One of the great gifts social media seemed to offer in its more innocent days was that various platforms might become new homes for political discourse and commentary. It is a great sadness that this opportunity to engage, to debate and better understand has been squandered. Social media has stratified political conversation in a dangerous and corrosive way.
All too often, the overriding atmosphere is one of contempt, almost uncontrolled anger, and alternative-free dismissals. This incessant, toxic barrage is one of the reasons many talented people interested in participative politics shy away from elected office. What a price we and our democracy pay.
This venom reaches a kind of crescendo, in Irish terms at least, when someone has the temerity to insist on historical accuracy and point out that car bombers and kneecappers were not the vestal angels of the North’s civil rights movement but rather old-fashioned, murderous terrorists. The online, useful fools’ diatribes provoked by this simple truth are among the greatest victories for contemporary propagandists — and what a high bar that is. It is almost unnerving in its deliberate, one-eyed distortion.
That spleen has been active since Denis Naughten resigned over his inappropriate, private, unminuted meetings with one of the main bidders in the National Broadband Plan. The opening responses online might be hard and unforgiving but are more or less to the point. A post or two later, words that if used in this column would lead to a successful libel action, are thrown around like promises at an election rally. Context seems immaterial, anything that might even look like due process is unknown. This punch-bagging achieves absolutely nothing of value but it may dissuade Naughten’s plausible successors. As ever context is everything so it might be useful to consider how we reached this point.
Mr Naughten behaved unwisely but it is not necessary to be a member of the Naughten fan club to recognise that he was in a very difficult position. The obligation to provide broadband across rural Ireland was fatally flawed from the moment service providers were allowed cherrypick lucrative urban contracts free of any obligation to provide rural broadband. Yet, Mr Naughten was tasked with providing rural broadband despite that cherrypicking and the industry’s profound disinterest. He had but one interested party, little or no leverage, but around 1m people are still dependent on him to deliver broadband.
Mr Naughten’s fate is tied up, like so many other disappointments, in the indefensible decision to privatise Eircom in 1999. Not only was an essential utility sold off but government surrendered its capacity — its duty — to ensure essential services reach all citizens.
As an election hoves into view any deputy brave enough to mention water charges might suffer a fate worse than Mr Naughten’s. Despite that, the issue will be revisited and Eircom, and Mr Naughten’s cold shouldering, offer a perfect template of what not to do. It might be wise too to ignore the inevitable wild, blood ’n guts social media tirades when that moment comes.