‘IRELAND IS NOT Greece’, our political leaders like to tell whoever will listen. Whatever about the economic comparisons, this is certainly true of our politics. In Greece, the far-left and far-right are in the ascendant: recent opinion polls place the far-left Syriza and the far-right Golden Dawn as the first and third most popular parties respectively.
Golden Dawn in particular is grabbing international headlines, given its neo-Nazism, vigilantism and alleged infiltration of the police. Far-right anti-immigrant parties (albeit without the neo-Nazi trappings associated with Golden Dawn) have also seen significant electoral success in relatively prosperous European countries such as Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.
As well as competition at the extremes, the political centre in European countries is also organised along predictable left-right lines, with centre-left Social Democratic parties competing with centre-right Christian Democratic or Conservative parties.
Irish politics, in contrast, has been characterised by centrism and an absence of ideological division. The two largest parties prior to the last election, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are not easily distinguishable in left-right terms; to the extent that they can be categorised, most observers would consider them both as being essentially centre-right parties. These two parties routinely captured around 70 per cent of first preference votes prior to 2011.
The left in Ireland has always been remarkably weak by European standards, with the Labour Party trailing a poor third throughout most of its history. The left did strengthen in the last election, with Labour, Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance all benefiting from the collapse of Fianna Fáil; but by going into government with Fine Gael, Labour missed an opportunity to reorient Irish party competition along left-right lines. The right, in contrast, did not emerge in 2011, and it is remarkable that there is currently no political party to the right of Fine Gael.
There are a number of possible explanations for the centrist tendencies in Irish politics. The absence of a clear left-right divide is partly down to historical factors: the Irish party system emerged out of the civil war divide, as opposed to a class struggle as was the case in most European countries. Irish voters are comparatively non-ideological. When asked to place themselves on a scale from left to right, usually around half of Irish survey respondents either place themselves at the mid-point on the scale or else say they do not know. Again, this is noticeably higher than the European average.
Another reason is that our PR-STV electoral system incentivises parties to put forward vague policy platforms, so as not to alienate any voters who might consider giving them a second preference.
However, it is still somewhat surprising that no anti-immigration party has succeeded in gaining traction in Ireland. In many ways Ireland should provide the ideal breeding ground for the far-right, with its combination of high unemployment, a relatively large population of recent immigrants (around 12 per cent non-nationals, according to the 2011 census), and the lack of strong attachment among most voters to the established political parties.
It is certainly not because Irish voters are more tolerant than their counterparts on the continent: if anything, the reverse is true. In the most recent European Values Survey, 62 per cent of Irish respondents felt that there were too many immigrants living in Ireland, compared to an average of 52 per cent across other western European countries. Similarly, Irish people are somewhat more likely than average to say they would not like to live next door to immigrants.
Are we immune?
One explanation for the absence of a successful far-right party in Ireland (put forward by Eoin O’Malley of DCU) is that Sinn Féin, with its nationalism and anti-establishment rhetoric, has monopolised the support of the types of voters who might otherwise be supportive of a far-right party – that is, young working-class men. That Sinn Féin has not adopted an anti-immigration platform, despite the anti-immigrant attitudes of some of its target market, is put down to the fact that such a policy would be at odds with its historical role as defender of the minority in Northern Ireland.
All this is not to say that we are immune from the far-right. Where such parties have emerged, it has tended to be quite sudden; often all it takes is a charismatic leader who succeeds in making xenophobic attitudes sound acceptable. The latent hostility among some segments of the Irish population towards immigrants and minorities may find ready expression in a new party in the future, particularly if unemployment continues to rise.
The most recent Eurobarometer survey on immigration shows that fully 65 per cent of Irish people believe that the presence of people from other ethnic groups increases unemployment. This is up dramatically from a pre-crisis figure of 48 per cent, and far higher than the European average.
While it is highly unlikely that a neo-Nazi Golden Dawn type party will emerge in Ireland, it is entirely possible that a less extreme brand of the far-right could find some success here in the future.
Rory Costello is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick, specialising in EU politics and political representation.