- 02 Oct 23
A lot of people got in a lather about the ugly far right demonstration that took place outside the houses of the Oireachtas in Dublin last week. They had a point. Because the truth is that it is up to the Government, the Gardaí and the tech regulators to ensure that democracy is protected against any insidious form of attack.
There was a demonstration outside the Dáil in recent weeks. I’m sure you heard. It was a main item on the RTÉ news that evening and all the major newspapers and websites gave it prominent coverage.
It was no ordinary protest. For those who were in the eye of the storm, it was a deeply unpleasant and – for some – genuinely frightening experience of aggression, intimidation and harassment. A relatively small number of far right meat-heads, if that’s not too kind a word, were involved. But it was disturbing, nonetheless, that an ignorant rabble of approximately 200 people were given more or less free reign to throw things, hurl insults and not a little accompanying spittle, at whoever happened to emerge from the Oireachtas buildings.
Politicians who did make their way out onto Kildare Street were surrounded, jostled and bellowed at. Rank and file Gardaí had to step in to provide protection. They were limited in what they could do, but they did their best, until some better equipped Gardaí arrived. Michael Healy Rae, the independent TD for South Kerry, was forced to run the gauntlet. He was lucky that his trademark cap survived. His new assistant – a recently arrived 20 year-old intern from the US – was not so fortunate. As well as being pushed around, she seems to have had her phone stolen.
Other TDs and Senators waited inside the Oireachtas for the crowd to disperse. Some used a secret exit – who knew? – to make their escape. Afterwards, people talked about it in apocalyptic terms. This was an attack on democracy. It was a deliberate attempt to drive a wedge between public representatives and the people they represent. It was completely unacceptable that our politicians, their staff and even visiting ordinary members of the public feared for their safety.
TDs and Senators were united in their condemnation. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, Labour, and the Social Democrats all condemned it. That was to be expected. The Shinners – some of whom have done their fair share of intimidating over the years – put the saddle on their high horse and clambered aboard. People Before Profit also weighed in, questioning the handling of the protests by the Gardaí, pointing out that left-wing protests have been policed in a more aggressive manner.
Which is probably true.
But I thought of Joan Burton. And I was not alone. The truth is that the former Labour Party minister’s experience, when her car was surrounded by a mob at an ‘anti-water charges protest’ in Jobstown back in 2014, organised by the Socialist Party, was far worse than anything that happened last week.
It is one thing for 160-plus TDs and 60 Senators – or whatever number were in on the day – to dawdle together in the comfort of Leinster House, waiting for the ructions to die down, or to go the long way around to make an exit. It is another thing entirely to be effectively imprisoned in your car by a baying mob for two hours, during which your vehicle is thumped, kicked and bounced, faces snarl up at the windows and aggressive young bullies roar sexist obscenities at you and threaten to do you physical damage.
Some people’s memories are short. But there is no kudos in being hypocritical about it. In both protests, the essential purpose was to intimidate public representatives – and so what if their mental health is affected, they suffer PTSD or decide that they’ve had enough?
With our multi-seat constituency system and proportional representation, in Ireland we have what is probably the most representative form of democracy in the world. I might like the balance in the Dáil to be different, but what I can say for certain is that it is acutely representative of Irish voters, in a way that the British and the US systems – to mention just two – will never be. There’s the occasional odd quirk, but we get the politicians we vote for and the make-up of the Government follows on from whatever reasonably like-minded majority emerges.
That’s democracy – and it is long past time for activists who see themselves as champions of the people to acknowledge that. You are either a democrat, who recognises the essential validity of the ballot box, and the principle of one person one vote, or you’re something else more sinister.
The thugs who prepared images of politicians from all parties – including Mary Lou McDonald and Eoin Ó Broin of Sinn Féin – and carried them aloft, alongside a noose, were more menacing in their imagery, deliberately harking back to the sick prejudice of the US white supremacist private militia, the Ku Klux Klan. But the essence of what happened was the same. Attack what are portrayed as an elite. Use the threat of violence to instil fear in them. Treat them like shit. Traumatise them if you can.
None of that low-rent nastiness has any place in politics – all the more so in a country where we enjoy the luxury of having a properly representative, democratically elected parliament and government. The challenge for democrats is to win the battle for hearts and minds. It is to get the vote out and to convince the electorate to give them their first preferences, or as many transfers as might come the way of those who are marked down as second or third on any ballot slip.
Working with local communities, taking on the State bureaucracies for them when necessary, making sure that they get their entitlements, fighting for their rights and protesting against deprivation, inequality and injustice are part of the deal for politicians of the left. That good stuff is all rightly in the job description. And make no mistake, if it is done effectively, the left has the potential to render the grisly protagonists of the far right redundant.
In the meantime, we need to keep things in perspective. So far in Ireland, these rancid bigots are relatively small in number. The so called ‘protest’ at the Dáil was badly attended. In the normal course, a gathering of that size would be seen as a failure for any political grouping. The Government of the day would be able to breathe a sigh of relief and conclude that – whatever the issue – not many votes were at stake.
So here’s a question that journalists have to ask themselves. Should 200 nasty, aggressive, bullying thugs be allowed to force themselves into the lead slot on the Nine O’Clock News by shouting and roaring obscenities, threatening politicians and jostling and jeering those who want to go home through the Kildare Street exit? Is it right to hand a bunch that are no better than football hooligans what they consider a propaganda coup on a plate? Is it good journalism to amplify their message as if it had meaning, even if expressions of disapproval are allowed to those who are being threatened?
There is another, more fundamental, question that also needs better answers than have been provided to date. Why have these nasties effectively been given free rein to intimidate asylum seekers, as happened in Clare a few months ago, and also at a number of locations in Dublin?
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The Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, has indicated that he doesn’t want to give advocates of far right racism and bigotry the publicity that they would derive, if the Gardaí confronted them.
That may be fine in theory, but there is a corollary: how then does he intend to protect the rights of people – whether asylum seekers, politicians or those who work in the Oireachtas, including journalists – to go about their daily lives without being hounded, hustled and threatened with, or subjected to, physical violence?
Some politicians, including the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Jerry Buttimer, have called for a cordon sanitaire around Leinster House. That is certainly not the right response. The accessibility of Irish politicians is a key strength of Irish public life. Besides, we endured almost 30 years of paramilitary violence in Ireland without anything of the kind. And anyway, why should politicians be protected when asylum seekers can be targeted and nothing is done? The answer has to be to use the powers and the laws that are already in place effectively to prevent the intimidation of people and attacks on their human rights, wherever they live or work.
Gather the evidence. Question those involved in hate speech, in threatening behaviour or in physical aggression on the streets. Identify the people who indicated a desire to put a noose around the neck of individual politicians. Bring charges against those who engaged in violent behaviour in a public place. There were 13 people arrested on the day. Those people may or may not be guilty, but let the courts decide.
Do the necessary detective work to see who is providing the money to these groups and how. If there are political parties involved and rules are being broken, or some form of illicit funding is involved, take the necessary action. Put a team together that will focus on the threat to democracy that these proto-fascists represent.
Let the Gardaí confer with the relevant regulators to prevent bad actors of any kind attempting to undermine our electoral system. Unless the effort is put in now, this will happen, with grim inevitability, on the run-in to the next election, and it could be decisive. As voters, we need reassurance that this will not, under any circumstances, be allowed.
The tech companies must be told very directly that they will be held accountable for any organising of unlawful activities they enable. A fast-track system could be introduced to impose fines if the proliferation of disinformation and fake news continues; we can insist that the tech companies must provide a report on the source of all advertising funding to the regulators, with fines in place where any doubt exists about the exact source of any payments received.
It is one of the great scandals of the modern era that it has been made so easy for political parties, lobby groups, out-of-State bad actors, and anyone else who has money to throw around to over-ride the limitations on political spending and to buy influence and spread lies and disinformation with apparent impunity.
The European Union’s Digital Services Act, which was passed in October 2022, and came into effect in August of this year, is a valiant attempt to bring the tech companies to book. But it needs to be applied with fierce attention to detail, and the kind of relentlessness that will make it impossible for the flagrant exploitation and rampant cynical profiteering that has been happening – at the expense of democratic institutions across Europe – to continue.
It is the lies spread through social media, most often via advertising on the big tech platforms – and frequently funded by conservative religiously-motivated billionaires, pseudo independent think-tanks or rogue States – which has driven whatever momentum the far right has gathered here and elsewhere. If that underhand, secretive, paid-for promotion of conspiracy theories, lies and messages hostile to democratic norms can be halted, then the healthy melting pot of genuinely democratic political disagreement and debate can and will survive.
We may not always get the Governments we want. But the aim has to be that, in Ireland we will get the ones that we vote for, safe in the knowledge that we know who is spending what to convince us to give them a preference. It is when that is hidden from view and exploitative algorithms do their sinister damage that we – and our democracy – are in real peril.
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