Today I am hosting a major event in my East Belfast constituency, the scene of some of the most horrific incidents of animal cruelty Northern Ireland has seen.
It is for that reason I convened a panel consisting of the relevant agencies, so local people can speak directly with the PSNI, Belfast City Council, Department of Justice (DoJ), and Department of Agriculture and Rural Development representatives about their experiences of brutality against animals.
Last year there was public uproar at lenient sentences handed out to four east Belfast men who were convicted of a string of particularly barbaric animal cruelty offences – an outrage compounded by Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory confirming to me he did not have the power to refer this kind of sentence to appeal.
In response to my work and public outcry, DoJ is currently proposing changes which could allow such sentences to be reviewed in future.
Prior to the case coming to light, I had many constituents approach me looking for help in relation to their missing pets. Sadly, in many cases, they now know their pets were deliberately tortured.
The public perception is often that animal cruelty and welfare crimes are not treated as seriously as others because they are “just” animals.
This event will give the public the opportunity to communicate how passionately they feel about this issue.
In addition to the harm done to animals and the heartache caused to their owners, there is significant research to show those who commit such barbarism are not only a danger to the creatures involved, but potentially to the wider community.
The crimes in such cases are often extreme, deliberate and premeditated and, therefore, particularly disturbing.
While we sadly can’t change the behaviour of those who wish to target animals, we can send out a strong message that those engaging in cruelty will be treated with the utmost seriousness. The hope is that this will ultimately act as a deterrent.