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Emptying out the Public Square in Ireland
Every week we hear of more plans to restrict and control political expression, and more proposed consequences for stepping out of line
There is an ongoing push, through government but supported with varying degrees of explicitness by all mainstream political parties, respectable media and NGOs, to narrow the space of acceptable political expression in Ireland; and to ensure whatever political expression does occur is in a style that is most congenial to the system and the people who work its levers.
On any given week you can scroll through your news feed and pick out a variety of stories to support this analysis. Here are two from this week:
A bunch of NGOs got together to tell the government that anyone who uses language they don’t like should be barred from election. This was at a general meeting of NGOs to discuss “voter participation among under-represented groups.” The specific person who made this demand is from an NGO that is 97% funded by the government, so there is a philosophical question of whether it’s an NGO saying this, or the government, or if there’s any practical difference between the two.
The Government announced that legislation will be introduced to allow Guards to demand passwords to mobile devices and access to social media when executing search warrants. The context for this is the intensive policing of “outdoor summer”, the stream of initiatives from Gardaí and Government to “combat hate” including hate speech laws, the reporting of “non-crime hate incidents,” and the stated position of Drew Harris that they are actively looking to investigate and arrest people who insist on having the wrong opinions.
I think it’s ok in relation to some aspect of either story to think “well, I kind of agree with that”. I am a little torn about the Gardaí one because I can think of certain child-protection cases where I would want police to get immediate access to someone’s phone. But the important thing is to zoom out and understand them as part of a larger effort, and notice the trend. The inputs of these stories are always sensitive cultural topics, particularly immigration, and technology. The output is a pre-emptively reduced space in which to discuss those issues.
The direction of travel is never the other way and you couldn’t piece together a story that Ireland is gradually “opening up” freedom of political expression to encompass more views and more people. The stories are never that the government has decided to start funding a Civil-Liberties NGO that will hold them to account where rights are being curtailed; or that new laws are being introduced to ensure the privacy of online communications; or that they are seeking ways to better protect fringe political speech.
Unfortunately you are left to pick up the individual threads and tie it together yourself, because press coverage of these stories tend to facilitate the restrictive push through both omission (i.e. by simply not discussing these things, or by focusing on the factual details of individual stories rather than the wider implications) and activism (cheerleading for the changes in the guise of objective reporting).
Ireland isn’t unique in introducing these constraints, though we’re both unusually active and unusually complacent (on the part of the public) about it. Our country isn’t a tyranny but there’s plenty of space between tyranny and freedom for our society’s managers to do all kinds of rotten and sinister things we shouldn’t be happy about.
To the extent that there are lessons to take from this, I suggest two. The first is that the systemic failure on the part of the media to provide critical oversight and inquiry into the pattern of restriction has created an opening for anyone who can present themselves as professional and reasonable to become a replacement respectable media; and direct communication with audiences via social media provides a mechanism to fill that gap. I don’t love everything they do but the relative success of Gript points to this, and I’d expect that to continue.
(It’s worth noting that something similar has happened in the US – there are particular types of worthwhile story the new York Times or Washington Post can’t be relied on to cover effectively for ideological reasons, such as youth gender transition, and right wing outlets have grown in popularity and prestige by filling that gap.)
The second lesson is that after any election, we may hear discussion of who Irish people will and won’t vote for – a given result shows there are certain political stances or types that they simply won’t entertain, that there’s no market for this or that approach. How can we know that’s the case? Every week another step is taken to fence off a particular part of the public square, or to ensure that whoever has access to it uses that access in a style the existing system can handle. It’s not clear to me if Irish people know about this stuff and don’t care, or haven’t put two and two together because no one has presented them with the facts. I’m inclined to think it’s a little of both. But if you hope for a political system that will facilitate the discussion of a wider range of issues, the least you can say is that you can’t rule it out while the government at standing at the entrance to the public square, bouncing anyone they don’t like the look of. So who knows what the future holds? A meagre hope, but that’s where we’re at.