Blowing the Whistle on Sexual Harassment

Elaine Harvey was initially well received from the floor of our Union's conference in Ennis, when she confessed her nervousness and before she had finished her speech. But after the session, even before it hit the media, there was an atmosphere of defensiveness and unease. When the story broke, the public reaction of the union leadership was totally defensive. Shock, real or feigned, was expressed. The problem was downplayed as much as possible ("not at this conference"), and the Union's readiness to deal with sexual harassment was stressed ("any reports immediately investigated", "guilty parties expelled", etc.)

Amid this outpouring of political correctness to the media, Cinderella herself got such a welcome at the conference ball that evening from certain senior officials that she fled long before the first stroke of midnight.

The subsequent media management was spectacular. All branch and section committees have been sent copies of a Press Release plus a copy of an Irish Independent story (October 15th).

This nimble sleight of hand ensured that the Indo article got to to Union activists without the Union having to stand over the misleading material not included in the Press Release but obviously briefed to the Indo with quite specific purpose. The Indo says "Delegates later demanded that top officials repudiate the general nature of the charges". When did they?

The Indo continues "They also rejected the manner in which the generalised allegations were made; especially Ms Neilis' claim about executive members 'who think election to the NEC carries special privileges'". When did they?

When did the delegates decide to repudiate 'Ms Neilis' by name in a national newspaper? When were the delegates so conveniently detailed in their concern for the honour of the NEC as to reject "especially" an oblique reference to NEC special privileges?! When did all this happen on the floor of the conference?

None it it did! The Indo piece, circulated from head office throughout the union, gives the clear impression that the Conference formally reached the positions attributed to the delegates in the report. At the session when the sexual harassment motion was passed no delegate expressed those views.

The matter was not on the agenda again except on Friday morning when Jimmy Somers spoke about it. He regretted the embarrassment caused to delegates by media coverage (the Indo being the worst 'offender' with that morning's "union gropers" headline), and said that delegates had come to him expressing their concern at the developments.

There is no doubt that many delegates, male and female, were embarrassed and offended, for various reason and to various degrees. However, some delegates collaring Union officers in the corridors became, five days later in the Indo, the Conference repudiating Elaine Harvey' and Margaret Neilis!

It seems fair to say in general that sexual harassment is not a plague in SIPTU, but the problem that is there is only now being raised as an issue, a decade later than in society at large. And just like the salaries issue two years ago, the reaction has been: admit no fault, seeth with anger, and slam the whistleblower.

Correspondence to SIPTU Fightback, 22 Melrose Avenue, Dublin 3

To the SIPTU Fightback page