Andrea Andres compares Ireland’s far-right parties to those of other European countries and considers whether we could be heading the same way.
While Sinn Fein celebrated their stunning success in this year's general election, others didn’t take it so well. Gemma O’Doherty huddled behind her computer, fuming. Her fingers stabbed the keys of her keyboard. She posted on Twitter: “The Irish of #Fingal have voted once again for their own extinction.” Gemma O’Doherty was actually one of the best performing far-right candidates with 1.97% of the vote. However, she still joins the ranks of right-wing candidates that failed to gain a seat in the 33rd session of the Dáil. The results of the general election reveal heavily defeated far-right parties that garnered less than 2% of votes across 21 different locations in Ireland. However, over the last decade, there has been a right wave sweeping across Europe: Poland’s Law and Justice won their second term to be ruling party in parliamentary elections last year, and Italy’s Five Star Movement took a third of Italy’s parliamentary seats in their general election in 2018, with Matteo Salvini remaining Deputy Prime Minister until last year. More recently AfD (Alternative for Germany) has helped a state premier get into power in the state of Thuringia, causing political chaos in Germany. Hungary, France, and even progressive Sweden have a far-right presence in their political system with the Sweden Democrats gaining 18% of votes. But Ireland is still untouched by this wave and doesn’t seem likely to follow the trajectory of other European countries, because the concerns of the far-right here just don’t match with what the Irish people are worried about.
Far-right parties across Europe run on the platforms of scepticism of the EU, sovereignty, putting their people first and anti-immigrant policies. Irish right-wing parties are no different. Take for example, the stance of The Irish Freedom Party on the EU, they believe that Ireland should pull an Irexit so that Ireland can take its place among “the world’s free and sovereign nations.” Similarly, the National Party believes in an “adversarial approach to the EU”.
Both parties’ Euroscepticism doesn’t seem to be in line with how Irish people feel about the EU. According to the Eurobarometer survey in 2019, 91% that believe that Ireland greatly benefited from the EU, second only to Malta at 92% (another EU country that doesn’t have a prominent right-wing presence). Compare these to 41% of Italians that feel like their country hasn’t benefited at all from their EU membership. Italy suffers from a high unemployment rate, a deluge of debt and an economy with hardly any growth. It’s easy to see why Italians might turn towards a populist, right-wing government when it seems like they’re being left behind and see themselves as a loser of globalisation.
On the other hand, Ireland’s economy improved leaps and bounds after its membership to the EU. Ireland has reaped the benefits of our globalised world. Even after the recession of 2008/2009 and the austerity measures imposed by the Troika (European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund), Ireland’s economy bounced back up in 2014. Ireland’s economy is nothing to gripe about. The unemployment rate for January 2020 is only 4.8%. In 2017, Irish GDP grew by 7.8%.
Both parties also oppose mass immigration. The Irish Freedom Party believes that “immigration should be controlled effectively to suit the interests of ordinary Irish people.” The National Party goes as far as believing in the “preservation of national identity and culture as the bedrock of a principled patriotism.” According to the Ipsos MRBI exit poll, only 1% of voters considered immigration to be an important agenda when deciding who to cast their vote for. The issues they tout aren’t even in people’s minds in the first place. It’s ironic for these parties to oppose immigration when Ireland is a nation of emigrants.
Irish nationalism also isn’t rooted in some kind of glorious past, but rooted in a past where Ireland was under the boot of the British Empire for almost 800 years. Ireland doesn’t have a past to hark back from with nostalgia or be made great again. The brand of Irish nationalism is based on oppressed Ireland was under British rule, struggling against discrimination such as the Penal Laws. Being anti-immigrant doesn’t slot in well with this narrative surrounding Irish people.
Their lack of votes and failure to resonate with the public is an indicator that right-wing parties won’t be gaining any support and be a significant part of the Irish political landscape any time soon. That doesn’t mean that inflammatory far-right rhetoric from prominent individuals that aren’t affiliated with the right-wing won’t come out of their mouths and be normalised in the media. Spain is a country that once prided itself with having no far-right party in its mainstream politics and was thought to be immune to endorsing such a party because of Franco’s dictatorship existing in such recent memory. But its people voted for a far-right party, Vox and it came third in Spain’s general elections. Ireland shouldn’t get complacent. Issues like homelessness, the housing crisis and the overburdened health system, all problems that weigh heavily on the minds of the Irish people, could be easily spun into a far-right narrative. Who knows what could happen that might attract some voters between now and the next general election. But for now, O’Doherty sits behind her computer, carping on about how we should talk Ireland back.