Saturday 24 August 2019

Peadar Toibin: 'It's OK to have a different opinion, just be reasonable and respectful about it'

Challenge, debate and questions are critical to our liberal democracy and must not be closed down, writes Peadar Toibin

Peadar Toibin, leader of Aontu. Photo: Laura Hutton/
Peadar Toibin, leader of Aontu. Photo: Laura Hutton/

Peadar Toibin

Ireland is a fiercely orthodox country. It was so in the 1950s and it is so in 2019. The politics has radically changed for sure, but the intolerance for differences of opinion is as rigid.

There are a whole host of taboo subjects in Ireland, subjects people cannot raise in public for fear of having their heads taken off them, politically speaking.

In the last fortnight Nuala Nolan, an Aontu candidate, was banned from a 'Women in Politics' debate in Galway because of her pro-life views. Sinn Fein went as far as to discipline the member of their party who invited her. This translates to "we are liberals who welcome a broad spectrum of opinion and views, provided they conform exactly to ours".

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Last week Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stated in the Dail: "We are running into real difficulties around restricting peaceful protest and restricting free speech." As it related to the right to life there was not an eyebrow raised in opposition.

During the recent RTE Prime Time discussion about children permanently transitioning from one gender to another, Graham Linehan, a participant on the programme, was vilified from on high for daring to question the perceived public consensus. Protesters at the gates of RTE with placards called Linehan a bigot and stated that he did not have the right to have his views, never mind articulate them.

Just last week, award winning novelist John Boyne, who is an advocate of transgender rights, was forced to leave Twitter, such was the ferocity of the attacks on him for a writing a book and asking a question.

Every man, woman and child in this country owes €40,000 each because few questioned the idea that property prices would always rise.

Precious few challenged the intellectual fashion that unbridled credit and deregulation were good. Herd mentality was a key factor in the Celtic Tiger bubble.

We have a massive housing crisis now because of the "private good, public bad" consensus that reigned in housing for years.

We have foregone billions in Corporation Tax and done serious damage to our international reputation because for years if you mentioned tax justice you were a dangerous charlatan.

The day we stop asking questions, debating and respectfully challenging people or ideologies is the day that our liberal democracy is dead. Challenge, debate and questions are critical to holding the system to account. It is OK to have a different opinion.

Anxieties, fears and frustrations fester when suppressed. They don't disappear, they get forced into more extreme outlets.

The illiberal way in which some liberals treat people with different views often ends up creating the monsters that they despise the most. Look where the word 'deplorables' got the Democrats in the US.

Political parties have in recent years started to disconnect from their grassroots. Many parties will tell you that they no longer have functioning cumann. Most parties ignore ard fheiseanna when it comes to policies.

Indeed, Fianna Fail dispensed with motions and votes at its ard fheis this year. But when a party loses its roots it becomes an ideological husk which flits whichever way the wind blows.

Last week Aontu suggested that, as a country, we should be able to have a respectful and responsible debate on the issue of immigration.

We stated that if a person is fleeing war, violence or famine, that as a country, under international law, we should provide refuge to that person.

We stated there needs to be a link between resource capacity and the numbers of people coming to Ireland. If there is not there will be hardship for both Irish people and immigrants alike.

We stated clearly that the pressure on services and resources was not the fault of immigrants but due to the lack of government investment in services. We indicated that the solution was to ensure we built and provided adequate housing, health and education for everyone in society.

Migration is a part of modern life - without it, our health service and many industries would grind to a halt. We have always recognised the valuable contribution migrants have made to Ireland. We also stated that everyone in Irish society should be able to fully be who they are without fear or favour.

For stating this, the sky nearly fell in. We were attacked as racists, xenophobes and far-right dog whistlers. We were misrepresented and maligned wholesale.

This language was designed to silence and close down debate. The fact that much of it came from the architects of the shame of Direct Provision, in my view, shows the motivation behind it.

Aontu is a new and fledgling party. But it is growing at a rate throughout the country. It is a grassroots organisation with nearly 2,000 members, 60 new functioning cumann and 70 excellent candidates in the local elections. Many people, including elected reps are leaving the establishment parties and joining Aontu. As such, we are perceived as a threat to the establishment parties and the status quo.

We stand for life, the unity of the Irish people, economic justice, real regional development and challenging the uniformity of the political system. We will not be silenced. We will not shy away from difficult questions. We will not hold our finger in the air to see which way the political wind is blowing. We will not be a home for payroll politicians. We will represent people's views even if they don't chime with the perceived public consensus. We will do so on the basis of decency and equality and in a respectful and reasonable manner.

Peadar Toibin is a TD for Meath West. He was elected in 2011 as a Sinn Fein candidate, but resigned from the party in November last year and has founded Aontu

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