The Benefits of Free Speech

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It seems a little strange to have to use such a title when writing about an association that operates in two liberal democracies, both (for now at least) in the European Union. But these are strange times in Scouting Ireland.

National Council, supreme governing body of Scouting Ireland has elected a new board. The new board is a good mix of people from various backgrounds. All the new directors appear to be competent both in terms of their work/careers outside Scouting and all seem to have contributed inside Scouting too. 

The word ‘seem’ above is not intended to be in any way pejorative, it merely reflects the fact that I don’t know many of these people terribly well (or at all) and in some ways, the fact that most of the new board are not high profile members of the association is a good thing – they come to a table laden with problems, with fresh eyes, fresh perspectives and hopefully little baggage.

Youth members at the (sometimes rather fraught) National Council meeting on October 6th, asked the membership to come together and curb the in-fighting. Some might scorn the unified message from youth members as a ploy and words put into their mouths by cynical elders in the background. It’s hard to believe that the associations youth members are easily dictated to by anyone. In any event, the message is one that every member of Scouting Ireland should give serious consideration to.

We cannot live in a ‘happy clappy’ world sanitised from any form of disagreement. I don’t think this is what the youth representatives at National Council were looking for, but its important to be clear – difference of opinion and debate are the lifeblood of any vibrant organisation.

What has been happening lately is the courtesy and good manners of debating, stating hard facts or sincerely held opinions and disagreeing – sometimes stridently – with another member on a point of policy or scouting practice, has been lost in a fog of fury and bile. 

There is no need for it. One can hold an opposing view without going to war.

The attempted elimination of all forms of free speech and all channels for open debate in Scouting Ireland has played a big role in getting us to the point we are now at, with members clashing openly and vociferously in public. This process has been underway for some time. The leaks to ‘The Irish Times’ and the light this has shone on significant deficiencies in governance and safeguarding has unleashed a torrent of ill-feeling and pent up frustration by those disenfranchised with seemingly endless instances of nepotism, cronyism and mismanagement in Scouting Ireland.

Apologists for those at the helm during this descent into a conflict-riven leadership vacuum have met this frustration with furious and sanctimonious harrumphing, fearing a loss of influence and access to disproportionate association resources. As one might expect.

The Scouting Ireland Chat Forum is closed, the dull but worthy ‘National Secretary’s Question Time’ has been long discontinued. National Council has been sanitised and stage-managed ‘Pyongyang style’ to make it near impossible for members to express a view on anything. Provincial meetings around the country always open with a stern warning to say nothing negative and to not so much as mention ‘He who must not be named’, lest presumably a bunch of Dementors, sorry ‘Disciplinary officers’ turn up to remind the little people of their place.

Never mind the location of the nearest exit. Above all else protect the REAL decision makers. Even the NMC are expendable to achieve this objective it would seem. I think we all know they’ve not been decision-makers now for some years – hence our predicament.

Scouting Ireland now offers nothing more in terms of interaction than information sessions where members nod and smile – IF they know what’s good for them.

The recently established ‘1st Facebook Scout Group Ireland’, where there has been some airing of views (often highly charged and emotional on both sides), has decided to curb all discussion involving difference of opinion and anything related to the recent EGM or the events that triggered it. 

This is an understandable move. The debate or more precisely, the vitriol, much of it expressed without facts, corroboration or any regard to libel law, is very difficult to manage and arguably could have unintended consequences. Any bunch of volunteers, trying to manage such diversity of commentary and the 24 hour and unpredictable nature of it, would struggle.

However, the idea that the entire association can now simply ‘move on’ and draw a line under what has been Scouting Ireland’s ‘annus horribilis’, simply because the NMC are gone (they’re actually still there, just no longer directors) shows a surprising level of naivety.

The problems are still very much here. 

Relations between professional staff and volunteers are still at rock bottom. An internal investigation into four directors of the association has now run overtime to the point of being farcical and in doing so no longer enjoys the confidence of a growing number of ordinary volunteer members. The association has some safeguarding recommendations, but nobody to implement them. The governance issues outlined in the Van Turnhout report (commissioned by the Minister for Children) have so far been largely ignored. The role of senior professional staff in bringing the association to this point has so far been glossed over. The associations government funding (money from taxpayers – of which there are several thousand in Scouting Ireland) has not been restored at the time of writing. Most (but interestingly not all) professional staff remain on protective notice. Its all some distance from ‘happy clappy’ land, theirishscouter would contend.

The associations new board of directors will presumably make a start on addressing some or all of the above and to be fair to them, have only been in office a matter of days at this stage. But to claim that everyone should ‘move on’ is completely unrealistic, until all of the above (and more) have been satisfactorily and transparently addressed.

Meanwhile, there is no forum either internal or public for members of Scouting Ireland to express considered, respectful but where necessary strident and unpopular views about the stewardship of the association. There is nowhere that members can call elected officials and senior employees who wish to participate in policy making to account. All this void serves to do is drive debate and mutterings underground, foster a culture of secrecy and mock obsequiousness and ultimately build up another head of steam for explosion at a later and unpredictable date.

The board of the association should seek to signal their commitment to the concept of free speech, as enshrined in the Irish constitution, as guaranteed under British law and as set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. This commitment will not always be convenient for the board. Sometimes it will be very inconvenient. But it will be a very clear signal to members that viewpoints at variance with policy, no matter what they are, if expressed with relative courtesy and due regard for the law, even when the words excoriate – members are free to make their points.

The Scouting Ireland Chat Forum, amidst all the endless chaff and banal nonsense, did at least afford members the chance to express views, critique policy (and senior office holders) and let steam off about matters that upset them. It also enabled the occasional pocket or two of real debate, where those with differing opinions could swap views, square off, even clash swords. 

The association needs a mechanism to ensure debate continues to flow, that all views are welcome and that all voices get heard, even when the message is not popular. The alternative is a further deepening of the polarisation that is already present in the association. This needs a remedy, but the sustainability of that remedy is in an outlet for expression.

Members of Scouting Ireland should be able to joust, without it getting personal. Obviously some people love to play the victim and of course some will do their best to take offence and convert a harsh criticism of their work or their support of a given policy into an imagined ‘personal vendetta’ by the person offering critique. We can’t allow the amateur dramatics of the thin-skinned to stifle all debate however.

Theirishscouter facebook page and comments section will remain open for views, even the ones that differ from those extolled here. Equally, any member who wishes to write an article for the site in order to articulate a particular viewpoint in further detail is welcome to make contact.

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