Hall burning and the failure of civil society…

There’s a piece in to today’s Irish News about the police investigation into comments left on Slugger on one of the more recent threads on what increasingly looks like a campaign against property owned by the Orange Order. A spokesman for the Order said: “We are surprised that a website with such a good reputation allowed its space to be used by people supporting and encouraging the attacks and actually singling out a property to be targeted”. It seems to me there are two questions raised by this issue.Slugger has a good reputation because we actively encourage people from all sides of the debate to engage in full muscular political debate. Our bloggers (right across the political piste) tend towards the factual rather than the gossipy. And generally the standard of debate is high compared to similarly popular sites in Britain and the States. Such pluralism has to allow for a considerable discomfort zone.

The only way that kind of freedom can be practically sustained is by not pre-moderating comments. This is a priniciple adopted by individual blogs and large media groups alike. The priniciple is that a comment stays unless there is a specific reason for it to be removed. Commenters are asked to ‘play the ball, and not the man’, which generally helps focus minds on content, and away from personal badinage.

The comment concerned was removed once it had been brought to our attention. The police investigation will no doubt decide what the best way to proceed. It may have been serious, or a badly failed attempt at dark online humour. Either way, it flags up something that seems to have gone unnoticed by some on the wilder shore of the Internet Commentariat. The law is closing in on the licence to say ‘whatever you damned well please’.

As a recent ruling on a Sheffield Wednesday fan site suggests, if some commenters think egregious remarks only put the site owner in jeopardy, they may have to think again.

This is all difficult territory. One of the great things about the net is that it gives a voice to people who otherwise might remain voiceless in the mainstream media. Indeed have no problem with the thought of going to court to defend someone a point of priniciple. But anyone using their annonymity to make scurillous attacks on others should beware that such anonymity is a severely limited commodity in the face of the law.

That said, there is also the issue we were trying to cover under ‘hostile fire’: this campaign against property belonging to the Orange Order and other Loyal Institutions. What’s most disturbing is that is more and more indicative of a low level persecution of a minority population, every bit as disturbing as the targetting of GAA grounds in the 1990s.

At its best Northern Irish civil society (Catholic and Protestant) is impressive in action. Whether it be in the mutual support support mechanisms of Credit Unions, the youth and vigour of sports clubs, the care with which they see one another into and out of life, or the impressive levels of voluntary overseas aid.

But, in the background, there is something nasty going on. Orange Halls, particularly in rural areas, are also centres around which otherwise often isolated Protestant families congregate. In Protestant majority areas, their ecumenism often extends to inclusion of Catholics on the roster of those renting its space.

Certainly this campaign is mostly (with some spectacular exceptions like the near demolition of a hall in Pomeroy) low level, and unlikely to be being encouraged by local majority populations. Sinn Fein councillor Dessie Ward has rightly suggested it is being conducted by people who wish to drag us all back to the past.

But that this ‘campaign’ (that no one will own up to running it doesn’t mean doesn’t exist) has continued virtually unabated for three years now is an indictment, not of the Orange Order, but of the lack of solidarity with those minority Protestant populations.

Whatever the strong feelings many have about the Orange Order; that is nothing short of a disgrace.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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