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Abuse of politicians cannot be condoned


Mr Varadkar, in particular, comes in for a large share of abuse. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Mr Varadkar, in particular, comes in for a large share of abuse. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Mr Varadkar, in particular, comes in for a large share of abuse. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The threat of violence against politicians, and the occasional outbreak of real violence - giving credibility to the threat - is a growing phenomenon in politics worldwide and, it seems, is increasing in Ireland too.

Today we report that the security detail around Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has been reassessed in recent weeks: he has now been told not to leave his home unless accompanied by a garda. Health Minister Stephen Donnelly was advised by gardaí to erect a security fence at his home. These are disturbing developments in any normal society.

In recent years, a growing number of politicians, particularly female TDs and senators, as well as local councillors - but almost all politicians - have noted a growing level of threatening behaviour towards them. It is important to understand what these threats constitute: physical attacks (in the case of Mr Varadkar), verbal threats, unwanted approaches, stalking, loitering, property interference, distribution of malicious material, and inappropriate letters, emails, phone calls and social media contacts, among other possibilities.

It also seems certain the increased frequency of threats coincides with the rise of social media. The upsurge in abuse levelled at politicians on platforms like Twitter and Facebook is undeniable - and some content and tone can be shocking.

Mr Varadkar, in particular, comes in for a large share of abuse. He is a senior politician - so criticism of him, even robust criticism, comes with the territory he occupies and can be justified. In some instances, however, the harsh tone of such criticism is demeaning and unacceptable.

Further to this, Mr Varadkar is regularly targeted with homophobic and racist content. There is absolutely no justification for such abuse. Indeed, there are laws to prohibit it, so these should be used where appropriate to bring those responsible to account.

The number of women elected to national and local bodies greatly under-represents numbers in society as a whole. In recent years, but with limited success, efforts have been made to increase the representation of women to reflect wider society. There are several reasons for the patchy success of such initiatives, which must be examined in the round.

However, several female TDs and senators have spoken publicly about the level of online abuse women receive. It is not difficult to understand that this may be part of the reason women are so under-represented in politics. The online abuse of female politicians is also in keeping with what seems to be a general targeting of minorities.

There is little authoritative analysis to measure the full extent of the rise of social media in politics. In many ways, social media can be for the good as it provides politicians with immediate feedback that has the merit of being somewhat indicative of a wider society view.

However, more often than not, the medium is used in an abusive and intimidatory manner, which occasionally spills over into the threat of physical attack.

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It seems inevitable that politicians will have to develop strategies for fighting back against threats and harassment, and to strengthen their own resilience. However, when the threat develops to a point where politicians cannot leave their homes without police protection, then something within the democratic system has seriously gone awry.

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