From years basking in the glow of being the best little Europeans in the class, Ireland finds itself in the unfamiliar position of having the rest of the world gawp in our direction, wondering where it all went wrong. One minute we are the liberal exemplar, the next a cautionary tale, a formerly populist-proof country which combusted without warning into an orgy of fiery fascistic fury. On the week it won the Booker Prize, Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song became prophetic in more than just name.
After copycat rioting in France, interior minister Gérald Darmanin went on radio there to reassure people that “France avoided an Ireland-like scenario, France has avoided a mini-civil war.”
Commentators in other, perhaps predictable, quarters seem to be rather enjoying Ireland’s discomfort. In the Daily Telegraph, Allison Pearson suggested the Dublin riots are what happens when the “splendid Irish mammies” protesting about immigration are ignored. Far right, she claimed, is merely “the new phrase for patriotism and defending your culture”.
Ireland “wanted to prove its liberal values and committed to hosting huge numbers of Ukrainian refugees ... and made almost no plans for how to accommodate them,” suggested commentator Philip Pilkington in Unherd, as though what was happening in Ireland was really a punishment for woke virtue-signalling.
But the surge in fascist ideology here is more complex than merely a reaction to immigration or the housing crisis. The riots were not a punishment for the pendulum swinging too far from the authoritarianism of the Church. Kicking in the window of Foot Locker is not an act designed to protect your culture. Nor was it – as Garda Commissioner Drew Harris put it in language that was both stigmatising and simplistic – the work of a “complete lunatic faction”. What happened here is what has been happening all over Europe: far-right agitators seized on social issues to whip up an angry mob.
Why do we persist in seeing Ireland as some kind of exceptional case, when we are really just late developers?
Across Europe, the far right is now part of the political and societal landscape. It is hard to see where among our motley collection of ”concerned citizens” (surely one of the most abused terms in the Hiberno-English lexicon) might lurk a future Javier Milei, Geert Wilders or Giorgia Meloni – but then, a few years ago, Wilders himself was a rank outsider. Now he is the leader of the Netherlands’ largest party. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is the longest serving leader in the EU. The far-right Sweden Democrats are part of the governing coalition in Sweden, following a shock electoral performance last year. In Italy, France, Slovakia and Germany, the far right are helping to mould politics. In the US, pumped up on a heady cocktail of resentment and revenge, Donald Trump is closing in again on the White House. In Argentina, Milei – wielding a chainsaw and the wild, sardonic grin that has become the hallmark of right-wing populists – just won a decisive victory in the presidential election.
The Irish far-right force may still be small, leaderless and ideology-free but the idea that it could gain a permanent foothold in Irish politics is no longer entirely fantastical. In the general election three years ago, 30 candidates from several groups stood on a broad far-right platform. At that stage, none even polled well enough to get their expenses back. Gemma O’Doherty, one of the best performing, got less than 2 per cent in Fingal. This wasn’t a rejection of a broader anti-immigration ideology so much as a rejection of candidates lacking in charisma, credibility or any kind of coherence. Two years before that, Peter Casey earned 23 per cent in the presidential election having used anti-Traveller rhetoric. The following year, he ran for the European Parliament and described immigration as a “ticking time bomb”. In 2020, he finished third-last in both Donegal and Dublin West.
What happened between 2018 and 2020 was not that the voting public saw the perils of succumbing to anti-immigration bombast. What happened in those years was Sinn Féin.
The party’s unique brand of left populism acted as a buffer against far-right populism. But that was then; and since then we’ve had a Covid pandemic, an explosion of home-grown conspiracy theorists, war in Ukraine and Gaza, a cost-of-living crisis, record immigration and a rolling housing crisis. Calls for a “sensible debate” may not be code for infiltration of the far right so much as a response to the fact that we are, any day now, literally about to run out of homes for migrants. It’s hard to overstate how much of a failure this is when our entire economic model depends on people from other countries being able to come here to work and feeling safe.
Sinn Féin, still ahead in the polls, knows its broadly pro-immigration position is in danger of eroding its base. On Tuesday, Mary Lou McDonald was confronted by apparent anti-immigration protesters who shouted “traitor” at her. On Wednesday, she tweeted a photograph of a man sitting drinking a can on what she claimed was the steps of the school where last week’s horrendous knife attack took place with the words “NO lessons have been learned by Govt. NO care or respect.” It was an unsubtle move from someone who positions herself as the voice of the vulnerable, and a sign the party is rattled.
As the Turkish writer Ece Temelkuran warned in 2019, “There is something resembling a pattern to the political insanity that we choose to name ‘rising populism’.” We have seen that pattern play out in other countries. It would be an act of wilful blindness to refuse to recognise it here.