Two weeks ago a young man named John Coyle entered a TV studio to put his case, as part of a panel, to the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
This is not a target seat for his party, the SDLP, and it was evident he was not prepped as he is not a key candidate this time around; this was unfortunate, because in a fit of selfish lunacy one of his senior colleagues, Alex Attwood, had contrived to forget Mr Coyle’s name when quizzed about the constituency.
Given all of this, Mr Coyle managed admirably. He came across as a genuine young man doing his civic duty. In a democracy, why not?
He was then subjected to a barrage of abuse from Twitter trolls purporting to be supporters of Sinn Féin, the current incumbent’s party. In fairness, it has to be said, that party’s local representatives acted swiftly to quash the activity, to the extent much of it was deleted. Nevertheless, evident and totally unnecessary harm was done to a young man whose only offence was participating in democracy.
This is far from the only example of what is, in fact, a totally unacceptable level of bile and abuse levelled at people who are merely *candidates*, nothing else!
Like her colleague Naomi Long next door, my wife Paula Bradshaw is a big girl. She has worked in the inner city for over a decade. However, it bears mentioning that she is a full-time working mother who, like Mr Coyle, now has additional Council commitments as well as hobbies and so on. On top of all this family, professional and civic activity (unlike all her main rivals who are full-time politicians), she is a candidate for election.
I do not know how many communications she receives daily purely in the candidate capacity, but I am sure it is over 100. Most are respectful, some are exceedingly kind – yet some exude vitriolic bile.
This bile is not personal; usually it is directed equally at all the candidates. Yet it is time we recognised it to be totally unacceptable in a civilised democracy. Candidates – particularly those not holding office in the area from which the bile originates – are frankly entitled not to be subject to straightforward nasty communication.
Underlying all of this is the notion that someone putting their experience and ideas forward for office suddenly becomes – even while still a full-time working mother – public property… and not just public property, but public property to be freely abused and ranted at by complete strangers.
Freedom of speech is a fundamental right of course – but with that right comes responsibility. It is not quite good enough to say “ah well, you just have to have a thick skin”. Actually, why? Why must someone voluntarily putting themselves forward for election to office in a peaceful liberal democracy be subject to any form of wanton abuse? We would not accept physical abuse against them, so why is verbal abuse acceptable?
Fundamentally, Mr Coyle was the victim of bullying. He’ll get over it, but we have to recognise it is unacceptable, even (indeed particularly) in the democratic arena which is supposed to be an arena for exchange of ideas, not vitriol.
All the candidates putting themselves forward for election deserve respect for doing so – particularly those having to fit responses to hundreds of items of communication in between full-time work and family commitments plus canvassing. Let us show that respect – and call those out who do not.