‘I have been threatened’: Paschal Donohoe says that he has experienced abuse in public life

Some 94% of politicians and 72% of political staff reported some form of threat, harassment, abuse or violence, new survey has found

The Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe has said that he has been threatened on occasion during his time in public life.

Mr Donohoe was speaking as a new survey of Oireachtas members and political staff has found that a vast majority of respondents have experienced some form of abuse.

Some 94 per cent of politicians and 72 per cent of political staff who took part in the survey reported that they experienced some form of threat, harassment, abuse or violence, according to a summary of the findings seen by The Irish Times.

Speaking on Wednesday Mr Donohoe said that this had happened on a very small number of occasions.

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He said threats and abuse directed at politicians was “a serious problem,  but it was one that was associated with a small minority of voters and people within the country.”

“I have been threatened. But I have been threatened on a very small number of occasions. The overwhelming amount of engagement with the public is as I hope it would be. While the intensity of those threats has, unfortunately, increased, the appreciation and recognition that people have of the role of politicians is unchanged.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying I am greeted with heroic levels of affection anywhere that I go.

“But we should not let the threats and attempts to intimidate from a very small number in our country and society colour our view about how politics is conducted overall.”

A UCD report on the survey on the abuse and harassment of TDs and Senators and their staff will be launched in Leinster House on Wednesday.

A separate report of the Taskforce on Safe Participation in Political Life, which was led by former Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, will also be published.

A total of 61 Oireachtas members, or 28 per cent of the 220 TDs and Senators, completed the survey as did 200 of the 580 political staff.

The most frequent types of abuse in relation to Oireachtas members was found to be abusive language (52 per cent) followed by prejudicial slurs (38 per cent); comments on physical appearance (35 per cent); and publication of false information (34 per cent).

Incidents of abuse resulted in 89 per cent of TDs and Senators that responded and 75 per cent of political staff reporting feeling anxious or afraid.

Mr Donohoe said there was “a small number of people that are angrier than they used be, who feel they have licence to say and do things that has not been the case  before”.

He suggested that this was “heightened by the pandemic”.

“The pandemic and those two years have left an imprint in our society that, I believe, have amplified an anger and feeling about the world from a very small number of people. I have had to contend with that.”

“But it comes from a small number of people and the overwhelming majority engage very civilly and really appropriately with politicians and if we don’t continue to acknowledge that, we are going to further diminish the number of people willing to come in to politics. And we will genuinely all be the poorer if we get to that point.”

Mr Donohoe said : “We need to protect politicians and our political system from the risks of that small number of people but continue to have an openness and an ability to engage with voters and I believe is a huge strength of Irish politics.”

In the report, it found that almost half of the politicians, 49 per cent, increased security at home while 28 per cent of political staff requested increased security at constituency offices.

Asked if any specific issues were related to the abuse experienced, Oireachtas members reported immigration (67 per cent); Women’s Rights (47 per cent); housing/homelessness (40 per cent); and LGBTQ+ issues (40 per cent).

Statistical tests also indicate a significant association between gender and type of abuse and “in particular, women members of the Oireachtas are more likely to experience digital harassment, to be subjected to prejudicial slurs, to be threatened with sexual violence, to be sexually harassed, to receive unwanted sexual approaches and sexually explicit messages, and more likely to receive comments on their appearance.”

One finding of the report is that more targeted efforts should be made to protect politicians from social media-enabled abuse.

The Irish Times previously reported that the findings of a draft of the report by Ms O’Sullivan’s taskforce including how tailored security services should be provided by gardaí to politicians and that the Oireachtas should set up a new social media-monitoring unit.

Ms O’Sullivan was appointed last summer to lead the cross-party taskforce designed to address the safety of politicians in Ireland, following reporting about the scale of abuse faced by politicians during the course of their work, particularly female politicians.

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