Monday 27 January 2020

Enquiry got it right over vulgar abuse of protester

The majority of women don't find "laddish" humour even remotely funny. We prefer not to be around when men indulge in it. But we know that laddish jokes are common. Just as men (probably) know that women in solely female company not infrequently indulge in jokes about men's sexual performance. And some women prefer not to be in that kind of company, just as some men prefer not to be in the company of laddish fests. Some people like crudity, others find it offensively boring.

It's probably one of the nicer outcomes of workplace political correctness that nowadays you don't have to put up with crudity if you don't want to. Time was when anyone, man or woman, who suggested they put a sock in it was considered a wimpish kill-joy. I can remember two particular men in RTE years ago who were gratuitously and relentlessly sexually crude, with one a confirmed grabber/groper. The problem was that if you objected, there were numerous women around who found the two chaps hilarious, and encouraged them. It didn't leave much room for moral high ground.

A few months ago I didn't give way to a motorist who was deliberately trying to force a way illegally through a parked-up, narrow street; he wound down his window and bellowed: "We know what to do to women like you in my country. You would soon learn to behave." (His accent was central European.)

It was an unpleasant incident. I presumed he meant that my "punishment" would be of an unofficial but sexual nature. And the comment was made to me, not about me. But I was mildly offended, not terrified, and knew that the threat was an empty one. I also assumed that the speaker was sexually inadequate. Adequate men don't resort to sexual threats, even empty ones.

The occasional sexual threat delivered by (usually semi-literate) letter to my house following something that I have written is slightly more unnerving, since it is invariably graphic and perverted, and they also "know where I live". The threat always concerns punishment for my perceived anti-national/anti-Catholic views. Again, it's offensive, but doesn't leave me shaking in my shoes.

Should the perpetrators ever be apprehended, I don't imagine they would end up in court. It wouldn't be worth the time and trouble for the gardai, or for me. They'd get a strong talking to, be told to watch themselves, and allowed to go.

But in March last year Jerrie Ann Sullivan, a graduate student at Maynooth, and another woman were arrested during a Shell to Sea/Corrib Gas protest. They were taken to Belmullet Garda Station, questioned, and released without charge. Five gardai involved in policing the protest travelled to Belmullet in a different vehicle.

Unknown to them, the camcorder they had confiscated from Jerrie Ann Sullivan was in "record" mode, and when it was returned to the two women, it was discovered that two of the gardai, a sergeant and a ranking garda, had been joking about raping her and her companion. The other gardai had joined in the laughter. It must undoubtedly have been an unpleasant revelation, but one imagines that as a mature woman of considerable intellect and strong opinions, Ms Sullivan can hardly have felt herself in any danger from either of the "jokers".

A complaint to the Garda Ombudsman Commission followed, together with a public outcry. The responses varied, but the one that seems to me to have been "appropriate" came from the Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte, who called the remarks "unedifying".

A Garda Ombudsman Commission enquiry followed, as did a separate Garda investigation by a Superintendent from Tuam Division. The Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan issued an unreserved apology. That was quite a bit of attention for some unedifying remarks made by his members in private, although admittedly while on duty.

The results of the Ombudsman investigation were published during the week: the sergeant who made the offensive jokes about raping the women has retired, and is not subject to disciplinary action. The ranking garda, the Commission recommends, should be subject to disciplinary procedures. These include either a warning issued by the Commissioner, a reprimand, or a reduction in pay. Any or all of them would be taken seriously by an up and coming garda.

And while his stupidity and bad taste would be something that would require merely a ticking-off from the boss, soon to be forgotten, in a civilian job, they would rightly be a serious bad mark against him in the police force.

Ms Sullivan said in reaction that the scope of the enquiry had been narrow, and did nothing to address "the real reason the gardai felt free to talk flippantly about raping campaigners".

And she added that "people campaigning against Corrib have stopped making official complaints against gardai". How come? They seem to have indefatigable reserves of energy in other areas.

One would have thought that a relentless listing and publication of legitimate complaints against the gardai would be a remarkably effective weapon. The complaints of this incident merited national headlines, after all.

Ms Sullivan and her companion may not have been present to hear the lewd and childish remarks, but they did not deserve to be the subject of such vulgar contempt. But that is what it was, the equivalent of the courts finding against a libel claimant by deciding that the words complained of amount merely to "vulgar abuse".

To try to imply that it was threatening, dangerous, or subversive of the law, or indeed had serious intent, is once again to reduce the reality of sexual crimes against women to the ridiculous. Ask any woman who has been raped, or genuinely felt threatened with rape, if the experience compares to having dirty jokes made about them. The answer would be scorching.

The Shell to Sea campaigners may have thought it heaven-sent when the confiscated camcorder was found to show evidence of ill-judged macho male humour. But neither they, nor those who rushed to hysterical condemnation of the remarks, were doing any favours to the two women or to women in general. Fortunately, the Garda Ombudsman Commission seems to have had the sense to react correctly and calmly.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss