The great paradox of modern Ireland is that the more power Irish liberals acquire, the more illiberal they become. We had, yesterday, a collection of taxpayer funded NGO’s in to visit the Oireachtas committee on Housing and Local Government, which is responsible for how Ireland runs its elections, amongst other things. Kitty Holland picks up the story of how it went, for the Irish Times:
Election candidates who use racism, sexism or other hate speech should be automatically removed from the race, an Oireachtas committee heard on Tuesday.
Bernard Joyce, director of the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM), said a “beefed-up” electoral commission should be empowered to impose “strong sanctions” to prevent to use of hate speech for political gain.
The ITM, the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) and the National Youth Council (NYCI) were addressing the committee on housing and local government on increasing voter participation among under-represented groups. The committee is continuing pre-legislative scrutiny of the Electoral Reform Bill 2020.
You can call us old-fashioned, here at Gript, but we had long been under the impression that it was the job of the voters to adjudicate on which candidates were suitable for election, and not the job of the Irish Traveller Movement, the Irish Women’s Council, or the National Youth Council.
Under this proposal, you simply would not be allowed to vote for certain candidates, if our NGO friends had declared that their rhetoric was racist. And, perhaps, some of you might be tempted to say – “is that really such a bad idea?”.
After all, if a candidate was to seek election, for example, on a platform of stripping citizenship away from travellers, or Jews, or Muslims, should a civilised society run even the slightest risk that such a candidate might win? And might such a candidate, even if they did not win, not increase the acceptability of anti-traveller, or anti-jew, or anti-muslim racism in society? Better to head them off at the pass, this thinking goes, and kick them off the ballot paper altogether.
The problem, of course, and as always, is this: Who gets to decide what is racist?
The answer, as ever, to questions like that, is “the people pushing for the law to be enacted”. If we cast our mind back to the most recent Presidential Election, during which one candidate – Peter Casey – made comments that were construed by some in the media to be anti-traveller. The NGOs representing travellers were, at that time, at the forefront of the accusations that Casey’s remarks were racist.
So that poses an obvious question: Under this proposal, would Casey not have to be removed from the ballot paper?
And if he was removed, given that he received in excess of one fifth of all the votes cast, are we not essentially saying that a fifth of the population is not entitled to have its voice heard in our democracy?
For liberals concerned about Casey’s comments, it is worth recalling that the man received only a fifth of the vote. A majority ultimately cast their preferences for our geriatric, left wing icon, incumbent President. That would appear to suggest, if one is concerned about alleged racism, that the present system works fine.
There’s also a bigger problem though, and it is this: It is healthy in a democracy for candidates to be able to speak freely about their beliefs without fear of legal sanction. Imagine a situation where a candidate feared to speak freely because of fear of being removed from the ballot paper. Such a candidate would naturally be very careful about what he, or she, said. But being careful about what you say is not the same as changing your mind, or your beliefs. The risk of electing somebody who will enact racist policies remains unchanged. The only thing that changes is that the voters will have less of a warning before making their decisions.
What is more – where is the limiting principle to this proposal? For example, is a candidate also responsible for what their campaigners tell people on the doorstep? If a Fine Gael or Sinn Fein canvasser tells a voter that they agree that there are too many immigrants in Ireland, or something like that, is the candidate responsible? On a practical level, it does not work.
At the most fundamental level though, having tried to write calmly about this for 739 words up to this point: Who do these people think they are? In a democracy, everybody is entitled to seek election. Everybody is allowed to make their case. And voters are entitled to render their own judgment on the candidates. Usually what happens, after all, is that we listen to the debate, and then go out to vote for the fella whose father was a good TD for the area.
This is being presented, of course, as a protection for our democracy. But who are we protecting our democracy from?
The answer, dear reader, is you. These taxpayer funded NGOs, who have immense access to the halls of power, do not trust you, the voter, to get it right. And they want to limit your choices, in case you should ever make a wrong choice.
If we had TDs with any common sense or dignity, those who made this proposal would have been told to take a running jump yesterday. But they were not, of course, because you voters elected people who are scared of our NGOs. Which is ironic, really.