Those who wish to be critical should not hide under a cloak of anonymity

Story by Paul Murphy

Wednesday, 2nd January, 2013 4:30pm

Those who wish to be critical should not hide under a cloak of anonymity

Just over nine years ago, a parish priest of my acquaintance became involved in a blazing local row over his decision to have a parish centre demolished to make way for a shopping centre, which was to include a new parish theatre.

The controversy, in another county, became the centre of very heated debate between himself and people in the community who felt he was making the wrong decision.

I won't rehash the controversy here because the priest has long since retired and, I feel certain, would not want the particular issue revisited. However, there were certain aspects of the row which left quite a number of people uneasy, in particular the level to which the debate had sunk.

Anyone listening to a local radio station at the time would have been struck by the tone of calls made to the station. A few people who opposed the priest's decision went on air, identified themselves and spoke their minds.

Others who phoned in under the cloak of anonymity indulged in what seemed to me to be the most vicious and intimidating personal abuse centred on the clergyman. I say clearly that the presenter and producer of the programme were just doing their jobs and did not encourage these callers. During the controversy, however, a piece of graffiti appeared on a hoarding at the site of the parish centre. Again, it was of a most personal nature and aimed directly at the priest.

What was interesting was his reaction at the time. He said he did not care what the graffiti said and he couldn't care less as long as he knew he was doing the right thing. He said the hardest thing was knowing what to do each day and each season. It was the easiest thing to do what you were told but when you were making the decisions yourself, it was very hard. In so many words, he was able to let the criticism run off him.

The radio station calls and the graffiti were, perhaps, the 'tweets' of the time. However, in a vox pop in a local newspaper at the time, it was reported that while some people disagreed with the way in which the priest had made his decision, they most definitely condemned the personal and offensive remarks in the graffiti.

All of this is relevant in the context of the tragic events in Meath in the last 10 days or so when we lost one of our public representatives, Junior Minister Shane McEntee, who was the subject of personal and threatening abuse on the internet and on radio stations following remarks he made about aspects of the recent budget.

I am in favour of robust public discourse about decisions made by local or national public representatives and I stand by what I wrote here on 19th December that ".......we must raise our voices in legitimate protest when we see the need to do it".

Those who have engaged in cyber-abuse were pulled up sharply by Shane McEntee's brother, Gerry, when he said at his funeral that they were "faceless cowards" for sending Shane "horrible messages".

As Gerry McEntee said, people do have a right to peaceful protest, but they have no right to indimidate and harass.

Former Taoiseach John Bruton also made a fair point when he called on broadcasters not to read out abusive tweets about politicians on air unless a full name and address was given by the commentator. It's not much to ask. The online and phone-in abusers have already had too much latitude.

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