- The first in a three part series exploring so-called ‘trolling’ and abuse on social media
At the beginning of November 2014 it was widely reported that victims campaigner Ann Travers had closed down her Facebook and Twitter accounts following a barrage of online abuse.
It’s worth reminding people of the fact that Ann’s sister, Mary, was murdered by the IRA in Belfast in 1984. The target of the ambush was their father, Tom, a resident magistrate. He survived.
In 2011 Mary McArdle, a woman convicted of murdering Ann’s sister as part of the IRA gang responsible was appointed as special adviser to the Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín.
Writing for the website L.A.D. earlier this year Ann described her feelings upon hearing the news:
On the way back to my home in Wicklow on Monday 4th April, I tuned into Joe Duffy’s Live Line programme; they were discussing Ronan Kerr’s murder. I don’t know what made me do it but I phoned in and told my story and how hurt we felt that the attack on our family is still justified. I said it was to be welcomed that SF were condemning Ronan’s murder. I had never spoken publicly before about our story and after I hung up I thought I never would again. Then on Wednesday 18th of May 2011 after doing the school run and just about to have 1st coffee of the day the phone rang, it was a BBC Researcher for Radio Ulster Talk Back programme. She asked me if I’d seen the front of the Irish News, I hadn’t so she told me that Mary McArdle had been appointed Special Adviser to the SF Culture Minister. Hearing Mary McArdle’s name after all these years was like being punched in the stomach, she was the only person convicted for Mary’s murder, she carried the guns and wigs, I could barely breathe, I asked the researcher to phone me back, I dropped the phone and panicked, I was back running out of our home in Windsor Avenue and seeing my sister lying awkwardly in the dirt, very still yet gurgling, my dad lying conscious, trying to take off his watch and my mum kneeling beside him “somebody help my poor husband, please somebody help my poor husband “. The box containing my grief and loss that had been kept for 27 years in the back of my head had been forced open . I can’t describe adequately here just how I felt, I thought I’d “moved on” but all the healing I thought I had experienced was undone in one fell swoop.
The following days were manic, I spoke to the media, opening my heart in the hope that the new Sinn Fein would listen, the same Sinn Fein that had condemned Ronan Kerr’s murder, hoping that Mary McArdle would listen, that they would realise and understand the renewed trauma they had caused and how devastating it was. I didn’t think and don’t think they went out on purpose to hurt us. It wasn’t to be. There was no statement, no, ” Mary is standing down as Special Adviser, not because we think she shouldn’t have the job but because we didn’t realise the very real hurt that would be felt by the Travers family” that would have been it if there had, instead it dragged out, Mary’s murder was described as “regrettable ” The DFM described the incident as obviously having a “neuralgic effect” on me. Meanwhile the flashbacks continued and the stress levels raised.
I didn’t know what to do.
I spoke with SDLP MLAs including Alban Maginness who was very kind and we had many long conversations. But ultimately there was nothing they could do to help except offer support and understanding. I decided to phone Peter Robinson’s constituency office to get his email so I could write to him, I thought because he was First Minister he might be able to do something, I was surprised when his secretary offered an appointment to meet him, I was happy to accept, although a little worried as I’d criticised him on Joe Duffy’s programme in the April for all the 3rd Force stuff and wearing his “wee beret” but I didn’t think he would be listening to RTE1. That first meeting was nerve racking, it was in his constituency office and as I waited I looked at the walls which had lots of Unionist memorabilia, it was very alien to me, a Catholic. His Special Adviser came out to bring me in, I asked him if he had “ever murdered anyone”, it was out of my mouth before I thought, he laughed and said no. Peter Robinson was very kind and helpful, he spoke about what they could do to help prevent this from happening to another family but whatever they did, it wouldn’t be retrospective. I left feeling pleased another family wouldn’t have to go through this but my heart was sinking, this was so wrong, so disrespectful to the memory of my gorgeous sister who didn’t ever have the chance to marry, have children, or have her career… I returned home disappointed but determined not to give up.
What happened next was perhaps to provide the initial trigger for the subsequent abuse that Ann suffered on social media:
I saw on the news an MLA who was supportive of our family, Jim Allister. As I had lived in Wicklow for 15 years and England 5 years previously, I didn’t know much about Jim or the TUV, but I wrote to thank him for his support just as I wrote to everyone who had been supportive. He replied, told me as a young barrister he had appeared in front of Dad and not to worry he thought there may be a way to have legislation applied retrospectively. He gave me hope! We had quite a lot of email contact then we met for the first time in Stormont on the day it was announced that the SPAD Bill was launched. People were surprised to see me with Jim Allister, they talked about him being a ” bigot”, sectarian, hating Catholics. This wasn’t the man that I had met. He told me he condemned all terrorists both loyalist and republican , there was no doubt how much he disliked SF but then again considering what had happened to my family and now this, I was hardly in love with them. Many of those who were surprised told me I was right to do all that I had to do.
Ann pointed out that:
I didn’t and don’t agree with all the TUV’s policies but I am grateful to them for the support they have given me. I know many wont like to hear it but its true, there is no point in me saying things just to curry favour. I can only remain true to myself and the memory of my sister.
A private members bill tabled by TUV Leader Jim Allister was eventually passed into law in June 2013 – a law which prevents anyone sentenced to more than five years in prison from being a Ministerial Special Advisor (SPAD).
I carried on with the Spad Bill, even though I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in 2012, because of the love for my sister. All the name calling to me by those who are unhappy that I spoke up and the Spad Bill succeeding in being passed will never stop my loyalty or love for my family or many of my new friends which include republican and loyalist terrorist victims.
The main (lucid) argument against Ann Travers is that she has allowed herself to be used by politicians to ‘attack’ Sinn Fein. The same arguments are being used repeatedly to attack Mairia Cahill and it was Ms. Travers very public support for the former that prompted the latest wave of online attacks.
Less than a month after quitting Twitter Ann Travers returned to the network on Friday evening. We caught up with Ann to discover what changed her mind.
TF: Your decision to quit Twitter was well documented? What finally forced you to make that decision?
AT: To be told repeatedly your father deserved to be shot because he was a “Cog in an orange state or ” you and your family were/are part of the Brit war machine get out of our country” and you are a “bigot” because you ask questions about Sinn Féin and the IRA is difficult. This type of question is constant. Being called a cun* nearly daily isn’t uncommon. A few years ago I was called a “celebrity victim” by a now North Belfast Sinn Féin Councillor, this hurt me greatly. He has never apologised. I never wanted to be a victim but the IRA made me be one. This lead to other republicans abusing me similarly. Then my friend Mairia Cahill was brave enough to waive her anonymity for sexual abuse. I watched with horror the abuse she received and it reminded me of how I was treated when I initially spoke up for my sister. I just couldn’t watch, plus because I was supporting my friend I was being abused again. I decided to take control and remove myself.
TF: How did the abuse you were receiving affect you personally?
AT: When it first began to happen, I was distraught. I couldn’t sleep for days as not only one abused me but four or five, constantly. I began to fear my phone. I felt sick. There was one woman who “stalked” me for 3 years even though I blocked her, she still managed to tweet me through different accounts. Every time my phone “bleeped” I would inhale, nearly stop breathing; if a “friendly” tweet breathe out with relief and have a few chuckles but before you would know it, an aggressive tweet.
TF: What do you think motivates people to troll you on Twitter?
AT: Wow! Big question! I really don’t have any idea, however I guess it’s because I question and support others who question. I also guess it’s because my Dad was a Judge and my sister was murdered by the IRA. they see me as “fair game”.
TF: What prompted you to rejoin Twitter?
AT: A very close friend of nearly 20 years passed away on Wednesday. She was amazing, 48 yrs old, and last year was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was amazing over the past year, an absolute fighter! She was also a very straight talker, she would have faced anyone of my trolls head on. She was fearless, also intensely loyal! So I’m back to speak my mind and to support my very brave friends.
TF: What actions will you be taking to protect yourself this time?
AT: Block, mute, screenshot!
TF: Finally do you have a message for your online abusers and those who have supported you?
AT: I’m back for good and I have a right to an opinion, just as you have but lets listen to each other……properly. Thanks to my friends….I’ve missed my twitter family.
Whatever your opinions of Sinn Féin, Jim Allister, the SPAD bill, dealing with the past, victims or indeed the IRA, surely no-one deserves the level of online abuse Ann Travers has suffered.
Hours after her return to Twitter posts like these started to appear (authors names redacted).
Back in January Ann Travers wrote:
In 2014 my wish would be more compassion, respect and tolerance could be shown. That there could be an acknowledgement that terrorism happened here and it was wrong, no justification, whether Loyalist or Republican. ALL WRONG. Ah yes and one more thing, no more abuse on twitter after writing this, but maybe that’s pushing it!
In part two of this series we widen the net and speak to other victims of online abuse.