‘I would often be crying at work’: Taskforce hears ‘powerful testimony’ about abuse politicians face

Women participating in politics experience more sexual-based and image-based abuse than men, draft report finds

The abuse of politicians is “intensifying” and “becoming normalised” with elected representatives privately reporting that they have considered leaving the job, a new taskforce report has found.

Former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan was last year appointed to head up a taskforce that in recent months has been compiling a report into the scale of abuse and threats faced by politicians.

A confidential draft of the report, seen by The Irish Times, details how the taskforce heard “powerful personal testimony from national and local politicians of their lived experiences of abuse and its impact” during the course of its work.

The politicians said they were concerned for the safety and wellbeing of their family and children and that they were worried about going to public meetings but also worried about conducting daily activities such as going to the supermarket. Some said they believed that the abuse was a “concerted effort” to force them to exit political life, while others said they had limited their political activities, such as canvassing.

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The report said that politicians also reported reducing their online presence and avoiding contentious topics such as immigration.

“Many had considered, even briefly, leaving politics,” it found. The taskforce report, which was circulated to members late on Thursday afternoon, also included anonymised quotations from politicians who described in their own words how they were being impacted.

One said that while they don’t get upset easily, “I would often be crying at work.” Another said they were suffering “really bad anxiety”.

Others spoke about not being able to use public transport, and of being approached in public to be told that they would be killed.

“The taskforce concludes that abuse is experienced increasingly online, and that online abuse is intensifying and becoming normalised, fuelled by the anonymity provided by digital platforms.”

“Furthermore . . . women and minority groups experience more online abuse, including sexualised abuse, and this extends to women and minorities in political life.”

The report says that women participating in political life “often experience higher levels of abuse than men. Women politicians often experience abuse in gender-specific ways, such as more sexual abuse.”

Although social media was found to be a “major purveyor of abuse”, the issue is experienced “both online and offline”.

“Online abuse comprises of a range of different behaviours and actions, including offensive name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, online stalking, threats of a physical nature, repeated harassment and sexual harassment.”

The taskforce heard that social media is a “major facilitator of sexist and racist remarks and threats, and that female politicians are particularly exposed to image-based abuse, such as the sharing of fake images with a sexual or derogatory connotation”. Such abuse increases “where politicians address contentious issues that are the focus of political debate”.

Concerns were raised that this may serve to temper political debate.

The cross-party group has recommended that social media companies take proactive measures to address the issue, including by dedicating adequate resources to moderate harmful content against politicians.

One recommendation said that the Electoral Commission could accredit the Houses of the Oireachtas, local authorities and political parties as “trusted flaggers” so that platforms are obliged to give priority to reports of illegal content from them.

The document also details how an international comparative survey was carried out by the Houses of the Oireachtas Service to gather up-to-date information from other European parliaments on measures to address abuse of parliamentarians and their staff.

“In summary, the responses show that while members in most parliaments had raised concerns about abuse, few parliaments had introduced many measures to address abuse.”

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times