Across the West there has been a growth in support for the far-right and a surge in the number of votes they’ve received. New Fascist political parties have been increasing in size and influence and even the mainstream conservative parties have been pulled further right. Anti-immigrant sentiment can be seen in the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump and the threat of Marine Le Pen.
So far Ireland has stayed completely clear of this rising tide. There is no New Fascist presence here and little anti-immigrant activity. There have been attempts to create a far-right party (Identity Ireland and the National Party) but neither of them got off the ground. A google search shows that their party launch was their only activity. Out of all the candidates in the 2016 general election, only a single one could be called far-right and he only received 183 votes.
So is Ireland safe? Does the far-right simply have no appeal here? Is there something about Irish society or politics that prevents the extremists from being popular? Or are we just as susceptible as the rest of the West and might one day too have to face far-right extremism? Can it happen here?
The Land of Céad Mile Fáilte
Is there something about our past that limits the appeal of the far-right? After all, for centuries Ireland was a nation of immigrants so it would be hypocritical to complain about immigrants following in our ancestors’ footsteps. When the Irish went to Britain and America, many were little better than refugees fleeing famine and poverty. They faced discrimination and suspicion and were viewed a threat to the culture and society, with their drinking, fighting and foreign religion. Will similarities between this experience and the current experience of Muslims prevent hostility from rising?
Perhaps this is true, but before we go patting ourselves on the back and getting complacent, remember that racism isn’t just some foreign thing they only have in America. Irish people are just as capable of being narrow minded and suspicious of outsiders. America too is a nation of immigrants, whose national symbol is a welcome sign to immigrants, yet the descendants of immigrants have forgotten their roots and condemn their modern variants. I know several Irish people who emigrated in the past but now tell me that “we’re letting too many foreigners in.” The treatment of Travellers shows that Irish people are just as capable of bigotry as anyone else. The insults hurled at them are the exact same ones that were hurled at previous generations of Irish. History repeats itself, only the names change.
In fact, an opinion poll of 8 European countries found that all of them supported a ban on Muslims. Overall, 55% were in favour of ending immigration from Muslim countries with only 20% opposed. While Ireland was not included in the survey, it’s possible that similar sentiments are shared here. There has been a decline in support for immigration, with roughly as many people thinking it has negative effects as positive.
What is the far-right?
Let’s start with some of the core elements of the far-right and New Fascism (the two ideologies are not the same, but there is large overlap) and then seeing if they would have any appeal here.
- Extremely Nationalist
- My Nation First
Most of the far right parties are very vague on their policies, generally being much clearer on what they oppose than what they support. Few people seem to know what form Brexit will take or what Trump’s policies actually are (beyond a few buzzwords). The parties tend to adapt to their environment and mould their policies to fit the situation. Thus the Scandinavian far-right wants to protect the generous social welfare system, the Front National argues it is the defenders of secularism and Trump focuses on the benefits of private businesses and low taxes.
So we shouldn’t expect that an Irish New Fascist party would look exactly the same as those aboard, Ireland has a different history and culture, so the parties will reflect this. It’s unlikely to be as brash and in your face as the Americans and far more religious than the Western Europeans. It would probably focus on Irish issues and use traditional Irish images to “make Ireland Irish again”. Perhaps it would want to remove foreign cultural influences in order to protect the Irish language and traditional culture. Perhaps they would try to present themselves as descendants of past heroes and rebels fighting off foreign powers. If Fascism comes to Ireland, it will wear a flat cap, support the GAA and promise to fix the roads.
The far-right with an Irish accent
There already exists a Catholic Right that longs for someone like Trump to lead them. People like the Iona Institute, Mark Humphrys, David Quinn and all those who opposed the Marriage Equality referendum, currently don’t have a party of their own. They by and large support Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but it’s possible that new ideological party could break them off. There have been huge changes in Irish society over the last 30 years and not everyone thinks it’s for the better. Ireland used to be an insular Catholic country, and those people haven’t gone away. There are still plenty of people who fondly remember those times.
Ireland even has its own version of Donald Trump in the form of Michael O’Leary. Of course no one is as bad as Trump, but O’Leary does have some of the same appeal as Trump. They both think of themselves as straight talking successful businessmen who can cut through the crap. They are both known for wild accusations and colourful insults (O’Leary called RTE a “rat-infested North Korean union shop” at a Fine Gael conference). So the thought of a flamboyant businessman running for election against the establishment shouldn’t be dismissed as unlikely. Sean Gallagher nearly became President on the basis of his business career and not being a politician.
It’s not as if Ireland can claim to hold a high standard for politicians, openly corrupt politicians like Michael Lowry are frequently elected. My local TD is completely useless and is only elected due to what he claims he has done for the parish. He has one of the lowest speaking times and highest expenses claims but people are willing to ignore that because he fixed the roads. The Healy-Raes are another example of Irish Trumpism, they exude cronyism and incompetence with daft claims about climate change not being real, as well as being anti-PC and anti-immigrant. Yet they are re-elected again and again by blaming the Dublin media and putting the parish first, while the rest of the country looks on in shock and confusion.
Is it that hard to imagine a party organises gombeenism on a national level? There is a space for a party that blames all the problems on outsiders and claims the Dublin meeja is biased against them. Plenty of country people believe that they have been forgotten by the government and that all their taxes go to Dublin and little money comes back. Likewise, plenty of Dubliners believe the opposite, that they are being sucked dry by the countryside. Plenty of people would be willing to turn a blind eye to corruption and bigotry so long as there was more funding for the parish.
Disillusionment with the establishment
There is an enormous sense of disillusionment with Irish politics. Parties have broken so many promises that people have little faith in them and voting is often simply choosing the lesser evil. The bank bailouts did enormous damage to their reputation and there is huge fury at the banks receiving a fortune while the rest of the country received austerity. The main pillars of Irish society (politicians, priests, guards, banks) have been discredited by scandals, which would make it easier for a new party to throw out the whole system. Any party campaigning against politicians and bankers would easily find support.
The EU too became very unpopular due to the Troika bailout and the general sense that they didn’t care about us. For a while, the Germans got the blame for most of the country’s problems. A lot of the anger at the financial crisis and the bondholders got directed at the EU and ECB. It would be very easy for a far-right party to tap into this by slamming the rigged system and the corrupt establishment. People are so desperate for a change, any change, that they might not care too much about what direction the change is in.
Irish politics is remarkably non-ideological and we don’t really have much of a left or right. Yet, rather than being a shield, this could make it easier for extremists to gain support. None of the parties have any principles and are widely perceived as only caring about getting power for themselves. A far-right party could portray itself as the only people brave enough to stand up for what they believe in, in contrast to the cowardly opportunists. Even if the party only got 10-15% of the vote, it could still be very influential due to fractured state of the political system and the fact that all governments for the foreseeable future will be coalitions.
Although Ireland is less nationalistic than most countries, there is still a nationalist current. The issue of a United Ireland has particular appeal and it is possible that a group could manipulate this feeling and whip up support by wrapping the green flag around themselves. In Northern Ireland, Catholics will soon outnumber Protestants and as the gap increases, so will calls for a referendum for a United Ireland. This is a delicate situation that needs to be handled with care, but there is a danger that a demagogue might mistake himself for Robert Emmet and inflame the situation.
Can it happen here?
It’s easy to imagine a new political party that represents “Middle Ireland” and appeals to traditional values. A party that opposes abortion, fights the liberal media, is against the corrupt political system and people in Europe telling us what to do, that wants to make Ireland Irish again. So far it hasn’t happened and I hope it never does. However, we shouldn’t be complacent or take tolerance for granted. We shouldn’t confidently assert that “it can’t happen here” because it certainly can.