Ireland is not special. This has been hammered home for many in the last year. We were, like every other country on the planet, hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. And although we seemed to weather it relatively better than many other countries, we’re now facing a massive crisis as case numbers explode.
There’s also a tendency to see Ireland as politically unique. Ostensibly we’ve had a stable democracy for decades in an era when democracy has seemed tenuous at the best of times. But this was merely a facade. Irish democracy, like democracy in many other self-described liberal states, is built on a foundation of exclusion. In Ireland Travellers, women, and single mothers are all living examples of this. Democracy is about what’s acceptable to the powerful and not what’s possible for the many.
A native threat
A similar logic applies to the idea that the far right could never become a norm in the Irish political landscape. Some in the mainstream press don’t see it as a threat that needs to be observed and reported on. For them, the far-right presence in Ireland is simply not large enough to pose that much of a threat to begin with. Attempts by activists to counter the menace are seen as dangerous and a step too far.
But this disregards the history of the far right elsewhere. Across Europe far-right groups have re-emerged and have unfortunately become part of everyday life. This is not something to be ignored. Authorities have warned of the dangers posed by these extremists. And these same groups and individuals haven’t stopped just because there’s a pandemic to deal with. Instead, and in furtherance of their agendas, it’s provided them with an opportunity to recruit new adherents and push their ideas to a wider audience.
Europol has even warned of the dangers posed by resurgence. It also went so far to point out that far-right extremists have discussed the possibility of using COVID-19 as some form of bioweapon. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) has likewise discussed the far-right threat and noted its role in spreading misinformation during the pandemic.
Closer to home, the pandemic has not slowed down any of the far-right groups. In fact, they’ve managed to draw hundreds and even thousands of people on to the streets. Even 50 people attending an anti-lockdown rally organised by the Irish Freedom Party (IFP) would be too much. In November roughly 500 people attended one. A previous rally in August attracted 1,500 people. Although not everyone in the crowd will identify with the far right, they all represent a recruitment opportunity. And that’s the point.
It doesn’t matter that the far right hasn’t been politically successful in recent elections. Political defeat can very rapidly turn into political victory. And even one openly far-right politician being elected would be a success for the wider movement. It’s not as if it’d be entirely shocking anyway. There are already TDs in the Dáil who openly espouse far-right views, from attacking asylum seekers as being ISIS sympathisers to accusing left-leaning parties of not caring about white, middle-class men.
Not learning from previous experiences
There’s been an obvious surge in far-right groups and activism in Ireland in the last two years. In 2020 the groups appear to have gained momentum. Rallies around the country are a regular fixture. At these same events far-right activists have attacked counter-protestors and observers. Fundraising and recruitment drives are commonplace as are protests outside government buildings and the headquarters of newspapers. We’ve also revealed far-right infiltration of the defence forces.
So to claim that none of this warrants concern is to be at best shortsighted or, at worst, ignorant.
In Sweden it was once believed that the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) would never have a single electoral success given its neo-Nazi lineage. But under the leadership of Mikael Jansson and Jimmie Åkesson a group that once occupied the political extremes of Swedish society now occupies a place in parliament. It’s currently the third-largest party in a country known for its social democracy.
It’s not as if Ireland has not had fascist political parties throughout its history. From the Blueshirts to Ailtirí na hAiséirghe to the National Party, there’s always been a far-right presence in Irish society. One argument as to why they were never politically successful is because most of their base would have been siphoned off by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The social and economic conservatism of both parties was apparently enough to halt the political rise of a fascist party here.
But the decline of both parties has created a vacuum into which the far right has positioned itself. Take a brief look at the comments in private Facebook groups and on Telegram channels and you’ll see that many people hold contempt for the two parties. It’s easy for the far right to capitalise on this; especially so given the economic and social inequality rife in Ireland.
Commentators in the press have consistently underestimated all of these factors. By sheer force of will they believe that Ireland is the exception. The pattern that has played out in Sweden, Germany, Italy, Spain, and essentially across most of the West, will never come to pass here. It won’t because this is Ireland.
If the last year has shown us anything it’s that Ireland is far from exceptional. Whether it’s the pandemic or the far right, ignoring the presence of such a threat and criticising those warning of the problems ahead is simply repeating the experiences of activists across the world. And just as COVID-19 is now a threat to Ireland when it wasn’t two years ago, fascists might not be in the Dáil now but that won’t mean much if the far right has a successful election day next time around. What was once unthinkable to some will have become a dangerous new reality.
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