If it’s not a pattern, it’s certainly a coalescence. Far-right beliefs, rhetoric and politics are sporadically entering mainstream politics in Ireland, so now it’s about recognising that, dealing with it, and figuring out how mainstream politics and society can equip itself against such threats to decency, civility and democracy.
In recent weeks we have seen a Fine Gael byelection candidate peddle a conspiracy theory that Isis is “a big part of the migrant population” in Ireland. We have seen the Taoiseach abandon compassion, context and cop-on when it comes to asylum seekers in the direct provision system saying they “can leave at any time”, as well as homing in on people coming to Ireland from two countries in particular, saying there are “a lot of people from Georgia and Albania coming in with fake documents, and that is a big driver of the increase”. We have heard Independent TD Noel Grealish, who often votes with the Government in the Dáil, saying there are “people coming over here from Africa” in relation to migrants “to sponge off the system here in Ireland”, and then using his platform in the Dáil to “highlight” inaccurate figures regarding money being sent from Ireland to Nigeria, singling out that country for reasons only he knows. We have also seen a Fianna Fáil politician, Lorraine Clifford-Lee, criticised for using slurs against Travellers on social media before she became a Senator.
It is not enough to bat these things off, or to see them as blips without context or consequence. We already have protests around the country against direct provision centres, we already have a society that has a high tolerance for bigotry and we already fail to see the dangers racist rhetoric poses, because Ireland’s national posture has always been a head in the sand.
Far from harmless
Sensationally fringe, racist, far-right, fascistic, conspiratorial, bigoted, and prejudiced points of view exist in societies pretty much at all times. But for the most part in Ireland, we don’t really hear them in mainstream politics (media is less immune, as being a right-wing provocateur is actually a career path). Those propagating the worst of this stuff are framed as people not to be taken seriously, and depicted as oddballs and obsessives. But this stuff is only “harmless” until it’s not. Politics is porous, and opinions, however objectionable, only thrive depending on how much oxygen they’re given.
In some ways the far right isn’t the issue, it’s mainstream politics. The far right is just going to be the far right, and do what the far right does. It’s up to mainstream politics to protect and define itself. For example, Donald Trump is Donald Trump, he was never going to change or evolve. He spent a lot of time telling people who he was and what he was about. Had the Republican Party not invited him in, he would still be on the outside of mainstream politics, being an obnoxious, racist crook. But he was invited in. And now he’s seeking re-election in less than a year’s time. Sure, he’s just a symptom of a larger American problem, but the damage a figurehead in power can do is monumental. Again, Trump wasn’t truly dangerous until mainstream politics subsumed him and his rhetoric.
This is a pattern: extreme rhetoric is heard, listened to, and begins to seep into mainstream politics until it becomes part of it. In Britain, the Tory party was radicalised in just a few years. Extreme rhetoric was accommodated, given space, and provided with the opportunity to have an impact. This process led to the Brexit referendum, the subsequent demonisation of more moderate figures in the party and the eventual takeover by radical conservatives, whose dishonest, bullish nativism has plunged the region into crisis.
In some quarters, concerns over the number of votes Peter Casey won in the presidential election last year, for example, were pooh-poohed. Relax, he lost! But what happened during that election was not just an alarm bell about racism against Travellers – which has been ringing for years – it also exposed how ill-equipped mainstream politics and media was at countering Casey’s rhetoric. Unused to dealing with Trumpism – save for occasional outbursts from the Healy-Raes, who exist in their own self-serving Kerry Tea Party – a lot of politicians and journalists excused, appeased or downplayed what was happening. Not only did Casey’s rhetoric enter mainstream discourse, and find support, but the media took on an expansive role, reporting what he was saying, discussing the merits of what he was saying, and then media and social media orchestrated “debate” around the issue in question, mostly in a polarised fashion.
There is an argument, of course, for flushing all of this stuff out. “Let’s talk about it. Let’s acknowledge our racism and our Islamophobia and our bigotry and our prejudices.” But how to do this when it’s so clear truth, facts, rationality, sense and logic don’t matter to the far right or those who end up parroting their conspiracies and hate?
As for Verona Murphy, her political career should be over, but it’s not. That Fine Gael are standing by her will come back to haunt them, but we should also pay attention to the decision that Fine Gael has taken in this instance. Remember their support for her after she said what she said. Maybe they think there are votes in this stuff. It’s not just about what she said, though, it’s also about what the things she said say about her. Honestly, what kind of person peddles such nonsense? Whether Murphy knows that what she said is a trope of the far right and believes it, or knows and doesn’t care, or is too uninformed to consider how these conspiracies have found their way into her head, it’s all bad news. Listen to the alarm bells, because so often, we just choose to tune them out.