Seanad debates

Friday, 18 December 2020

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


10:00 am

Sharon Keogan (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad. At around 11 o'clock on the morning of 22 December 2012, I got the phone call about the death of Shane McEntee, our Minister for Justice's dad. I remember the amount of online abuse he received coming up to that time, which went on over a period of a few months. I knew the individual who continued to harass Shane McEntee at the time and I rang him asking him to stop. I rang that individual on multiple occasions and told him that what he was doing was not right, not kind and to please stop. He did not stop. On the day of the funeral, Shane McEntee's brother spoke out about that online abuse. That was back in 2012. Each and every one of us here today will have been the subject of harassment, harmful communications and related offences. One can snowball it in any way one likes.

For two years I suffered nuisance phone calls. I received 98 phone calls in one day alone. For two years I was getting calls and we could not get a prosecution because the person who owned the phone was not the person making the calls. That is ridiculous. I have received online abuse and been the subject of threatening behaviour, as have other female politicians.I remember sitting down with Senator Hoey soon after she had been elected to the council. We were talking about the online stuff and private messages one gets, including nude photographs that people would send at all hours of the day and night. People think it is acceptable. It is not; none of it is. We do not sign up for that. My office was firebombed because I spoke out about drug crime in my town. That is not right either. A child had to leave my care because I became a target for these thugs. That is not right. The Garda was watching my home for about three months afterwards. It is not a nice life that any of us politicians live. For all those watching who think we live in ivory towers with our gardens full of roses, it certainly is not like that. We suffer daily. I do not mind doing the work that I do and I believe in free speech but I also believe in being free to represent people and being safe and secure in doing that.

Therefore, I broadly welcome the Bill, the main purpose of which is to address the gaps in the criminal law pertaining to image-based sexual abuse, both online and offline. It creates two new offences to deal with the recording, distribution, and publication of intimate images without consent and provides for the anonymity of victims of those offences. The Bill also provides for an offence including the distribution, publication, and sending of threatening and grossly offensive communications or messages with the intent to cause harm, without the requirement of persistence.

I note that the Bill, sponsored by Deputy Howlin, is largely predicated on the proposals performed by the Law Reform Commission in its 2016 report on harmful communications and digital safety. Given that the report was published four years ago and that this Bill has had a gestation period of some three years, I must voice my dismay at the fact that all five Stages of the Bill are to be heard in a single afternoon in the final sitting of the Seanad before Christmas, when many Members are fatigued. Speaking in particular as a new Member of the Seanad, the practice of compressing all five Stages of a Bill that requires careful consideration, analysis and scrutiny is highly undesirable. I do not believe it is good legislative practice or is necessarily in the best public interest. The people are better served by the allocation of a little more time for deliberation and debate, in order that both Upper and Lower Houses may do the work they are elected and mandated by the Constitution to do. Senators only received a copy of this Bill as late as 9 p.m. last night. Surely, given that the Bill has been in years in the offing, the Upper House should be afforded more time, more than one afternoon, in which to complete the legislative process, debate the ramifications of the Bill, draft amendments and so forth.

While I welcome the Bill, I have concerns like those outlined by Senators McDowell and Mullen.


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