Dublin’s Merrion Hotel took the unusual step a fortnight ago of cancelling a scheduled event. The event in question was the launch of the National Party, a new political group describing itself as dedicated to regenerating the “true spirit of the Republic”.
Amongst the new party’s policies are opposition to “multi-culturalism” and to allegedly unrestricted immigration into Ireland. The Merrion’s (unexplained) cancellation followed protests by anti-fascist campaigners, many of whom highlighted the fact that the new party’s president is Justin Barrett, prominent in anti-choice organisations such as Youth Defence.
Barrett has previously spoken at neo-nazi events in Germany.
Another right-wing group – Identity Ireland, linked to the German-founded anti-Islam Pegida movement – has already registered as an Irish political party. Its founder, Peter O’Loughlin, ran as an independent candidate in February’s election in Cork North Central, but got just 183 votes after a campaign that saw him use terms like “rapefugee” and “Islamic invasion”.
That far-right groups such as this seem likely to remain on the fringes of Irish political life is, at one level, a source of relief at a time when they are gaining ground in many other countries – including, most recently and dramatically, in the US.
Trump’s victory has been greeted rapturously by European right-wingers like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, both of whom have substantial political followings. Le Pen could end up in a run-off for the French presidency next year against François Fillon, who shares many of her reactionary views on issues like immigration and Islam.
So should we pat ourselves on the back for not (yet anyway) embracing the electoral rise of the far right? Yes and no.
Yes, in the sense that anti-fascists and anti-racists have done a good job of challenging these forces whenever they have tried to rear their heads in Ireland. And a protest vote that has been mopped up by the extreme right in other jurisdictions has mostly gone to left parties in Ireland that have held to a firm anti-racist stance.
But no, in the sense that many of the policies the far right espouses are already implemented by the country’s “centrist” political parties.
The 2004 citizenship referendum, for example, denied Irish citizenship to children born here of “non-national” parents. As Gavin Titley has written, the campaign in favour of this change “singled out women of colour as welfare tourists and parasites, jetting in to give birth and abuse the nation’s hospitality”.
When mainstream political parties are willing to play the race card in this way, the space for the Pegidas of this world is significantly narrowed.
In a recent column, I talked about how Irish politicians can get away with anti-Traveller racism. But it is not just Travellers who can be abused in this way: in 2011, Darren Scully, the Fine Gael mayor of Naas, said that he would not represent black Africans – he briefly lost the party whip, but was quickly rehabilitated by Fine Gael. The head of the Integration Centre described that rehabilitation as Fine Gael sending “a clear message that racist remarks by elected representatives are okay with them”.
Meanwhile Irish visa policy makes it very difficult for potential refugees to claim asylum here, while those who do make it to our shores are subjected to the brutalising regime of “direct provision”. Even the promise to take in 4,000 Syrian refugees under an EU resettlement programme has been followed up on with foot-dragging and procrastination.
When the parties of the so-called centre fail to properly penalise racism, and when they serve to exclude refugees to the greatest extent possible, then the ground in which a National Party can put down roots is far from fertile.
Unfortunately, it also means that the conditions are often already toxic for those at the receiving end of racist abuse and exclusion.