By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Independent newspapers has spent the week dealing with a storm of protest after a diatribe against the disabled by an Irish-American columnist in the Sunday paper caused widespread outrage.
As pressure grew after the six-paragraph piece on the bottom of page 11 by the outspoken Mary Ellen Synon, 49, the Independent’s retreat accelerated.
Last Sunday, an unprecedented three apologies were printed on page 1 and inside there were a further two pages of coverage.
As Irish athletes scooped up medals at the Paralympics in Sydney and the government introduced the latest raft of equality legislation that outlawed discrimination against the disabled, Synon was isolated because of the 275-word footnote to her column.
She is no stranger to controversy because of her outspoken views. She has also made the news.
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In 1995, she went public in the Daily Mirror about her affair with Rupert Pennant-Rea, who was then deputy-governor of the Bank of England, because he would not divorce his wife. A story at the time was headlined the "Bonk of England."
In her column on Oct. 22, she had attacked the games "for the lame and the blind" hesitating to say they were "grotesque" but settling for "perverse."
There is no equivalence in value between the Olympics and the Paralympics, she wrote, physical competition was not about finding someone who can "wobble his way around a track in a wheelchair, or can swim from one end of a pool to the other by braille."
She complimented the acclaimed British theoretical physicist "Stephen Hawkings" (sic) for showing "his wisdom by staying out of the three-legged race." He is wheelchair-bound and suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable disease of the nervous system.
Synon concluded it was all part of propaganda that "wants to convince you all cultures are equal in value, that all lives are equal in value, that all philosophies are equal in value."
In a statement on Tuesday, the Sunday Independent editor, ‘ngus Fanning, "apologized sincerely" for any offense caused.
The terminology used was "hurtful to disabled persons," the argument of the columnist was made in a manner "which was demeaning of them" and this was not the intention. The newspaper’s policy was not to "gratuitously offend public sensibilities."
Fanning, who had not seen the article before it appeared, offered a right of reply but caused more anger by suggesting on radio that Synon had fostered debate.
It is a healthy sign in society that such a debate can take place, he said, and some good had come from her column, as it had forced people to think seriously about disabled people.
Impassioned opposition continued. It was raised in the Dail and Seanad and condemned by the taoiseach. ministers, TDs and virtually every organization associated with the disabled joined in the outcry.
Some politicians suggested that all the lucrative medical advertisements should be pulled from the paper by hospitals and health boards. The possibility of a boycott was raised and opposition newspapers gave extensive coverage to the row.
Fanning described Tony O’Reilly as the "least interventionist newspaper proprietor in the whole English-speaking world" and said he had not contacted him.
On Thursday, a front page statement from Gavin O’Reilly, managing director of the group and the newspaper group’s board, "both individually and collectively", expressed total support for the Paralympics and endorsed Fanning’s apology.
On Sunday both O’Reilly and Fanning’s statements were on page one.
Joining them was Synon, who said: "It was never my intention to hurt or demean anyone, certainly not any disabled person. I understand now that I did, and for that I apologize."