I am angry writing this. I think you will be angry when you read it. It seems that RTÉ’s flagship phone-in show Liveline has distorted the circumstances of the exclusion of anti-trans group The Countess from the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s (NWCI) AGM on 9 June, leading to two weeks of targeted abuse of the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride month. Here’s the part you already know. Bear with me. Or feel free to skip two paragraphs ahead for the scoop…
Anti-trans micro-group The Countess hit the headlines recently when they were reportedly “refused admission” to the AGM of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) for wanting “to ask questions” about NWCI’s position on “the removal of the word ‘women’ from legislation”. The flames of outrage were fanned for three days straight on Liveline, Ireland’s most popular phone-in radio programme. The pleadings of the local LGBTQIA+ community were ignored by the national broadcaster, prompting Dublin Pride to “terminate its media partnership with RTÉ”. Head of RTÉ Radio One, Peter Woods, has gone on record stating that he “stands over the programmes” and would not have done anything different.
About seven minutes into the first of what turned out to be three shows jam-packed with conspiracy theories of institutional capture by Big Trans and legislation somehow being passed in secret, presenter Joe Duffy joined a member of The Countess in scoffing at the NWCI’s supplied statement that it had a “duty of care” to ensure that participants and speakers feel safe. “Feel safe! Were you going to attack somebody?” Joe asked her, incredulously. “Eh no, Joe”, she laughed ruefully. “Yeah, I gathered that” says Joe, continuing to read NWCI’s statement in a sarcastic tone: “[W]hile people are entitled to their own views, they do not have the right to discriminate against trans people and hijack an event”. He then asked “Were you going in to hijack the event?”. “No Joe, we were going in to ask questions”, she responded. She lied.
And so, for three days, outrage was allowed to gather that these lovely women who were “just asking questions” were being discriminated against for “believing in biology”. RTÉ was even summoned before an Oireachtas committee to howls of horror from the press about an imagined threat to the right to express opinion. But don’t they also have a duty to report the news? Opinion has not been in short supply and facts have been carefully rationed. “Liveline’s crime was simply to allow women to ask why the subjective feelings of one group of people must always take precedence over theirs”, said Eilis O’Hanlon. No, Eilis. Liveline’s “crime” is outright manipulation of the facts of the story and Wednesday’s committee meeting would have heard some interesting evidence if it had gone ahead. It now seems that it won’t.
Shaping the narrative
Here’s the scoop.
Joe Duffy knows The Countess was there to disrupt that meeting. If he didn’t know the first day, his entire research team should be fired. But he must have known by the second or third day what every journalist in every outlet that has covered this entire brouhaha almost certainly knows but all have forgotten to mention: The Countess lied. The Countess women were there to disrupt that meeting and had announced their intention to do so in a press release several hours before the meeting. “The Countess, a Women and Children’s advocacy group alongside Women’s Space Ireland and various women’s rights activists will be staging an action at the AGM of the national women’s council today in protest at the re-election of a father of three called Sara Phillips onto their board”, the statement began. The issue of language used in legislation — the issue that Liveline and the entire Irish media told us was at the heart of the dispute — is not mentioned until the last paragraph of the unusually long and rambling press release, which first goes on to make further remarks about Sara Philips and to complain that the NWCI has been “silent” on what it considers to be the “bullying” of controversial Independent Senator Sharon Keogan, a right-winger opposed to reproductive rights. Senator Keogan is best known for her proposal that intellectually disabled children should be microchipped, but has more recently stepped into culture war issues, alleging that a conspiracy exists to “catapult” LGBTQIA+ people into positions of influence.
The press release goes on to boast that Laoise Hayes is currently in Washington to meet with the Friends of Ireland Congressional Caucus. “My hope is that if (sic) the Friends of Ireland Caucus could help us with the peace process and with the Protocol, then help us with this.” The meaning of “this” is not specified, but can be assumed to be related to the alleged “capture of institutions and government by pseudoscience” that is one of the conspiracy-laden document’s many themes.
To anybody versed in activist speak (which surely includes journalists in the national media) the meaning of “staging an action” is clear. The meeting will be interrupted in some way and diverted from its stated agenda to a protest against a duly-elected member of the NWCI board. This is a very unusual press release. I am a veteran LGBTQIA+ movement activist with a long history of involvement in non-violent direct action, but I’ve never drafted such a press release or even seen one because nobody announces that kind of action in advance for the obvious reason: If you do so, you will not get to protest because you will not be allowed in.
Sara Philips is a very well-known and respected LGBTQIA+ activist who has been chair of the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) for the last nine years. In the past couple of years, she, along with the rest of the TENI board and staff, has been subject to almost constant harassment, defamation, and threats from members of our fledgling anti-trans movement. TENI recently appointed a new CEO, Tina Kolos Orban, eight months after their last CEO, Eirenne Carroll, returned to her native America having been informed by gardaí of “a credible threat to her life”. None of this has been reported as it should have been.
If I were to issue a press release announcing my intention to “stage an action” at, say, the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis or the Liveline studio, I would be refused admission. But I doubt the entire Irish media would collude to report that I had been refused entrance while at the same time withholding the information that I had threatened to disrupt the event. It’s quite an extraordinary benchmark of just how low Irish journalism can go. “Group announces intention to disrupt meeting but is refused admission” seems a thin basis for three days of conspiraloonery on national radio and lots of media hair-tearing about the danger to free speech, especially if you already know, (as Liveline researchers must surely know and national newsrooms must know) that the planned protest was part of an ongoing, daily campaign of harassment of staff and board members of TENI.
On the day of the planned protest the combined foot soldiers of “The Countess and Women’s Space Ireland and various women’s rights activists” numbered eight in total, (possibly nine, if the photographer who took the pictures used on their Twitter account was one of the group.) None of them were NWCI members so they would not have been admitted to the AGM. Four of them had registered for an open session scheduled just before the AGM which was entitled “Shifting the Narrative: Moving to a feminist and inclusive Model of Care”. The subject was not trans inclusion or inclusive language. The meeting they hoped to disrupt was a meeting calling for greater recognition of care work, both paid and unpaid. That’s right, four women who had already announced their disruptive intentions were refused access to the event they hoped to disrupt. And that became the pretext for almost two weeks now of media invective against a tiny minority community.
The meeting was due to be attended by Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman and Labour Party leader Ivana Bacik and was subject to the usual, not especially stringent, security measures. On the day, for reasons unrelated to the planned protest, O’Gorman’s contribution was made by video link but Deputy Bacik addressed the meeting in person as planned. Having publicly announced their intention to disrupt the meeting, four women were refused entry and returned outside to pose for photos with the rest of their group. The meeting went ahead without incident and called for a referendum to recognise the value of care work to be held in 2023, a call that has gone almost unreported. Also unreported has been the NWCI’s patient explanation that its position on the wording of legislation is that the word women should be retained and additional wording added to ensure inclusion of others directly affected. (In the case of maternity legislation, that would be pregnant trans men and pregnant non-binary people.) Ellen Coyne’s piece in the Irish Independent is one of very few that made any attempt to put the conflict into even partial context rather than lash out blindly at the local LGBTQIA+ community and Dublin Pride, but none has mentioned what they all surely know – these women announced in advance their intention to do a nasty personalised protest against an individual member of NWCI’s board, purely on the basis of her being trans. In the absence of this context, Dublin Pride and NWCI have instead been falsely accused of all sorts of nefarious doings and must surely be considering legal action. The Countess has also been alleging on Twitter that TENI got them barred from the NWCI meeting. As they were refused admission due to their own public threats made by press release, TENI should also explore just how deep Laoise’s pockets may be.
Antisemitic conspiracy theories
For now, the cancellation of Wednesday’s Oireachtas committee meeting is sparing the blushes of RTÉ bosses who would have had to explain how they got played by The Countess, a micro-group that up until last week appeared to be exclusively the personal vehicle of one anti-trans activist Laoise Hayes, aka Laoise Uí Aodha de Brun, aka Laoise de Brun. Laoise is married into a prominent and apparently wealthy Irish family with strong links to philanthropic giving but currently appears not to be using their name. She seems to have returned to Ireland from Britain in late 2020 after many years, specifically in order to campaign here on the matter of gender recognition, a matter settled in the Oireachtas five years previously and which obviously had not impacted on Laoise’s life in any way as she had not been living here.
The Countess’s first act was a launch conference in March 2021 (via Zoom because of lockdown) at which Jennifer Bilek was asked to speak. Bilek promotes a conspiracy theory that blames a handful of Jewish billionaire philanthropists for the existence of the trans movement and has approvingly shared the “insights” of openly neo-Nazi YouTuber Keith Woods in that regard. The invitation to Bilek caused an antisemitism furore on Twitter that was averted when “family commitments” fortuitously forced Bilek to cancel. But the conference went ahead and included Bray-born Helen Joyce who four months later published a book called TRANS, which regurgitated Bilek’s entire conspiracy theory about the billionaires but without explicitly mentioning that they were Jewish. It’s this fact that Joyce seems to rely on to protect her from accusations of antisemitism, even though Bilek has accused her of plagiarising her own more explicitly antisemitic narrative after Joyce interviewed Bilek in 2020 for the book.
Very unusually for such a new entity, The Countess next commissioned Red C market research, at a minimum cost of €10,000. It is unclear whether Laoise funded this research from her own, no doubt considerable, resources or whether The Countess — which shamefully and ignorantly appropriates the image of Constance Markievicz as branding for its anti-trans campaign — is a gun for hire. For someone who claims to have worked in broadcast media for 15 years, Laoise has a remarkably small online footprint. She may have tidied it up a bit before returning to Ireland on her anti-trans crusade but what remains are a few amateurish items for community TV stations and an old CV in which she claims to have “worked extensively as a media consultant and trainer for NATO” and has been a “key player in 9 Nato Response Force exercises”. I think it is fair to assume that Laoise is not averse to producing propaganda for pay.
RTÉ’s and Liveline’s promotion of this dodgy outfit consists not only of concealing the true background to the debacle — the threatened protest — and several days amplification of the false claims of discrimination but also using The Countess’s branding as the thumbnail promoting the clip which is currently one of the most popular on the RTÉ website in the past 10 days. This has resulted in an effectively free advertisement for an organisation whose website offers a broad range of misinformation/disinformation, ranging from the trivial “Countess Markievicz attended her first political meeting at age 41” (In fact, like her non-binary sibling, Eva Gore-Booth, Con joined the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the 1890s when she was in her twenties and an art student at London’s Slade) to the entertainingly bonkers description of the Yogyakarta Principles (a document about human rights in the areas of sexual orientation and gender identity, penned by a group of eminent human rights activists and lawyers including former Irish President and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mary Robinson) as “a set of demands from a trans activist group”.
Training and legal threats
Conspiracy theories aside, the group uncritically amplified — and even advertised for free — by Liveline and literally everybody else in the Irish media is a supplier or would-be-supplier of controversial services including training offered to schools entitled “Empowering Parents and Teachers: A Guide to Gender and Identity in Adolescence”. As one of the trainers offered by The Countess is media darling and psychotherapist Stella O’Malley, the content can be presumed to be broadly similar to the content offered by O’Malley’s much larger and more international company Genspect Teoranta. Its “Brief Guidance” series of publications can best be described as a suite of conversion practices recommended to parents and teachers who wish to put obstacles in the path of youngsters who are exploring their gender or have identified themselves as trans or non-binary.
O’Malley was described last month by Mick Barry TD, speaking in the Dail, as “a hugely controversial figure among the transgender community, in Ireland and internationally”. O’Malley responded angrily, her Genspect site falsely claiming that she had been “misquoted”. Her claims were repeated and amplified by her various allies in Irish and British media, including Mark Tighe in Times and Mick Clifford in the Irish Examiner, the latter of whom went so far as to allege misuse of parliamentary privilege. Neither Tighe nor Clifford seem to have listened to the recording which reveals that O’Malley said exactly what was quoted and that the context was, if anything, rather worse than that described by Deputy Barry. O’Malley is reported to have issued legal correspondence but does not appear to have complained to the Dáil Committee on Procedures and Privilege. In my opinion she is unlikely to do so, as the full story will not reflect very favourably on her.
Three weeks before Mick Barry’s Dáil intervention, O’Malley had already threatened to sue me for tweeting a link to the same material later quoted in the Dáil, as a result of which I received a great deal of Twitter abuse from her enthusiastic followers. A second wave of this peaked in May, after Mick Barry’s Dáil question and a third after I posted on 1 June that this Pride month I would be publishing information about O’Malley’s work and enlisting volunteers to campaign against conversion practices. This third wave included two articles in far-right comic Gript, in which I was branded an “Establishment bully” and accused of “threatening” the star of screen, radio, national newspaper and international conferences by mentioning an intention to write about her work and campaign against it as a member of one of the communities affected by it, surely an extraordinary claim to be made by any paper ostensibly supporting free speech?
This may be one occasion when Stella is content to be edged out of the limelight by Laoise, however temporarily. The Oireachtas committee is no longer scheduled to meet on Wednesday but in view of this new information regarding the suppression of information about the context of the row, its members should be contacted by the public and asked to renew the invitation. Complaints to RTÉ are also very much in order. Solicitor Simon McGarr wrote an excellent guide to the complaints process during a similar debacle three years ago.
The collusion aspect of this story probably only makes sense if you know that the entire Irish media establishment has closed ranks around the Irish Times since they were targeted by a successful consumer boycott led by the Trans Writers’ Union and later joined by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) following their 2021 publication of an article by O’Malley and others opposing Senator Fintan Warfield’s Conversion Therapy Bill which has been stuck at the Committee stages since September 2020. While noses being somewhat out of joint is understandable, it’s still hard to credit that, in an enormous act of collective hostility to an entire minority community, a code of omertà would completely suppress any mention of the existence of something as public as a press release about a protest. But it nevertheless has come to pass. Hopefully the silence will be broken in the days to come. Otherwise, complaints should be made to the Press Council of Ireland about every newsroom that commented on the alleged “unfair” expulsion while in possession of the press release about the threatened protest that caused it. As of 19 June Sara Philips has confirmed that not one media outlet has contacted her for comment on the threatened protest, even as the fallout from that threatened protest took over the front pages.
At a minimum, that Oireachtas committee meeting should definitely be rescheduled. It would be useful to contact your local TDs and let them know of the deception that has occurred. In the meantime, I’ll be back in the coming days with more background on this developing story. Happy Pride!
Izzy Kamikaze is one of the founders of Dublin Pride. She came out in 1982 and is trying hard to enjoy this, her 40th Pride, despite all the bigotry and lies.
Featured image via Twitter – Trans & Intersex Pride Dublin