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Varadkar: 'I'm afraid it will end in violence. I don't mean having a milkshake thrown on you, I mean something much worse'

The Tánaiste reacts to the abusive graffiti about him that was scrawled on a wall in Belfast earlier this month.

Image: TOM HONAN

TÁNAISTE LEO VARADKAR has said he worries that the ramping up of rhetoric against public figures could result in violence, not just “having a milkshake thrown on you, I mean something much worse than that”. 

The Tánaiste is one of a number of politicians who told TheJournal.ie that said they wonder when the level of online abuse targeted at politicians will escalate to violence.

In an interview with this publication last week, he said he wasn’t shocked by the graffiti directed at him, which was written on a wall in Belfast earlier this month.

Graffiti threatening Varadkar appeared on a shop wall in the Belvoir estate in South Belfast.

The graffiti contained threatening language against Varadkar, including that he would “hang” if he “set foot in Ulster”.

A second graffiti message targeting the Tánaiste was later scrawled on a wall in Belvoir Drive.

Both messages are being treated by police as hate crimes by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

The Fine Gael leader said: “The sad thing was is I wasn’t that shocked by it. A lot of people are contacting me, to kind of sympathise and express their support, which I really value. But I’m kind of a bit desensitised to it in some ways.”

Varadkar said what was written on the wall is not all that different to messages he’s been sent online.

He said he worries that the ramping up of rhetoric could result in violence – “by which I don’t mean having a milkshake thrown on you, I mean something much worse than that”(last year, Varadkar was in Merrion Square when a woman approached him and threw a milkshake smoothie over him, before running away).

“I don’t want us to be a country where politicians need security all the time. I mean, I don’t have it anymore, and I’m glad I don’t have it anymore.”  

Those with a platform should be aware of their tone in political debate, he said, stating that the narratives of ‘us and them’ or ‘people versus the elites’ can stir up hatred, saying “it allows other people to develop thoughts that sometimes turn violent and I think they need to reflect on that”.

Varadkar said matters have escalated in other countries when it comes to politicians and violence, and he would not like the same to happen here.

“Just look at American politics, not just the the march on on Capitol Hill, led by people who couldn’t accept the results of an election believing they’d won an election when they quite clearly hadn’t, we see traces of that in Irish politics too – but even long before that, American politicians being shot – Congresswoman Gabby Giffords for example – and that does happen in other countries.” 

Giffords, a former Arizona Congresswoman, was shot in the head in 2011, but survived the assassination attempt.

“One thing I really do regret about Irish politics is the extent to which that kind of personalised, targeting of anyone, but particularly politicians has become much more common. I do think certain political parties do tolerate a little too much, and encourage it too much quite frankly, we’ve seen plenty of evidence of that.”    

Green Party’s Hazel Chu

Dublin Lord Mayor Hazel Chu has also been open about the level of abuse she has received as a public representative.

Only recently, Chu was approached by a group of people who criticised her for wearing a mask and referred to her as a “shape-shifting dragon”.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie she said threats, particularly towards women representatives, “have become more direct”. Women she has spoken to have said they have been threatened with “rape or something to that effect”. 

Such threats would not have been made 10 or 20 years ago, she said, stating that “people would not have been so brazen to do so”. Now they have social media for them to communicate they can do it.

“I find that for myself, I find that when it is on social media and online, it kind of transitions quite quickly, it becomes phone calls,” she said, describing an incident that happened to her last week. 

“I got a couple of phone calls last week. I was at a meeting so I texted back and one of them texted back saying: ‘Hello Chu Chu, you’re not in a meeting you little yellow bitch’.”

The Lord Mayor said it begins to make you think what will be next, and is the next thing  turning up on your doorstep.

“When will that happen or will that happen in some way shape or form in a different way, for example, someone hijacking events, outside the Mansion House, so that kind of worry,” said Chu.

She does wonder where will it have to go “before someone goes, okay, enough is enough. We’re done with this, we need to combat this, and I hope we have gotten to that point now”.

Chu said it is part of a wider issue, and is something that impacts others that are not in politics, making reference to the couple that appeared in the Lidl advert who received online abuse and threats that ultimately resulted in them leaving the country.

“If we don’t get that problem in check, then your real issue is, it may happen to someone with a platform, it may happen to someone without a platform, but it is a growing problem that will get worse,” she said.

Like Varadkar, Chu said she doesn’t want security to become a necessity in Irish politics.

“Call it naive, or call it idealistic perhaps, but I don’t want our politics to get to that. The good thing about our politics no matter which party you are from, is that politicians are approachable,” she said.

The solution for Chu is three-fold, stating that the new hate crime legislation, as well as Garda enforcement and educating the community are all paramount.

The government’s proposed hate legislation will impose stronger sentences for existing crimes, where it can be shown that the alleged offender was motivated by hate for an ethnic, or religious group.

The carrot approach rather than the stick approach is best, said Chu. There is a need to start showcasing that people and diversity should be celebrated while also acknowledging that there are real concerns in communities that we need to fix, she said.

“We need to challenge rhetoric about immigration, about mass immigration, about migrants taking people’s homes, about migrants taking people’s jobs. We need to challenge ourselves with the politics,” she said.

She said it is important to keep the conversation going in order to make progress. 

“People of colour or a different kind of origin or sexuality can can talk about it, they can keep on talking about it – the issue with that is he will always have detractors or even people out there saying ‘oh they’re just complaining again, they’re just talking about it again’. The more people talk about it that are not within that sphere, people might say, ‘Oh, this might be an issue. This is something that we need to look at, this is something that’s actively going to get worse if we don’t keep it in check’,” said Chu.

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Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte

Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte has previously described how she sits at home at night blocking internet trolls across social media that choose to send abuse to her.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, she said: “It is quite shocking what’s going on at the moment, it has really escalated, you just wonder where the next peak is.”

“I had my last peak about two weeks ago. It was the week of order of baby home report, screenshots were taken of me alleging I was asleep in the Dáil, I was not, because I have it in writing from the clerk of the Dáil. They [Oireachtas clerks] checked the cameras, because I had to clear my name.

“I knew that the photo was sort of tampered with… it went viral, but the amount of hatred, the amount of hate speech targeted at me was shocking. There was three days of hell,” said the Minister of State with responsibility for Disability.

She said the post was shared, even by local representatives, with horrible comments made about her across a number of platforms, with some stating that Rabbitte is on sleeping tablets.

Rabbitte said she always thought the people that shared such posts or write such hatred were “bots” but she said it is moving away from that when you have other elected representatives sharing such things online.

She said the ramifications and the fallout from a personal credibility and integrity point of view is “unbelievable”, with no recourse to defend yourself.

When abuse reaches such a level and is targeted at you, Rabbitte says you begin to ask “do I feel safe?”. 

“No I do not,” she said.

“I did not feel safe that weekend, the level of nastiness, I just call it nastiness. I definitely would wonder why we do this job and where is it going next,” she said. 

“Play the ball but don’t play the man or the woman… for someone to actually have to level such abuse, to get your voice heard. That’s not democracy,” she said.

“You just need one hothead to blow a gasket,” she said. “I genuinely think it will just take one. So many people are in a vacuum of anti-establishment, anti-politician, those are the ones I am worried will act out. 

She said there is a duty on social media platforms to protect public representatives. 

“When I say protect, I mean a fair bit of balance. They have a different weighting on us. As a public representative I’m expected to take more. I didn’t sign up to this job for that. I give respect and I show respect, I was always reared with those core values but those core values are totally eroded on social media platforms. When they’re railroaded on any platform, it spills out into the wider community, and that’s what you see with Leo [Varadkar] that’s what he’s experiencing. 

“I do wonder if I was ‘one of the lads’ would I get as much of it? I just don’t know,” she said. Rabbitte also wished that those online spouting such vitrioloic abuse towards their public reps would remember they are people, many of which have families and children. 

“We have to be portrayed that we’re actually human beings, we’re not shit on everybody’s shoes,” she said.

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