During my first week at the Seanad in 2015, Leinster House’s internal mail system received a letter addressed to me. Inside and on the back of a torn utility bill, in capital letters, were the words: “I hope you keep your legs crossed when you’re in Dublin.” Fortunately, although I witnessed a lot of abusive online activity, abusive email was rare. The letter writer was never caught.
was recalled after seeing a video of Leo Varadkar going for a jog in the capital last week. Taken last summer, it showed a couple of idiots shouting out the window of their vehicle, calling Tánaiste “a pr**k”. Varadkar’s response was commendable, he waved his hand back and said, “Have a nice day”. The driver replied “You damn w***er”.
Few would hold back in Leo Varadkar’s running shoes like this.
Another video surfaced in Northern Ireland of an SDLP election candidate, Elsie Trainor, also running – but this time after two young men interrupted her removing her campaign posters, one of whom called her a “Republican slut”. when challenged. Police are now investigating allegations that she was also assaulted.
That same week, Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd posted on Twitter claiming that a “gang of masked men” tore down “Sinn Féin posters in Portadown town centre”. In Lurgan, a brick was thrown at the window of Doug Beattie’s office and at an anti-protocol rally a poster of him was left behind with a rope tied like a noose around his neck. Alliance party posters were also removed in Armagh and a TUV candidate claimed she and her team were “annoyed” in North Belfast putting up theirs.
Not a new phenomenon, and neither is election-time toxicity in Northern Ireland, although there is certainly an overlap between online and offline behavior that becomes more apparent as social media use increases.
In February, Galway Independent Councilor Mike Cubbard told RTÉ In this week received threats, including one to rape his mother and another to burn down his house. “The level of intimidation from bullying … particularly online, is becoming almost a way of dictating policy. It’s a scary road,” he said.
As a matter of fact. Never has this been more evident than the uproar and subsequent flip-flop over water charges that sparked anger at the Fine Gael/Labour government. Candidates were followed in the streets, phones shoved in their faces while thugs-turned-“citizen journalists” yelled all sorts of obscenities and then uploaded the footage for five minutes of fame.
One woman who is subject to such behavior is my former colleague and tanaiste Joan Burton, with whom I spoke last week. “There’s a coarsening of the fabric of life in Ireland,” she explained, adding, “where most people are very agreeable and easy to deal with, some politicians or public figures don’t see them as real people but as celluloid they can say whatever.” you want to. So many people wouldn’t even talk to dogs like that.”
About the impact on democracy? “Absolutely destructive because a lot of this is driven by social media, it follows you 24/7 and it’s a tremendous destruction of people’s private lives. We always say we would like to see more women and young people in politics, but if the price to pay is too high, why should people do that?”
She knows what she’s talking about. A man once approached her car in front of a school she attended in Raheny: “You are a sick woman, you should be hanged…” he whispered to her through the window. The video is still online.
Politicians are not perfect and there is a growing disparagement of the political process in both England and Ireland. Every time a scandal emerges, like Boris Johnson’s Partygate fiasco, nepotism or corruption, voter confidence is eroded. Some politicians will forever give politics a bad name. However, that does not justify attacking, abusing and dehumanizing them.
The vast majority of those in political life turn themselves in at the expense of privacy, less time with family, and in the pursuit of a proper service to the public they elect to do work on their behalf. It seems that for some abusers, the title “civil servant” is misinterpreted as meaning property.
Last week a man was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of MP David Amess, whom he killed while Amess was running his constituency clinic. In 2016, MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death on his way to see her.
There are fears that online abuse, as in England, will lead to offline harm and legal enforcement is needed to deal with both effectively. In Varadkar’s case the opposite happened; where offline behavior was then uploaded online, facilitating further abusive comments.
The answer? Requiring social media users to identify themselves to platforms so they can be traced if they break the law would be a good start.
Training for Gardaí and the PSNI to recognize the difference between a civil and a criminal case when it comes to social media abuse and the proper enforcement of existing laws such as the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offenses Act, the one basis for law enforcement.
In January, the government published the Online Safety and Media Regulation Act, which proposes more regulation of social media companies. What is missing – and it is essential to include this – is an individual grievance mechanism.
Varadkar’s revelation that “a week wouldn’t go by or someone wasn’t yelling something in the street” is worrying. Political disagreements should never result in personal abuse, nor should anyone be expected to reconcile it. Freedom of expression is not a license to abuse it.
Varadkar also stressed that the majority of Irish people are “friendly and polite” to politicians. Good to know, although before anyone gets seriously hurt, we need to start dealing effectively with the unacceptable minority behavior.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/politics-shouldnt-mean-having-to-accept-abuse-41560043.html Politics should not mean accepting abuse