Irish Examiner view: Online tirades are a threat to democratic participation

Hateful social media reactions are pushing genuine political dialogue to extinction.
Irish Examiner view: Online tirades are a threat to democratic participation

A considered approach for an inclusive re-united Ireland by Labour chairman Jack O'Connor received an onslaught of hateful online abuse. Picture: Chris Bellew / Fennells

In a Mayday speech, Labour chairman Jack O'Connor made a thoughtful contribution around what kind of accommodations might ensure that a reunited Ireland could be a successful entity rather than a failed state — as so many post-colonial societies are. The partition of India and the murderous carnage that provoked, the simmering legacy of imperial Britain's role — America's too — in Palestine and any number of African countries showed what can go wrong when a suzerain's district commissioners retire to gardening and their dotage in Perthshire or Devon.

Mr O'Connor proposed a guarantee for a number of unionist ministers in a reunited Ireland government. That seems worthy of deep consideration especially as it does no more than transfer the idea of powersharing southwards. It underlines too, the real essence of democracy; that it must be about more than numbers, that an electoral majority must be more than a stick to beat a minority. That those principles were historically so offended by Unionism means that this week's milestone — a century since the establishment of Northern Ireland — can hardly be celebrated.

Mr O'Connor, a former ICTU president, has had a long career at the interface of conflicting interests so he is hardly a blushing violet yet some of the online reaction to his proposal was unnerving. It was so hateful, so personal and, frankly, bigotted that it shows how social media can have such a negative influence on the workings of civil society and how it might be a conduit to effective, inclusive politics. Some of the Facebook tirades were so violent, so poisoned that others with his kind of experience might prefer the peace of silence rather than risk incurring the Trumpian, no-platforming wrath directed at Mr O'Connor.

Stormont minister Edwin Poots among the favourites to win the DUP leadership election.
Stormont minister Edwin Poots among the favourites to win the DUP leadership election.

In an irony probably beyond many who dismissed Mr O'Connor's idea, they gave a hostage to those they oppose. Those trying to ensure the fundamentalist Edwin Poots is the next DUP leader need only point to those excoriating even the suggestion of inclusion. "Look at what they're really like," will be the goad.

As we report today, Mr O'Connor is not the only public figure targeted for online abuse. Many politicians are attacked in irrational but influential ways. A decade or so ago someone prepared to engage with our political system had to deal with institutionalised dysfunction but now that challenge is exacerbated by relentless, often unfounded personal criticism.

In another galling irony, this point has been reached because all political parties, with one exception, have been so far off the pace of online evolution as to be irrelevant in the forum of the age. Just last week, Fianna Fáil members were sent an email, encouraging them to participate in the party’s social media and be an “online canvasser”. That advice is about 20 years too late but that it even had to be offered explains that party's difficulties more than anything else.

It is unfortunate and unacceptable too, that politicians and those like Mr O'Connor willing to contribute, must expose themselves to these tirades but we have reached a dangerous point, one that demands a real response. This is no longer about insulating politicians from abuse but ensuring that the very idea of participatory politics can survive the toxic online voices burrowing under its foundations. As is often the case, indifference quickly become irrelevance.


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