A Lagan Valley MLA who was targeted by a stalker has called for tough new legislation to protect victims of stalking and ensure perpetrators are prosecuted.
DUP representative Brenda Hale spoke out about her terrifying experience at the hands of a stalker as she sought the Assembly’s support for a motion about the need for new measures to tackle the problem.
The mother-of-two, whose husband was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, said she had been left feeling “vulnerable and frightened” after a man began harassing her shortly after she was elected in 2011.
“I was approached by a gentleman in Marks and Spencer one day after work and I was happy to speak to him as I thought he was a constituent just wanting to discuss the election. He started to tell me that he had been watching me for some time and that I was very beautiful, so at that point the alarm bells started going off,” she explained.
The man, who said he lived in Dublin, got hold of Mrs Hale’s telephone number and began to bombard her with text messages, dinner invites and comments suggesting that they were in a relationship.
“He was starting to believe that we were in a long term relationship, yet I didn’t know him from Adam. It was very frightening,” she continued.
“I told him to stop calling me, but he told me he wasn’t going to let me go. At that point I felt really threatened and I went to the police.”
Police officers approached the man and warned him to stop what he was doing or face prosecution. Mrs Hale also changed her phone number and reviewed her personal security.
The DUP representative said she was fortunate that the police acted “very swiftly, very professionally and dealt with it quickly”, but stressed she is aware of other cases, including that of constituent Vicky Clarke, where victims have been terrorised by stalkers for years.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK which does not have specific laws to protect victims of stalking - something Mrs Hale wants to see changed.
She said the 1997 Protection from Harassment (NI) Order doesn’t go far enough, and stressed that the police and courts need a proper legislative framework in place in order to be able to make arrests and prosecute offenders.
“We need to put in legislation a definition of stalking, to bring us into line with England and Wales,” she said. “We need a Stalking Protection Order or something of a similar legal standing in Northern Ireland to make sure victims are protected and perpetrators are prosecuted.”
Without proper legislation in place for dealing with stalking, Mrs Hale said there is no way of knowing just how big the problem really is.
“I know of a number of people, some of them up here at Stormont, who have been stalked but have not reported it. I think it’s more widespread than people think and this is just the tip of the iceberg. The low number of prosecutions does not reflect the full scale of the problem,” she added.
“We need to get the message out there that it’s not ok to stalk. It’s not ok to bombard people with emails and texts and phone calls, or to sit outside their house or place of work and watch them. Everyone has the right to privacy, to freedom of movement, to be able to get on with their life without being stalked.”
Having secured the support of her Stormont colleagues for her motion calling for tougher measures to crack down on stalking, Mrs Hale has vowed to keep pressure on the Department of Justice to ensure the necessary legislation changes are implemented as soon as possible.
Confirming that she will consider fresh legislation if necessary, Justice Minister Claire Sugden informed the Assembly that a review of the existing laws around stalking is already under way.