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Interview: Abuse of politicians worse than at any time in four decades, Ceann Comhairle says

Seán Ó Fearghaíl on beefing up security for politicians, why ‘fobgate’ reforms have stalled, and Zelenskiy’s ‘electric’ address to Oireachtas

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl has been in politics for almost four decades and it is clear to him that the abuse directed at politicians now is worse than at any other point in his career.

“There’s no doubt about it. The nature of public discourse has been coarsened in a way that didn’t exist,” he says.

Angry letters and phone calls or angry people turning up at politicians’ offices or homes have always been a feature of life in politics, the Fianna Fáil TD says.

“But there’s nothing to compare with the nasty material that sometimes comes in on social media.”


Those responsible are “people with destructive intentions, setting out to damage members of the House in one way or another”.

Mr Ó Fearghaíl said there are some very angry people with “very good points to make” who may be “unintentionally abusive” and will accept a “decent, honest response”. But there’s also “definitely a small malicious cohort” and the Oireachtas is taking measures to support TDs, Senators and their staff to go about their work in safety.

The murders in Britain of MPs David Amess and Jo Cox in recent years highlighted the vulnerability of politicians in a more fraught political atmosphere. Mr Ó Fearghaíl adds this month’s assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to “that list of brutal, murderous attacks”.

There has been concern at the apparent increasing toxicity of debate in Ireland fuelled by posts on social media and real-world actions such as protests at the homes of Ministers.

The Ceann Comhairle met Garda Commissioner Drew Harris in the aftermath of Mr Amess’s killing last year. This has been followed with engagement at constituency level between local Garda crime prevention officers and TDs and Senators.

Politicians are being encouraged to enhance the security of their offices and homes if it is recommended by gardaí. Mr Ó Fearghaíl confirmed that the possibility of the State contributing to these costs is being examined. The Office of Public Works (OPW) pays for security measures at the homes of Ministers but there is no similar fund made available by the Oireachtas for other politicians.

Mr Ó Fearghaíl said the possibility of once-off funding to help with security costs is “under consideration because things have got worse”. The Oireachtas has also engaged with Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, as well as Twitter. These social media platforms have offered advice to politicians on the use of their services and how to complain if there is problematic activity directed towards them.

Mr Ó Fearghaíl said he was “very concerned” at two recent high-profile court cases that detailed harassment levelled at Fine Gael TD Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and former Sinn Féin TD Jonathan O’Brien.

He said: “Not everything is rosy in the garden, but we’re trying to find ways to improve the situation and to address any problems that exist.”

On other matters Mr Ó Fearghaíl says Oireachtas authorities are in talks with the OPW on expanding the seating in the Dáil chamber to accommodate between nine and 19 extra TDs that may be added as a result of the census results which showed an increase in the population of the State.

It appears, however, that proposed reforms on the back of the “fobgate” controversy have stalled.

The system requiring TDs to “fob in” in order to claim travel expenses, came under scrutiny in 2019 when it emerged some members were missing votes on days when they had been marked as present in Leinster House.

Mr Ó Fearghaíl said there are “data protection issues” around locating CCTV cameras at the fobbing points and the idea of reverting to people physically signing in “is something that members are not happy about”. He said reforming the system is “still on the agenda” but there has not been agreement yet.

Mr Ó Fearghaíl said around a third of his time is taken up with parliamentary diplomacy.

British ambassador Paul Johnston was in the Dáil last week to formally launch the British-Irish Parliamentary Friendship Group. Relations between the Irish and British governments are poor due to the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit deal. In that context Mr Ó Fearghaíl says links between Irish and British parliamentarians is “more important than ever before”. He is planning a conference that would bring together the speakers of parliaments in Westminster, Scotland, Wales and the Channel Islands as well as Northern Ireland if the Assembly there is back up and running.

He visited Ukraine along with Cathaoirleach of the Seanad Mark Daly in May where he saw first-hand what he described as the “horror of the war” including the town of Bucha where a mass grave was discovered after Russian forces pulled out. He was told of booby traps left by Russian troops in towns and villages including explosives left in an oven and a child’s toy piano which he said was “insane”. It was clear from the people he met in Ukraine that Russian president Vladimir Putin “will have to back down because the Ukrainians won’t be backing down anytime soon or at any time in the future”.

He described the atmosphere in the Dáil during Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s video address in April as “electric” and said “people hung on his every word”.

In terms of other dignitaries who may address the Dáil in future, Mr Ó Fearghaíl hopes the president of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola will do so this autumn. There is an open invitation to US president Joe Biden to address the Oireachtas: “I have spoken with ambassador Claire Cronin about it ... We’d certainly relish having him.”

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times