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Opinion: Far-right politics on the rise so we need to stop silencing working class voices on the left

Ordinary working-class people are being silenced by left-wing commentators, because of their lack of regard for modern liberal terminology, writes Conor Kenny.

Conor Kenny

AS WE LEAVE behind 2018, a year in which Jordan Peterson sold out the Olympia Theatre, Nigel Farage was warmly received at the RDS Irexit conference, and Peter Casey polled second in the Irish Presidential election, it is clear to see that far-right political ideals are on the rise in Ireland.

Meanwhile, working-class voices on the left are being stifled within their own movement. For those paying attention, it is difficult to claim that the two matters are unrelated.

Anyone who has spent time on social media this year will have noticed that a sizeable proportion of Ireland’s young workers are becoming attracted to the reactionary stylings of right-wing populists from abroad.

Granted, Ireland does not have this problem on the scale of other countries, but the onset of the social media age has inevitably resulted in the importation of certain American terms and ideas.

At the same time, many people look across the Irish Sea and sympathise with the plight of Tommy Robinson’s recent court case. In a way, who can blame them? Demagogues like Robinson have often found success among the working class in Britain by presenting themselves as regular people.

The late Bob Crow, the charismatic leader of the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers), acted as a bulwark against this kind of populist. Crow was the first socialist who was able to persuasively explain left-wing concepts to people like the current Senior Assistant General Secretary of his old union, Irishman Steve Hedley. Many others were no doubt similarly affected by his eloquence.

Part of his appeal, Hedley has told me, came from the fact that the Londoner was visibly working class and proud of it. Ireland could use a Bob Crow at the moment, but they would be unlikely to get very far.

The current trend of ostracising people for having used politically incorrect language, or having expressed ‘problematic’ viewpoints, is alienating future leaders who are needed to fill a political void in Ireland.

The logical consequence of this behaviour is that someone will soon be successful in rallying together enough impressionable voters to form an electable far-right party. Only visible representatives from the working class stand any chance of halting this trend.
 
Ireland does not need to look far to find individuals like this, but many commentators in the left-wing establishment seem determined to freeze them out of the movement entirely when they emerge. 

That isn’t to say that there aren’t any prominent working-class figures on the left in Irish politics. Sinn Féin and People Before Profit, in particular, have done a good job of promoting a significant number of local representatives in and around Dublin in recent years.

But the “left” is more than the political party machines and the trade unions – it is comprised of journalists, pundits, university professors and even, although they are nowhere near as important as they think, the Irish “Twitterati”.

The treatment of author, Frankie Gaffney, is a case in point. Gaffney is working-class Dublin personified. And is the kind of person that the left in Ireland should want at the apex of their movement. An eloquent debater who doesn’t tone down his thick northside accent. Nor is he apologetic about his old-fashioned socialism.

Back in 2017, a large cohort on the left found a piece he wrote in the Irish Times objectionable. Gaffney was heavily criticised on social media for having the temerity to question the effectiveness of ‘identity politics’ in Ireland, in an article that, in hindsight, seems fairly understated.

Central to his piece was the argument that the increasing usage of American political terms like ‘white privilege’ was only tenuously applicable to Ireland, and that they, in turn, alienated the country’s own working class – a group of people who feel about as far from privileged as possible in the current economic climate.

Gaffney’s piece was provocative, and its purpose was to ignite debate, it is fine to disagree with him but the pushback he faced after the article was published was excessive.

The sheer nastiness he had to endure online, mostly from people on his own side, was simply uncalled for. Those who attacked him did so with such vitriol that they proved his point for him.

He faced threats of violence, and his appearance was mocked, with many reacting to his piece deciding to play the (working class) man before the ball.

The similar ad-hominem criticism that Luke Flanagan has to endure from fellow left-wing politicians and journalists whenever he breaches protocol is evidence that even being an elected representative offers no protection from this onslaught.

Irish author, Angela Nagle, recently explained to me her view that one of the reasons why ordinary working people are being silenced by many on the left is their relative lack of regard for modern liberal terminology.

The inclusion of working class voices on the left presents many middle-class liberals with the very real problem of having to accept that most people do not conform to the same norms of political correctness that they do.

Gaffney’s treatment, Nagle claims, is the consequence of a system of etiquette that the liberal establishment strictly adheres to, but that most other people in this country do not.

This is a cultural question of the way a significant proportion of the Irish middle class left treat working class people on their own side.

The most concerning implication of this theory is that working class people in Ireland are being sidelined from a political movement that was originally created for their benefit, on the basis of minor contraventions of ever-changing protocols.

If workers are made to feel unwelcome on the left, it should be no surprise to anyone when they consider looking elsewhere. This treatment of working-class socialists in Ireland is a long-standing issue.

It’s unsurprising that the two biggest icons in left-wing Irish history, Jim Larkin and James Connolly, were born and raised in Liverpool and Edinburgh respectively, and cut their political teeth abroad.

Many people on the left in Ireland have long failed to treat our working class with the respect it deserves.

If this doesn’t change soon, the angry young workers of Ireland currently being seduced by the Robinsons and Caseys of the world have every chance of becoming an organised political force.

And that should be a frightening thought for the left to consider.

Conor Kenny is a political aide and former trade union employee currently based in Massachusetts.

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