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Malcolm Byrne: I worry we are entering a Trumpian era of divided politics in Ireland

The Fianna Fáil senator says recent events have convinced him that political discourse has changed and that a place for considered compromise must now be found in Irish politics.

Malcolm Byrne

THE RECENT US elections highlighted how polarised American politics has become. There is not just disagreement between Republicans and Democrats but a visceral dislike of representatives from the ‘other side’.

Much of this them and us approach has been fuelled by social media, with the tech giants doing little to address the growing division as it keeps them at the centre of debate and their advertising revenue flowing.

In a battle of the tweets and memes, there is little scope for evidence-based policy discussion or reflective debate. Donald Trump’s greatest legacy may be that he has helped reduce political engagement to 280 characters.

But we shouldn’t fool ourselves that the politics of polarisation and lowest common denominator debate is exclusive to the United States.

Trumpian politics here?

The events of the last week have convinced me that we are entering a Trumpian era of divided politics in Ireland.

There were two opportunistic debates in the Houses of the Oireachtas this week. One was called by Sinn Féin about Leo Varadkar sharing the proposed GP contract with a friend; the other called by Fine Gael about Sinn Féin using UK legislation to avoid being answerable for a political donation from an unusual source of over €4.5m.

Both of these questions are serious issues – they go to the heart of how our democracy functions. The actions need to be addressed. But the debates, for the most part, were not about the substantive issues that they raised.

This was an opportunity for battlelines to be drawn and the rehearsed lines and soundbites to be delivered – and more importantly, for the armies of unquestioning social media loyalists to go to war.

It would suit both parties to clear everyone else out of the way and prepare for a head-to-head, divisive confrontation on the political battlefield in the years ahead.

The no-confidence motion

Sinn Féin TD Chris Andrews made clear in a tweet that the purpose of their no-confidence motion was not about the issue at hand but rather about making Fianna Fáil TDs feel uncomfortable supporting Leo Varadkar.

For parties in the political centre, including Fianna Fáil, this does make life difficult. As a party that believes in political compromise and appealing to those with different shades of opinion, operating in an increasingly black and white world poses challenges.

In the era of the short attention span, a nuanced policy position based on a “Shared Island” cannot compete with Sinn Féin slogans around a “Border Poll Now” nor can concepts around structured investment in public services compete with Fine Gael lines of “we will cut your taxes”.

It cannot be denied either that Fianna Fáil’s social media has not been at the races. We are a traditional broadsheet newspaper party competing with TikTok-savvy political operations.

But this discussion must be about more than just channels of political communication. It has to be about the nature of political debate in Ireland.

There is a dismissive attitude in Ireland to the idea that our society and politics could ever get as divisive as that in the United States. But growing evidence suggests otherwise. 

I would hazard that there are very few people in Ireland who could name every judge on our Supreme Court. I’d even be willing to bet that the majority of the population would struggle to name a single member, besides the one who has been in the news a lot this week. 

This is in contrast to the United States where not alone are judges known but their political views well studied and debated in the media and online. That could never happen here?

No opposing views allowed?

During the formation of the government earlier this year, there was speculation that the Green Party was to suggest one of their members who is a barrister as Attorney General. The story was untrue but it did not prevent a social media storm of anger because the individual had apparently voted against the repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

The suggestion that we could have an Attorney General who may have been pro-life riled sections of the Irish twitterati and also some in public life. Green TD Neasa Hourigan stated that “as an active Repeal campaigner, this would not be an acceptable appointment to me.”

I do not know the barrister concerned, but in the appointment of an Attorney General, I expect that the primary requirement is that they have sufficient legal expertise to advise the government.

Their personal views must not cloud their professional opinion – they cannot be the pro-life Attorney General, but it should not be a bar if they are an Attorney General who happens also to be pro-life (or pro-choice for that matter).

Where historically, we had shared public spaces for debate, there is increasingly a tendency to retreat into echo chambers. For those in politics, an individual is labelled as being from a particular camp and hence is assumed to have a particular set of views. 

Politics is supposed to be about compromise. It is about bringing different approaches and ideas together and getting agreement that best serves our society as a whole. It has to be about persuasion, about convincing others of the merits of your argument while at the same time being willing to move to achieve a greater goal.

Compromise vs tech-fuelled noise

The Good Friday Agreement and the Peace Process. The European Union. These are political compromises that offer more hope than the alternatives of war, division and tribes at each others’ throats. As ours is a democracy with proportional representation, it is a much fairer system of reflecting the public mood than a winner takes all approach.

No political party won a majority in February’s election yet there are some of the electorates who believe that their vote represents either the majority position or the only acceptable vote and they do not believe that the opinions of other voters hold the same weight as theirs.

The rise of the #notmytaoiseach hashtag was deeply concerning. If Mary Lou MacDonald were ever to form a government, having built a coalition and obtained a majority in our elected national parliament, I would recognise her as the leader of this country and wish her well in the role.

That does not mean that I would not interrogate and challenge her policies or actions, but I would not question her legitimacy in the office.

Technology is transforming our lives, mostly in positive ways, but I fear that in public discourse, it is ushering us into an era where we are more comfortable in the bubble of those with whom we share the same views and cheering when one of our “people” attack those in another bubble.

Recognition is given to the one who “stands up” to the other side, while scorn is reserved for those who believe in working toward a consensus. It will be interesting to read the comments section on this piece to see how many have actually engaged in the arguments as opposed to trotting out the same old personalised attacks.

A clever tweet is not a substitute for an evidence-based and well-researched policy paper or opinion piece. As a society, we have little concept of digital citizenship, including of how we should behave online (it should differ little to real life where we should seek to understand those with alternative views and engage in respectful debate).

The traditional media are subject to high levels of regulation and journalistic standards, particularly around the political debate, but social media has few standards (even self-regulation is minimal). 

Much journalism is increasingly behind paywalls, while you can get any opinion you want online. Collectively, we need to ensure that we can restore safe public spaces, including online, where ideas are debated and political engagement leading to solutions can be encouraged.

There is a part to be played by policymakers in regulation, but each of us (and I include myself) must reflect on what we can do to help achieve this objective. If we don’t, the very nature of our democracy is under threat.

We also need to celebrate the diversity of political opinion in Irish society and encourage co-operation between those of different viewpoints. ‘Crossing the aisle’ should be commended, not greeted with cries of treachery.

It will not be healthy if Irish political debate is reduced to a well-scripted bare-knuckle battle between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.

Malcolm Byrne is a Fianna Fáil Senator.

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