‘Honourable’ you say?

The Irish Times consumer correspondent Conor Pope has a feature today on geo-tagging. This is because geo-tagging functionality in Facebook allowed the Sunday World to make it possible for Patrick Nulty to claim that his account had been hacked when he was confronted with claims that he had sent sex texts to a 17 year old girl.

The article uses the Nulty affair to explore broader questions of data privacy, permanent digital footprints, and surveillance. If you are a man in your thirties who is quite worried right now about whether his harassment exploits online are going to come back and haunt him at some point in the future, then you may well be interested in such a feature. If you aren’t, you might satisfy your curiosity about the minor and tangential relevance of geo-tagging in this story by checking out the Wikipedia article on geo-tagging.

But wait. What if there are lots of men who fall into such a category? What if they are a significant segment of the Irish Times target demographic? Is online harassment all the go these days? Is acting like a sex pest just another example of online behaviour, like ordering pasta from Amazon? Have we all been there? If not, why would the Irish Times use the example of someone acting like a sex pest to address broader concerns about privacy? With regard to the use of internet technology, there are two main perspectives in this story: that of the sex pest and that of the victims, and the Irish Times chose the perspective of the former.

Elsewhere in the same paper, Fiach Kelly says Patrick Nulty ‘undoubtedly’ stood for election ‘to serve the public and because of a belief in the good of politics’. We might call this giving a sex pest the benefit of the doubt. It is also a mind-bendingly banal observation. No-one who stands for election does so because she or he believes politics is the wrong thing to be doing with their lives. This observation is akin to saying that no-one seeks ordination as a Catholic priest because they believe the pope is the Antichrist. In a similar vein, weighing Nulty’s commitment to progressive politics against his actions in sending these messages, as he did in his resignation statement and as others have done, bears comparison to the attitude expressed by some towards the abuses of certain religious orders.

When it comes to an individual’s personal motivations for holding a position of authority, we can never be entirely sure about what drives them. What drives them may change over time. This doesn’t mean that everyone who holds a position of authority needs to be as pure as the driven snow. It doesn’t even mean they need to be held to a higher standard of behaviour than anyone else. It just means there have to be strong mechanisms of public accountability in place that prevent them from engaging in abuses of power, and, in the event that they do engage in such abuses, it means they are swiftly dealt with, and removed from their post when this is necessary.

In the case of Patrick Nulty, you would think it should be obvious that it was necessary for him to be removed from his post as a public representative. And yet, I’ve been surprised at the amount of people I have encountered online who have expressed the opinion that he didn’t do a great deal wrong, that this –sexually harassing girls who are in a vulnerable position and whose families are seeking his assistance- is just the sort of thing that red-blooded males get up to. Some people have highlighted his age -31- as if this were a mitigating factor. Sure he’s only twice her age, like.

Fiach Kelly’s article endorses the position that Nulty’s resignation of his seat is ‘an honourable admission of wrongdoing, not often seen in Irish politics’. What’s honourable about it, exactly? When such an abuse of public office is revealed, it should not be in the gift of the guilty party to resign: they should encounter automatic and immediate removal from their post. Would you honour someone for not sexually harassing someone else? I don’t know, perhaps there should also be a pension bonus for members of the political class who manage not to murder women in cold blood.

It is true, there are other people have not resigned when their flagrant abuse of public office has been revealed to everyone. For example, Phil Hogan wrote to constituents to assure them that a Traveller family would not be moving to their area, one act among many that has fallen down the memory hole due to the normalised discrimination against Travellers in Irish society. He also made a lewd remark to a woman that left her, as per her letter of complaint to Enda Kenny, “completely traumatised“, on account of his “demeaning, insulting and degrading” actions. He remains in power. But here’s the thing – so what? The problem is not the character of the individual in question or the party to which he belongs, but the incapacity of the public to exercise appropriate accountability. It is not just a matter of formal mechanisms, but a public culture that enforces norms for respectful behaviour on the basis of equal rights for all. What the reaction and coverage of the Nulty affair suggests is that no such public culture exists in Ireland.

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