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Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right National Rally party Alamy Stock Photo
VOICES

Larry Donnelly Why hasn’t the far-right risen in Ireland?

Ireland’s history of emigration has made most of us resistant to anti-immigration rhetoric, our columnist writes.

ASSESSING THE RESULT of the recent French presidential election, the geographer and ex-diplomat Piaras Mac Éinrí tweeted despairingly that Marine Le Pen had received 42% of the vote and noted that it is “part of a wider pattern across Europe”.

Given that right-wing politicians have enjoyed very little electoral success in this country, he wonders: “Why is Ireland an outlier?”

He poses a complicated question that isn’t amenable to a straightforward answer. It’s one I have spent a considerable number of hours ruminating on. Following are some of my own thoughts on the topic.

Let’s establish the context. There are some Irish politicians who are fond of describing Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as right-wing parties. But at least by international standards, theirs is a laughable suggestion.

Although there are certainly members of a more conservative disposition within each, the stances embraced and the policies endorsed by the respective leaderships of the two traditional “big beasts” are typically centrist or, increasingly, centre-left.

It is also a big stretch to label Peadar Tóibín’s Aontú, notwithstanding its resolute opposition to abortion and criticism of “groupthink” on immigration et al, a party of the right in light of its clear emphasis on a united Ireland and economic justice.

The only genuine hard right groupings are fringe entities with no elected representatives, such as the National Party, Identity Ireland, Irish Freedom and Renua.

marine-le-pen-leader-of-french-far-right-national-rally-rassemblement-national-party-and-candidate-for-the-2022-french-presidential-election-attends-an-interview-with-reuters-at-her-campaign-headq Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right National Rally party Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Additionally, the right has not gained a foothold in the mainstream Irish media ecosystem. Beyond Gript.ie and perhaps Niall Boylan’s radio programme, it is tough to conceive of an organ that intentionally caters to a conservative audience. I am deliberately omitting the entirely separate category of conspiracy theorists who utilise the internet to spew bile.

Plenty have attacked Gript, in particular, and warn that it is a toxic tool of the far right. Its fans dispute that characterisation and claim that the site reports on stories ignored by left-leaning outlets. Further, despite understandable concerns about the spread of misinformation, I believe the reflexive suppression or shutting down of controversial or purportedly radical viewpoints to be a similarly dangerous threat to the polity.

Why has this milieu emerged here, then, when the right has won sometimes convincingly at the ballot box in the United States, the United Kingdom and in much of the rest of the Europe? Several explanations of varying merit have been proffered in the past.

Emigration

First, and possibly the most common, is Ireland’s history of emigration to the four corners of the globe where, often in the face of discrimination initially, its people have achieved extraordinary things. This has made the friends, relations and descendants of those who have left – as well as the women and men themselves who went away and eventually returned – resistant to the anti-immigration rhetoric which is usually the “bread and butter” of far-right political figures.

A second inextricably intertwined contributor is that this is a small, highly globalised island whose residents, whether owing to direct experience of emigration or other consequences flowing from geographic reality, are well-attuned to the world outside of Ireland and hence have a less myopic perspective than inhabitants of, for example, the southern US.

Third, the failure of the right in Ireland can, to an extent, be attributed to a paucity of talented, articulate spokespersons with the capacity to win over converts to their cause. Indeed, opportunists who have perceived a gap in the market and sensed that there was something of a “silent majority” in this country have proven less than persuasive messengers on the campaign trail.

Fourth, there is Sinn Féin, which has been the political home for ardent nationalists who, in other jurisdictions, might be drawn to parties of the right. It has slowly and carefully strayed from its committed socialist roots, but Sinn Féin’s key players would still self-define as being on the ideological left.

A problematic tension dwells herein as the former political companion of the IRA expands its base and appears headed for government: multiple polls show that its core adherents are more likely to favour curbs on immigration and espouse conservative positions on a range of matters. It has been termed “a tolerant party with intolerant supporters”.

Fifth, as Anna Guildea of Peking University has detailed, Ireland for decades had a much lower percentage of its workforce employed in manufacturing than elsewhere in Europe. And in contrast to the rest of the west, globalisation – synonymous in this instance with foreign direct investment – has been a decidedly good development for the Irish industrial and manufacturing sector.

Accordingly, there is no equivalent to the vast swathes of individuals who ultimately lost their livelihoods in Middle America or the northeast of England and who subsequently rallied to political candidates on the populist right.

Lastly, while the collective skin complexion of societies across Europe and in the US has been darkening apace for a long time, this remained a predominantly white and Irish place. That is changing now and there are more people of colour and immigrants.

Most of us appreciate a more diverse Ireland for myriad reasons. But even allowing for the partly immunising effect of emigration against racism and xenophobia, Ireland would be unique if this didn’t precipitate a backlash in some quarters – especially against the backdrop of an intractable housing crisis, mounting inflation and the difficulties that will surface in accepting tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing their war-torn land. Significant challenges lie ahead.

These are my six primary suppositions as to why the right has not risen in Ireland. Crucially, however, none is insurmountable. In this regard, there seems to me to be an extreme reticence bordering on a total unwillingness to discuss and debate ideas which lots of us find objectionable. Forgive the eternal American in me, but I do not share this arguably fear-driven sentiment.

It is immeasurably worse to pretend that abhorrent beliefs aren’t out there and to bury our heads in the sand. Illustrations of where that leads abound. And the six factors identified above militate strongly against the hard right winning the battle for Irish hearts and minds.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with The Journal His book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish-American Political Family” – is published by Gill Books. It is available here and at bookshops.

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