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Fintan O’Toole: Ireland faces a rising threat from a far-right that is growing in ambition

Protests against refugees are fuelled by misinformation and a residual element seeking to hate an ‘Other’

The important thing to remember about fascism is that it doesn’t need excuses. The object of its hatred is irrelevant – the hatred itself is the point.

The eternal template of the far-right is anti-Semitism. White supremacists in the US, pushing the Great Replacement conspiracy, slip in their chanting from “You will not replace us” to “Jews will not replace us”.

They can’t help themselves. Whether or not it is consciously expressed, anti-Semitic rage is in the DNA of fascism. It cannot be removed.

How the far right spreads misinformation and enflames anger at refugee protests

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And the role that actual Jews have played in this rage is essentially non-existent. The Jew is there to meet two needs – to be Other and to be vulnerable to persecution.


That these needs can be met by other vulnerable Others – Blacks, Catholics, heretics, Muslims, Travellers, women, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, asylum seekers – merely reminds us that the “cause” of far-right violence is the desire and not the object.

Ireland is facing a rising threat from a far-right that is small but growing in confidence and ambition. To deal with that threat, the State and society has to be very clear about the nature of causation.

The question to be answered is: how much of this agitation is “about” real issues and how much of it is an exploitation of real issues for purposes that have, at heart, nothing much to do with them? To put it in other terms, is this a supply-side problem or a demand-side problem?

Ideologically and organisationally, it is overwhelmingly a problem of demand. There is a demand for a vulnerable Other. Refugees and asylum seekers fill it – but if it were not them it would be somebody else.

What’s happened in Ireland over the last decade or so is that three causes that appeal to people on the far-right have run aground. Rage against refugees is a substitute for older impulses that are, for now, largely thwarted.

Those three causes are, crudely, militantly conservative Catholicism, violent nationalism and anti-EU agitation. They often formed a package but each element had its own force.

The resounding defeats of religious conservatism in the referendums on abortion and marriage equality have left behind an embittered residue of reactionaries for whom “Ireland is not Ireland anymore”. The visceral thrill of Anglophobic and anti-Protestant holy war in the North is largely unavailable.

And, for now at least, the reactionary reverie of Ireland leaving the EU has been dispelled. Brexit has been a potent vaccine against the Europhobic virus.

Refugees and asylum seekers are the most available proxies. But if it wasn’t them, it would probably be Travellers.

Recreational bullying

Indeed, you don’t need a very long memory to recall the sights and sounds of mobs roaring “Get them out!” at houses where a Traveller family had settled. If there is no external Them, we always have an old reliable internal version.

As for the foot soldiers who turn up at anti-refugee protests, we should remember that there is always a market for recreational bullying. Ganging up is a sadistic pleasure – and so is kicking down.

All of this has to be sifted out. I don’t mean that the far-right does not need to be taken seriously or that those elements of it that cross into criminality should not be investigated and prosecuted. I mean, rather, that policy responses to these protests cannot be shaped by the assumption that this is a problem “caused” by the influx of refugees.

On the contrary, what the large increase in the intake of refugees over the last year has shown is that what matters is not the numbers involved but the story being told. There is overwhelming sympathy and support for Ukrainian refugees because the public literally knows where they are coming from.

The Ukraine war and its broader meaning is clear to most Irish people. The same is not true for the aftermaths of the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan or Tigray. You can actually hear grown men at protests outside hotels housing non-Ukrainian refugees saying things like “Why are they coming here? There’s no war where they’re coming from.”

So one obvious policy response is that the Government should be much more active in explaining to the public that Ukraine is not the only horrific conflict from which desperate people are fleeing. And much more active in countering the lies being spread on social media. There needs to be a rapid response unit that gets accurate information out to people through the same channels that the far-right uses to propagate scare stories.

The other proper response is to cut the far-right agitators off from decent local communities who are feeling powerless and frustrated. That’s not done by preaching to people. It’s done by giving them reassurance and hope.

If you were looking up the road from the Travelodge in Ballymun where there were nasty protests last week, what would you see? Acres and acres of grass – serviced land ideal for housing that has been ready for development for years.

And it’s a big nothing. The wind raging over its bleak emptiness is the soundtrack of a hopelessness that, unlike the land, is waiting to be built on. Construct something good or see it filled with vile fabrications.