By Francine Cunningham
When I read the press announcement last week about the decision by the Sunday Independent to terminate the contract of polemical columnist Eoghan Harris, due to his involvement in at least one fake Twitter account, I knew it was only a matter of time before “Lady Macbeth” would be blamed. True to form, the anonymous account @WhigNorthern posted this tweet last Friday: “Many journalists have Anon Twitter accounts. But Lady Macbeth was not likely to lose the chance to cancel Eoghan Harris. Surely more to this than we know of!” A number of high-profile journalists were tagged on the post.
For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the stated purpose of @WhigNorthern is to track Sinn Fein’s “subversive influence on Irish media.” Over the last year it first targeted me directly by name: “Francine Cunningham has always been at the extreme end of radical nationalist politics” and claimed I was the ex-wife of someone I have never met who was also deemed to be suspect.
On another occasion, WhigNorthern wrote: “Francine Cunningham, from Strabane Co Tyrone, formerly of the Sunday Tribune, carried a lot of hard northern nationalist baggage into the ST, and is now depositing some of it in the Belfast Telegraph, Irish Indo and Sindo.” Yet I never wrote for the Sunday Tribune and in the early part of my career was an arts journalist for the Irish Times and Sunday Business Post. Two decades spent abroad and two law degrees later, I now work for an international law firm. At other points the anonymous Twitter account refers to the “new Francine Cunningham pro-SF line in INM [Independent News Media] titles.”
Perhaps fearing litigation, at one point the account changed from naming me directly to referring to “Lady Macbeth from Tyrone” or simply “Lady Macbeth,” who it claimed was responsible for the “greening” of INM newspapers. Elsewhere in the account, Lady Macbeth is accused of casting a “witch’s spell” (bit of mixed metaphors here).
Over many months of offensive and false tweets from WhigNorthern, I did wonder who was the Barbara J. Pym who was liking those posts. Looking at her Twitter profile, she looked like a vivacious, middle-aged woman from Northern Ireland. I didn’t know then that instead of a woman from Northern Ireland like me, “she” was an older man who had never lived in Northern Ireland, along with assorted others who still refuse to put their name to their words.
So why did @WhigNorthern target me as “an Irish consort with a Northern agenda”? First of all because I have been married to the Belgian-Dutch publisher of INM, Peter Vandermeersch since 1999 when he was editor of a Belgian newspaper, De Standaard. This Twitter mob must have decided that it was easier to attack a woman than to attack the new publisher of INM directly.
Secondly, because I grew up in Strabane, a small border town in West Tyrone which had the distinction during The Troubles of having the highest unemployment rate in the industrial world and being the most bombed town in Europe in proportion to its size. The Troubles provided the backdrop to my childhood in Strabane, but I was thankfully spared the pain and grief that many other families suffered during the darkest days of the Seventies. Nevertheless, my family and my teenage self were held hostage at one point by the IRA when they hoped to rob the sub-Post Office run by my father. A group of three IRA men in masks simply walked into the house via the back door which of course was always unlocked.
I vividly remember my mother, who was a petite five-foot nothing, scolding a big IRA man: “Youse never worked a day in your life and you dare to come into the home of decent hardworking people…” He threatened to shoot her if she didn’t “shut up”. Now that is real courage. Not anonymous people who hide behind fake online accounts shovelling slurs.