Seanad debates

Friday, 18 December 2020

Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017: Second Stage


10:00 am

Annie Hoey (Labour) | Oireachtas source

I am pleased to be able to talk today on the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 and that it will be known as "Coco's law". As many Senators here have, I commend Ms Jackie Fox for her relentless campaign, not only on getting this law passed but also to tackle the scourge of online bullying. I also think of, and commend, the other parents who have lost their children due to suicide because of online bullying. I can only image their pain and anguish when they tried to get legal recourse by going to the Garda to try and get something done to stop the relentless bullying that their children were experiencing and they could not. I am thinking of the parents who are, possibly right now, watching their children suffer. No doubt this online bullying is continuing to happen and it is having devastating results.

Like Senator Craughwell, I and many other Senators here stood outside the gates of Leinster House and listened to Ms Fox and other parents talk about their children who had been driven to suicide from bullying. I think of those children who are not here with us anymore and hope that when this law goes through there is a better outcome.

There has been reference in here to consent and the need to get explicit consent. I agree that we have to tackle this area before we even ever have to get to the legal stage. I have talked a lot about my time in the student movement and how, by the time people get to third level, it is too late to be talking about consent. Not everyone goes on to third level. We have also got an even bigger divide there around talking about consent. We need education around having positive healthy consensual relationships with other people, how to give consent and how to receive consent. We talk about how we can be very awkward and that we do not like to say it as it is too awkward but sometimes we need to give people the explicit language to say, "I consent to this", "Yes, you can do that", "Yes, I want to do this", "Yes, that is something that I enjoy and I would like to do that again." We need to teach people how to say that. That is a long time coming. It is an awkward conversation, perhaps, for parents to have, but we need to have that. I want people to be able to have healthy sexual relationships with their partners and we need to get to grips with that. It is too late at third level to be talking about that, although, of course, we will keep doing so.

It is not the fault of the person whose photos others have shared. If the person consents to an intimate image to be shared between two consenting adults, the only person who is at fault for sharing that image is the person who has done so without the other's consent. I believe those people when they say that they did not consent to that to be shared widely and I want them to know that there are Senators who believe them. I have spoken about this briefly before, that I am someone who has suffered sexual violence. I do not talk about it too often. It does not define me. When I see online anonymous accounts calling for that to happen to me again, which has happened, it is not pleasant. I thank Senator Gallagher for referencing the interview yesterday where I spoke of my experience of people calling for that to happen to me because I have spoken out against sexual violence and because I have spoken out against image-based sexual assault. That it happened to me in the first place is never acceptable, but it is even more unacceptable for those people to call for it to happen to me again because I have spoken up.

I am very lucky that I have an opportunity to speak out where many others cannot. Senator Doherty said there was probably not one person in here who has not experienced online abuse, and perhaps even concentrated harassment. Sometimes we are told it is just part of the job and that we just have to toughen up. I welcome the collective position that has been taken whereby we are saying we do not have to toughen up, that it is not right, and that people have to stop saying this. It frightens and terrifies me to think of young people having to process some of the most ghastly things online. I can brush it off and deal with it, but for young people it is very difficult.

I reiterate the comments on the need for a societal response to this. I agree with Senator Ruane. I would prefer to see behavioural change rather than legal sanctions, which should be a last resort. It is very important to ask why people behave the way they do. I am not referring just to online abuse. Why do people perpetuate hate? Senator Flynn spoke extremely eloquently last night about her own experiences as a Traveller woman, and I suggest that people should watch that interview. Why do people perpetrate sexual violence, as done to me? Why do people harass and torment, as is done to Senator Ruane? We need to challenge and change these behaviours. The Bill gives an option for legal recourse and penal sanctions and, it is hoped, perhaps some small comfort to those who have been affected. As I have said, however, there is a wider societal issue that we need to tackle.

I am very grateful to Deputy Howlin and my Labour Party colleagues for this legislation. A journalist congratulated me for writing the legislation in 2017 when I was merely in the Union of Students in Ireland, but it was great to be associated with such a thing. I am very grateful to be associated with helping to bring the legislation forward and, I hope, some comfort to those who have been deeply affected by the issues we talk about today.


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