Remember the school playground? All the little cliques of children, forming their way in the world, learning through interaction with others what was socially acceptable, and what wasn’t.
Most grew up to be rounded individuals, contributing something useful to society as a result. However, we’ve all come across bullies in our lives. In the school playground they either formed one of two people. The popular kid who bought their friendship with their status, and who used that to pick on some other poor unfortunate.
Then there were the other types of bullies. The ones who felt inadequate within themselves, lurking around the school wall, lashing out at those who they were envious or jealous of, or those who they perceived to be threatened by.
Some of the children who have been picked on over the years have been driven to suicide as a result, unable to deal with the feelings that were forced upon them, and which they hadn’t learned who to process yet. Those children who were trying to cope with other difficulties in their lives, and who were driven over the edge by the unrelenting taunting coming their way from other children who were so wrapped up in their own lives that they either couldn’t see, or didn’t care about the absolute havoc they were inflicting on other children their own age.
Fast forward from the school playground and we have teenagers online going through the puberty stage, foisting their unpleasantness and inadequacies onto other teenagers. In 2013, Erin Gallagher, a pretty 13 year old teenager from Donegal left a suicide note. In it, she detailed to her parents the misery she was feeling. She named “Ask FM”, an online site. “I’m sorry I have to do this but I’m fed up of the bullying.” The internet can be a very dangerous place.
Two months later, her sister Shannon took her own life because she felt she couldn’t live without Erin. It was a heart breaking double tragedy for the girls parents. And it was caused, again by people hiding behind a keyboard inflicting grief and misery onto others.
Now, you would think that as teenagers grow to adults, they would behave with more of a modicum of human deceny. Not so, if you have happened to cast your eye at twitter over the last number of weeks. My friend, Ann Travers took abuse online to such a scale – over supporting me, that she needed a break and shut her Twitter account down. It has recently been reopened. It took exactly five minutes for the online internet bullies – because that is what they are, to go on the attack.
Let us remind ourselves who Ann is. She is a mother, who, when she was in her early teens, had her whole life in front of her. That life was derailed, though no fault of her own, when her sister Mary was murdered by IRA gunmen as she walked out of mass with her father, who was a resident magistrate, and her mother that morning. Ann Travers was sent away to boarding school in the immediate aftermath of the murder. She tried her best to get on with life. Her education was disrupted, but she later went back and qualified in the caring profession. And that is who she is. A caring individual who lives for her children, and who again found her life to be disrupted when Sinn Fein appointed one of the people convicted in connection with the murder of her sister, to the post of a Government Adviser. Ann was informed when a media outlet contacted her. She was stunned and later broke down on radio, as she described absolute trauma revisited. It captured people. Raw honest grief, and tears for the many years missed with the woman who was her only sister.
Ann Travers did not ask to become a victim of the conflict. The people who murdered her sister Mary made her one. She has spoken about her experiences, and suffered further cruelty and trauma as a result.
No one should be put through that in life.
Ann, in the middle of her campaign to bring in legislation for vetting for anyone with a criminal conviction of five years or more, learned that she had cancer. Her youngest daughter was 7 at the time. She has other children too. I witnessed her fright at the thought that she wouldn’t be around to see them grow. I felt powerless to do anything to take that pain away.
She had gruelling treatments of chemo and her hair fell out. Not being one to say no, she continued to champion other victims causes both in and out of the media, including my own. She raised the issue of sex abuse – in all communities – across the board, because she felt it was the right thing to do. In the middle of all of this, people who knew she was battling a deadly disease and still suffering trauma, saw fit to attack her, adding even more suffering to her plate. One man, whose own sister was brutally murdered, JJ Magee, saw fit to tweet that she was a “celebrity victim”. Despite being asked to, the man who later became a Sinn Fein Councillor for North Belfast, neither apologised, or withdrew the remark. It was doubly callous, because that man will know the anguish he felt at losing his own sister – he has also given media interviews expressing that hurt and frustration – and he knew she was suffering deep trauma. He compounded that hurt, and should, if he had an ounce of human decency about him, be thoroughly ashamed at the anguish he caused to Ann with that tweet alone.
Ann would be the first to say she is not the only victim. Indeed, she has made it her business to say over and over that justice should be attainable for all – whether you are a victim of the IRA, or Loyalist Paramilitaries, or the state. She called for justice for the families in Ballymurphy, just as she did for families affected in Enniskillen. It does not matter what creed or class a person is, Ann deals with human beings, and human suffering, recognises it because her own is so great, and she is repeatedly tweeted all sorts of vile stuff for simply opening her mouth.
In recent days, if they haven’t been tweeting at her, they’ve been tweeting about her. I’ve felt for her, because I know what it feels like to see inadequate adults, sad individuals who get some sort of a kick or a thrill out of tweeting deeply insulting comments. In my own case, someone tweeted that they thought I “deserved to be raped”, in another, an account which has been tracked since 2012 when it was set up – two years before I went public, and in the name of my rapist, followed me on twitter. The reaction I had on that night was indescribable.
You would think, adults would know better. They are supposed to be rounded individuals who have learned through life how things make them and others feel. Not so in a core group of sad individual cases, where they think it is socially acceptable to write disturbing and hateful things about a woman who just this week had an operation in which she discovered some more growths had occurred, and on top of that, one of her best friends died in the same week of the same disease that Ann is fighting hard to kick into touch. It is testament to her strength of character that she hasn’t just told those online bullies – because that is what you are when you try to mock or deliberately hurt someone who is already suffering – to go and f++k themselves. In one case, a woman who would class herself as Irish American saw fit to tweet this. “Ann Travers got ignored by the press for a good reason when she quit Twitter. Now she’s back looking for more attention. Sigh. Poor girl”. What sort of human being would think about that, much less tweet it? Someone who clearly is lacking in the empathy stakes? Most genuine people see Ann for what she is, a woman who has been deprived of her sister, and whose family relationships changed utterly when the IRA attacked her family. She was and is entitled to tell her experiences. She is entitled to feel pain. She is entitled to have a twitter account if she so wishes. The very same person claimed, in an effort to not make herself look so bad, after Slugger highlighted some of the abusive screenshots, that she had to block Ann. Juvenile stuff, but actually, both Ann and myself blocked this callous tweeter from the get go, because she was obviously craving oxygen. Ann Travers is entitled, again, to block who she wishes, in an effort to not see some of the bile spouted her way.
We then move to a person who would consider himself a professional, but who most people in his profession, including his manager who I myself spoke to three weeks ago when I informed him I was reporting him to the guards, to give him the opportunity to moderate his harassing behaviour before I did so, do not agree with. Someone told me that this individual may have had problems of his own, and I called his employment in an effort to see if they could speak to him in case he didn’t know his behaviour was out of order. His manager told me he had advised him to desist, and that he was at a loss to see how this man could behave in such a fashion. I informed the manager that I was making a criminal complaint, which I initiated later that day. Since then, every screenshot has been meticulously gathered and the file is growing larger by the day and I expect that when the full evidence is gathered a prosecution will follow. I am at a loss to see how, a grown man can obsessively tweet at and about a victim of abuse, even though he may well gain a criminal conviction as a result. But I am at a bigger loss to try and understand what sort of a sick kick he and others get from that, and what exactly makes an individual tick to the point where they believe it is socially acceptable.
Is it because they can’t deal with their own issues, so they feel some sort of self importance by obsessively tweeting in a small group of other like minded people who feed off the cesspit of others suffering? Is it because they can’t deal with the issue of another grown man scaring three young victims so much that they couldn’t even open their eyes during their sexual abuse? Is it because they support a political party at all costs, and attack anyone who speaks out about the very real issue of moving abusers on, or the murder of their sister? Is that what people have come to?
These last few weeks have been extremely difficult. Am I asking you to feel sorry for me? Not for a second, I’m glad I spoke out about my abuse and about the cover up of that abuse. As a result more victims came forward, more people will get help, and at present both police forces and social services are finding the whereabouts of those abusers names in order to ensure that child protective procedures are in place. That is the most important thing. Stop.it.happening.to.someone.else.
Those trolls / bullies / sad individuals haven’t once tweeted that those who have been alleged to have been abusers and who the IRA moved on, could potentially have access to children. They haven’t tweeted that right now, a child could be in danger. They haven’t once tweeted about Liam Adams, for example working in Youth Clubs, having access to other children after his brother knew that he stood accused of raping his young daughter. They haven’t once tweeted about Martin Morris, after it was known he had abused, being profiled in the Sinn Fein newspaper as the face of CRJ, where he had access to other vulnerable young people. They haven’t once expressed disgust that children were put at risk by the IRA moving people around after they found out they were raping children.
Loyalists were also involved in the abuse of children, and the conflict was used as a cover for members of armed groups to do this. The whole area needs to be looked at. No amount of online trolling will stop that being done. Those people who have sneeringly tweeted “its all about the children”, in an effort to mock me, should think about their own children. I would imagine, they would be absolutely devastated if it happened to one of them. And, I would imagine, if some older man was sitting in front of his computer getting a kick of his own by typing out insult after insult, it would raise more than a questionable eyebrow as to what exactly the motivation was in persistently harassing over an issue of sexual abuse. I find that quite disturbing. Others do too.
I would imagine that if someone walked up to their family with a gun and pumped bullets into their relatives body, that they would find it difficult to deal with. I would imagine if their hair fell out and their gums burned from the chemo treatment that they would not take kindly to someone trying to inflict intentional further damage by behaving like the bully in the internet school playground.
My cousin Siobhan O’Hanlon had breast cancer. Her death hit me hard. She was good to me and bad for me at times in my life. I loved her. We laughed at times, fought the piece out at times, and there were times that we didn’t speak. We had things in common, and some not at all. She was an unashamed IRA volunteer and made choices in her life. Her politics to me was irrelevant – because it was as a human being and as a family member that I shared things with her. I cried for days when I found out she was dying. This is what she had to say publicly – and was reported in the media about her own experience of breast cancer. “I was a mess. I had no hair, no eyebrows. No eye lashes, one breast. My nails were all broken. I was tired. I knew I had to get my act together. My hair had stated to grow but it was very slow. It was also terrible grey.” She described how there are “three terrible days in relation to your hair”. They are, she said: “1. when your hair starts coming out, 2. when you put a wig on for the first time, and 3. when you have to take it off again. That was an awful day. I remember going into the office and this guy was going across the top of the stairs. He said “Ah, Siobhan”. “Don’t open your mouth” I told him. “I have more hair than you”. And I did!”
Despite our differences at times, I would be absolutely incensed if I thought for a moment, someone would accuse Siobhan of being a “celebrity victim” for speaking about her experiences. I would be hurt on her behalf if I thought for one second that people would obsessively tweet her, using her illness to attack her. Of any political opinion. It is the lowest of the low, and people should not do it to Ann Travers either. Ann Travers would be the first to recoil at someone like Siobhan – but she would also be the first to empathise with her in her treatment for breast cancer.
On a human level, you maybe expect people to act like humans rather than animals. It should not be too much to expect that people keep their cruelty streaks to themselves and stop behaving like four year old children in the virtual playground. Life, as Ann Travers has said, is much too short.