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Mother and Baby Homes activists reject claim of political interference as FF say campaign has been 'hijacked'

Niall Collins says online abuse directed at TDs is ‘orchestrated’.

A protest against the controversial bill at Áras an Áachtarain yesterday.
A protest against the controversial bill at Áras an Áachtarain yesterday.
Image: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

A NUMBER OF Fianna Fail TDs have complained that the campaign against the controversial Mother and Baby Homes Bill has been “exploited”, “manipulated” and “hijacked” by political opponents. 

Niall Collins TD told TheJournal.ie that it’s “fairly obvious” who is doing this and he also defended comments he made on Facebook in which he said that someone concerned about the bill was being “fooled by online trolls”. 

Collins said it’s “as clear as day” that people are hopping on the back of the campaign to abuse politicians but opposition parties have denied this is the case.

Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns has said that government parties are being “disrespectful to survivors groups” by suggesting that strong opposition to the Bill is motivated by politics.

“All of my comments online and in the Dáil were based on what survivor activists wanted said,” Cairns said. 

Limerick TD Collins has claimed that “online abuse” is being “orchestrated” against government TDs. 

“People are telling me to watch my back, saying ‘you scumbag, I hope you die of Covid’. All this type of stuff. I mean, it’s just unreal the online abuse which has been directed at us,” he said.

And it’s being done so in an orchestrated way and it’s regrettable how the issue has been hijacked for political gain. Such a sensitive and emotive issue.

Asked who is “hijacking” the campaign, Collins replied: “People involved in politics, people we can figure that out for themselves, it’s fairly obvious.”

Last week, Fianna Fáil Senator Lisa Chambers said that Sinn Féin “politically hijacked” the bill.

Answering questions about the issue last week, Fianna Fail TD Cathal Crowe wrote on Facebook that Sinn Féin had been “putting paid advertising out on this and infiltrating survivor support groups”.

Addressing this specific claim today, Mother and Baby Homes campaigner Claire McGettrick said that Sinn Féin “had no role” in the campaign but that they have since received support from several opposition parties.

“Nope. The campaign was conceived of by Dr Maeve O’Rourke, Katherine O’Donnell and myself (and paid for by Justice for Magdalene’s Research). Sinn Féin had no role in its operation. We are very grateful for the support we have received from the opposition and it is our policy to work with all parties and none,” McGettrick wrote on Twitter.

Sinn Féin spokesperson for children Kathleen Funchion also denied the allegation that paid advertising had been used by the party to influence the issue.

Funchion said: “There’s been no advertising paid for by the party. Anyone engaging in that type of debate in relation to this issue really needs to take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror.”

“It’s absolutely disgusting really to go down that road. In fairness, the Opposition is fairly united in relation to this – Social Democrats, Labour, a number of independents,” Funchion said.

“We all felt we needed to give advice to survivors. We got a huge amount of lobbying. Everybody, whether you were a Government TD or an Opposition TD, you got those lobbies. People wanted us to speak up for them,” she said.

 “They wanted us to say they didn’t want their records sealed. They wanted us to say they didn’t want their information going to Tusla.”

 The bill

Last week, the Dáil passed the government’s Mother and Baby Homes Bill by 78 votes to 67.

The Bill allows the transfer of a database of 60,000 records compiled by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission to Tusla.

Many survivors and legal experts have expressed anger at the Bill and opposition TDs also expressed frustration that the government would not consider not amendments to the legislation.

Collins says he has no problem with campaign groups opposing the government’s approach, adding “we live in a democracy” and that such opposition should be expected.

0866 Covid 19 Dail Minister of State Niall Collins. Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

He said that an email from him shared online, in which he referred to “a repulsive online campaign” involving “some very nasty people”, referred to people he said were exploiting the situation and not campaigners.  

On Facebook, Collins also told one individual that they were being “fooled by online trolls” for saying that Fianna Fail was “putting these records away for 30 years”.

Defending this post, Collins said that people are not clear about the what the controversial bill does: 

When I actually speak to some people by telephone, when people contact me and I speak to them directly and I explain to them the situation they go ‘oh well I wasn’t aware of that, I wasn’t aware of the other side of it’. It’s awful that such a sensitive issue has been hijacked. 

Asked whether the government could have handled the debate around the issue better, Collins said: “I’m not going to get into criticising the government in relation to it. It is what it is and it had to be done when it had to be done.” 

‘Quite nasty’ 

Another Fianna Fail TD, John Lahart, also claimed that an “orchestrated social medial campaign” around the bill has been “quite nasty” and that people’s fears have been “manipulated” 

Lahart, however, says the government could have handled last week’s opposition to the bill differently. 

“My own view is actually that I think the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, and the Green Party leader should have come out jointly at the height of this to clarify and to reassure people, particularly survivors,” he said.

Because it’s a really, really sensitive issue and it’s easily misinterpreted and and it’s easy to manipulate people’s fears and I think a lot of that has been done.

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On whether opposition amendments should have been accepted during last week’s debate, Lahart said: 

I think guillotining legislation can make sense in some contexts, and in this context it demanded careful and considered debate around the topic, notwithstanding the deadlines which the minister felt he was up against.

Lahart said that TDs emails were “flooded 10 days out” from the debate and that the government “simply wasn’t alive enough to the reality of people’s fears”.

On the opposition side, Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns says that opposition politicians had raised amendments that were suggested by survivor groups.

“They had extremely simple requests to have guaranteed access to their own information and for an index of the archive for transparency, these requests were ignored,” she said.

For government TDs to double down on their defence of this unlawful policy is baffling. This is not a political issue, this is a human rights issue. Yes, there are a few extremists online, but the vast vast majority of the thousands of messages I have received and seen on social media are civil and are just seeking truth.

“There is real anger and hurt out there, and the government parties brushing that aside compounds the suffering for survivors of the most awful human rights abuse at the hands of the State,” she added.

Speaking to Newstalk’s On the Record with Gav Reilly on Sunday, Minister Roderic O’Gorman said that the way the 2004 legislation seals the records is “not morally feasible” anymore. He said he would be engaging with the issue further to find a solution.

“I’m determined to ensure we can give people access to early life information, that’s the very least that survivors of mother and baby homes deserve.”

Additional reporting by Press Association.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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