The debate about homophobia in Ireland took centre stage in the Dáil with Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer describing how he was “beaten, spat at, chased, harassed and mocked because of who I am”.
The Cork South Central TD said he spent most of his life “struggling... in my country that I love” as he and other TDs raised concerns about an €85,000 settlement by RTÉ over comments about homophobia.
As the controversy over the payout deepens, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte was forced to once again insist he could not interfere in legal or editorial decisions made by the national broadcaster.
As six TDs raised the issue in a Dáil topical issue debate, Mr Buttimer said that to be accepted and supported by his colleagues in Leinster House “is a demonstration of how this society has moved forward”.
However, he said: “I will not — in a tolerant, respectful debate — allow people who spout hatred and intolerance to be let go unchecked.”
His comments were echoed by Labour TD John Lyons, who said: “There are two people in here at the moment who know what homophobia feels like, who know what it’s like to be called a queer, to be called a fag, to be called a gay.”
Clearly emotional, the Dublin North-West TD told the Dáil that just before Christmas he was abused by a group of teenagers.
“I thought I was living in a society where this stuff isn’t acceptable anymore,” he said, adding that such behaviour was challenged when activist Rory O’Neill — who performs as drag queen Panti Bliss — made the comments about homophobia on RTÉ’s The Saturday Night Show.
“He called it what it is,” said Mr Lyons. “When it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, it must be a duck.
“I think RTÉ were completely wrong and bang out of order. They need to come out and let us know they got it wrong. Otherwise there will not be confidence in our national broadcaster to mediate any debate, particularly around the issues that affect my life.”
Mr Rabbitte said it would be “a matter of serious concern if recourse to our defamation laws was to have a chilling effect on public debate on this issue” ahead of next year’s referendum on same-sex marriage.
However, he said: “I have no role in managing editorial matters, making decisions on programming or dealing with litigation claims. And therefore I have no intention of interfering in RTÉ’s management of this specific file.”
Mr Rabbitte said he heard the assurances from RTÉ’s head of TV, Glen Killane, on Wednesday that the station would never attempt to “shut down” public debate.
“I believe it remains fully committed to ensuring the full and free exchange of information and opinion on all matters of legitimate public interest,” said Mr Rabbitte.
“While RTÉ is answerable as a public body, it does not and in my view should not operate under political supervision either at ministerial or parliamentary level.”
Meanwhile, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said he was encouraged by gay rights groups in New York to take part in the city’s St Patrick’s Day parade despite its organisers’ refusal to allow symbols celebrating gay pride from being shown.
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