Some participants in the liberal or progressive Twittersphere in Ireland might be familiar with @sanepolitico, the username of Catherine Kelly, a Tyrone-born instructor in political science at Western Connecticut State University in the United States. The academic, whose partner, James Cullen, is a former US Army general, human rights advocate and president of the Friends of Sinn Féin lobby-group in North America, tweets on a wide range of subjects, creating some controversy in recent years with a few of her more pointed online barbs and quips. These include her sharp criticisms of Máiría Cahill, a Labour Party member of Seanad Éireann from 2015 until 2016, and a former cause célèbre of the anti-SF press in Belfast and Dublin.
Kelly’s fame – or infamy – is likely to grow in the weeks ahead following news of her extraordinary encounter with two plainclothes gardaí at Dublin Airport on the 27th of June. Stopped by the officers as she made her way to catch a flight back home, the Tyrone woman was asked to identify herself by name, online handle and other details. She was then questioned about a recent article she authored on the current affairs blog of Jude Collins, the well-known writer and Sinn Féin supporter. The piece touched upon the financial troubles of Regina Doherty TD, the Fine Gael Minister for Employment and Social Protection, who at one stage was deeply involved in the Máiría Cahill controversy of 2015-16, leading some of her party’s verbal attacks against SF and its leader, Gerry Adams.
In the post written by Catherine Kelly she noted the liquidation of Regina and Declan Doherty’s failing IT retail business in January of 2013, which left it with €280,000 in debts, including €60,000 owed to the Revenue Commissioners. In May of 2016 the minister was forced to defend her handling of the situation, strongly denying any illegal behaviour on her part. The gardaí informed Kelly that a criminal complaint of harassment under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 Act had been made against her by the County Meath politician, presumably on the basis of the Jude Collins’ article. Held under a form of legally dubious detention, the lecturer was warned that she could not board her flight to New York unless she signed a document agreeing not to communicate with Doherty, which she duly did.
Since this bizarre incident came to public light last weekend a handful of Irish journalists have put aside their usual partisan view of all matters Sinn Féin-related, however tangential, to express their own concerns about a worrying development for free speech on this island nation.
Ireland sure is a strange country where Islamic terrorists can slip in and out of the country unnoticed yet a woman who criticises a Government minister on Twitter is stopped at an airport by gardai.
We are all familiar with Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempts to shut down social media to prevent criticism of his regime, but it now appears this is happening here.
You’d imagine the gardai would have enough on their plate facing more than 20 separate investigations and inquiries to even contemplate acting as a private police force for a minister.
If the intention of the Fine Gael government minister was to intimidate potential critics on social media into silence she might find that her actions have had the opposite effect.