The Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland Report is 15 years out of date. Those working with the victims of sexual crime say a second report is desperately needed. If the Taoiseach is serious about tackling sexual harassment, he needs to fund SAVI II.
On Thursday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar appealed to anyone who has experienced sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, to come forward. He also cautioned that there is a right to due process. His comments came in the wake of allegations of bullying and sexual harassment in Dublin’s Gate Theatre.
“I think it would be right and appropriate for people who have been sexually harassed to come forward,” he said. “That requires a degree of bravery, of course, but also it empowers other people to do the same, maybe people who were afraid to do so in the past, when they see others coming forward, well then, they’ll be encouraged to do so as well.
I thought this a significant intervention. The Taoiseach could very easily have said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on an ongoing matter which had not – as yet – seen any allegations substantiated and which may yet end up in the courts.
Instead, Leo did that disarming thing he sometimes does and gave a straight answer. He’s a clever man, and although his critics will say he never saw a microphone he didn’t like, he knows full-well the weight of his words. I thought at the time of Bob Dylan’s line “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind’s blowin’”.
The wind is blowin’ in a powerful direction at the moment, here in Ireland since George Hook’s idiotic questions about whether rape survivors bear responsibility for being raped, and internationally since the publication of allegations of sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein.
Since then, wave after wave of stories have emerged, with accusations of sexual harassment in Hollywood, in theatre, in media, in politics, in academia, in business, in short, in every field in which men have power.
Thursday’s intervention put me in mind of another time Varadkar spoke out when others might have thought it wiser to say naught.
In March 2014, literally a single word from Leo, then-Minister for Transport, re-ignited the Garda whistle-blower scandal, which would ultimately cost the jobs of at least one Garda Commissioner and Minister for Justice. Then-Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan had condemned as ‘disgusting’, that ‘personal and sensitive data’ had found its way into the public domain. The implication was clear that the Commissioner also thought the whistle-blowers ‘disgusting’.
Varadkar said he wanted to thank Sgt McCabe and his fellow (former) Garda whistle-blower John Wilson. “There have been many words used to describe their actions,” he said. “But if I was to use one word, the word I would use is ‘distinguished’.”
As Mick Clifford puts it in A Force for Justice: The Maurice McCabe Story, “With that word… a controversy that was fleeing for the hills suddenly turned on its heels.”
I really thought on Thursday that Varadkar spoke on the subject of sexual harassment because he understood the so-called Weinstein effect, whereby a tipping point of critical mass is reached, and even survivors in the most desperate of pain see strength in numbers, strength enough to say #MeToo. I really thought he got it, or at least that he knew which way the wind is blowing. Monday proved how naïve I am.
When asked if he believes Leinster House is a safe working environment, Leo decided – rather than taking leadership on the issue of sexual harassment – to instead take a cheap shot at the opposition.
“In my experience, yes – but that’s not to say there isn’t a macho culture or behaviour, on occasion in the Oireachtas. There certainly is. I’ve spoken myself in the past about how very often when you’re trying to conduct normal business in the Dáil, you’re shouted down and interrupted constantly. But that’s largely perpetrated by the men and women of Sinn Fein and the left, rather than men specifically.”
Where do you even begin with that? For starters, shouting someone down in the Dáil is not sexual harassment, it’s politics, And if you think the Dáil is a rowdy, boisterous workplace – and it is – just look next door to the Hooray Henry boorishness on daily display in the mother of parliaments. Compared to what goes on in Westminster, the Dáil is a gentle haven of contemplation. And, by the way, Taoiseach, you’re a fine man yourself for the carefully-aimed elbow. He who lives by the dirty dig…
It’s also worth remembering that the most visible recent example of sexual harassment in Leinster House occurred on camera, during the 2013 Protection of Life in Pregnancy debate, when then Cork East TD Tom Barry came back from the Dáil Bar and pulled the then Cork North-West TD Áine Collins onto his lap. Both were Fine Gael TDs.
It’s unfortunate that the Taoiseach doesn’t seem to understand what sexual harassment actually is or that – sorry lads – it is men who commit it. But then, Leo is the leader of a government which has – out of 34 senior and junior ministers – just six female ministers. He has also refused to fund a second Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland Report.
The 2002 SAVI Report found 27% of Irish women and men experience sexual violence in their childhood. Roughly one third of Irish women and men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. One in five women and one in 10 men had experienced sexual assaults as adults and 42% of women had experienced some form of sexual abuse.
Only one in ten victims of sexual crime in Ireland reports that crime. Ireland has the lowest conviction rate for rape cases – following allegation – in Europe, standing at 1 – 2%. The EU average is 8 – 10%.
Those figures are shocking, but they date from an age before social media, before a time when pre-teens can access instantly hard-core pornography, and before a time when abuse survivors have been empowered by others coming forward. We need – as a matter of considerable urgency – an up-to-date picture of sexual violence in Ireland.
SAVI II would cost an estimated €1 million. Leo Varadkar’s recently-sanctioned Strategic Communications Unit will cost us €5 million a year. If the Taoiseach hopes to convince us that money was well-spent, he should realise which way the wind is blowing and fund SAVI II as a national priority.
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre 24 Hour National Helpline is 1800 77 88 88.
The Samaritans: 116 123