By Eleanor Fletcher – International Affairs Editor
The tragic murder of Conservative MP Sir David Amess has sparked outrage from both the general public and politicians alike. The recent recurrence of elected officials being unsafe has sparked the question: should we do more to protect them? But there is also evidence to suggest that this is not a new trend; since the dawn of free elections, legislators have been targets for those with differing political beliefs or to make a strong statement of their own.
In the past century, there have been numerous attacks on elected officials. In the UK there was the 2016 murder of Labour MP Jo Cox; on July 7th, 2021, the president Haiti Jovenel Moïse was assassinated at his residence; in the United States Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in the head on the 8th of January 2011 but survived the attack. These events clearly highlight the disturbing trend of legislators being unsafe. It is always important to note that the perpetrators of these attacks have varying reasons behind them. For example, Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right Brexit supporter who wanted to send a message to those who supported the Remain campaign. That tragedy was in stark contrast with the death of Sir David Amess, whose death has been linked to Islamic extremism.
However, there is the question of whether the risk to elected officials dates back as early as the reign of Julius Caesar and his assassination. Political leaders have always been targets for those who seek to send a message. Other examples include the assassinations of US Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, as well as the death of UK Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in 1812. There was also an attempt made on Ronald Reagan in 1981. This shows that, whilst more needs to be done to protect legislators, it has always been a risk of them being targeted by unhinged individuals or groups with a specific political goal.
This leads to the question of what more can be done to protect our legislators? There have been suggestions of the UK taxpayer funding for every MP to have their own security. Whilst that could possibly work it is important to remember that multiple Presidents have been assassinated whilst being surrounded by some of the best armed guards in the world. The simple fact is the security services need to better monitor threats made against legislators and effectively pursue those who pose a threat to any political leader. The answer is definitely not to stop the interactions with constituents. Democracies are affective because there is a relationship between the people and their leaders. The fact of the matter is there is no way to eliminate the risk to legislators and it is important to not let those who commit these atrocious acts win by continuing to preserve democracy and the relationships between its leaders and general public.
The Gown Newspaper has a long history of reporting on the deaths of our elected representatives. In 1981, we reported on the murder of Vanguard Progressive Unionist Party MP, Robert Bradford. Just two years later, it was the on-campus murder of Queen’s University lecturer and Assembly Member, Edgar Graham; Graham was shot in the head outside the old Main Campus Library on 7th December 1983. Suffice to say, that whilst these particular deaths were in a time of great political and social upheaval in Northern Ireland, the clear reality that representatives are targets for unhinged individuals remains present. Whatever the future may hold, it’s unlikely this will be the last time we report on the deaths of MPs, MLAs, or any other elected representatives.