Narratives, strategies and left responses (Part 2)
In advance of a mass anti-fascist mobilisation in Dublin tomorrow (14 December), we bring you the second instalment of Mark Malone’s assessment of the threat posed by the Irish far right and what can be done to counter it.
Just like the US and Europe, the rise of far right politics in Ireland has its origins not in ballot boxes, but rather online through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and on the darker, less immediately visible spaces – Telegram, Gab, 4Chan and online Irish forums such as PoliticalIreland.com.
Replicating what has been seen elsewhere, Ireland now has a tiny network of demi-celebrities of the far right. Almost all are men who openly talk of being ‘red-pilled’ and refer to other markers showing that they have spent a lot of time steeped in US far right online culture, where people become radicalised and emerge looking to make names for themselves as intellectual leaders or vanguards of coming ethno-nationalist strife. There is not just replication of international far right practice. Indeed, as we have seen in Part 1, the international far right have been heavily involved in Ireland.
Between online forums and community infiltration
Pushing out daily rambling videos and in a persistent self-referential mode, some of these actors have in the past 18 months moved into explicit anti-migrant organising. Over the course of late 2018 through to the present day, there have been a series of anti-migrant protests in towns and villages across Ireland, using a very specific template of hate and scaremongering based on experiments of agitation dating back to March 2016.
For example, on 6 March 2018 a self-described ethno-nationalist made his way into a small office of the County Clare Public Participation Network (PPN) where he proceeded to throw a barrage of questions at a community worker. Presenting himself as an ‘independent journalist’, he demanded to know who funded the community group, what work they did and why they were supporting migrants in the town of Lisdoonvarna. When the community worker asked who it was that he wrote for, he stammered and stumbled, again saying he was an ‘independent journalist’.
It wasn’t long before this ‘independent journalist’ was asked to leave after it was pointed out to him that community workers have no obligation to answer questions to random people walking in off the street, without any credentials whatsoever.
The Breitbart connection
The context to this is incident is that on 3 March, just three days earlier, the infamous US right-wing propagandist media outfit Breitbart had filed a news story through their London office claiming that a ‘secret ballot’ held in a public meeting in Lisdoonvarna had overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to accept migrants into the community. The report linked to one tweet, and that was from this far right agitator who had presented himself as an ‘independent journalist’. The headline read: ‘93 Per Cent of Irish Locals Vote Against Plan to Dump 115 Migrants in Small Historic Town.’
A figure of 93 percent is a pretty impressive result and makes for great headlines, many of which were repeated across the Irish press. However, according to residents only about 10 percent of the eligible voting population were ever involved. It soon became clear that the meeting had been called and the vote staged in a way that targeted a minority of people who were particularly susceptible to far right messaging, with the aim of generating headlines such as those carried above.
You might ask why Breitbart, the largest right wing propagandist website in the English speaking world, was writing about a mid-week public meeting of 300 people in a tiny village situated close to the remote Atlantic coast in the west of Ireland. It is now clear that the Irish far right activists had made contact with US migrant Michael Walsh, co-founder of the Breitbart media empire who was pushing his own anti-migrant agenda in the town he now lives in.
Racist framing and fearmongering
That’s not to say that rural Irish towns and villages don’t have racism that has developed organically within their own communities. They do. Nor is it to say that there isn’t a history of far right organisers in Ireland. But Walsh was crucial in setting up the optics of the ‘secret public vote’ that gave Breitbart the headlines it coveted.
A second Breitbart piece on Lisdoonvarna appeared two days later, this time on the main US daily politics show. The conversation was highly illuminating given what subsequently unfolded in terms of similar cycles of hastily called public meetings, votes and communities caught in a media spin of fear. Part of the conversation focused on how the right can go about changing public opinion:
“You go to where the eyeballs are and slowly, subtly start adding conservative values into it … Then you start adding the subversive politics and suddenly you are converting a generation of people to your worldview … and it’s also time to fight fire with fire.
Speaking of migration in general and those people seeking asylum, Walsh argued that Ireland was not doing enough to prevent inward migration:
“Ireland won its independence in 1916, but it is now a slave state of Brussels. The Hungarians, the Poles, the Czechs … they are putting up a good fight but Angela Merkel is the worst human being in the work in the second half of the twentieth century.”
It should go without saying that this view is not shared by anyone but a tiny handful of people on the island. Walsh’s views on Ireland are as backward and colonialist as your average Eton Tory, and should be given as much credence.
But this framing and indeed these exact lines are repeated almost daily on closed Facebook groups of the far right in Ireland, as well as by traditional right wing conservative groupings. In this small town on the west coast we see a playbook that shaped much of the activity of the far right in Ireland in the following 18 months up to today. Another way they have sought to create fear in communities is by consciously linking migration with rape and sexual violence, and this is something they have used persistently as they have toured town to town stoking up hate.
Institutional racism in Ireland
One of the major issues that have enabled the far right to insert themselves into community is rooted in the Irish state’s own racist policies. It would be remiss to ignore the reality of structural and institutional racism within and of the Irish state, which likes to promote a tourist-friendly image Cead Míle Fáilte (‘One Hundred Thousand Welcomes’) but has an abominable record with regards to its treatment of migrant and ethnic minority communities.
A number of years ago I spoke to Ronit Lentin, a retired Associate Professor of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), about the role of the state in racism, who explained it in terms that have always stuck with me:
“Yes people can be individually racist, but by and large the issue is the state, because the state is the only body that has the power to actually exclude and include in racial terms. All modern nation states are racial states. Ireland is no different. Ireland is nation state which has constructed the Irish people as a Gaelic Catholic people and in the process of it excluded lots of people.”
This is borne out for example in the Irish state’s response to Jewish people seeking refuge during and after World War Two. Oliver J. Flanagan, who was to become a prominent member of Fine Gael, when elected in 1943 said:
“There is one thing that Germany did, and that was to rout the Jews out of their country. Until we rout the Jews out of this country, it does not matter a hair’s breadth what orders you make.”
Of course, this could be seen as an outlier, as an extreme example of racist rhetoric used by one individual. But it sits within a longer history of racism promoted by the state and the political class in Ireland. The Irish Department of Justice, it would seem, has racism coded into its DNA. In 1948, when pressed on the limited number of Jewish people being afforded protection after the ending of the war stated:
“It has always been the policy of the Minister for Justice to restrict the admission of Jewish aliens, for the reason that any substantial increase in our Jewish population might give rise to an anti-Semitic problem.”
This idea that racism is something carried by those it affects take some serious mental gymnastics. It is a prime example of victim blaming.
Direct provision: ‘a severe violation of human rights’
The Department of Justice has continued to use these types of practices up to the present day. In 1999 the Department introduced an emergency measure to response to people seeking asylum in Ireland – a measure that quickly became permanent. Direct Provision, as it is known, is a restrictive system of accommodation whereby the state houses asylum seekers in residential institutions and directly provides basic services along with a small weekly allowance. This system has been described as inhumane, illegal and degrading, and ‘asevere violation of human rights’ by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It is a de facto detention regime with enforced poverty.
It is clear that the system was set up as a deterrent to those considering coming to Ireland to seek asylum by ensuring their collective punishment through enforced unemployment, cramped and crowded living conditions and the brutal management of Direct Provision centres. This works alongside an attitude from the Department which means that 90 percent of asylum applications in Ireland are denied, one of the worst rates in the EU.
Exploiting Direct provision to foster local resentment
One of the big challenges facing us is that the far right has latched onto the issue of Direct Provision as a wraparound theme for its underlying anti-migrant politics. Fully aware that the most of the population in Ireland generally resistant to explicit racist organising, far right activists have seized on Direct Provision as a vehicle for fostering local resentment when the government plans to open new emergency accommodation for asylum seekers. The framing they have used to great effect is create an artificial link between the growing housing and homelessness crisis and the use of state resources for Direct Provision accommodation.
Across towns and villages earmarked for Direct Provision centres, the far right has often found common cause with estate agents, hoteliers and others with an economic interest in denying asylum seekers accommodation. Public meetings are hastily called where residents in attendance are presented with falsehoods designed to raise fears of increased sexual violence and rape. The lack of public consultation with communities have also added to a sense that there is some underlying conspiracy to impose Direct Provision centres in a top-down fashion.
At different times the news agenda has been set by a far right network working closely with local business interests to foster opposition to Direct Provision accommodation and active hostility to the arrival of asylum seekers. Campaigns of fear organised in public and via closed and secret Facebook groups – some of which are still in operation today – have led to well-attended protests against the opening of Direct Provision centres. Some of these protests have taken a more sinister turn, with a number of buildings allocated for Direct Provision in the west of Ireland set alight. In other cases, the good intentions of people concerned with the inhumane nature of the system have been enmeshed with, or manipulated, more sinister elements who are opposed to asylum seekers on racist grounds.
However, the far right has not had it all their own way. In many areas, communities have responded to fearmongering with the establishment of welcoming committees to provide support and protection for newly-arrived asylum seekers. Some of these initiatives and others like them have developed into local groups committed to tackling any attempts at far right political organising in their communities.
These community based efforts have been coupled with a pushback against the Direct Provision regime. This pushback is led by the Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland (MASI), an asylum-seeker led organisation whose tireless work has changed much of the narrative and given much greater visibility to the conditions people and families forced to live in Direct Provision accommodation.
While the emergence of a far right has for some time caught the left on the back foot, the reactive strategy of disrupting meetings – discussed in the previous post – means that far right groups in Ireland rarely if ever call public meetings in advance. Street mobilisations called by far right groups and its network of demi-celebrities have rarely numbered more than 200.
It is also due to the efforts of left wing campaigners that more than €20,000 destined for far right YouTube has been disrupted and pulled from online crowdfunding, starving the nascent movement of funds to produce literature or upgrade their amateur media production. One effect of this is that it has driven previously secular far right actors into a new found religiousity, with three prominent YouTubers declaring their rediscovery of Catholic fundamentalism. One can assume that this is because of the vast resources that can be accessed through Catholic far right networks in the US and elsewhere.
These actions have also fed into the momentum garnered by a range of interconnected, broad-based movements, for example the campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. The skills and experiences acquired by grassroots networks which were formed during the struggle for reproductive rights, are now being applied as part of a mass door-knocking effort to counter the canvassing of the handful of extremists. During recent by-elections in north County Dublin, the Fingal Communities Against Racism successfully mobilised and limited the far right candidate and notorious conspiracy theorist, Gemma O’Doherty, to just 4.8% of the first preference vote. This group is currently working on lessons they learnt in the past few months to build a helpful guide of future community organising during the coming General Election.
All out against racists and fascists
All of these efforts are due to culminate, but by no means end, this Saturday (14 December) in Dublin when there will be a large mobilisation called for by the Solidarity Alliance against Racism and Fascism (SARF) in Dublin. The rally has managed to secure the support of the largest trade unions, many community organisations, faith groups and campaigning NGOs across the country. A Rally for Peace on Earth, as it is being billed, has a fairly straightforward and fluffy message designed to ensure wide appeal. But the process of putting together the march offers an inflection point for leftists of all stripes.
It is clear that the narrative of progressive nationalism is one that is under threat by regressive reactionary forces. These are which are having an immediate effect in terms of ramping up violent rhetoric and actions against minority communities. And given that the possibility of Irish reunification of the island is likely to remain a feature of politics for many years to come, the politicisation of the meaning of nationalism will continue to be relevant for us all.
The wider question of geo-politics on this island and of our neighbours still largely goes unasked and therefore unanswered. Who exactly does an extremist interpretation of Irish nationalism suit, because it suits very few actually living here? Is the far right in Ireland a cultural product of lonely disenfranchised men who see the world through the lens of Alex Jones conspiracies? Or is their ‘ethnic Irish’ nationalism actually an import of US white supremacy ideology they have discovered online, and now being put to good use by people like media huckers and millionaire finance capitalists like Hermann Kelly and Nigel Farage who wish to plot an end to socialist possibilities across the continent – even if that means swimming with fascists? These are questions that we are only beginning to address. But we have shown that when we organise, root ourselves in communities, and come equipped with a hopeful political message, then we win.
by Mark Malone
Originally published on 13 December 2019 at brexitblog-rosalux.eu as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.
Mark Malone is a Dublin based anti-racist activist, researcher and communications officer with the campaigning NGO Comhlámh.