Abusive verbal attacks on President Higgins mark a new low in political discourse

‘Play ball, rather than the man’ rule would be a good starting point for greater civility

Over the generations commentators have often complained of a crisis of incivility in politics. It is an overworked phrase, sometimes used too easily by establishment forces disturbed by a change in the pace of politics or uncomfortable with the vocabulary or methods of newly emerging political or protest movements.

While we are not at crisis point in Ireland, it is certainly time to acknowledge a dramatic decline in civility in our politics and to do so while remaining free of being branded as defenders of the establishment. Arguing for basic decency in political discourse does not amount to defending the status quo. Recent weeks have seen a range of news stories which should worry anyone who believes in robust but civil politics.

Last weekend a group of former aviation workers campaigning about pensions conducted a protest outside the home of Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe of the type which used to be conducted only at a minister’s departmental or constituency offices.

Serious threats

On Tuesday the Meath Fine Gael backbencher Regina Doherty became the latest in a series of politicians to reveal that they had received serious threats from those opposing government policy. A man called her local office and threatened to burn down her house with her children in it. Doherty’s revelation was all the more chilling since it came in the same week as an arson attack on the office of her fellow backbencher Michelle Mulherin in Mayo.


This week we also saw footage of abusive verbal attacks directed at President Michael D Higgins on his way in and out of a visit to a school celebration in Finglas. The targeting of the President by an angry foul-mouthed mob of water protesters represents a new low. Nobody argues that such protesters do not have a right to free speech, but when they use it so crudely, then the rest of us are entitled to speak out against it. Nobody argues that the President should be beyond criticism but such vulgar abuse insults an office and its occupant to which all of us, as citizens, have a particular attachment.

These protests directed at Mr Higgins also show a complete lack of understanding of the powers and function of his office. The only role the President has in considering legislation is to assess, with the advice of the Council of State if he wishes, whether the Bill is constitutional. If he views a Bill to be constitutional he must sign it, irrespective of any view he might have on the policy reflected in it. If he has concerns about its constitutionality he can refer a Bill to the Supreme Court. The Bill relating to water services and water charges passed by the Oireachtas before Christmas may be controversial but it is not unconstitutional.

New coarseness

This new coarseness has been a feature of Irish politics for months now. Some of it arises from a need by some left-wing politicians to out-megaphone each other in the competition to lead the anti-austerity movements. This was most dramatically reflected in the abusive verbal attacks on Tánaiste Joan Burton and her being trapped in her car by a baying mob of water protesters when she was leaving an event in Jobstown last November.

The tension between different players in our politics has also been reflected in sit-ins in the Dáil itself and in unseemly confrontations with the Ceann Comhairle.

The online tendency towards rudeness, disrespect and abuse in political debate has also intensified. The vitriol directed at high-profile protagonists on both sides of the forthcoming marriage equality referendum by some voices on social media does not bode well for the level at which that debate will be conducted.

Thirteen years ago, when the Northern Ireland blogger Mick Fealty first launched the news and opinion site Sluggerotoole.com, he introduced one rigid rule for posts and comments. He sums it up as “play the ball not the man”.

More courteous

In 2002 online comment was more courteous. Notwithstanding the ongoing peace negotiations, Northern Ireland politics was still brutish and divisive. Fealty saw the need to ensure that while contributors could and would be encouraged to engage in robust debate on the issues, he and his moderators would not permit personal attacks. They maintain and monitor that policy to date, which is why Slugger has developed a reputation for hosting a mostly intelligent dialogue on a range of controversial and important issues in Irish and British politics.

A “play the ball, rather than the man (or woman)” rule would be a good starting point for greater civility in our wider public discourse. Our politics is likely to be even more volatile as the election approaches. The potential for an even more abusive political atmosphere is therefore greater.

A real respect for the views of others and for their right to express those views would also go along way towards more informed and more effective politics.