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Protecting libraries from far-right attacks not just a job for gardaí, says President

The protection of public libraries and their staff from attacks by the far right should be regarded as a priority for everyone in a civilised society and not just a job for An Garda Síochána, President Michael D Higgins told those attending the annual Bloomsday Garden Party at Áras an Uachtaráin on Sunday.

President Higgins said those who intimidate library staff and tear up books “hide behind the mask of ‘protester’, but must be called out for what they are: vigilantes attempting to censor, some of whom are committing criminal offences”.

He said libraries were increasingly special places, “one of the last remaining public spaces to have been spared commodification, where there is no requirement to spend money or purchase anything in order to spend time or be welcomed there”, while their staff “created an atmosphere so conducive for intellectual curiosity for generations of Irish children, women and men”.

It was unacceptable, he suggested, to have libraries forced to close, however briefly, because they were being targeted by people who objected to particular books and felt they were entitled to have them removed.

The President was speaking in the wake of a number of incidents at libraries around the country over the last year or more, several of them in Cork, in which staff and events have been targeted and interventions by gardaí were sometimes required.

Speaking at a conference of the public sector trade union, Fórsa, recently, library staff spoke of being harassed, filmed and verbally abused in the course of their work.

“The destruction of books must always be called out as an outrageous act,” said President Higgins, who was speaking at an event hosted each year to celebrate James Joyce, his novel Ulysses and those who celebrate it.

“So many of our great writers, including Joyce, endured the consequences of such activities of censorship and book burning. There can be no place in our modern society for such immoral acts of vandalism.

“Libraries must remain places for the quiet engagement of the soul, for a peaceful contemplating of any neglected curiosity, of intellectual awakening. We must do all we can to ensure that libraries continue to be so, for they are, to use Socrates’ metaphor, the ‘delivery room for the birth of ideas’.

“A world without libraries would be a dystopian one, indeed it would be a very frightening prospect. Today as we recall Joyce in all his complex, everlasting brilliance, by committing to ensure that our public libraries remain, are developed, extended and protected, continue to be the special places of learning and sated curiosity that they must always be, we honour Joyce’s legacy.

“Protecting libraries and library staff from intimidation from protests by far-right groups, and ensuring that they do not fall foul to a reactionary and ignorant censorship, but rather remain stocked with the widest range of literature reflecting the diversity of our contemporary society in all its richness, is not just a matter for the gardaí, but for all of us,” he said.

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