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Sunday 16 December 2018

Why was abortion campaigner not vilified for celebrating TD's death?

Pro-choice spokeswoman posted online that she was 'glad' Peter Mathews died but faced no consequences, writes Philip Ryan

Mourners carry the coffin from the church at Peter Mathew’s funeral. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Mourners carry the coffin from the church at Peter Mathew’s funeral. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

On February 27, aged 65, former Fine Gael TD Peter Mathews passed away following a short battle with cancer.

Mr Mathews, who was known as a politician of conviction, said goodbye to his wife Susan and four children, James, John, David and Maria, from his hospital bed in St James's Hospital.

Mr Mathews was a pro-life activist who resigned from Fine Gael over the enacting of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.

On February 28, at 5am in the morning, former Abortion Rights Campaign spokeswoman Janet O'Sullivan or Jan Ni Shuilleabhain, as she seems to go by now, posted a comment on Twitter about the death of Mr Mathews.

Ms O'Sullivan was responding to criticism about a previous comment she made about the death of the Dublin South TD by Kilkenny County Councillor Patrick McKee, who was friends with Mr Mathews during their time in Renua.

Ms Ni Shuilleabhain wrote: "So @cllrPaddyMcKee frankly I'm glad he is dead, same as I was glad he wasn't re elected."

In the context of the controversy surrounding the abusive tweets posted by Fine Gael national executive member Barry Walsh, Ms Ni Shuilleabhain was asked had she ever apologised to the Mathews family for the comment. She posted a far from contrite response: "No I have not. I do not know them, I have zero contact with them, I would not have any reason to believe they have a (sic) read tweet a random stranger months ago."

Mr Walsh, a staunch pro-life activist, is mostly likely a stranger to Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald who he referred to as a bitch on Twitter - he has now resigned from the Fine Gael executive council.

The present Abortion Rights Campaign spokesperson, Linda Kavanagh, confirmed last week that no action was ever taken by the lobby group against Ms Ni Shuilleabhain after tweeting her glee about the death of a politician less than a day after he passed away.

She was not disciplined or suspended. There were no calls from members of the Abortion Rights Campaign for her to resign. No vilification.

"We didn't take action against someone tweeting off their own private account," Ms Kavanagh said before she quickly hung up the phone.

Mr Walsh's comments about female politicians were also from his private account.

Before she suddenly ended the call she said Ms Ni Shuilleabhain is no longer a spokesperson for the group but Ms Kavanagh said this was not related to the tweet.

One of the more heinous comments which has made Mr Walsh a social pariah this week was his reference to comedian Tara Flynn, who has bravely spoken about her experience with abortion in the past.

"From what 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?" Mr Walsh wrote. Ms Flynn has understandably complained to Fine Gael about the comment.

Mr Walsh's online behaviour was brought to the public's attention this week after Fine Gael TD Kate O'Connell produced a number of his comments at her party's weekly parliamentary party meeting. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar later called for Mr Walsh to resign.

Mr Walsh, who was a former president of Young Fine Gael, handed in his resignation from the party's national executive on Friday afternoon.

He said in doing so he hoped his resignation would bring about an end to the "trial by media" which he suggested led to his decision to step down. He will face an internal Fine Gael disciplinary committee which will decide whether he should be able to retain his membership.

Mr Walsh was well got in Fine Gael. He was friendly with senior party figures, including the Taoiseach. His pro-life views would have won him plaudits in some sections of the party and he even received a round of applause at last weekend's Fine Gael conference in Cavan when he criticised the party's decision to hold a referendum on removing the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

Nonetheless, pressure was exerted on him from certain factions within the party and his position became untenable because his comments were unbecoming for a person in his position.

Fine Gael South Dublin County Councillor Brian Murphy was recently criticised by his party members over comments he made online about Islam and refugees. The Taoiseach distanced himself from Mr Murphy's comments and he was removed from the Fine Gael group of councillors on the council.

In Britain, online comments last week resulted in the resignation of Gay Times editor Josh Rivers.

The appointment of Mr Rivers as the magazine's first non-white editor was supposed to be time of celebration for diversity in the world of gay publications.

However, weeks into his appointment, online news website Buzzfeed published dozens of racist and anti-Semitic comments Mr Rivers made on social media.

The response from the Gay Times was swift. Mr Rivers was fired the following day and all of his articles were removed from their website.

A publication representing a group which has spent years battling against prejudice and adversity knew there was no room for bigotry at the helm of its organisation.

Publicly shaming Twitter trolls is a welcome development and will hopefully lead to a societal shift in how people use the medium.

Society can only improve if people like Barry Walsh and Josh Rivers are seen to have to pay a price for posting derogatory content on the internet.

The social media companies have shown little or no willingness to address the matter and most operate hands-off policies when it comes to what is published on their websites. So it is up to the media and politicians to highlight the behaviour.

Kate O'Connell was correct to call out Barry Walsh and Gay Times was right to fire Josh Rivers and disassociate the magazine from the editor.

Why the Abortion Rights Campaign would not see it fitting to, at the very least, raise internal concerns about a senior member of their organisation celebrating the death of a politician is troubling.

The organisation will play a central role in the coming weeks and months, and leadership will need to be shown when the debate on repealing the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution gets more divisive.

Sunday Independent

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