Sinn Féin is struggling to identify candidates for next year’s local election, which is surprising.
Several deterrents are mentioned: the territorialism of incumbents, a tendency to be “clannish”, the low pay for councillors. A fourth is the growing toxicity of politics, surely the least surprising. But the idea that potential Sinn Féin candidates could be discouraged by the fear that nasty people might turn on them contains a certain irony.
It’s only two years since an invitation-only Facebook supporters group named “Sinn Féin”, with a 16,000-strong membership that included some party TDs and councillors plus three party activists described as administrators on local SF Facebook pages, was publicly exposed. “Toxic” hardly describes it.
Michael Collins would have “cut Leo the liar’s throat, for sure”; “I know what Michael Collins would have done with a snitch like Leo the Leak, one round, and a round well spent”; Collins would “shoot Leo in the face, like most of the Irish would love to”; Varadkar should be “put in the bog”, or “needs the belt of a shovel badly ... the bigger and heavier the better”. None of which is guaranteed to have your average well-adjusted citizen rushing to sign up.
Sinn Féin’s leaders were horrified, naturally, and suggested that the public representatives in the group might not have been aware of the vile commentary.
Robust defence of people seeking protection under Ireland’s international obligations has made it a target for anti-immigrant protesters in traditionally working-class areas
In the meantime, some of Sinn Féin’s elected representatives themselves have been criminally targeted, chief among them the Sligo-Leitrim TD Martin Kenny, whose family will have to move after a series of serious incidents at his home. The party’s robust defence of people seeking protection under Ireland’s international obligations has made it a target for anti-immigrant protesters in traditionally working-class areas. Is “protesters” the correct description for a group dressed in black staging their protests at night, as happened at Dessie Ellis’s Ballymun office a couple of weeks ago? What about an online video showing a group discussing whether they should also go to Ellis’s family home?
Anyone who gloated over a smoothie being thrown at Leo Varadkar, or a water balloon striking Joan Burton, or bags of excrement being hurled at the feet of Anne Rabbitte and Ciaran Cannon during an open meeting, signed up for this.
The menace to our democracy, with lies, distortions, overt racism, online grift and props such as the national flag imported straight from the Trump/Steve Bannon playbook, is real and growing, if not particularly new. Similar freelance protests were merely interrupted by the pandemic.
The difference now is that these vile onslaughts are being discussed in the same breath as long-standing concerns of neglected communities. This is a problem. While most of us hear an effort from politicians and journalists to show solidarity with the concerns of good citizens, the anti-immigration protestors hear their tactics gaining legitimacy. “We will shift the political ground here,” a well-known anti-immigrant activist boasted during Monday’s Dublin street protests.
Just as many decent Americans were persuaded that Donald Trump voters were the “left-behinds” who needed empathy and hope – right up to the moment when expertly manipulated mobs invaded their parliament with weapons, cable ties and a noose to hang the vice-president – so goes the conversation in Ireland.
When debates descend into what precisely constitutes “far-right”, as opposed to the evidence in front of our eyes, we are playing into the hands of arch manipulators who learned the art of seeding doubt and despair from their guru Steve Bannon and, before him, Vladimir Putin.
“The Democrats don’t matter,” Trump’s chief strategist reportedly said in 2018. “The real opposition are the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
Muddy the waters until truth and lies are no longer distinguishable. Once the media’s job of sifting fact from fiction is short-circuited by waves of misinformation and distortion, democracy comes under threat.
Call it what it is.
When Irish Freedom Party president Hermann Kelly took offence at The Journal’s description of it as a “far-right party” and was refused a correction, he took his complaint to the Press Ombudsman. The news site’s editor, Sinead O’Carroll, called it “a legitimate and useful definition to differentiate the policies of different parties in Ireland”. The Ombudsman agreed with her, based “on the range of policies promoted by the party and by the causes party members have been associated with”.
Far right it is.
Journalists are less inclined to speak of the escalating intimidation they themselves are experiencing
While attacks on political figures have been well publicised, journalists are less inclined to speak of the escalating intimidation they themselves are experiencing, such as the repulsive abuse piled on Irish Times journalists Kitty Holland and Dara Mac Dónaill following their report of an attack on a migrant camp by men with dogs, sticks and a baseball bat.
At a recent large meeting convened by the Garda Commissioner to discuss journalists’ safety, some talked of physical assault, constant aggression and the increasing impossibility of doing outside broadcasts. Privately, a young editor in one outlet mentioned feeling “worn down” by the constant aggression, about sleepless nights, about a sense of futility when sending good and well-researched work into the public domain.
How did we get here? Orchestrated harassment campaigns, a normalisation of toxic politics, personal attacks, deliberate distortion and performative nihilism have all played a part. Call it what it is. Accept no “but”s.
The good news, perhaps, is that lessons are being learned. There is at least consensus on this.