Hugh O'Connell: 'Lure of another Dail seat trumps principle for Fianna Fail amid senator's 'traveller' and 'dwarf' tweets controversy'

Fianna Fáil’s decision to back Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee stands in sharp contrast to the action taken against TDs over the Votegate controversy – two of whom were sacked from the front bench by Micheál Martin last month.

Ms Clifford-Lee’s comments are not on the same level as the voting antics of her parliamentary party colleagues Timmy Dooley and Niall Collins – but they are deeply offensive and troubling in the context of her position as a party spokesperson on justice and equality and a self-described feminist.

There are no circumstances in which it is appropriate to use the word “knacker” as Ms Clifford-Lee did in 2011 on Twitter, while many feminists would be appalled at the use of the phrase “sluts venue” to describe a nightclub as she did on the social media site that same year.

Other questionable posts by the Dáil hopeful were circulating online and in political WhatsApp groups yesterday. Yes, many of the offending messages are several years old and were made before she was an elected politician – a point stressed by Fianna Fáil and Ms Clifford-Lee’s director of elections in Fingal, senior TD Thomas Byrne, last night.

But in 2011 Ms Clifford-Lee was already a long-serving member of the party’s ruling ard comhairle. An ‘RTÉ News’ clip from 2004 describes her as “one of the youngest executive members” as she is shown defending the party’s decision to expel Beverly Cooper-Flynn.

Ms Clifford-Lee, a solicitor by profession, was a grown adult at the time she expressed these views and so they raise legitimate questions about the judgment of a person now seeking higher political office.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has backed the Dublin Fingal by-election candidate at a time when he is desperate for another Dáil seat in the capital. For Mr Martin, it seems that political advancement has trumped principle.

While Ms Clifford-Lee acknowledges the tweets were wrong and she has apologised, she also says they have been “taken out of context” by some people for “their own right-wing agenda” as part of a “personal smear campaign”.

Mr Byrne said “some of them certainly were taken out of context”.

If Fianna Fáil wants to talk about context then perhaps we should look at the context in which these tweets are emerging.

Yes, they have been dredged up by far-right political opponents, but they have also emerged at a time when a number of general election candidates in the UK have resigned over historic comments and posts on social media.

Antony Calvert, a Tory candidate in Wakefield, has stepped down after he said claims of food poverty were “ludicrous” and described feminist issues as “wholly and utterly irrelevant”.

His resignation came days after another Tory hopeful, Nick Conrad, stood down over remarks he made several years ago in a conversation about rape that women should “keep their knickers on”.

A Labour candidate in Essex, Gideon Bull, resigned after it emerged he had used the word “Shylock” during a private meeting where a Jewish councillor was present.

For all the criticism of the low standards of British politics in recent times, it appears that the bar for acceptable discourse by politicians seeking election is far lower in Ireland – and particularly for Fianna Fáil.

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