How did we get here? How did we reach a point where an “angry” mob can control the movements of elected politicians in and out of our parliament? Why does it feel like everyone is constantly spoiling for a fight?
Once upon a time, a key indicator of character was the ability to contain one’s anger. To lash out with a fist or a “f**k you” would have been deemed the height of idiocy.
Somewhere between the bank bailouts and the Donald Trump ascendancy, however, uncontained anger became normalised. “There’s a lot of anger out there,” observers murmured, correctly.
From there, the phrase morphed into something else, a general absolution that excused all behaviours from the bafflingly rude and foul-mouthed to the menacing and criminally hateful. Nobody had to rein it in any more. Free-range anger has become a habit and if you wreck someone’s day with some pointless act of aggression, there’s no shame or blame in it. It’s always somebody else’s fault.
But there is a throughline. It’s nine years since then Tánaiste Joan Burton and a colleague were emerging from a graduation ceremony for a continuing education project in Tallaght when they were trapped in an unmarked garda car for three hours while around 50 water charges protesters threatened, abused and spat at them.
In one clip in a timeline assembled by Colm Keena, Paul Murphy TD – who had arrived with a loud hailer – is seen standing alongside 46-year-old Michael Banks, who gives the two fingers to the two women. “Up your a**e, Joan,” Banks says. “B***h”, “c**t” and “w**re” were among the names hurled by others at Burton as people banged on the car for hours.
When the two women were forced to run between garda lines to reach a marked SUV, one protester could be heard shouting: “Get the c**ts!” As the women made it through a hail of eggs and other objects, someone smashed the windscreen. Footage showed Murphy – who was later acquitted, along with five others, of charges of false imprisonment – was one of the first to arrive to frustrate the vehicle’s progress.
Remember, this foul, sexist, horror show had begun as a day of great emotion and celebration for mature adults who had come through a second chance at education. Earlier that November morning, during a short solemn procession to a church venue, Burton was hit on the head with a water balloon and her assistant with an egg.
A couple of months later, anti-water charges roared “little midget parasite”, “sell-out” and “traitor” at President Michael D Higgins and proudly filmed themselves in the act. Later that summer, a female garda was knocked unconscious after being struck by an object during water charges demonstrations outside Leinster House.
One Senator had to abandon her car on Kildare Street when it was surrounded by people spitting and throwing things. Alan Shatter’s car was also surrounded, shaken and kicked as he tried to drive into Leinster House. While gardaí formed lines to enable cars to exit, one woman shouted: “You all have homes and we can easily find them.”
In the meantime, any sensate human could observe social media collapsing into a hellscape of aggressive, no-context hot takes as Steve Bannon, a Trump Svengali, famously declared that the way to win elections was to “flood the zone with s**t” – ie misinformation, disinformation, distortion, lies – and “Suck it up loser” became the default debating point of gloating fans of the former United States president and of Brexit alike. (Brief pause here to check how well that’s working out.)
The throughline between then and now is obvious.
When the far-right ragbag besieged our own parliament last week with mock gallows, threatening and jostling politicians and staff, much was made of the distress of Michael Healy-Rae’s young intern – as if that made the intrusion especially heinous. It would hardly have been more acceptable if the politician had been accompanying an elderly constituent.
When Murphy was experiencing personal threats, he claimed the left were being targeted “more than anybody else” but were his experiences any more egregious than when Simon Harris’s home was targeted by people who possibly identified the house by following his wife and newborn baby home? Or when Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny’s wife was home alone in rural Leitrim the night a car crashed through the electronic gates, which had been installed following a previous arson attack?
Murphy has said he has no regrets about how that day in Tallaght played out.
Last September, after what he described as an “assault” on him by a group while leaving Leinster House, he seemed surprised that others sought to compare his view of the attack on himself to how Joan Burton was treated in Tallaght.
The comparison was “bizarre”, he said, because one was a “community protest” and the “assault” on him was fuelled by dangerous members of the far-right. “We’re not the same as those who are organising protests fuelled by racist hate,” he said again on RTÉ this week.
It’s an odd distinction. If the outcome is to create a sense of sustained fear and menace among certain groups going about their lives, why would the source of the torment matter? No one should have to endure threats, harassment or hours in a car surrounded by angry people in the name of protest, far-right or otherwise.
Murphy isn’t alone in his tortured thinking, of course. Several of Leinster House’s more vocal actors should be shuffling their memories and consciences around now.