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Ireland has a January 6th moment
Can we say we have a "far right" now?
The Irish Parliament returned for the first day of its new term last week and got a nasty surprise. The Guardian tells us that:
Ireland is reviewing security around the seat of government after aggressive protests in Dublin that trapped lawmakers, ended with 13 arrests and were condemned by the country’s leadership as “wrong” and “fascist-like”.
The Oireachtas, Ireland’s legislature, was put into a virtual lockdown for hours on Wednesday by a small but abusive group of about 200 people.
The protesters threatened staff and journalists and erected a mock gallows covered with photos of politicians from across the spectrum.
The crowd was apparently united not so much by a cause – their messages included Covid conspiracy theories, anti-immigration messages and attacks on transgender rights – as by a willingness to use aggression in a bid to shut down the heart of Ireland’s democracy.
I’ve written a lot about the idea of an Irish Far Right, in particular the way I feel it’s blown out of proportion in a calculated manner. The appearance of a gallows festooned with pictures of politicians outside parliament seems as good a time as any to re-consider that notion.
When I wrote about this subject the past, my comments about the absence of such a movement were never predicated on the idea that no single person or group in Ireland that met that description; only that to centre the existence of a “Far Right” in our discussions of politics and culture - as both media and politicians routinely do - implies a coherence, and a penetration of the political system, that is misleading.
Here’s what I wrote on it previously:
What explains the disconnect between the powerful image of an Irish Far Right in the minds of politicians and media, and its verifiable presence in our political system, which is nil?
The key function of the spectre of the Far Right in Irish political culture is to pre-emptively deligitimise certain topics, political nuances and courses of action which might otherwise be permissible or reasonable if it wasn’t an imminent threat.
II still think that is true. There were 200 people outside the Dáil; waving placards about restricting immigration, some retrospectively protesting Covid restrictions, and about Gender Self-ID. Who represents these people in the Dáil? I’m not asking you to play a game of telephone or six degrees of separation where with enough squinting and bad faith interpretation of code words you can link a TD to someone who you can link to someone who you can link to someone Far Right. The answer to my question is nobody - not a party or a single elected representative in the body they were protesting, and no prospect of one.
There are a small number of populism-inclined, rabble-rousing independents who will sometimes be cited as mouthpieces for the Far Right. One of the most prominent is Michael Healy-Rae. He was the most public recipient of the crowd's ire at the protest, apparently because he is a landlord. Whatever the reason, I think the crowd turning on him highlights the fractured and incoherent nature of populist political activity in Ireland.
The other reason I objected to and continue to object to the use of the term Far Right is that it implies that the political choices in Ireland represent the normal spectrum of human opinion, and that all the unremarkable views that a person might have are represented. That’s demonstrably not the case.
As though to illustrate my point, someone has just sent me Fintan O’Toole’s most recent article for the Guardian, on the topic of these protests. Fintan notes that:
The incident was undoubtedly nasty, and all the more disturbing because Ireland has managed to endure as one of the few developed countries in which the far right has no real foothold. It is one of a handful of nations whose political centre of gravity has shifted to the left in the last decade. It has done so even as it has been transformed from a country with almost no immigration to one in which 20% of the population is made up of people who were born somewhere else.
Ireland rightly got much attention around Europe for the two referendums that transformed its image from reactionary to progressive: the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2015 and removal of a constitutional ban on abortion in 2018. These were indeed electrifying moments – so much so that it is easy to forget that in each case about a third of voters supported the conservative status quo. Those voters now have almost no political representation – almost all the existing parties are socially liberal. So far, the right has failed to mobilise traditional Catholics, but they have not gone away.
I’m surprised he was this honest. He’s right: Ireland’s current political phase is one of maximal cultural transformation, combined with maximal disenfranchisement of anyone who feels the slightest doubt about the speed or direction of that transformation. Fintan notes this with satisfaction, but I’m saying it as a warning. You don’t like the recent protests, that’s fine, neither do I. But they are a morbid symptom of how we have decided to manage cultural change, which is to cordon off whole quadrants of the political compass, preemptively designate that territory as the land of unmentionable extremists, and then wonder where all these angry people are coming from.
One of the key tools proposed to manage the problem are our much discussed draft Hate Speech laws. The passage of the laws through the Oireachtas has been bumpy, and there has been speculation as to whether this incident would be the last straw that caused the system to rally round them. I think that’s the wrong way of looking at the Hate Speech situation. The reality is that these laws are becoming an international standard; Ireland generally seeks to assert its influence from within rather than outside international systems, and by appearing to be the best advocate of those systems’ values and goals. That’s a long way of stating that we’re getting a harsh version of these laws pretty much no matter what, though the protests during the week will have brought the date of their introduction significantly closer.
Hate Speech laws aside, a one-point plan to destroy the Irish “Far Right” would be for our largest parties (FG/ FF/ SF) to find some way of accommodating a normal range of restrictionist views, in a sincere way, in the political system. When I say sincere, I mean you don’t just put it in your manifesto and then do the complete opposite come election time: people would have to actually believe you understand their feelings on the issue and might do something about it.
That’s the function mainstream centre-right parties play in most western countries - they act to release and dissipate some of the energy of social and cultural conservatives, and other normal non-conservatives who have qualms about the nature of an individual social or cultural change (in Ireland that figure is a lot bigger than 30% by the way). That’s not an endorsement of any of those parties in other countries, all of whom are pretty dismal. It’s only to note that there is an important gap in our political system. Fintan’s article is the sound of someone clapping themselves on the back for having built an overheating system with no pressure-release mechanism.
Speaking to normal (not online, not politically active) people about the protests in the last week, I think most were genuinely upset about what happened, and I think most voters will support whatever action the government wants to take against the protestors and people of that type. Certainly no one is in the mood to take a step towards the protestors by viewing what happened as a downstream effect of the soft suppression of more normal political views. Fair enough.
But it’s important to understand that a simple clampdown does not represent a victory over these “Far Right” forces. Instead it’s a tacit acceptance that the sort of thing that happened last week is going to keep happening. Maybe the Powers That Be are ok with that. Individual TDs were obviously terrified by the protest, but at a systemic level it provides exactly the justification needed to continue punting on difficult cultural issues. It also represents a massive opportunity for the commercial and activist entities working the Far Right/ anti-populist/ misinformation grift: Kinzen/ Global Observatory type organisations must be wondering how they’ll cope with all the extra government money about to be dropped on them. Lucky them! It’s heartwarming to know that someone is doing well out of all this turmoil. In the immortal words of Tony Soprano, the hustle never ends.