Concern for the safety of elected politicians in this country has grown since the recent murder of British MP David Amess. The toxic impact of social media on public debate has in recent times spilled over into demonstrations at the homes of leading politicians including Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.
On Monday TDs and senators were given a briefing on their personal safety by a Garda chief superintendent who advised them on security for their homes and constituency offices. At a meeting of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission advice was provided on the installation of panic buttons and monitored alarm systems. Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl is due to meet Garda Commissioner Drew Harris to discuss a review of security at Leinster House and is planning to meet the parties to discuss their concerns.
Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne has announced his intention to introduce a piece of legislation called the Protection of Private Residences against Targeted Picketing Bill, which would result in fines of up to €5,000 and a 12-month jail sentence for repeat offences.
Protests at the homes of politicians are an unacceptable intrusion and, undoubtedly, involve an element of intimidation but the Government needs to think carefully before moving to restrict the right of people to protest. It is an area fraught with legal difficulties and the wrong approach could do more harm than good. One of the strengths of our democracy is the access the public has to politicians either at their clinics or through informal contact. Thankfully no politician has been killed or seriously injured since the despicable murder of Senator Billy Fox by the IRA in 1974.
For now, at least, the best approach would be to make politicians aware of the safety measures they should adopt to protect themselves while generating public awareness that harassing TDs in their homes is simply intolerable. It is preferable to address this problem through social pressure than legal constraints.