Friday, 18 December 2020
Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister of State. This is the first time I have addressed him since his elevation and it is great to see him here.
I was proud to step aside and let the Labour Party take the slot, given the debt of gratitude that is due to Deputy Howlin, the party and, indeed, Senator Bacik, for bringing this legislation forward. It has been a long and arduous journey. I wish to tell Jackie Fox that Coco did not die in vain. The outlandish and horrendous torment, abuse and harassment she took from bullies online was not in vain. She has made this country, at least, a safer place. I met the family outside the gates of Leinster House thanks to Deputy Howlin. It was a harrowing meeting, to see what was done to that beautiful child. She could have been 21 years old, but she was somebody's child.
Something terribly wrong is happening in our society with respect to the use of social media. The fact is that one can register anonymously and throw out any abuse one wishes. There is a misconception that it is scumbags who engage in this type of behaviour. My personal experience is that I asked a question in this House about the HPV vaccine. I asked it because I knew nothing about it and I called for a debate.Talking about online harassment and what it does, on one particular Saturday evening I found my own mental health being challenged. The people who were bullying me were not scumbags but registered general practitioners in medical practice. I still have the screen captures of what they said to me online. One of them went as far as to diagnose me as somebody who needed mental treatment. At that stage, I contacted him and told him that I knew who we was and that he had gone too far. Within three minutes, every tweet was gone. These tweets came from medical practitioners. If medical practitioners can behave like that, what are those who do not understand the damage they are doing capable of?
This Bill is about use of images and the horrendous work that is done on young ladies. I understand this issue as I was a teacher for 25 years. One of the worst things someone can do online to a girl is not to comment, for example, if a girl puts up an image of herself in a new dress. That is one side of it. The other side of it is one on which I have to speak to the young men of Ireland. What are they thinking of in asking young girls to take intimate photographs of themselves and send them on to them? What the hell is that about? If they want to see some part of their anatomy, they can go and meet them. They do not need the image to be sent to them online and then have this big stick to hold over their heads for the rest of their lives. I have seen some of this carry-on in schools. Really and truly, this has to stop.
In my first week as president of the Teachers Union of Ireland, I had to travel to the north west where two young girls had taken their own lives because of what was going on online. What sort of country do we have? On the day I arrived, a school principal told me he could not understand what was going on in family homes. We were talking about children aged between 13 and 15 years. He told me these children are sent to bed at night at a particular time, their parents ensure they have washed their teeth, put on their pyjamas and, in some cases, have said their prayers before they go to bed. Then they will leave them with the most lethal instrument in bed with them, namely, their mobile phone. They can either be the bully or the bullied. This is a societal issue and this legislation will go a long way towards changing the society we live in. I am very grateful to Deputy Howlin for bringing forward this Bill. He fought long and hard to bring it to both Houses. It will pass as Coco’s Law and it is not before time that we have had such a law.
We now have to go one stage further. I hope the Minister will engage in a national advertising campaign to ensure nobody is left unaware of exactly what this means. I hope my former colleagues in education will explain to children in schools, particularly in the later years of national school and all of second level, that they do not have to provide images of themselves to anybody. “Oh, if you loved me you would send me the photograph” they are told. They do not have to do that and if they do so, they will leave themselves open to these blackguards and what they will do. I could use much stronger language if I wanted to. There has to be penalties. I am glad that both the Minister of State, the senior Minister, Deputy McEntee, and Deputy Howlin saw that this was a dynamic Bill. This legislation will have to change.
I am in my 60s. I started communications with Morse code, dots and dashes, and it is not that long ago.