Online abuse wider than one man

This is a problem far bigger than Barry Walsh, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell

Online abuse wider than one man

YOU can just see them now.

Ever since Kate O’Connell, the Fine Gael TD, outed her party colleague Barry Walsh on Wednesday for his online comments about women on social media, the main political parties are frantically trying to convince us that they have robust policies about how to behave online.

Behind the scenes, party officials have no doubt been busily beavering away trying to draft such documents for fear of a repeat of the Walsh episode.

Before O’Connell delivered Walsh a knockout punch that Floyd Mayweather would have been proud of, very few of us had heard of or known who Barry Walsh was.

She waited until the end of the weekly Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, a private affair for TDs and senators, and let fly.

Armed with a five-page document which included screen grabs of the offending posts, she passed them around to her colleagues, which quickly found their way into the hands of the media, including Juno McEnroe of this parish.

O’Connell also wrote a formal letter of complaint to the Fine Gael’s general secretary, Tom Curran.

He, it appears, used to work for Lucinda Creighton and is a former Young Fine Gael activist and has risen through the ranks of the party to his current position on the party’s national executive.

The Taoiseach yesterday called on Walsh to resign from that role over his “vile” language but the question has to be asked.

Just how did Walsh survive so long when, as Regina Doherty put it on the radio on Thursday, he has form?

Ms Doherty said: “This young man has serious issues. He is one of the angriest young men I have come across.”

The answer is that politics, in general, has allowed this sort of language to become acceptable online, whereas it would never be acceptable if carried in a paper, or said in person.

There can be little surprise that politicians are subjected to highly personalised attacks when the political system as a whole refuses to address it.

It’s “part and parcel of the job”, “it comes with the territory”, “what can we do?” are the constant refrains we hear back when it happens.

In O’Connell’s case, she was absolutely right to call Walsh out on his online comments which were offensive and totally unbecoming for someone who holds a high office in the Fine Gael party.

To give a flavour of what drew O’Connell’s ire, this is some of what Walsh has written:

“From what [actress] Tara Flynn says, she was pregnant and just couldn’t be bothered having a baby. So she had it killed. Why is she a feminist hero?”

Ms Flynn tweeted in response: “I’d like to meet Barry Walsh. I don’t expect an apology, but I’d like him to sit across from me and say whatever he has to say.”

In earlier tweets, Mr Walsh had described Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin as a “stupid bitch”. He also described Social Democrats co-leader Roisin Shortall as a “bitch”.

Explaining her reason to complain to Tom Curran, O’Connell said that as an elected member of the executive council, she would have thought he “would uphold higher standards of ethics and behaviour on social media than an ordinary member of the party”.

It was and is unacceptable that a person with decision-making powers would act in this fashion, she said.

But the sort of commentary cited by O’Connell and others is nothing new.

When she was a senator for the Labour Party, Lorraine Higgins published a bill seeking to bring sanctions for online bullies after she received death threats.

She was called a “poxy, traitorous, two-faced, money-grabbing, bimbo bitch”.

The message sender then threatened to “rip your head from your shoulders” amid various other violent obscenities.

It then called her a “dumb blonde” before restating the threat to rip her head off. Such was the level of abuse, gardaí had to perform a sweep on her parents’ home in Galway.

As for her bill, it went nowhere but the Law Reform Commission has taken elements of it.

“Most politicians are over 30 and really don’t have a clue about this sort of stuff, so there is no surprise so little has been done,” Higgins said.

And it is not just politicians who are subjected to it.

“This McConnell moron...McConnell is piss poor...load of bullshit Daniel McConnell...Here’s Daniel McConnell on #TV3. He’s annoying me before he’s even spoken.”

The above is a sample of just some of the comments that have come my way on Twittter and they are mild in comparison to what many others are subjected to.

The proliferation of abuse that has come my way, particularly because of my writings on water charges and criticisms I have voiced over the Jobstown protest in 2014, has been at times outrageous.

Much of it from anonymous cowards who spew their bile while hiding away from any chance of being held accountable for their utterances.

So why now has this become a thing?

Of course, there is change afoot given the global discussion about sexual harassment sparked by the revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey.

Barry Walsh

Barry Walsh

But the manner in which O’Connell raised this issue on Wednesday; and Doherty’s very strong comments on Sean O’Rourke’s show on Thursday morning means Fine Gael and Leo Varadkar have to act.

While Walsh is to face an internal disciplinary process, if he ignores the calls to resign this risks becoming a major headache for Varadkar as leader.

Now, I am a passionate advocate for freedom of speech and a fierce opponent of censorship but such freedom has to be treated responsibly.

Yes, people have a right to criticise me or any politician they disagree with, but the sort of personal attacks which are par for the course on the online sewers of Twitter and Facebook, go way beyond what is acceptable.

That was what was a little disappointing about what the Taoiseach said in Gothenburg yesterday.

“It would be for the best if he resigned and stepped down as a member of the Fine Gael executive council pending a disciplinary procedure which is now under way.” The Taoiseach said, “Mr Walsh is below the standard of what I’d expect of a Fine Gael officer.

“There are lots of trolls and nasty people on Twitter but I expect Fine Gael officers to set a higher standard,” he added.

But what Mr Varadkar did not appear to address was the wider issue.

Fine to deal with Walsh the individual but what about new standards for politics and those who operate within it?

Much easier to cast out one bad egg than confront the wider problem.

Walsh finally broke cover yesterday announcing his resignation.

He said he was stepping down in the hope that it may bring an end to the “trial by media which has occurred in the last 48 hours and placed intolerable pressure on my family and friends”.

He added: “I deeply regret the tone and language I used in some of my tweets. I realise that some of my remarks have caused serious offence to many people and I apologise unreservedly for that.”

Walsh’s resignation, while inevitable, does not address the wider issue and until that it is addressed, this is certain to happen again.

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