Belfast Telegraph

No excuse for cowardly attacks

Editor's Viewpoint

Winston Churchill neatly summed up the brutality of political life. Politics, he said, are almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times. That is a view that the SDLP candidate in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminster constituency, John Coyle, can fully subscribe to.

First of all he died a death during a poor performance in a live BBC NI television debate. That, in turn, sparked a vicious tirade of abuse by trolls on Twitter which reduced the 29-year-old to tears.

Politicians have to develop a thick skin, for they can often be subjected to very bitter attacks. That is a given and anyone entering any poll can expect criticism, not only from their political opponents but also from the public at large.

The Fermanagh/South Tyrone constituency is one of the most sharply divided and closely fought in Northern Ireland, and given the murderous history of the area during the Troubles, no quarter will be given or asked for during this or any other election campaign.

Yet there are lines which should not be crossed. Politicians are fair game to be attacked on their policies or their records but decency demands that criticism should not be of a personal nature unless the behaviour of the candidate is pertinent to the debate.

That is a distinction that social media not so much blurs as tramples all over. Technology like Facebook or Twitter can be immensely useful for parties in their attempts to connect with potential voters, especially the young. But it also allows those whose every utterance seems to be laced with venom an undesirable level of freedom of expression. That is not good for politics.

A frequent complaint is that the majority of our leading politicians have been around for decades. Voters have grown old listening to them. However, the experience of John Coyle will not help entice young able people to enter the rough and tumble of political life here. It may especially impact on the willingness of more women to join the parties, leading to a continuation of female under-representation, most evident in the unionist parties, but a problem for practically every political group.

His television performance may not have been John Coyle's finest hour, but the attacks on him from anonymous trolls via social media were cowardly and disgraceful.

Belfast Telegraph


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