned to find yourself being called to account for your actions. Call it the 'I thought you said it was OK' moment.
I bet this young man is stunned to discover that the society that taught him to hate gay people is now charging him for attacking one. Violent yes, inexplicable no.