Access to politicians is one of the great tenets of our democracy. It is something that we should cherish and protect. It keeps the politician connected with the real world and the citizen connected with democracy.
The issue we face, with the coarseness of online and often anonymous commentary, together with a culture of attrition in our parliament, is not unique to Ireland, but it is a deeply unpleasant trend. The problem is two-fold - the erosion of civility in public life and the unleashing of vitriol on social media.
I had an insight into what it was like to be in the public eye when living at home with my late parents Garret and Joan. Bomb-proof windows, barbed wire surrounding the rear garden, armed gardaí front and rear, were all just part of the way we lived. There was no social media then, but there was often deep hostility on the streets and sometimes outside our home.
My father’s final campaign as Taoiseach in 1987, left an indelible mark on me. I still treasure a very thoughtful letter received after the election from Joe Little, who was then working for the BBC and had toured the country with us. It wasn’t about me - it was more about the hostility my parents had to endure for doing their best.
Politicians make mistakes and say things they sometimes regret. My own father regretted using the phrase ‘Flawed Pedigree’ in the Dáil about Charlie Haughey, on the occasion of his being elected Taoiseach. While it may have been prophetic, it was insensitive, particularly as Charlie Haughey’s family was present in the visitors’ gallery. I was also in attendance with my mother and it wasn’t the most comfortable of occasions!
It’s quite obvious that Micheál Martin is a reasonable man who has dedicated his life to public service. However, we just seem to accept the fact that he is constantly referred to in a pejorative manner on social media. You might not agree with him, you might not vote for him, but the man and his family deserve respect.
Leo Varadkar has also dedicated his adult life to public service and has had the courage to face many personal challenges. You don’t have to agree with all his views, but you can’t doubt his absolute commitment to the public good.
Being a woman in politics is not easy and being a woman and a Minister is doubly difficult. Just ask Regina Doherty and Katherine Zappone. There is no point in preaching about unpleasant misogynistic behaviour in other parts of Irish life unless there is zero tolerance for such behaviours within the profession of politics.
There is also no point in talking about mental health in our parliament unless there is a culture of positive mental health in the parliament itself.
The Opposition has a very important job to do, but it’s often uninspiring to watch them do it in such an attritional manner. Both Keir Starmer, the leader of the British Labour Party, and President Joe Biden have shown how to oppose with civility.
However, despite the decency of many, the humanity of some members of the Opposition towards their Government counterparts, seems so often to be absent on the airwaves and in our parliament.
I’ve never met Stephen Donnelly, but I do believe that it’s a sad indictment when there is a security requirement to extend and reinforce protective fencing around his home.
I know what it’s like to live in such a home, and it’s not pleasant, nor is it pleasant to have a rock thrown in your window on election count night. Yes, if you’re in a position of authority, your actions need to be held to account, but in a civil fashion. However, the Dáil, as a workplace, has become a centre of acrimony which is both unbecoming and unfair, and will ultimately disconnect people from politics.
Irish politics has produced John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Mary McAleese, Mary Robinson, Declan Costello, Seán Lemass, and many others. Much that is good in Ireland, has been created by our politicians. Yes, we’ve had abject failures in areas such as housing and health, but on the other hand, politicians have managed to solve one of the most intractable problems in the last century in Europe. John Hume, in particular, played a key role in this. He spent virtually his entire life in Opposition, and his example of courtesy but firmness in debate is one for all Opposition politicians to look to when conducting themselves.
Unless the temperature is reduced, undoubtedly public frustration will turn to needless anger. Be humble in Government, and kinder in Opposition, should be the order of the day.
Mark FitzGerald is a former trustee of Fine Gael. He is chairman of Sherry FitzGerald