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Increase in ‘palpable sense of menace’ towards politicians in Ireland

A report was launched on Wednesday making recommendations on ensuring politicians’ safety and wellbeing.

There has been an increase in a “palpable sense of menace” by a small cohort of people towards politicians in Ireland, the former Garda commissioner has said.

Noirin O’Sullivan was speaking as the chairwoman of the taskforce that examined an increase in the level of abuse, harassment and intimidation towards politicians and their staff.

The chairman of the Seanad, the Irish parliament’s upper house, Jerry Buttimer, said that he was “worried, from my experience, that we’re losing a generation of young people who are tired of what they see online and in person”.

Ms O’Sullivan said they concluded that abuse in political life is “prevalent, problematic and is disproportionately targeted at women and minority groups”.

She said that online abuse is “often driven by misogyny, racism and intolerance” and “has become normalised, is intensifying and is being fuelled by the anonymity offered by online platforms”.

A UCD survey carried out among TDs, senators and political staff found that around 94% of politicians and 72% of political staff who responded had experienced some form of threat, harassment or violence.

Almost three-quarters of TDs and senators who responded said they experience abuse on social media frequently.

Of TDs and senators who responded, 43% said that incidents had made it less likely that they would run for election again, which researcher Eugenia Siapera called “a very significant finding”.

The survey also found that 45% had hesitated to come forward with a particular opinion, worried about being in public and reduced social activities, and 40% reported they had avoided engaging with a specific policy area.

The reports were launched at Leinster House in Dublin minutes after the Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico was shot multiple times and left in a life-threatening condition.

“As we speak, the Slovakian prime minister has been injured in a shooting, Robert Fico, and we send him our best wishes,” Mr Buttimer said.

Asked whether there was a chance of a parliamentarian being attacked or killed in Ireland, as had taken place in the UK, Ms O’Sullivan said that “all of us collectively have to stand together and face down the threat and the risk”.

“We need to really address some of these behaviours that we see in these spaces. None of us, I’m sure nobody in this room wishes that we would have anything like what we heard from Slovakia today, or indeed anything that happened in the UK. None of us wants to see that.”

The taskforce’s report made several recommendations, including establishing an engagement forum with social media companies and Gardai and offering a social media monitoring service to politicians and their staff.

Among those who were present at the launch were several TDs and senators, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, who had just finished a committee appearance, head of the electoral commission Art O’Leary and at least one representative of the social media giants.

When asked, Ms O’Sullivan said it was “regrettable” that the social media site X, formerly Twitter, was “unavailable” to engage with the taskforce.

When asked why just 27.7% of the 220 TDs and senators took part in the survey, researcher Ms Siapera speculated it could be down to a few things, including a busy schedule and not wanting to be retraumatised from recounting threats.

“I suspect a reticence around complaining about political violence because there is a political culture here that where politicians tend to be very close to the public, and there is a perception that if we start chasing after political violence or accusing people of political violence or implementing security measures around politicians then maybe the effect will be that their political culture is going to change.”

She added that this was speculation and further research was needed to find out more.

Ms O’Sullivan added: “There is a thing: ‘If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t be here’. That’s the thing that has been associated with politics and public life for quite a long time, you have to be tough enough to stand up and take it. Well actually, you don’t.

“It shows a lot of courage and a lot of strength of individuals who have the courage to stand up and say, I have been impacted by this and my family have.”

Speaking on Wednesday morning, Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe said he has been threatened on a “small number of occasions” and that the intensity of the threats has increased in recent times.

The Fine Gael minister said that while the majority of people are “perfectly civil”, there is a small number of people who are feel “they have a licence to say and do things”.

“I was standing outside Westland Row station this morning at 8am and I would have met and engaged with hundreds of commuters and the overwhelming majority of them are perfectly civil, engaging, respectful and understanding of the work that politicians do,” he said.

“I don’t think we should lose sight of that in the discussion that we are having around politics.

“It is the case that there is a small number of people that are angrier than they used to be, that feel they have licence to say and do things that hasn’t been the case before.

“But the overwhelming majority of people don’t engage in that behaviour and don’t condone it.

“We need to protect politicians and our political system from the risks of that small number of people, but continue to have an openness and ability to engage with voters across the country that I believe is a huge strength of Irish politics.”

He said those who abuse and threaten politicians and political staff are a “serious problem”.

He added: “I, like any other politician, have had to deal with some abuse during my time as a member of government and as a member of the Dail that was heightened by the pandemic.

“Those two years have left an imprint in our society that I believe has amplified an anger and a feeling about the Dail from a very small number of people.

“I’ve had to contend with that but, as I said, it comes from a small number of people, and the overwhelming majority of people engage very civilly, really appropriate with politicians.

“If we don’t keep on acknowledging that, we’re going to further diminish the number of people who are willing to come into politics.”

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