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The State of the Nation

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Piaras Mac Éinrí, University College Cork

Official Ireland has been having a good Brexit war so far. Our nearest neighbour may be leaving the EU, but we are staying put. Almost a century after this part of the island attained a fragile independence, it has proved able, with the firm support of the other 26 countries which will be remaining in the EU, to make one of its most momentous geopolitical and strategic choices.

Recent changes in Irish domestic policies, attitudes and legislation have been equally momentous, with the emergence of a more liberal society marked by such landmark events as the recent referendums on same-sex marriage legislation and the legalisation of abortion, and the gradual acceptance that religion should be largely a private affair.

Meanwhile, Irish demography has also changed enormously. We are no longer simply a country of emigration. According to the 2016 Census, 14% of the population of Cork City was born outside Ireland.

That said, it would be a mistake to regard all our battles as being over. Brexit has left the situation in Northern Ireland, after much progress in the post-Belfast Agreement era, more divided than ever. In the South, it has sucked much of the oxygen out of the arena of normal politics, leaving many pressing issues unaddressed. A centrist, essentially technocratic government presides over a neoliberal agenda and a society experiencing crisis levels of housing shortages, serious shortcomings in health provision, a deteriorating education system and inadequate social provision. For all the progress that has been made, there is an underlying lack of vision of what a just, welcoming and inclusive society might look like in the 21st century. As in other countries, there is also a growing army of the disaffected, who feel disconnected from conventional politics. Some are inclined to embrace the fantasies, conspiracies and falsehoods which are now disseminated widely on social media.

These challenges notwithstanding, southern Irish politics has proved politically remarkably stable – so far. The two main parties may differ in history and culture but do not differ greatly nowadays in policy terms. By contrast, the Irish left has had a rocky ride in recent decades, becoming a rather fractured and ineffective minority, even though several times participating in government in a minority role.

On the right of the political spectrum, there is something of a lacuna. There have been periods in Irish history when what would nowadays be called the far or authoritarian right has played a certain limited role. Examples include O’Duffy’s Blueshirts in the 1930s and the explicitly fascist party Ailtirí na hAiseirghe (Architects of the Resurrection), which won a number of seats in local elections in the 1940s before fading away. But there are almost no later examples of strongly ethnonationalist, racist or xenophobic politics, comparable, say, to the rise of such parties as the Front National in France, Fidesz in Hungary or La Lega in Italy. There have been politicians who have sought to play on such themes, like the antisemitic Oliver J. Flanagan in the 1940s and the occasional more recent opportunist who saw votes in scapegoating asylum seekers. But there was no mass popular movement. Such fledging movements as did emerge, like the 1990s Immigration Control Platform received derisory levels of support at the polls.

Various explanations have been put forward for the lack of an ethnonationalist right in Ireland. One rather simplistically claims that Irish political life is already strongly right of centre anyway. In truth this is unconvincing as politics in Ireland, while indeed generally conservative, has largely lacked an explicitly ethnonationalist or racist element. A more interesting explanation lies in the role in Irish society of Sinn Féin. It occupies the kind of territory in the political spectrum which in other countries might be naturally ethnonationalist but which for specific reasons here, mainly related to the legacy of anticolonialism, has enabled it to take a generally progressive position on such matters as immigration. The reality of Ireland’s long-standing openness to a world in which we ourselves were and are migrants may also play a role. A certain kind of porosity has become the norm.

Recent developments on the Irish far right

Against this backdrop, the rise of loosely connected groups and individuals actively preaching hatred and xenophobia against immigrants, but with a particular focus on asylum seekers, Muslims and Africans, has been a fairly new and very unwelcome development. Much of this initially took place online. A distinguishing feature, compared to other parties on the conventional right, is a strongly ethnonationalist and frequently explicitly racist discourse.

One leading exponent of hate speech is a former journalist and failed politician. Many of this individual’s social media broadcasts consist of racist, xenophobic and islamophobic falsehoods, directed at entire communities, as well as a wider set of conspiracy theories seemingly borrowed in their entirety from international far-right sources. A typical example was an online broadcast centred on Longford, where a photograph of children in a local national school, near a Direct Provision centre, was published without permission, with the message that the Irish were becoming a minority in their own country. This is an Irish variation on a theme which is now widely shared by the international far right including such persons as Christchurch killer Brenton Tarrant. The ‘Great Replacement’ myth, associated with French ideologue Renaud Camus, is a classic conspiracy theory with antisemitic undertones, suggesting a sinister plan by a ‘globalist elite’ to ‘replace’ the white population of Europe by importing large numbers of Muslims and other immigrants. Irish racists have sought to localise this discourse, using such historically charged terms as ‘planter’ and the phrase ‘direct replacement’ when describing the Direct Provision system in place for asylum seekers.

Direct Provision protests

In recent months a small number of far-right agitators have been touring the country, with a particular focus on towns where Direct Provision centres were planned or proposed. The modus operandi is always the same. Using open and secret social media groups and on-site visits, the core group actively incites public opinion against immigrants, sometimes by spreading false and malicious stories about 'African gangs', 'rape culture' and the like. They then work with disaffected elements in these local communities. Public meetings are called in the guise of expressing 'concern' about the burden which asylum seekers are likely to place on over-stretched health and other social services. But the underlying messages, as recorded by academics and activists tracking them, are openly racist and hate-filled. Meanwhile, some members of a small far right Catholic group centred around online publication Gript have taken to espousing actively xenophobic positions, although there is no evidence that these are shared by ordinary believers and clergy.

There are many legitimate concerns about Direct Provision. The Department of Justice has mishandled the issue for twenty years now, rebuffing attempts by community and voluntary groups to engage with them. That has created fertile ground for people with more sinister agendas. Yet, if one considers the experiences of those towns where asylum seekers and refugees have settled - like Ballyhaunis and Ballaghadereen - it is a positive one and local communities have been welcoming and supportive.

Summing up, several factors appear to be at work.

One is clearly a pushback from elements of conservative Ireland who feel excluded from today’s ‘liberal’ society, although it in no way follows that all conservatives are also xenophobes.

A second element reflects a division already apparent over a century ago, between an essentialised view of ‘Irish Ireland’, privileging race, culture, national origin and sometimes religion, over a more French republican-influenced, Wolfe Tone-inspired view of the political concept of nationhood as inclusive and non-sectarian.

It is no coincidence that the word ‘patriot’ is so frequently invoked by the Irish far right today or that their favourite terms of opprobrium are ‘globalist’ and ‘traitor’, whether applied to the Taoiseach (as they frequently are) or to the alleged ‘cultural marxists’ (a nonsensical term first employed in Nazi Germany) who oppose them.

A third element across the far right in Ireland, reflecting the extremely derivative nature of most of their views, is a strongly anti-internationalist and anti-EU position, combined with an admiration for authoritarian leaders such as Salvini and Orbán and their politics of intolerance. The paradox, of course, is that the international far right is probably currently the most globalised political movement of all, as are its sinister financial roots and unaccountable systems of propaganda and control.

A fourth and not insignificant element is the ‘left behind’ factor, notably in rural Ireland where, faced with depopulation and under-investment, there is increasing resentment directed at a remote, top-down and predominantly urban administrative and political class.

There is an urgent need for firm, effective action against these merchants of hate. Hate speech and incitement is not ‘free’ speech, nor is it victim-free. Perhaps it is also now time for some kind of truce between moderate conservatives – notably Church leaders and the ‘normal’ political right – and their liberal and left counterparts, with the purpose of promoting debate and ultimately more enlightened policies based on a shared vision for today’s Ireland.

Piaras Mac Éinrí is a Lecturer in the Department of Geography, University College Cork

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