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Why is Ireland’s Far-Right so Small

Call them fascist, call them alt-right or call them far-right – but from a base of virtually zero a decade ago, they’ve grown to a notable, albeit still relatively small, political presence in Ireland.

In the recent Dublin Bay South by-election, the combined vote for the far-right barely reached 1.3%. In other European countries – most notably France, where Marine Le Pen won a third of the vote in the 2017 presidential election – they do much better.

Where have the Irish far-right come from, why have they failed to take off electorally in Ireland, and is there a risk that complacency could allow the forces of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia to grow here?

Professor Bryan Fanning is Professor of Migration and Social Policy in UCD School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, and his new book, Diverse Republic, examines the nature of antipathy to immigration in Ireland and the extent to which this has the potential to be politically exploited.

In the book, a sequel and companion to Migration and the Making of Ireland (2018), Fanning looks at how conflicts between conservatives and liberal don’t neatly fit into the Irish political context, why Ireland has tended to be more outward-looking and how the Northern Irish conflict gave Ireland a different perspective on tribal or ethnic nationalism.

“Ireland doesn’t have a smaller far-right because we are particularly wonderful people,” says Fanning. “We have the same tendencies as other people, and yet we have a politics without extreme racism. Racism does exist in Irish society, just as it does in other societies, and it’s fair to say that Ireland’s institutions don’t serve people of colour or Travellers as well as the white Irish majority: if you look at policing, prisons and employment you will see people have problems getting on because
of race or culture.”

As a relatively small country, Ireland became very educated and very liberal quite fast. “We didn’t have an industrial revolution in the standard sense, going from farmers to post-industrial in one step,” says Fanning.

“National identity is something that can be approached in a positive, inclusive way, and this is very different from the version of Irishness you may find when you look at some social media videos which take a more narrow, exclusive version. In England, Hungary and Poland, the far-right claim ownership of what it is to be English, Hungarian or Polish, but Irish people in all our diversity are not drawn to pre-1966 versions of Irishness, or the type of Irishness that may have been embodied by de Valera. We have seen huge changes aimed at stemming the flow of emigration, we have seen major urbanisation and secularisation, and we are outward-looking in that we see the country as part of a global economy, and being part of a multicultural Europe has been a way for us to demonstrate our sovereignty from Britain. Our patriotism has been built around the economy.”

This economic patriotism stems back to decisions made in the 1960s, primarily by Taoiseach Seán Lemass and senior civil servant TK Whittaker, to open up the economy and reintegrate into the wider world after decades of a more isolationist policy.

It has meant that we see our survival as being outward-looking. Our sense of Irishness has moved on from ‘blood and soil’ and the Northern Irish conflict has been a lesson in what can happen when nationalist politics go sour. Irish politicians have learned to moderate themselves so as not to stir a pot of ethnic conflict – although younger generations don’t necessarily know this.

As a whole, Fanning says that Irish people don’t have a problem with immigrants as such, despite almost 80% of the country in 2004 voting that children born in Ireland would not have an automatic right to citizenship.

“Immigrants were welcomed into the economy and worked in various sectors and places, but a lot of ordinary people came to the conclusion that an immigrant born next door to them was not Irish. That said, when we think of someone as a fellow citizen, we admit them into a category that includes ourselves, regardless of their ethnic background. For instance, when Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish-born citizen with an Irish passport, was imprisoned in Egypt, the media reported on him as an Irish citizen and Irish politicians went to see an Irish citizen in a foreign prison.”

He speculates that, were the 2004 referendum to be held again today, the result would most likely be on “a knife edge.”

He cautions against complacency however. Anti-Traveller prejudice has only grown over the past few decades, with Fanning commenting on how the rhetoric around Travellers echoes colonial British views of Irish people. “We can also look at the often negative experience of what it was to be Protestant in post-independence Ireland.

Fanning says that the average TD has a good sense of how voters feel about issues and that, despite some noises from a few rural independent politicians, there isn’t sufficient political hay to be made from stoking up anti-immigrant sentiment. “Most mainstream politicians have come to the conclusion that it won’t benefit them to be seen as racist.”

Inclusive citizenship, says Fanning, is important to stem the growth of the far-right in Ireland. “We can take an inclusive approach and admit more people into decision making and into becoming a more active part of their community. Polish people, for instance, may not vote if they’re not Irish citizens, and they’re not Irish citizens because, by virtue of holding EU citizenship, they may feel they don’t need it. In the UK context, non-British citizens could have changed the outcome of Brexit if they had had a vote.”

Integration should happen in local communities, and communities should be consulted about services, facilities and infrastructure, Fanning says. “If a direct provision is going into a town, it should be tied to community development so nobody is seen as a burden. A Citizens’ Assembly could look positively at what it means to be Irish in the 21st century.”

Professor Bryan Fanning was in conversation with Peter McGuire, BA (2002), MLitt (2007), a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to The Irish Times.