Sunday 16 December 2018

I was right to berate Waters over insensitive Tuam remarks

During my political career, I have been a defender of free speech, but words can also hurt, writes Ciaran Cannon

Reflection: The site of the grave at Tuam.
Reflection: The site of the grave at Tuam.

Ciaran Cannon

'The space for genuinely free speech is shrinking. Too many are lurking in the shadows, eager to take offence." Those were the opening words of Eilis O'Hanlon's impassioned plea for the protection of free speech in last week's Sunday Independent.

Ms O'Hanlon then went on to deny me some of that very same space and took offence at a statement I had issued earlier in the previous week.

Let's set some context here.

Earlier this month, the Centre for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame University published the programme for its Fall Conference, an event which often features some of the world's finest thinkers teasing out many of the great ethical questions that trouble us in the 21st Century.

One of the contributors to the Fall Conference was our own John Waters and all that we got to see was the title of his speech: "When Evil Becomes Virtual: Cyberspace, Failing Media, and the Hoax of the Holocaust of Tuam."

I represent the people of Tuam and East Galway in Dail Eireann. It is my privilege and indeed my obligation to do so. I formed an opinion that John Waters, in choosing those words to headline his speech, had been exceptionally hurtful to the survivors of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, in particular those who have come forward to tell their story in the recent past.

Seeing the words "hoax" and "Tuam" in the same sentence, irrespective of the subtleties of their context, can only have poured salt into old and not-so-old wounds.

Words are powerful things that can sometimes hurt or heal us. That's why we are all fascinated by them.

Martin Luther King once wrote that the meaning of words can "only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart". One would have thought that John Waters, a wordsmith for most of his life, would understand that raw power and would have wielded it more carefully.

Having read the title of his speech, as the speech itself remains unpublished, I felt it was necessary to call into question the use of the word "hoax" in particular.

I firmly believe that it should not have been used when speaking about a subject as sensitive as the death of 796 children in a mother and baby home.

In an official statement clarifying its position on John Waters's speech, Notre Dame University felt it necessary to point out that "the topic and title of John Waters's talk at this year's conference were provided by him".

What Mr Waters meant by his choice of words is up to you to decide. What is indisputable, however, is that those words cast a degree of doubt on the truth of the testimony of the survivors of that home and on the meticulous research of Catherine Corless.

I issued a statement questioning the appropriateness of those words and I did so in solidarity with many of my constituents who have been deeply traumatised by the terrible injustices visited upon our women and children in that home in Tuam.

So there you have it. John Waters used language that I considered to be insensitive and intemperate. I called him out on it. I expressed an opinion and in my 14 years in politics I have always steadfastly defended the right of everyone to do exactly that.

In the past when some of my fellow members of the Oireachtas sought to suppress the use of social media in political discourse, under the guise of tackling cyber bullying, I consistently defended the rights of our citizens to express themselves freely.

In a 2013 opinion piece for TheJournal.ie, I wrote that "we all have an inalienable right to express our opinion" and that "all politicians who value genuine freedom of expression, including the rights of those who wish to publicly question our actions, should resist any calls for increased regulation of social media".

Eilis O'Hanlon finished her piece by saying that free speech needs to be defended at its furthest boundaries and that such a message should be "coming down from the top".

I couldn't agree more and that's why I will continue to be a defender of free speech during my time in politics and indeed for long after.

Ciaran Cannon TD is Minister for the Diaspora and International Development

Sunday Independent

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