Is abuse of women in politics ok if it’s Sharon Keogan?

On Thursday, the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWC) launched its new toolkit to tackle abuse against women in politics, calling for political parties to take substantial action to prevent female politicians leaving public life. 

Given that Senator Sharon Keogan had, just the day before, resigned from an important Dáil Committee because she “no longer felt safe or protected”, the toolkit launch couldn’t have been more timely, could it?

You’d expect at least some of the substantial media coverage given to the NWC’s new push to stop abusive behaviour against women to at least refer to Keogan’s case – even as a very recent example of the real consequences of what happens when women are attacked for expressing an opinion.

Claire McGing of the NWC said that “ample global research” showed that gender-based aggression against women politicians was a “key barrier” to equality.

“In addition to the emotional and professional consequences that that online abuse has, women may decide to drop out of politics and other women, if they see that is what elected women are experiencing, they may just decide it’s not worth running for election at all,” she said.

Ms McGing was speaking about online abuse in particular but surely the experience is pretty much the same. Any woman who is constantly interrupted, roared at, or personally attacked when expressing her opinion might well feel like just giving up.

Yet, the experience of Sharon Keogan was strangely absent from the sympathetic interviews with the NWC regarding the problems women in politics face. That was strange, to say the least. The elephant in the room was pointedly ignored.

Claire McGing talked to Cormac Ó hEadhra on RTÉ’s Drivetime about the NWC toolkit, and said the abuse of women in politics was described as “wide-spread and unrelenting”. This was “such an important issue,” Ó hEadhra said before McGing talked about the “psychological violence” that women in politics faced.

Ms McGing referred to abuse that British MP Diane Abbott had received, and that Independent female politicians were particularly vulnerable since they didn’t have a party structure to support them. She also said that female Senators received three times as much abuse as their male counterparts.

Yet no mention of the attacks on Independent Senator Sharon Keogan had received – in full public view, in the Seanad chamber – or of the disgraceful actions of the Chair of the Oireachtas committee at the hearing, Sinn Féin’s Kathleen Funchion, who not only failed to stop the personalised attacks but actually joined in the criticism.

Now, the NWC might argue that their toolkit was dealing only with online abuse, but Keogan has received plenty of that too.

And when she complained about the snarling and nasty attacks being made against her in the Senate and public hearings, Paul Murphy TD called Ms Keogan ‘far-right’ – more name-calling- the lazy tactic used to shout down your opponent. There’s nothing ‘far-right’ about Ms Keogan, she simply had the audacity to express perfectly reasonable concerns about commercial surrogacy and was subject to a pile-on.

As she said herself this week, being a woman in politics who doesn’t succumb to groupthink can be a “lonely path” – and that must be especially true when the aggression is shown again and again, not just by an anonymous troll on Twitter, but by your fellow Senators.

Here’s Paul Gavan of Sinn Féin shouting at Ms Keogan as she tries to talk about having Ann Lovett as a childhood friend and how that formed her views regarding offering support in crisis pregnancies. That’s just one example.

Journalist Colm Parkinson observed this week that Sharon Keogan was treated “terribly” twice in one week in the Seanad chamber.

Of course, in the same week, Irish Times columnist, Úna Mulally wrote a whole column wondering how Ms Keogan could be ‘sanctioned’ for speaking her mind or having opinions that liberal Ireland objected to. Where was the NWC then to defend women in politics?

In response to Parkinson’s post, Senator Keogan said:

“Thank you for the support. I’ve never received any support from other women in politics, especially at national level. This is a lonely path that must be walked if the truth is to be told. More women in politics wanted only if they have the correct view.”

Maybe the NWCI’s next taxpayer funded project could be a toolkit for politicians – and for themselves – to respect diversity of opinion from women in politics. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. It’s way past time for this group of charlatans, who get huge amounts of cash to represent Irish women, to be defunded.

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