Discontented rural Ireland fertile ground for populists

Government slow to learn lesson from Brexit and populism sweeping other countries

The woman getting some exercise in the Bishop Birch housing estate on the outskirts of Kilkenny seemed glad of the excuse to take a breather. Her health wasn’t good, and walking was a struggle.

I was in the city on a rainy day last May, reporting on local feelings about the overturning of plans for a mosque there by An Bord Pleanála. This woman was one of several I met who was "dead set" against the mosque. "I didn't want it at all. Wouldn't be a good idea. You'd have bells ringing at all hours."

The planning application stated that there wouldn’t be any call to prayer, but that revelation didn’t budge her. As she resumed her stiff, slow walk, I asked whether she was aware that many of the doctors in the hospital were worshippers at the mosque she opposed. She looked astonished. “I didn’t know that,” she said. Would that change her mind? “It would. Yeah,” she said immediately.

Those in support of the mosque claimed opposition to it had been stirred up on social media by outside groups pursuing their own anti-Islamic, anti-immigration agendas. The same thing now appears to be happening in Oughterard, where far-right campaigners are campaigning against a rumoured 250-person direct provision centre.


Many ordinary people, when you scratch the surface, are like the woman in Kilkenny. What might seem like bargain-bin anti-immigrant sentiment melts away when it dawns on them that there are real people involved. People on whose services they rely, like doctors, restaurant workers and taxi drivers. Children who might grow up to be dentists or footballers or Tidy Towns committee members.

Plight of migrants

Those who look aghast at the waves of populism sweeping other countries sometimes comfort themselves that, as a nation of leavers, we empathise too much with the plight of migrants to ever succumb. Some of those protesting against direct provision centres betray the same kind of cognitive dissonance, insisting it is not the people they’re opposed to; just the large numbers of them. Or, they say, it is the inhumanity of the system of direct provision they oppose, even if it never occurred to them to march against it before.

Local opposition to direct provision centres is not necessarily a barometer of anti-immigrant feeling. It is too bound up in other issues. But it does speak volumes about the economic, psychological and cultural disconnect between Dublin and the rest of the country. If a populist movement ever succeeds in taking root in Ireland, it will find fertile ground in that chasm.

Dublin is sucking the life out of the rest of Ireland

Populism peddles a narrative of virtuous, hardworking people betrayed by a self-serving elite. It does best where it can tap into a generalised dissatisfaction by groups who feel they have been left behind. Large swathes of rural Ireland don’t just feel like they’ve been left behind; they have been left behind.

Lightning rod

Unlike the far right, the Government doesn’t seem able to see how direct provision centres and mosques can become a lightning rod for a whole raft of other issues: infrastructure, transport, housing, employment, policing, schooling, a general sense of neglect and decay. In Oughterard, protesters being interviewed about the centre cite everything from the closure of the Garda station to the need for a pedestrian safety bridge. They may have misguidedly hitched their wagon to a single, charged target, but it’s clear their grievances extend beyond migration. Whatever about their fears, the sense of being left behind is not a figment of their imaginations.

Dublin is sucking the life out of the rest of Ireland. Half of economic activity in the country is in Dublin. In 2018, half of the new tech jobs announced in the State were in Dublin, which also has 60 per cent of creative occupations and industries. These days, the best chance for many rural towns is to become a dormitory servicing the capital.

Dismissing people with unpalatable views as isolated groups of backward, racist yokels was a mistake for which Britain is still paying. And it’s a mistake we’re now in danger of making. Ignoring the concerns of people in rural Ireland who feel hopeless about the future plays right into the hands of those ready to exploit them.

Information vacuum

The Government doesn't seem to get this. Its failure to engage with communities protesting about direct provision shows how poorly it understands the populist playbook. The information vacuum on the planned centre for Oughterard was inevitably filled with ugly, anti-immigration rhetoric. Independent TD Noel Grealish's remarks about "people of African origin" coming here to "sponge off the system" were the first public manifestation of this; reports in this newspaper revealed how hardline right-wing elements had since been cynically stoking up tensions on social media. It's doubtful that professional blowhard Katie Hopkins, one of those braying loudly in support of the people of Oughterard, will continue spewing her faux indignation if, let's say, their safety bridge doesn't materialise.

Communities need to stop whining about how hurtful it is to be mischaracterised as racist, and start focusing on the positives that can come out of an infusion of new life into a place. They also need to start helping themselves. If they could rally around positive initiatives with a fraction of the determination evidenced in Oughterard last week - where more than 60 people manned a picket around the clock - many of the very real problems of rural Ireland could be solved. Unfortunately, as populists know only too well, fear is a stronger call to action than hope.