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Wednesday 27 September 2023 Dublin: 16°C
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'Paddy Cosgrave was wrong to invite Le Pen - and wrong to use Northern Ireland in his justification'
David McCann, an expert on the politics of peace, can not equate Marine Le Pen with the stakeholders of Northern Ireland.

I WATCHED WITH interest the debate around the Web Summit’s decision to invite – then rescind – an invitation for Front National leader Marine Le Pen to speak.

In 2018, debates around free speech and censorship abound in political discourse but I wanted to outline why I thought the original reasons for the invite were wrong.

Paddy Cosgrave, writing last night on why he believed Le Pen should be given a platform, referenced Northern Ireland and placed particular emphasis on the broadcasting ban that was used against members of Sinn Fein.

I would just note a couple of things.

There is no censorship of Le Pen

As far as I am aware Le Pen is under no such broadcasting ban.

Her party attracted European wide attention throughout the first half of 2017 as the French presidential election took place. She and her supporters are free to articulate their views across many different platforms. That was not the case for Sinn Fein during the 1980s and 1990s, as they were shut out from any mainstream broadcasters. Le Pen on the other hand has endured no such censorship.

Another wrong parallel with our own context is this. Northern Ireland was in the grips of a conflict, where many different actors played a role. Parties like Sinn Fein were embraced, but it’s important to remember this largely happened only when they embraced peaceful means.

Gerry Adams on the Late Late

People such as Albert Reynolds were not handing Gerry Adams a blank cheque; rather they were intent on ensuring that the project of ending violence was supported. Even when that happened, I would direct readers’ attention to the first time that Adams appeared on the Late Late Show. On that occasion, he had to face a panel of critics and defend his views.

The Good Friday Agreement was achieved through talks – that much is true. But it was achieved by people who were fundamentally committed to reform and to changing their ways. The IRA and the UVF during the previous years had taken steps, through ceasefires and a subsequent declaration of decommissioning, to demonstrate this commitment.

In later years, Sinn Fein signed up to support the PSNI, met Queen Elizabeth and committed to a referendum policy on Irish unity. In pure policy terms we can point to a change in behaviour.

We can point to little change in the Front National aside from an attempt to promote a softer image.

National Front is not leading the ‘Opposition’

Since the 2017 French presidential election, when the party and Le Pen herself were under direct scrutiny, their fortunes have fallen. At the parliamentary election they won just eight seats, scoring just 13% of the vote. In contrast, another outsider movement, En Marche, won 350 seats, taking 32% of the vote. In both the presidential and parliamentary elections this new party has proven far more representative of the values of the people of France than the FN.

Le Pen is neither the Leader of the Opposition or even the head of the third party.  In fact, the Front National brand is so poorly regarded amongst French voters they’ve had to change their name.

In an age of political turbulence and the rise of the far right, it can be difficult to think about how we engage with their supporters. But we need to think about what voices are present to speak to the concerns they have.

Le Pen is not the answer to a high quality debate

How do we ensure that we produce a high quality debate? One thing I am certain of is that Le Pen is not the answer.

In the end, the decision to rescind her invitation was the right one. In an age of hot political debate and fake news, we need to all focus our minds on creating high quality debates about the serious challenges we face. Politicians like Le Pen don’t present solutions, merely scapegoats.

In Northern Ireland, serious men and women debated and talked to one another to achieve a noble goal, by doing so we achieved our peace process.

If you draw any lesson from our experience, it needs to be that.

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from the University of Ulster, is a lecturer and deputy editor of political website Slugger O’Toole.

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