The clock on Carol Corr’s kitchen wall has been stopped at the same time for almost five years.
“That’s the time Joleen died, I haven’t changed it, 10 to two in the morning,” the Belfast woman says of her daughter’s death. “I asked a nurse to put her into my arms. She took her last breath and I just thought, ‘let her go in peace’.
“Her body became evidence then.”
It is a case that set a legal precedent in Northern Ireland when a judge ruled in April 2018 that 27-year-old Joleen Corr should no longer be kept alive due to the severity of her pain.
Sixteen months earlier, the young beautician had been found unconscious at her Downpatrick, Co Down home.
Brutally assaulted by her ex-partner Michael O’Connor, she fell down the stairs after he struck her. She had moved from Belfast to get away from him and installed a panic button.
After fracturing her skull, he got up the next morning and took a bath, shaved his head and boarded a bus to Belfast with the couple’s then two-year-old son.
O’Connor rang Carol Corr hours later and lied about her daughter attempting to take her own life with a drug overdose.
“My legs left me. All the neighbours came out. I kept ringing Joleen’s phone and then finally someone answered,” she recalls.
“I said, ‘please tell me my daughter is okay’, and asked if she’d taken an overdose. She said, ‘I don’t know about an overdose but this wee girl’s lying here black and blue from head to toe.’
“I knew right away it was him.”
There were 52 bruises on Corr’s body from her neck to her feet; she suffered a catastrophic brain injury and remained in a vegetative state until she died on April 26th, 2018, 10 days after doctors withdrew fluids and treatment in the landmark ruling.
“The doctor on duty the day Joleen was attacked later said to us that he felt so guilty. I asked him why as the staff were brilliant.
“He told us he should have let her pass away. But he heard a wee noise and because she was only 26, he thought, ‘we’ll try to give this kid a chance’.
“She never regained consciousness. We got her home three times but she didn’t know who we were.
There was only one thing she ever did. They showed her a photo of her son and she followed it with her eyes. She never did it again. She was paralysed.
“She was a happy, bubbly girl before she met him. She loved dancing.
“I miss her every day. I miss her loud voice, her text messages, her phone calls.”
Joleen Corr is among the 38 women and girls killed by men across Northern Ireland since 2017.
O’Connor continued to deny all charges against him until 2020 when he admitted to the fatal attack. “It was hell and back. He denied it right until the end,” adds Corr.
Femicide – the killing of women and girls because of their gender – has risen sharply in the North over the past decade; figures supplied to The Irish Times by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) show rates for female victims of “intentional homicide” by “intimate partners” have increased more than four-fold; from 0.11 per 100,000 of the female population in 2008 to 0.52 in 2021.
The death of pregnant Co Armagh woman Natalie McNally a week before Christmas has reignited the debate on how to tackle the issue at a time when the North has no sitting government while a long-awaited Stormont strategy to deal with violence against women and girls remains stalled.
Sitting in her west Belfast home surrounded by photographs of her late daughter, Carol Corr says she has been “traumatised” by Ms McNally’s violent death and media appeals by her family for information.
A 32-year-old man was charged with her murder earlier this week.
“I can feel that family’s pain in my gut, I was crying watching them as I know that feeling. Someone hurt their child, someone took their child away from them,” the mother-of-five says.
“You’re afraid to even listen to the news now, it brings you back. This big wave comes over you. You see these terrible things in other countries or in films but then it comes to your door. It’s getting regular now, you’re hearing about it every couple of months. I just think, my God, what’s going on?
“It’s a disgrace we have no strategy. I don’t know much about politics but would these people like it if it was their daughter or their niece or their aunt? It makes you angry.
“I had a breakdown coming up to Joleen’s 32nd birthday in November, I couldn’t get out of bed for days and wanted to give up. I’m lucky I have a good strong family to support me.”
Twenty five years after the Belfast Agreement was signed, why have femicide rates risen and does an “armed patriarchy” – a phrase coined by Women’s Aid in Derry at the height of the Troubles – still exert its influence in peacetime?
“There would be a reluctance among some women to go to the police and even engage with services about their abuser because it’s not just him – it’s him and all his mates. What that means if he’s a member of a paramilitary group or if he’s in the security forces – the PSNI or army – it’s an added challenge that these women face,” says Kelly Andrews, who heads up Belfast and Lisburn Women’s Aid.
“The concerns are real and it is still happening.”
Last June, the Irish Government approved a €363 million strategy to tackle domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.
The plan, which includes tougher jail sentences and a doubling of refuge accommodation places, will take a “zero tolerance” approach.
In the North, a “framework” strategy for ending violence against women and girls is due to go out for consultation this spring but in the absence of an Executive and severe budget constraints, Andrews fears it could be “lost” in a projected £1 billion funding black hole.
She says a dedicated strategy is a “step in the right direction” while warning it’s “going to take a generation to make change”.
The charity launched a petition in 2020 calling for the introduction of a strategy – England is on to its third – but Kelly believes it took an outcry over high-profile “stranger” murders, including the Sarah Everard case in London and Ashling Murphy in Co Offaly, before action was taken by government.
“It’s almost like a ‘tolerance’ for want of a better word for some femicides in Northern Ireland.”
A spike in domestic abuse calls to the PSNI was recorded over the Christmas period and one senior officer said any high profile case – there has been saturation media coverage of Natalie McNally’s death over the past six weeks – can impact on behaviours.
“I think when you do see any media attention around a homicide there will be perpetrators who then use that as part of their abuse; it heightens the fear among victims who are already experiencing domestic abuse because there will be those perpetrators who will perhaps mirror what has occurred or else reference it. So I think it does heighten that risk factor,” PSNI detective superintendent Lindsay Fisher told The Irish Times.
Fisher accepts “absolutely” that femicide rates are high in the North but insists the focus must be on “people, not statistics”.
“I think when we reflect on people, one is too high,” she adds.
“We did have a high number during that lockdown period and even towards the end of the year 2020-2021 and into the year 2021-2022, we saw a number of homicide offences of that nature in quite quick succession.
“We saw that heightened rate and there was a real fear among women; we heard that from their contacts with organisations like Women’s Aid.
“We’ve also seen an increase in domestic violence reports more generally that has led to fatal domestic abuse and fatal assaults. There are occasions where that is part of a long-standing domestic abuse relationship and there are times when it hasn’t been.”
With 20 years’ experience investigating sexual crimes, Fisher was instrumental in developing the PSNI’s first ever Action Plan aimed at reducing violence against women and girls.
Published last September, the seven-year plan commits the police to “relentlessly pursuing perpetrators” and rooting out inappropriate behaviour in their ranks.
It emerged last month that nine PSNI officers were sacked in 2022 for misconduct relating to sexual and domestic abuse.
“I think it was really important from a public confidence perspective to articulate what’s being done, what we are doing internally ourselves – our culture and our training – and what we want to do,” says Fisher.
Asked how she encourages those in abusive relationships with paramilitaries or security force members to contact police, Fisher acknowledges the “difficulties” in trying to get these victims “to pick up that phone”.
“This is one of the reasons why our coercive control training was rolled out to all officers and staff members, it wasn’t just our first responders,” she says.
“So we will have officers for example in our serious crime unit and paramilitary crime taskforce who may be in a residence for other reasons – but they are trained to be very much alive to coercive control and domestic abuse signs.
“There’s also that continued fear of the criminal justice process and fearing ‘I will not be believed’ because that’s what the perpetrator has told that victim for so many years.
“It’s really important for victims to know they are not just picking up the phone to police; the person at the other end is trained and can direct them to other support services.”
Fisher says the changes in strengthening legislation for domestic and sexual crime are “significant”.
“Colleagues long ago would have spoken about that feeling of where the hairs on the back of their neck stood on end going into a call because you could feel the pressure cooker – but there was no offence to really quantify what that was. Now we have that.”
Coercive control, which includes psychological and financial abuse and non-violent intimidation, was made a specific offence under new domestic abuse laws introduced in January 2022.
Anti-stalking legislation was also passed by Stormont Assembly members a year ago, bringing the North into line with the UK following lengthy delays due to a previous Stormont hiatus.
However, an offence of non-fatal strangulation – often seen as a red flag for future risk of murder by an intimate partner – has still to fully come into effect.
Despite the new laws, concerns have been raised by relatives of victims about significantly lower life sentence tariffs given to killers compared with England and Wales as well as lengthy delays in bringing cases to court.
“The delays getting it to court nearly killed us,” says Carol Corr.
“We’re lucky we got justice. We found out he had 91 convictions; there was another girl he was in a relationship with who he’d tried to strangle in front of her child.
“She came to see me, gave a statement and went to the court. She was very brave.
“But my Joleen was terrified of him and the system. These young girls who are in a rut, they’re too afraid to go to the police and social services. They’re terrified of losing their kids. My heart bleeds for them.”
No mother should have to bury their child. She was an adult but she was my eldest child and he took her life away. He took a mother, a sister and a daughter— Carol Corr, Jolene's mother
Michael O’Connor received a life sentence in July 2020, with a judge telling him he must serve at least 16 years of it in jail.
The 34-year-old man clapped and rubbed his hands together at the end of the hearing.
“He’s done two years so he’s probably another 11 to do as he served time on remand. He’ll be my age when he gets out. But he’ll be on licence for the rest of his life,” adds Corr.
Sitting at her kitchen table, the west Belfast woman says her friends often ask why she doesn’t change the time on her clock.
“I tell them it’s for Joleen; I’ll be Joleen’s voice until the day I take my last breath because I hate to see anyone else suffering.
“When I saw her in ICU, I went outside and said, ‘God take me, spare my child and take me.’ No mother should have to bury their child. She was an adult but she was my eldest child and he took her life away. He took a mother, a sister and a daughter.
“He got into her head and tortured her. He crucified us all.”