Dublin Bay South by-election has become a testing ground for far-right rhetoric

A photo of members of the National Party, including leader and Dublin Bay South By-Election candidate Justin Barrett, alongside a banner with nooses on it.

A cliché we’re all familiar with is that a week is a long time in politics. Considering the events of the last 15 months in a country dealing with the formation of a new government while in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, time became even more pliable than usual for most. But the coming by-election in the Dublin Bay South (DBS) constituency next month will likely result in an even more stormy political landscape, not least of which because of the involvement of far-right groups in the election.

With both the National Party and Renua running candidates in DBS, the unexpected election in a stronghold for the mainstream parties offers somewhat of a bellwether. Political anoraks will be curious to see how the multiple failures of the Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green Party coalition over the previous year will affect the showing of their preferred candidates. Unfavourable polling numbers could signal disaster ahead in other parts of the country as Sinn Féin surges.

For others the tactics of the far right and their results in the election are of far more importance. Of course they won’t win the election. Justin Barrett, leader of the National Party and its candidate in DBS, has said as much. Instead, DBS is a testing ground for extremist ideology that’s believed to be outside of mainstream acceptance. The DBS by-election will become an indicator of just how much a relatively affluent area of Dublin can tolerate intolerance. And, from here, the far right will apply what it learns to the national level.

An unsuccessful history

In the Irish case there has never been an overtly far-right party in power or one with representatives in the Oireachtas. This doesn’t mean that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael haven’t attracted their fair share of racists and extremists of various sorts. Some have argued this is precisely the reason why there has never been a successful far-right party in the country. Our establishment parties provided a safety valve of sorts with those off to the right of the spectrum being able to find some shelter under the political umbrellas of the parties of W.T. Cosgrave and Éamonn de Valera.

The economic and social conservatism of the big two parties, aligned with Catholic orthodoxy, provided an outlet for any nascent indigenous extremism. Of course the occasional far-right party appeared, unhappy with the political climate of the time. But even the more organised of them, such as Ailtirí na hAiséirghe or the National Movement, never had any electoral success.

So, why should things be any different in 2021?

Ireland has fundamentally changed since the heyday of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It’s a more diverse and pluralistic country than it was even 20 years ago. Of course, much more needs to be done to tackle inequality, discrimination, and racism. Regardless, change has happened. For some it’s too much.This has resulted in gains for far-right groups.

Naturally racists and extremists will be attracted to them anyway. But these same groups have also spent the better part of the last two years, especially over the last 15 months of the pandemic, trying to recruit more people into their ranks. They’ve used wedge tactics such as a feigned concern for the toll lockdown has taken on people in order to attract potential members. Once this initial tactic has been successful the far-right groups can quickly turn prospective members into full-blown conspiracy theorists and extremists by feeding them disinformation and far-right propaganda.

And DBS is a trial run for this.

A facade

Rhetoric such as that promoted by the National Party is not exactly mainstream. In saying that though, comments have been made by elected officials that aren’t dissimilar to comments the likes of Barrett have made. 

Wexford TD Verona Murphy has claimed that ISIS has infiltrated asylum seekers coming to Ireland. And that a terrorist attack on Ireland is a very real possibility. Murphy, who was a member of Fine Gael at the time, eventually left the party after she perceived a lack of support from the party after she made the comments. She since ran as an independent and voters elected her to the Dáil. Our current government had seen no issue in attempting to get her onside during coalition talks last year.

Independent TD Noel Grealish has made similar comments to Murphy’s. During a public meeting he accused asylum seekers of coming to Ireland to “sponge off the system”. At the same gathering he also claimed “the only genuine refugees in Ireland are Christian ones fleeing ISIS”. And, like Murphy, the government had also seen fit in trying to get his support for the coalition. 

Far-right activists have taken note of Grealish and Murphy, seeing their comments as proof that politicians promoting anti-migrant talking points can get elected. A planning document other far-right zealots uploaded to the Internet last year also called for greater focus on elections. According to the document, activists needed to do more “to clean up the public image of the nationalist parties and independents”.

Irish extremists are learning from their European brethren. 

Less than 30 years ago the Sweden Democrats (SD) were a small party on the fringes of Swedish politics. Made up of neo-Nazis it never stood a chance in elections. That is until it came under new leadership who did his best to change the party’s public image by insisting on, amongst other things, a behaviour and dress code for members. As of today the SD is the third-largest party in the Swedish parliament. Similar patterns have been replicated across Europe. 

Understanding the context

The DBS by-election must be seen in this context. 

For the National Party and Barrett it’s about seeing what discontent is out there. They want to understand how their message plays in an establishment stronghold and in what should be hostile ground for them. Such extremists have already had some success by focusing on the pandemic. We can’t just dismiss them getting a few hundred or a few thousand people on the streets for an anti-lockdown rally. By expanding their messaging to housing and other social ills it’s an attempt to draw in even more support. And regardless of success or failure it’ll inform their tactics in further elections.

In a livestream announcing his intention to run in the DBS by-election Barrett described the election as “pivotal”, believing it to be “the last time” the government and opposition parties will be accountable to the electorate. Of course there is no evidence for this. But it feeds into the fears of those who had legitimate concerns about the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown legislation the government introduced. During the same livestream Barrett described himself and his compatriots as “much maligned”. And this is despite the fact, he claimed, that “time and time again” over the previous few years both him and the National Party have been proven right in their warnings. Again, Barrett provides no evidence for this.

He does provide proof for what a country run by the National Party would look like in his 1998 book though. In The National Way Forward he advocates for a Catholic-run dictatorship, abortion and divorce would be illegal, and immigration halted. He describes migrants and refugees coming to Ireland as a form of “Plantations”. And that their presence in Ireland will cause “the denigration and replacement of all that is specifically Irish with something that is hybrid”.

Comments like this are uncouth. Barrett and the National Party are following the example set by the Swedes. National Party election literature doesn’t argue that asylum seekers and migrants coming to Ireland are part of a new so-called plantation. Or that they’ll diminish Irish society. Instead, leaflets ask for the Irish to be housed first. Another leaflet the party published on its Facebook page contends that “mass immigration” is putting pressure on housing and health. 

This kind of language, which is more acceptable than Barrett’s earlier musings on the issue, is intentional. Mainstream politicians and parties already use similar language without concern.

Late last year minister for justice Helen McEntee argued that reforming Ireland’s citizenship laws could have “unintended consequences” by putting pressure on the health service and worsening the housing crisis. Add Grealish’s and Murphy’s comments to this and, collectively, they could have been lifted straight from the National Party playbook. What separates the National Party from Fine Gael on this issue is that the latter’s racism is more palatable to some compared to the racism of the National Party. But Barrett’s party is currently testing those limits in DBS and seeing just how much of itself it can reveal to the electorate. 

Other National Party election literature declares “Claws off our country!” in reference to vulture funds and private companies making a profit out of Ireland’s housing crisis. On the same flyer the National Party also makes reference to “International finance”, a term equivalent to “international bankers”. The latter is widely seen as shorthand for Jewish bankers and antisemitic conspiracy theories surrounding Jewish people’s supposed manipulation of the financial markets. 

Phrases like this might be missed by some of the electorate. But that’s the point. It’s about seeing how far the rhetoric can be pushed; how extreme the extremists can get before it becomes obvious what they’re attempting to do. 

The DBS election is important for this reason. Barrett and the National Party have no hope of winning. But it’ll still be a success for them in that they’ll learn from their experience, adapt to what they think the electorate needs, and hope it attracts more votes the next time around. And it won’t just be the National Party that applies these lessons. Others on the far right will also be taking note.

What the last few years in Europe have showed us is that all too often we dismiss political ambitions that are currently futile at our own risk. Just because the National Party and its ilk aren’t an electoral threat today, doesn’t mean they won’t be in the near future. It’s been made all too easy for them to succeed, even in their failures. And, if anything, the next four weeks in DBS will indicate what’s ahead of us in the coming months and years, for better or worse.

Featured image via Twitter – Dr. Robert Bohan Artist

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