Martin Kenny, the Sinn Féin TD who represents Sligo-Leitrim, has said that he and his family will move after a series of incidents, including the burning of his car, at their family home.
Mr Kenny, a father of four, told The Irish Times before Christmas: “We are preparing to sell the house and move, as the trauma of these incidents has taken away our sense of safety.”
In October, a man was convicted of sending a series of sexually explicit messages to Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, the Fine Gael TD for Dún Laoghaire, during the 2020 election campaign. She described how she felt “a cold sense of dread” while out meeting voters because she didn’t know if the person sending her messages could be one of the people whose hand she was shaking.
“Was the person far away from me, crossing the road towards me? What were they going to do? Was I going to be attacked?” she told the court in a victim impact statement.
There have been security alerts requiring the presence of gardaí at the homes of several prominent politicians, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, in recent years.
In 2021, gardaí briefed TDs and senators at Leinster House on security precautions, including installing security screens and panic buttons at their homes and offices. An RTÉ survey of TDs in 2019 found that half had received death threats.
So while the attack on Minister for State Anne Rabbitte and Fine Gael backbencher Ciarán Cannon at a meeting in Co Galway on Wednesday night featured an unusual level of unsanitary violence, it is not an isolated event. Rather, it is part of a worrying and escalating pattern. Anne Rabbitte was herself the victim of telephone death threats which caused her to move out of her home for several weeks. Last year a man prevented her from leaving her constituency office. She is entitled to wonder where all this ends.
Clearly, politicians put themselves forward for election – nobody forces them to seek public office. They do so with a degree of knowledge of the sacrifices of privacy and the likelihood of abuse that it entails. But it is also clear that the threats to politicians are escalating, and we don’t have to look far to see where this could lead.
Just over a year ago, the British MP Sir David Amess was stabbed to death at his constituency office by a British Islamic State supporter. Five years previously, MP Jo Cox was murdered during the Brexit referendum campaign. This week, British media reported that some MPs are wearing stab vests when meeting constituents.
Ireland’s political system features an unusual degree of intimacy between voters and their representatives. Members of the public can reasonably expect to meet their TDs in person at pretty short notice. Beyond that, TDs are expected to turn up at all sorts of public events in their constituencies on a regular basis. They live publicly accessible lives.
But that connection is under threat. Online hatred and threats directed at TDs is becoming normalised, as are casual abuse on the streets and in public places. One of the striking aspects of the attack on Cannon and Rabbitte was that the attacker, having left, returned shortly afterwards to the meeting; he did not feel he would be excluded, and nobody sought to eject him from the meeting. In some ways, that is the most shocking aspect of the incident.
TDs and other public representatives are publicly dismissive of the threats they face. Privately, however, they are growing apprehensive. Many believe that a politician is going to be seriously hurt or worse before long.
“Someone is going to cross the line,” said one.