Violent words beget violent actions

By and large, Ireland is a tolerant country, spared the worst excesses of polarisation that have blighted post-Brexit Britain and the US after Trump. There has, however, been a creeping slide towards ugly extremism in the last couple of years, and this is seen most clearly in efforts by agri-industrial pressure groups and their political cheerleaders to demonise environmental defenders. This hasn’t happened by accident, but what I have found so astonishing is how little media traction or even political comment this has attracted. Were these same level of abuse being aimed at women, immigrants, the travelling community or almost any other sector you care to name, there would be thundering editorials and current affairs programmes and phone-in shows calling this out. There are, however, no consequences whatever for attacking people whose only ‘vested interest’ is in fighting climate change and biodiversity loss, as I discussed in the Irish Examiner in late February.

THE VITRIOL being aimed at public representatives was explored on the Late Late Show recently, when TDs Holly Cairns and Neasa Hourigan told of the sustained and often deeply misogynistic abuse they received.

At the weekend, junior minister Anne Rabbitte described the trauma for her and fellow TD Ciaran Cannon of being pelted with a bag of cow dung at a public meeting in Galway last month. Rabbitte says she is now limiting her public appearances as a result.

Holly Cairns described being left “absolutely terrified” when online harassment turned into a stalker showing up at her home in an isolated rural area. “Is it the way discourse in social media, you called it the wild west, is that seeping out into society in the way that we see people behave?”, she asked rhetorically. Words have consequences.

Ireland has to date been largely spared the more extreme political polarisation that has swept both Britain and the US in recent years, but it is equally clear that we are not immune from such radicalisation. While much of it emanates from anonymous online figures, a surprising amount comes from a small number of public representatives.

Early last year, a senior EU Commission official hit out at the ongoing attacks on environmental defenders, a pattern he described as “highly unusual to witness in an advanced society like Ireland”.

The official, Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea oversees governance, enforcement and compliance on EU environmental legislation, and expressed the Commission’s concern at Ireland’s “increasingly aggressive stance” against environmental defenders.

His comments are understood to relate to sustained political attacks by rural TDs on environmental NGOs, specifically An Taisce, Ireland’s national trust, with the Fine Gael group calling for its state funding to be withdrawn, arising from its opposition to a cheese plant being built in Co. Kilkenny.

Ciobanu-Dordea noted that Ireland is “the most expensive member state in which to make an environmental claim before the courts”.

There was little or no political or media reaction to his comments. One can only imagine what the EU Commission will have made of the apoplectic response to an advance copy of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientific report on land use and forestry.

Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice described the report as an attempt at “ethnic cleansing of the agricultural community”, adding that it would do more damage to rural Ireland than Oliver Cromwell.

Another TD, Michael Collins said the report was a “vicious strike against the heart of rural Ireland and should be incinerated”. The latter phrase was repeated by TD, Mattie McGrath.

There “will be an uprising in rural Ireland if the Government were to do anything like this, rural Ireland would revolt”, warned Irish Farmers Association president, Tim Cullinan.

Dialling the rhetoric up several notches was Dermot Kelleher, president of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association who claimed that “a small cabal of unrepresentative but noisy activists were salivating at the prospect of ripping out the heart of economic activity in Ireland”. Yes, salivating.

The future, Kelleher added, was an “insane vision of a tiny minority where wolves would roam a rural wasteland and consumers would be forced to eat insect protein and fake burgers”. All this hysteria, remember, was in response to a single draft scientific report.

To balance this article, I should now be able to list off multiple instances of incendiary ad hominem attacks by environmental NGOs on farmers, but frankly they are the absolute exception, not the rule.

The reason agriculture is in the firing line has nothing to do with vendettas; it is because total emissions have shot up by a fifth in just the last decade, due mainly to dairy intensification, while excessive use of nitrates has led to sharp declines in river and estuary water quality, with livestock agriculture identified as the chief source.

Further, biodiversity loss is intensifying, with sharp falls in populations of farmland birds in particular, while annually, thousands of kilometres of hedgerows are being destroyed. Meanwhile, burning and overgrazing is devastating the ecology of upland areas.

These are the painful facts. Rather than set out a plan on how to address them, we are seeing instead wave after wave of outrage, with inflammatory language being brandished rather than viable solutions.

Lacking cogent arguments on how they can actually reduce emissions and boost biodiversity, agri leaders and their political supporters resort instead to culture wars and repeatedly playing the victim card.

I spoke face to face with Michael Fitzmaurice on the Tonight Show on Virgin TV last week, and pointed out to him that the term “ethnic cleansing” explicitly relates to the mass expulsion, persecution or killing of ethnic or religious groups.

I added that such words have consequences and could well lead to violent actions. Regrettably, Fitzmaurice rejected my request that he retract his deeply offensive statement about “ethnic cleansing”, choosing instead to double down.

If the ugly rhetoric outlined here is tolerated and normalised, it is only a matter of time before there are tragic outcomes, and it will by then be too late to ask why nobody shouted stop.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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