Michael Bergin examines the worrying rise in sympathy to far-right views in Ireland.
In Ireland, we have been fortunate enough to have avoided a domestic far-right party coming to prominence since the foundation of the state. In general, the nature of civil war politics precluded a focus on a right vs. left dynamic, and instead forced parties that were not necessarily that different from each other ideologically to become catch-all associations, marketed on personality.
However, in recent years, this dynamic has come under strain. The confidence and supply agreement that followed the 2016 election, and the subsequent coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail that followed the 2020 election, marked the effective end of civil war politics. Suddenly, it has become important for parties in Ireland to take definitive positions on the political spectrum, in order to forge a more amenable political identity.
No party has capitalised more on this changing dynamic in Irish politics than Sinn Fein, utilising their position as a definitively left-wing party to appeal to a new generation of Irish voters, whose views on politics are framed by the necessity of having a defined position on the political spectrum.
this change in the nature of Irish politics’ conduct presents a number of opportunities for parties who wish to make a name for themselves as standing for a defined section of the political spectrum.
As such, this change in the nature of Irish politics’ conduct presents a number of opportunities for parties who wish to make a name for themselves as standing for a defined section of the political spectrum. Unfortunately, this also means that there will be those who attempt to publicise and promote some of the particularly unsavoury views of the far-right, to this point happily a rarity in Ireland.
The rising prominence of figures such as Gemma O’Doherty, John Waters and Justin Barrett presents a worrying conundrum for the state of Irish public debate. Though these figures have not yet enjoyed any electoral success, their influence amongst a significant proportion of the Irish electorate must not be underestimated. We would do well to remember the influence that UKIP held over political discourse in the UK, despite having relatively few elected representatives.
It seems that, in combination with the end of traditional civil war politics, the same factors that have made the rise of the far-right possible in many other western democracies have finally begun to be felt in Ireland. These include, but are not limited to; the destabilising influence of rampant social media platforms, wider societal dissociation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a perceived increase in migration into Ireland.
their influence amongst a significant proportion of the Irish electorate must not be underestimated
The first of these points, the destabilising influence of rampant social media platforms, cannot be understated. One needs only to look at the means by which voters’ social media accounts were manipulated by Cambridge Analytica in the lead up to the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote to understand the terrible power these platforms wield over democratic processes. The lacklustre measures that most social media giants have in place to combat hate speech and extremism, and to fact check articles and posts, has led to a situation in which people can become radicalised extremely easily, often on the basis of overtly dubious information.
One recent example was the publishing of a video by “The Liberal.ie”, a twitter account that masquerades as a news outlet, purporting to show a cortege of buses carrying asylum seekers throughout Ireland. Closer inspection revealed that the buses instead were carrying students to a sporting event in Santry.
The repeated criticism of “traditional” news outlets such as RTE reaffirms a sense that these rogue internet organisations are reporting the “actual” news
While “The Liberal.ie” may be an obvious cesspit of misinformation to anyone who is even moderately media literate, there is a large section of the Irish electorate that is not internet-savvy enough to discern what is obvious propaganda from informed reporting. The repeated criticism of “traditional” news outlets such as RTE reaffirms a sense that these rogue internet organisations are reporting the “actual” news - the version of events that elites in Dublin do not want you to know.
Though complete populist nonsense, claims such as this find their sticking place by weaponizing irrational fears that have been stoked by numerous external actors, such as the “great replacement theory” amongst others. We would do well to recognise those who espouse these views as legitimate threats to our democracy. Though tempting, and accurate, to deride these actors as jumped-up clowns desperate for attention, they have an underlying malice that presents a credible threat.
The utility of social media in promoting far-right views is closely linked to the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on society’s relationship with government. The pandemic presented perhaps the most blatant example of government using its sweeping powers to curtail a large amount of civilian activities, and though this was ultimately for the public’s greater good, there are those who took note of such government intervention, and cried conspiracy. It seems that the combination of unprecedented government action and increased time spent online provided a fertile ground for the sowing of conspiracy theories, nearly all of a far-right flavour, which aimed to replace trust in government with fear. Ireland’s far-right leaders have all criticised locking down the country, exploiting Irish people’s desire for a return to normality, even at a time when doing so was neither safe nor sensible.
A perceived increase in inward migration has also been manipulated by those of a far-right tilt to promote hatred and division. The recent rise to prominence of the “Ireland is Full” brigade has created an environment for the first time in Ireland in which anti-immigrant sentiment can hold sway with a certain section of the electorate. This, in a nation which is as widely known for its far-flung diaspora as it is for Guinness and Kerrygold.
To conclude, the threat posed by the far-right in Ireland is neither at a critical mass presently, nor is it at a level that can be easily disregarded. The recent holiday of far-right xenophobe Tommy Robinson in Killarney should come as a concern to anyone who cares about Irish public debate. Mr. Robinson, and his views, should have no place in Ireland. It is our responsibility to tackle this threat in an effective, reasoned manner.