Anyone who enters politics accepts the increased exposure and accountability, and an element of abuse, says TD Holly Cairns. But she was not prepared for the highly sexual content in some of that abuse, or the fact that a man felt emboldened to come to her house on several occasions, she tells editor Siobhán Cronin
‘VERY early on in politics I became aware of being targeted,’ local Social Democrat TD Holly Cairns told The Southern Star last week.
The first-time Dáil deputy recalled that during the 2019 local elections some of her posters were ripped down and nailed back up, one upside down, to a tree near the Church of Ireland in Durrus village.
‘Since then, disparaging social media comments have rolled in,’ she said.
Anytime she made a comment on a controversial issue – like abortion or standards in the greyhound racing industry – she saw a spike in the abusive comments online about her. ‘But I never let that stop me,’ she said. ‘It comes with the terrain. There will be comments and people express their opinions. However, we all know that a small minority of people cross the line.’
But that line-crossing reached a dangerous extreme some time later.
The young TD went public last week about having endured the horrific experience of being stalked by a stranger who refused to stop calling to her home, in a remote part of West Cork.
She received horrific emails, voice messages, and one letter – reproduced in part here – which was graphically vulgar and sexually explicit and violent.
The letter starts off with the writer saying they are a ‘big follower’ of hers ‘in politics’. It then goes on to mention that he believes she has a ‘nice little body’ and then proceeds to describe, in very graphic detail, what he wants to do with her, describing his own genitals, and even drawing an image of them at the end of the page.
He suggests a ‘threesome’ with his sister, and says he has a picture of the TD on his wall, which he uses for gratification.
The TD told this newspaper that she was prompted to speak out after she had been interviewed days earlier for a national newspaper article, but realised that of the several women quoted, not one had chosen to give their name to the reporter.
‘After the piece in The Irish Times, and the Prime Time piece, it was obvious that no one was willing to talk about it, especially females. And that collective silence isn’t going to help,’ she told The Southern Star.
So she decided to put her name on the record and she outlined the full extent of the abuse to a Virgin Media podcast last week.
Following the stalking incident, gardaí advised her not to hold constituency clinics unless she is accompanied by a family member or a friend – advice not meted out to her two male constituency colleagues, putting her at a political disadvantage straight away.
One of those colleagues, Cork South West TD, and Holly’s former partner Christopher O’Sullivan (FF), made reference to Holly’s experience, without naming her, last week. ‘I want to show my solidarity to the women who have suffered abuse in politics. It’s imperative that all elected reps, irrespective of gender, are able to fully do their jobs and meet with constituents to provide assistance in person and in clinics without feeling fear or intimidation,’ he said.
But Holly says she refuses to let the bad guys win. ‘I will not be deterred by this. I was elected on a mandate and I am determined to represent the people of West Cork. I welcome respectful debate. It is only right that my constituents can question my stances. But personal attacks and misogynist statements have no place in political discussions,’ she said. ‘I tend to avoid talking about this subject because I want to focus on other issues and on policy. I also don’t want to dissuade young people, especially young women, from entering politics.’
But, she said, not calling out this behaviour is, in a way, validating it. It certainly won’t put an end to it. We need to talk about it, she says.
‘The reality is that most public representatives get some form of abuse. From talking to other politicians, it is clear that while it impacts both men and women, neither of us want to discuss it openly for fear of appearing weak. There is also a worrying sexual element in much of the abuse faced by women in the public eye. Anonymous accounts criticise what we wear or how we talk. I have received lewd and disgusting letters, messages and voice notes, and this behaviour is absolutely unacceptable – it’s criminal in some cases.’
Speaking about the stalking incident, Holly said it was ‘genuinely terrifying’ when an individual showed up to her home on repeated occasions. ‘It impacted my life. I had to change how I work after Garda advice to avoid advertised constituency clinics and meeting people alone. I now only meet people by appointment and with Cllr Ross O’Connell, or with Tara and Richard who work with me. Regrettably, abusive or threatening behaviour has led me to change the way I operate as a TD, something that frustrates me deeply,’ she told the Star.
Having said that, she now feels the way she works – by meeting constituents on an appointment-only basis – may actually be a better use of her time.
‘Arranging to meet my constituents who get in touch with us is just as effective and perhaps more efficient,’ she said.
Holly said she had reluctantly decided to raise the issues, because something needs to change. ‘People who are only engaging in abuse online and in person need to be held to account. I want more people to be able to enter politics, and right now I’d have to think twice about encouraging anyone to stand,’ she said.
‘The vast majority of people, including those who disagree with me, are respectful, but there is a minority who are out to cause harm.’
Anonymous trolls online are a specific matter that needs to be dealt with also, she said. And another frustrating aspect of it is that dealing with this abusive behaviour is taking her time and energy away from her political work.
‘I was honoured to be elected to represent the people of Cork South West and I want to focus on doing that job to the best of my abilities, not be worried about a few individuals. I am more determined than ever to be a strong voice for West Cork in the Dáil.’
She says we need to have a national conversation about this.
‘Politics should be representative of the broader community, but right now I know whole cohorts of people who wouldn’t even think of standing for election for fear of the abuse that might follow. That needs to change.’
Holly’s route to Leinster House
Holly Cairns is Social Democrat spokesperson on agriculture, food and the marine; rural development; social justice; and disability. She is a member of the Oireachtas committee on children, disability, equality and integration. She was elected to Dáil Ewireann for the Cork South West constituency in February 2020, having previously served on Cork County Council.
She made history in 2019, by winning the final seat in the Bantry local electoral area by a single vote after a lengthy and dramatic counting process. During her time on the Council, she focused on local environmental issues.
Having come from an organic farming background on a small holding outside Skibbereen, the former Schull Community College student holds a first class honours MSc in organic horticulture from UCC. As part of her studies, she researched the methods and importance of plant adaptation in the face of unpredictable climates.
She says that her background as a farmer and environmentalist inspired her to enter politics.