Has there ever been the prospect of an odder romance than the attempted courtship of the Burkes of Castlebar by Ireland’s motley collection of far-right activists?
In the murkiest corners of social media – the places where dire warnings about immigration and “vaccine damage” mingle with fearmongering about “extreme sex education” and theories how International Women’s Day is a “commie invention” – Enoch Burke and his family are being embraced as heroes.
Burke came to the attention of the Irish new right during his imprisonment for contempt of court last year, after he refused to abide by an injunction to stay away from the school where he had been teaching. A small group of supporters, with apparently no direct links to the Burke family, protested regularly outside Mountjoy, sharing photos of their “I Stand With Enoch” signs on the Telegram channels of the new right.
That support exploded after this week’s round of courtroom skirmishes, which culminated in several members of the Burke family being forcibly removed from court. Burke was immediately hailed as a “hetero rights freedom fighter” and “a man who righteously and absolutely stuck by his position”. One prominent activist compared him favourably to Graham Carey, the anti-migrant protester who was charged with incitement to hatred but granted bail after he agreed to modify his behaviour. British far-right agitator Tommy Robinson described Burke as “a hero… fighting the good fight”.
The notion of Enoch Burke as a hero of the far right isn’t an easy one to wrap your head around – and it should be said there’s no evidence that he, or any of the Burkes, have done anything to encourage it. A highly educated, fervently evangelical Christian family, they are “a strange outfit”, says one local. They are not interested in corralling public support and appear deeply fearful of the modern world. Burke has written about how JK Rowling “purposely incorporated Wiccan and homosexual elements” into her Harry Potter series.
There is a history of overlap between religious fundamentalists and far-right conspiracists. One thing they all have in common is a conviction that the world is being controlled by unseen forces
Their new cohort of admirers are a loose coalition of agitators, small in number but prominent online, who reject the label “far right” but speak the language of plantations, great replacements and unvetted military age men. They often lapse into a vernacular Burke would no doubt regard as “unchaste” and “evil conversation”. Racial and ethnic insults, misogyny and casual threats of violence are routine parts of the discourse.
These significant differences in style aside, there is a history of overlap between religious fundamentalists and far-right conspiracists. One thing they all have in common is a conviction that the world is being controlled by unseen forces. For Burke, that force is divine, which explains his willingness to rack up fines and endure imprisonment. “Persecution, affliction, burdens, sorrow, grief, loss and toil are to be expected,” he writes with his customary cheer, but these are transient beside “the smile of Christ”. In the case of the new right, the forces include, but are not limited to, mainstream media, globalists, the World Economic Forum, the Government, George Soros, big pharma.
Both groups are fixated on the idea that the modern world is going in the wrong direction and preoccupied with issues of sexual and gender identity. Far-right ideology is typically openly transphobic, while Burke’s views on what he and family members insist on calling “transgenderism” are well known. Both see LGBTQ+ rights as “a slippery slope”. For the far right, this frequently manifests as homophobic slurs against individuals, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Burke’s views on LGBTQ+ people are informed by his belief that “homosexual conduct has been and always will be condemned by God”. He bemoans that “the 2016 government had two open homosexuals as ministers”, Varadkar and “childless homosexual” and “believer in witchcraft” Katherine Zappone.
Surge in activism
The recent surge in far-right activism and the frequent public performances of the Burke’s extremely conservative social and religious beliefs are occurring at a time when there is debate about gender identity issues generally. Catholic Church primary school authorities wrote to Government to say pupils should not be taught about what they refer to as “transgenderism” – a view rejected by the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and President Michael D Higgins, who said this week that schools should give “basic information regarding sexuality in the fullest sense”.
Referendums have a way of becoming about everything other than the thing they’re about
With all of this simmering away in the background, it seems an ominous time for a referendum with the word “gender” in the title. The long-awaited referendum on Articles 40 and 41 is ostensibly good news: a much-needed bit of constitutional housekeeping, the opportunity to excise sexist language, and – from the Government’s perspective – the chance to remind us how good it felt to bask in the warm glow of previous referendums.
But referendums have a way of becoming about everything other than the thing they’re about. Already, one prominent far-right activist is warning their followers that amending the Constitution will mean “less freedom for the average man”. “Anyone consider asking them Irish mammys and caregivers if they wanted to be reassigned as something else?” somebody else asked, apparently confusing several hot-button issues.
Inevitably, the campaign will become a forum to debate everything other than gender equality and the need to place a value on the work of caring – including trans rights and the sex education curriculum. Expect to hear much more about whether trans-inclusive language somehow “erases” women.
It all calls into question of whether the Government has really considered the wisdom of tossing a petrol can on to what is already a smouldering bonfire of misplaced fears and deliberate misinformation. A more cynical interpretation might be that it knows exactly what it’s doing. Maybe it reckons a prolonged and heated debate about gender in society is just the distraction we need from the issues it would much rather we weren’t talking about.