Photo credit: Sinn Féin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0

Hate Speech: The opposition and media’s dereliction of duty

One of the reasons Irish politics has been so stable for the guts of a century, with very little ideological divide between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, is because of what one might term reflexive opposition.

That is to say that on all but the smallest range of issues – what to do about Northern Ireland, for example – the practical differences between the two then-dominant parties were wafer thin. This deficit in disagreement though was almost always counterbalanced by the fact that the opposition took its job seriously: If one party proposed something in Government, the other would find a reason to oppose it in opposition. In this way, the two parties managed to secure most of the votes of the country without ever really disagreeing on a matter of substance, and by confining their criticisms to practicality and competence.

The emergence of what we might call the left opposition – Sinn Fein, Labour, the Social Democrats, and People before Profit – has made Irish politics undoubtedly more ideological. But it may also have broken it, fundamentally.

Others have written here at length, as has yours truly, about the many reasons that the hate speech bill is bad legislation. What few have noted is that it is also objectively unpopular: When asked about it in polls, more than half of voters oppose the idea.

And yet, it will sail through with the support of every political party bar Aontú.

Objectively, this is a missed opportunity for Sinn Fein. As we have seen in recent weeks with the Niall Collins affair, the party is at its best when it is appealing to the idea that it is anti-establishment and that a vote for it represents a rebellion against the old kind of go-along-to-get-along consensus politics. Many of its voters are deeply suspicious not only of the policy of the Government, but of its character. This hate speech bill is an idea that is primed for an attack on the Government’s character – they want to criminalise opposition. It is a criticism that has the benefit of being true, as well as wounding.

Raging against a law that restricts civil liberties would barely cost Sinn Fein a single vote and would likely win it many more than it ultimately lost. At a stroke, the party could burnish its anti-establishment credentials and win friends and transfers amongst the large cohort of voters who want the Government out, but struggle to find an alternative. People before Profit have recognised that, unusually for them. Sinn Fein have not.

The role of the opposition in a parliamentary democracy is not simply to oppose everything – Governments have majorities as a rule and if the Government wants to pass something, it can. Good opposition, though, forces the Government to address the flaws in its ideas. Having to explain themselves to voters forces the same outcome. Because we have an opposition that won’t oppose, we now have a Government that does not need to explain, and can get away with lazy and bad legislation.

Take for example the clause in the hate speech bill, highlighted by my colleague Gary yesterday, that says that the state can compel a person to hand over the passwords to their phones or other devices on pain of imprisonment – simply for the fact of being suspected of holding on to “hate” material. This is an egregious attack on civil liberties because it essentially compels a person to provide evidence against themselves: This is exactly what the infamous US 5th amendment prohibits. If the state suspects you of a crime, it need no longer investigate it – it can simply force you to hand over the evidence that may convict you.

Or take for another example the clause that says that hate need not be objective, but subjective: You do not need to have said something that is hateful, you simply need to have said something that somebody somewhere might find hateful. You end up being convicted not because of your own opinion, but because of someone else’s opinion. Again, this is an extraordinary attack on your basic rights to a defence: If 99 people out of 100 think you are innocent, that may not be enough on its own, because of how the law is written. The Jury need not find that what you said was hateful, they must simply agree that someone else might find it hateful. It is outrageous.

And yet, the Government need not account for these flaws because the opposition does not force them to. This is a broken system, and it is certain to result in bad legislation.

The same is true, evidently, of the press: There are many reasons that explain the media’s muted coverage of the hate speech bill – ideological sympathy with it; a sense that nobody wants to be seen to defend, say, Gemma O’Doherty; a basic lack of understanding of what the bill says; or the fear that taking sides against a political and NGO lobby that is the country’s largest employer of ex-journalists just isn’t a smart play.

Whatever the reason, the media’s role in a democracy is to highlight contentious issues and potential problems in legislation, and facilitate a two way conversation between the rulers, and the ruled. In this case, that conversation is basically non-existent. Again, the result will be flawed legislation.

In many ways, I think the situation for the public would actually be much better if Government and Opposition were reversed. We would have a better chance of an actual debate, because there remain some Government TDs who would feel more liberated to criticise this bill from the opposition benches, and we have a media much more comfortable criticising Sinn Fein than it is criticising the Government.

But for now, we’re stuck with this. It poses the question, though: If the opposition can’t do their job in opposition, what makes anyone think they’d do it in Government?

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