Brendan Howlin Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Brendan Howlin: The rise of the far-right across Europe risks destroying the European Project

Labour’s foreign affairs spokesperson said the far-right and the far-left seem “content to use menace” to advocate for themselves.

WELCOME TO POLICY Matters, a series from The Journal that takes a deep dive into the ideas and solutions proposed by Ireland’s politicians on some of the biggest issues of the day.

As part of the series, The Journal sits down with different spokespeople from across Ireland’s political parties to take a deeper look at what they believe needs to be done across areas like housing, health, the environment and childcare.

Last time around, we spoke to People Before Profit’s foreign affairs spokesperson Gino Kenny who told us that his party is not a eurosceptic one, it is instead “euro-critical”.

This week, we sat down with Labour’s foreign affairs spokesperson Brendan Howlin where we discussed his party’s stance on the EU, Israel, and Irish neutrality.

Howlin, who has been a Wexford TD for 36 years, also served as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform from 2011-2016 and previously served as Minister for Health and Minister for Environment during the 1990s.

Howlin announced in October that he will not be contesting the next general election.


BRENDAN HOWLIN, FORMER leader of the Labour Party, and now the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, is deeply concerned about the shift to the right in Europe. 

In his view, this shift threatens to destroy the entire European project. 

“What is the European Union? It is the most successful peace process the world has known,” Howlin said.

Speaking to The Journal, Howlin, said although the European Union is “far from perfect” it is a vital institution that needs to be defended.

Most recently, the Netherlands has seen a shift to the right with the electoral success of the Party for Freedom (PVV).

Led by Gert Wilders (who has been dubbed the ‘Dutch Donald Trump’ by some), the right-wing, anti-immigration and anti-Islam PVV won the most recent Dutch elections last month, with the PVV becoming the largest party in the Dutch House of Representatives.

“There’s been two years of talking about dealing with Hungary, or even Poland and the new countries. But when you see the winner of the Dutch elections being Geert Wilders, who is hanging around for a quarter of a century, banging his racist, right-wing drum, becoming the big winner in a country like the Netherlands, it is profoundly worrying,” Howlin said. 

almelo-netherlands-march-02-2015-portrait-of-political-leader-geert-wilders-of-the-dutch-center-right-party-pvv Political leader Geert Wilders of the Dutch center right party PVV. Alamy Alamy

However, it is Howlin’s view that the rise of the right poses more of a threat in certain countries than it does in others.

“I am much more concerned, of the rise of the right in a country like France, than I am in Poland or Slovakia.

“I mean, if the European project is to survive – it’s based on liberal values, democratic values that are undermined by the far right in a number of countries who are illiberal, who want to control the media, who want a controlled judiciary. And that would destroy the European project. I have great fear about that,” Howlin said. 

He added: “We’re very critical of the European institutions. But they’re very precious.”

Howlin said this is important to remember when we see disagreements at EU level, like has recently been the case in relation to the response to the conflict between Israel and Hamas. 

“It is 27 very different nations coming together with different points of view. We look through our prism and say ‘why does nobody think like us?’, but in 26 other capitals, they’re thinking exactly the same thing.

“And the whole idea of having a parliament and the Council of Ministers is that you broker consensus as best you can. But I think it’s a really important and valuable entity that we need to defend,” Howlin said.


On this, he thinks that Irish media could do a better job when it comes to defending the values of the EU and “calling out the far-right”. 

And he adds, the far-left in the past. 

“I look back and I see the incarceration of Joan Burton, for example. Now, that’s a good many years ago, but what country would tolerate the deputy prime minister being incarcerated for hours in a car being surrounded by a mob and with almost acceptance of that?,” he asked.

Howlin was referring to an incident in 2014 when then-Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton had the car she was in surrounded by protesters during an anti-water charge protest in Jobstown, Dublin.

In 2017, six protesters – including TD Paul Murphy – were found not guilty of false imprisonment. Other protesters had the charges against them dropped.

Howlin said, referring to the incident: “I’m afraid that was the template now that has developed since then.

That level of menace has now reached violence.

“And the far-left and the far-right, seem content to use that sort of menace to advocate for themselves and their viewpoint.

“I think we need to have that called out,” he added.

Is it his view that the far-right and the far-left are the same? 

“Often they meet around the same corner but in truth, the far-right are much more dangerous right now.

“They’re much more organised. They’ve captured the zeitgeist of disaffected people and weaponised people’s difficulties. And misinformation is incredible,” Howlin said.


Turning back to matters of foreign affairs, Howlin said he believes Ireland continues to hold the position of an “honest broker” on the international stage. 

He said the situation in Gaza, and Ireland’s response, illustrates this.

“The even-handed way we’ve approached the current conflict, in contrast to some of our European and certainly our American friends, has actually enhanced our international reputation. And people see that,” Howlin said.

However, Howlin made the point that this reputation as an honest broker needs to be maintained by remaining outside of any military bloc.

This comment was made in relation to the recent focus on Irish neutrality following the publication of the findings of a Consultative Forum on International Security Policy in Ireland.

Last month, speaking in the Dáil during a debate on the Consultative Forum, Tánaiste Micheál Martin announced government plans to bring forward legislation to get rid of the triple lock for Irish military involvement in operations abroad.

The “triple lock” is a mechanism whereby troops can only be deployed by Ireland if there is a United Nations mandate, clearance from the Government and a vote in the Dáil.

The controversial announcement has been met with a negative response from many in opposition, with critics of the move saying a referendum on neutrality is the best path forward as it would allow the public to have their say.

The government, on the other hand, argues that the triple lock hands the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council a veto over our national sovereign decision to deploy troops to peacekeeping missions.

It’s Howlin and the Labour party’s view that a referendum on neutrality is needed.

Howlin said the way the Tánaiste made the announcement “without any warning” was “extraordinary”.

Howlin said a referendum on neutrality is needed so that there is clear recognition and understanding of what it means. 

He also believes that if such a referendum is held, a discussion is needed on how Irish neutrality works within the EU. 

“In a world where autocrats are gaining popularity and strength, we defend liberal democratic values and we should be espousing those and presenting those, but not as part of any military block that has, if you like, a reputation before it goes into any conflict zone.

“We don’t have any baggage of history like that, and we shouldn’t surrender that very important strength that we currently have,” Howlin said.