Political dissatisfaction is turning to venom

A number of politicians have faced personal and hateful abuse, with the public discourse seeming to revel in and help swell this growing animosity, writes Theresa Reidy 

The announcement that a large number of protesters are going to be charged for their involvement in the protest which had Tánaiste Joan Burton trapped in her car for several hours late last year has put political protest and the public’s attitudes to politicians back in the news.

The line between protest and abuse is difficult to define and ultimately it is the courts who will decide on this case.

The problems of political disaffection and disengagement have been on the political agenda for decades. Trust in political institutions and political parties have been in decline for some time.

Turnout at elections began to drop in the mid 1980s. Politicians who were never popular to start with have seen their standing in society drop sharply. Politics used to be a reasonably respectable business but this is no longer the case.

 

The financial crisis has amplified public disaffection with politics. There is a profound disappointment with the performance of the national economy and an equally deep disillusion among a great many citizens about how the crisis and subsequent economic recovery have been managed by the political system. Public dissatisfaction has manifested itself in a number of different ways.

The opinion polls show huge fragmentation in voting intentions. The mainstream parties of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Labour have seen their support levels fluctuate sharply over the past eight years. There is a major expectations problem in politics.

Parties that promised painless adaptation during the economic crisis have been found out and are now being punished by voters. Independents and micro-parties are in the ascendancy and have captured the public mood with their anti-party and anti-politics message. It remains to be seen if they will be able to deliver on their promises.

The anti-politics zeitgeist is pervasive. Politics in Ireland has changed and politicians over the current electoral term have been on the receiving end of considerable personal and public abuse.

As we get closer to the next general election, a number of sitting TDs have indicated that they will not be seeking re-election. Some have made specific mention of the personal and hateful abuse they have been subjected to over recent years.

Frank Feighan has referenced the personal abuse he received. Mayo TD Michelle Mulherin has had her constituency office petrol-bombed. Galway-based Labour senator Lorraine Higgins has spoken publicly of the personalised abuse she has gotten online.

Indeed, we hear a great deal about the ways in which social media are used to direct abuse at politicians, but much of that debate takes place as though social media is the sole cause of the problem and that politicians are not otherwise facing personal abuse. This is not correct. Social media is a vehicle for abusing politicians, it is not the reason that politicians are receiving personal abuse.

Local and national talk radio provide more insights into the anti-politics mood. There is a regular feed of disgruntlement about individual politicians, most often government politicians caught up in whatever happens to be the latest political controversy.

Paul Murphy was interviewed on Morning Ireland about the possibility that he might be charged over the Joan Burton incident and he spoke of how she was “hated” by Irish citizens. It is a very strong charge to make against the democratically elected deputy prime minister of the country.

There is also a constant stream of negativity about the salaries and expenses of politicians.

This has led to the incorrect impression that a large portion of our national expenditure goes on the cost of running our political system. This is not so. Social welfare is the single largest item of spending in Ireland and the cost of the political system is miniscule in comparison. Even if every politician worked for free and they closed every constituency office in the country, the overall impact on the national finances would be negligible. Democracy is not free. Elections cost money and politicians should be paid.

We need to be careful about memorialising the past. Politics in Ireland has often been very divisive, most especially in the aftermath of the Civil War. As the conflict faded from public memory, a great deal of the venom and unpleasantness disappeared with it.

There were great political personality clashes in the 1980s, like those between Garret FitzGerald and Charlie Haughey, and, indeed, Charlie Haughey and Dessie O’Malley.

Politics requires debate and discussion. Ultimately the political system is responsible for the allocation of the State’s resources and there will always be winners and losers.

Citizens and politicians have sincerely held views about how the system should operate and when these views clash, as they often do, tempers can fray and political discussion can be heated.

But this is quite different from threatening politicians with violence and attacking their property. The political system faces serious challenges and it remains to be seen if it can re-engage the citizens who have become so gravely disillusioned by politics.

Dr Theresa Reidy is a lecturer in the Department of Government at University College Cork.

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