by David Raleigh
THE potential for being attacked during tense encounters with members of the public, which can be recorded and shared millions of times across social media channels, has become a “real danger” for politicians, according to Limerick Fianna Fáil TD, Willie O’Dea.
Deputy O’Dea (68), a former Minister for Defence, was speaking in the wake of the murder of Conservative MP Sir David Amess (69), in Essex, last Friday.
Mr Amess, who was stabbed to death by a man as he conducted a constituency surgery in Leigh-on-Sea, is the second British MP to be murdered in similar circumstances in recent years. In 2016, Labour MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death by a man outside a library where she was preparing to hold one of her clinics.
Ms Cox’s sister, Labour MP Kim Leadbeater, told reporters that following Mr Amess’s death, her partner has asked her to stand down out of fear for her safety.
Deputy O’Dea revealed he has been subjected to a number of recent “vulgar” verbal attacks while walking the streets of his native Limerick city, with “people literally screaming at you on the street, or maybe inside in a pub when you went in”.
Deputy O’Dea said the advancement of social media, and cameras in mobile phones, has contributed to the erosion of personal boundaries and making politicians an easy target for unfair public ridicule or worse.
“Some of them have got quite aggressive, a couple of them have approached me in the street and abused me roundly, and you are always concerned that they might resort to physical violence,” said the Limerick TD.
“It is just another occupational hazard now. It goes with the job, and now because of a changed media environment – in particular social media – it has become a real danger.”
“There is no way you can protect yourself and there’s no way you can insulate yourself, it’s not possible anymore.”
The murder of David Amess has opened up a conversation around the potential for security guards or police officers to be stationed outside MP’s surgeries to keep politicians safe.
Deputy O’Dea said he believes such a suggestion here “wouldn’t be very popular with the public at the moment who (already) have a fairly jaundiced view of politicians”.
However, noting the killings of MPs Cox and Amess, he said, “if it keeps on going this way it could arrive (in Ireland), but its not something I would envisage at the moment”.
Deputy O’Dea described both murders as “worrying” for politicians, no matter where they are, and that it could lead to other politicians being targeted in copy-cat killings.
“It is worrying, (because) people who are not too stable read and hear about these things, and sometimes they can get ideas on just hearing what happened elsewhere,” said Deputy O’Dea.
“To have security guards around you would be very constraining, I think, and as I say it would be a last resort. My own opinion is that, thankfully we haven’t arrived at that stage yet in this country.”
Deputy O’Dea said, prior to mobile phone cameras, people used to “intervene” if they witnessed someone being abused or attacked on the street, “but the first reaction now by people seems to be to video-record it and to put it out on social media in an effort to embarrass you, which is a very sad reflection on the way society has travelled”.
“In latter years it has certainly tended to happen more than I would like,” he said.
Last week, while walking at night, along O’Connell Street, Limerick city, Deputy O’Dea was approached by a number of men.
The incident, which appeared to look like an tense altercation, was recorded and shared on social media.
Afterwards, Deputy O’Dea played down the incident explaining that the men turned out to be “exuberant” supporters who attempted to lift him up, that he lost his balance, and pushed off one of the men — however, he said he initially thought that the men were “attacking” him.
When he is not on Dáil business in Dublin, Deputy O’Dea is a familiar sight walking around Limerick city between his local constituency clinics and other appointments.
He said he has become hyper-aware that, due to camera phones, he may find himself at any time in the middle of a tense interaction with a member of the public, which is then shared online to further ridicule from keyboard warriors.
“Absolutely, you’re conscious of it every time you go out for a drink, and when you’re out on the street you’re conscious of it, because social media has certainly coarsened political debate in this country, and it has stirred up quite a lot of animosity towards politicians”.
“(They) walk along beside you in the street and start abusing you with the camera running on their phone, to pick up your reaction, if you were foolish enough to react.”
“It’s outrageous stuff, it’s a terrible invasion of privacy and it’s beyond the pale, yet some people feel they’re entitled to do it.”
He said a debate “about social media and the effect it is having on democracy and other aspects of life, will definitely have to be done at an international level”.
“Recently, we saw where 136 countries were able to get together and move very fast on corporation tax when it suited them; It seems extraordinary that a more serious issue, like democracy itself, that these countries can’t seem to get together as quickly and get their act together and do something collectively.”