Varadkar lashes out at ‘cowardly’ anonymous trolls on social media


Leo Varadkar said he is ‘very reluctant’ to curtail free speech

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has hit out at “cowardly” social media users who abuse people using “the cloak of anonymity”.

The use of social media in political circles has been under scrutiny in the wake of the Jobstown trial and separately the cautioning by gardaí of a woman for messages criticising Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty.

However, Mr Varadkar told the Irish Independent he is more concerned about the impact online activities can have on children.

“I see the level of abuse. I think the way women and children are treated on social media really doesn’t say very much about our society.

“No matter what the issue, we should be able to conduct ourselves in a way that’s decent, polite and respectful.

“That isn’t always the case,” he said.

The Taoiseach said his Government will have “to examine the options” in terms of limiting the opportunities for cyber-bullying – but said he’d be “very reluctant to do anything that curtails free speech”.

“What I think we should try to develop is a society where we are respectful to each other, where we can have arguments that are based on the facts. Not on attacking people’s character or them personally.

“I don’t think I’d like to use the full force of the law though to restrict free speech. I think that may have other consequences.”

Communications Minister Denis Naughten is currently considering the introduction of a Digital Commissioner and has set up a forum with industry players like Facebook and Twitter.

Mr Varadkar said social media is having “a huge effect” on the mental health of young people. “You can’t escape cyber-bullying. In the past, if a kid was being bullied or harassed in school they could hide from it. At the very least, they could hide from it.

“They could either go home or go somewhere quiet away from people. But now it follows you around. It’s there on your phone and on your computer screen.

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“I think that has an impact on people’s mental health and not in a positive way.”

He said politicians have to expect “a certain level of abuse” if they are willing to put their picture up on lampposts.

“That is often reflected online. It’s worse online and on social media because people can use the cloak of anonymity.

“To me, that’s cowardly but that’s the way people behave,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar has also spoken about his first month in office, admitting his appointment was somewhat overshadowed by the selection of former attorney general Máire Whelan as a judge in the Court of Appeal.

Asked whether he believes Enda Kenny was happy to leave him the ‘landmine’, he replied: “I don’t know. You’d have to ask the former Taoiseach that one.

“It would be disingenuous of me to try and somehow wash my hands of that decision. It was a decision of the Cabinet. It wasn’t a decision of Enda Kenny or Frances Fitzgerald.

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“I was there at the Cabinet table when we made that decision and I didn’t object to it. I’m not going to somehow wash my hands of it.”

Mr Varadkar said having gardaí follow him everywhere for security reasons “is a big change”.

“It does make it easier to get around the place. On the other hand, it can be a little bit claustrophobic. It’s nice to have your privacy and engage people.

“Having higher office and having security sets you apart a little bit more than I would like,” he said.