THE FACT OF THE MATTER
When prominent far-right figurehead Tommy Robinson (40) recently arrived in Ireland to ‘observe’ a refugee solidarity rally, a spokesperson told me that Gardai were maintaining a “watching brief” on him. Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley Lennon, said he had been drawn to Ireland by anti-immigration protests and praised those who had organised them. He denied he was invited here.
Irish far-right campaigner Dee Wall, who has been to the fore in anti-vaccination demonstrations, said she had given Robinson “100 blessings to come here”. However, Robinson has been greeted with mixed reaction among anti-refugee campaigners.
A founder of the English Defence League, an Islamophobic organisation, Robinson has been banned from most major social media platforms but has more than 150,000 subscribers on Telegram.
Call them fascist, call them alt-right or call them far-right – but from a base of virtually zero a decade ago, they’ve grown to a notable, albeit still relatively small, political presence in Ireland.
The combined vote for the far-right here has barely reached 1.3% but in other European countries – most notably France, where Marine Le Pen won a third of the vote in the last presidential election – they do much better.
All of this, though, does beg the question where have the Irish far-right come from, why have they failed to take off electorally, and is there a risk that complacency could allow the forces of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia to grow here?
In his book Diverse Republic, published by Dublin University Press in 2022, Professor Bryan Fanning, Professor of Migration and Social Policy at UCD, examines the nature of antipathy to immigration in Ireland and the extent to which this has the potential to be politically exploited. He argues that conflicts between conservatives and liberals don’t neatly fit into the Irish political context, that Ireland has tended to be more outward-looking and that the North’s conflict gave us a different perspective on tribal or ethnic nationalism.
“Ireland doesn’t have a smaller far-right because we are a particularly wonderful people,” he says. “We have the same tendencies as other people, and yet we have a politics without extreme racism. Racism does exist in Irish society, just as it does in other societies, and it’s fair to say that Ireland’s institutions don’t serve people of colour or Travellers as well as the white Irish majority.”
In our policing, our prisons and employment generally “you will see people have problems getting on because of race or culture”.
As a relatively small country, Ireland became very educated and very liberal quite fast. “We didn’t have an industrial revolution in the standard sense, going from farmers to post-industrial in one step,” says Fanning. In England, Hungary and Poland, the far-right claim ownership of what it is to be English, Hungarian or Polish, but Irish people in all our diversity are no longer drawn to the type of Irishness that may have been embodied by de Valera.
We have seen huge changes aimed at stemming the flow of emigration; we have seen major urbanisation and secularisation; and we are outward-looking in that we see the country as part of a global economy. In short, our ‘patriotism’ has been built around our economy.
All that said, in recent weeks, local community groups across the country have expressed concerns over their area’s capacity to house a sudden influx of hundreds of people and the lack of consultation from the State. But, in fairness, these groups, as a whole, aren’t calling the migrants ‘invaders’.
That’s the preferred description of far-right figures, like Dee Wall, seeking to present an extreme worldview of dangerous foreigners, traitorous politicians and helpless locals. These figures – BTW, whatever happened to Gemma O’Doherty and John Waters? – often try to insert themselves, online and offline, into communities, exploiting locals’ concerns and furthering their own agenda.
These people support political ideologies and belief systems that combine overt forms of nationalism, racism and xenophobia.
Far-right communities here – and let’s emphasise they are small in number – advocate for an Ireland that is a monocultural nation for white Irish people only. Sadly, they demonstrate these ‘beliefs’ by describing minorities with dehumanising language, using disinformation to incite tensions and accusing asylum seekers or others of conspiring to threaten to ‘replace’ local populations – their ‘Great Replacement’ theory.
The 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Centuries on, have we learnt anything?