Miriam Lord: Briefs moment allows Coppinger shine light on rape trial conduct
Solidarity TD records Irish parliamentary first by producing thong during Dáil sitting
Stunts are not allowed in the Dáil chamber.
But sometimes they are the right thing to do.
Ruth Coppinger did the right thing on Tuesday.
As she faced the Taoiseach during Leaders’ Questions, the Solidarity TD tugged at her white cuff and pulled a piece of underwear from inside her sleeve – a midnight blue lace thong – and held it up for all to see. A flimsy scrap of gossamer fabric, raised at head height with both hands, she waved it slightly for a second or two, just in case the ranks of men around her thought they were imagining it.
Ladies’ lingerie, no less. One or two of the Fianna Fáil deputies nearby nearly fell out of their seats with shock.
Because stunts are not allowed in the Dáil chamber.
It’s usually the Socialists who pull them these days. They like to introduce props now and then to drive home a point and cheer up the sketch writers. Sinn Féin hasn’t indulged in a sit-in or walk-out in a long time.
The two main parties pretend to frown upon such behaviour. But they don’t really. It’s just that their idea of a stunt is to hold up a page from a newspaper or wave a document in the air. Not very exciting.
That time when the Socialists stood up in their matching Repeal sweaters, the prissy Fine Gaelers and Fianna Fáilers tut-tutted and shook their heads. And there was a chorus of disapproval when they didn’t fall into line over the morning prayer with their sit-down protest and obligatory production of a written slogan.
Then there was the time when they held up images of a Repeal mural removed during the abortion referendum from the wall of a Dublin theatre.
“Stupid stunts like that do nothing to inform people,” chided the Tánaiste when Coppinger, Mick Barry et al looked wordlessly ahead and held up their photocopied A4 pages.
The Ceann Comhairle and his second-in-command find these displays very stressful, risking gong-beaters’ wrist in their efforts to maintain decorum.
The Green Party leader brought a bag of non-recyclable plastics one afternoon and treated the chamber to an exposition of his household rubbish. The Ceann Comhairle nearly had a seizure. Most of the few TDs who were in the chamber weren’t particularly affronted by Eamon Ryan’s well-motivated wheeze, so they made fun of him instead.
Except for Fine Gael’s Bernard Durkan, who is a stickler for decorum in the House.
“Ignore him! Ignore him!” he urged the chair.
Any bit of carry-on which is any way out of the ordinary attracts either the ire or the derision of certain TDs. They can’t resist the chance to make some noise at somebody else’s expense.
And so to Coppinger, who recorded a first in Irish parliamentary history by producing an item of women’s underwear during a Dáil sitting.
Here’s the thing: there was not as much as a peep out of any of the deputies – an overwhelming number of male TDs with just a handful of women present – when she performed a sleight of hand which would make any magician proud.
Without signalling her intentions, catching her audience completely unaware, she extracted the tiny lace thong from her sleeve. Had she followed up with a bunch of flowers and a rabbit, they couldn’t have been more surprised.
But Coppinger was not playing this for cheap headlines. She had a very serious point to make, one which has been made before in various other forums but never seems to bring about a much-needed change of thinking.
She was highlighting a question put to a jury by the defence lawyer during closing arguments in a rape case last week in Cork. The defendant was acquitted after 90 minutes of deliberation by the jury. Coppinger said there could be no comment on the verdict but “we need to focus on the lessons” brought into focus by the lawyer’s reference to the underwear worn by the woman who claimed she was raped.
“A barrister actually told a jury to ‘look at the way she was dressed,’” said the TD for Dublin West, quoting what the lawyer reportedly said in court, along with the complainant being “open to meeting someone” because she was “wearing a thong with a lace front”.
The ones in Dunnes and Penneys that sell by the lorryload to fashion-conscious young wans everywhere.
Coppinger repeated: “A 17-year-old was put in the dock for her choice of underwear, and she was open to meeting someone was the implication: she was asking for it.”
She said it was time to address “rape myths” and “routine victim shaming” in Irish courts and the failure of legislators to deal with it.
“Either the judiciary actually believes these rape myths, in which case they should be forced to do education – not voluntary, or they’re just using them to introduce sexist stereotypes that they know exist in society and among juries. I suspect the latter.”
She pointed to examples of “clothes, fake tan, even contraception being used to discredit women who had the bravery to go to court”. She looked across at Leo Varadkar. “So, how heroic do you have to be, Taoiseach, how much levels of fortitude [are needed] to pursue a rape trial in this country.”
She spoke of the percentage figures compiled in Britain for the numbers of women who report sexual assault or harassment (there is no data here).
“And it might seem embarrassing to show. . .” she began, reaching for her sleeve, “a pair of thongs here in this incongruous setting.” She shook them and held them out. “Ding, ding, ding!” went the leas Ceann Comhairle’s bell. “Deppity! Deppity!” he implored.
“But the reason I’m doing it,” continued Coppinger, as the mostly male TDs in the benches beside and opposite her stayed utterly mute. Not as much as a squeak out of them, most of them with their eyes averted or heads down.
The reason why she was doing this, she said, shaking the thong in Varadkar’s direction, was this: “How do you think a rape victim or a woman feels at the incongruous setting of her underwear being shown in a court?”
“Taoiseach to respond!” shouted the leas Ceann Comhairle, urgently. “Taoiseach to respond!”
“And when is this Dáil going to take serious action on the issue of sexual violence?”
“Ah deputy, please. . .” sighed Pat the Cope Gallagher.
The Taoiseach thanked her for raising the important issue of how rape trials are conducted and how the undergarments worn by a woman who alleges rape are introduced by the defence.
“Let me say this and let there be no doubt about it: nobody asks to be raped and it’s never the victim’s fault. Doesn’t matter what you wear, it doesn’t matter where you went, who you went with or what you took, whether it was drugs or alcohol.
“Nobody who is a victim of sexual violence, nobody who is a victim of rape is ever to blame for the crime committed on them. And I believe that any defence on those lines is absolutely reprehensible and let me put that very clearly on the record of this Dáil.”
Parliament is separate from the courts. But the Taoiseach reminded her that a review is ongoing to see how the situation might be improved.
In the meantime, if it takes a TD to produce a Dunnes Stores thong in the Dáil chamber to show how incongruous, embarrassing and downright wrong it is to continue this legal line of questioning, then so be it.