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Is Ireland drifting to the Right?

Ireland's open border policy has angered large sections of the population. Credit: Getty

September 26, 2023 - 3:31pm

The Irish Republic has always been something of a political outlier — the historian Norman Davies once remarked that it is in some ways an Eastern European country marooned in the Atlantic — but in the 2020s, its greatest single divergence from the rest of Europe is its total absence of a viable Right-wing populist movement. But is this changing?

Certainly, if we accept the analysis that Europe’s drift towards Right-wing politics is less a product of Russian plots or nefarious misinformation but instead the expected response to the transformative demographic effects of mass immigration, then Ireland is remarkable as the dog that hasn’t yet barked. Other European nations like Sweden, Spain and Portugal, all theorised back in the 2010s to be politically immune from the first populist surge, now possess Right-wing movements either in or on the brink of assuming some degree of political power. But Ireland adopted a more or less open borders immigration policy later than other European nations, just as the rest of Europe began abandoning it, to a degree that even Europe’s most migration-friendly parties would now shy away from as electoral poison.

In less than a generation, Ireland has been transformed from a country of emigration to one of mass immigration, so that around 20% of its population was born elsewhere. Last year alone, Ireland increased its population by 2.75% through immigration — one in 36 people, as the Irish economist Philip Pilkington notes. So precipitous has the influx been it seems almost as if Ireland’s government — a coalition uneasily cobbled together to keep Sinn Fein, the largest party on both sides of the border, from power — has embarked on a hurried mission to adopt as much of the world’s population as possible. 

Even Ukraine’s ambassador to Ireland was forced to protest last year that the Republic was pushing to host more refugees than it could house, driving the new arrivals into immediate homelessness. With a housing crisis that makes Britain’s look benign, and a new wave of native Irish emigration spurred on by inadequate housing and the high cost of living, the total absence of Irish Right-wing politics appears mysterious.

It seems accurate, as the liberal Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole observes, that Sinn Fein has absorbed much of the populist energy that in the rest of Europe has energised the Right. It also seems plausible that a future Sinn Fein government unable to resolve Ireland’s social problems, and committed to displays of social liberalism not necessarily shared by its original voter base, may also lead to political disenchantment eventually favouring the Right. After all, the initial anti-migrant protests, which later spread across the country in a formless, anarchic manner not dissimilar to France’s Gilets Jaunes movement, began in Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald’s own working-class Dublin constituency. Yet it is the total absence of political representation for Right-wing populism that makes Ireland — so far — unique.

Ireland’s socially conservative Sinn Fein breakaway party Aontu is electorally insignificant, its Brexit-copying Irish Freedom Party is subject to all the same self-defeating Americanised conspiracy theories and crankishness as Britain’s populist wing, while its far-right National Party is a Wodehousian joke, whose former leader (until the party spilt in a recent spat over hoarded gold bars) was given to quoting Hitler on his Telegram channel. 

Isolated from political representation by a closed and consensus-led political system, and marginalised by a journalistic and political establishment like Britain’s but only more so, Ireland’s nascent populist surge instead finds expression in street protests, like last week’s hectoring of politicians outside the Leinster House parliament building (rapidly becoming the Republic’s January 6th). 

In some ways, Ireland is copying Europe’s experiment with mass immigration and resultant populist reaction, decades later but at a vastly accelerated pace. But whether or not its formless, protest-led nature will act as a means to dampen any future shift towards the Right, or whether it will accelerate the surge, is so far an open question: either way, the country’s political idiosyncracies will make populism with Gaelic characteristics a unique case, worthy of close attention.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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D Glover
D Glover
9 months ago

But Ireland adopted a more or less open borders immigration policy later than other European nations, 

The crucial question is; was there a mandate for this innovation?
Did the Irish electorate vote directly in a referendum or implicitly in an election for this policy to be pursued?

Last edited 9 months ago by D Glover
Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
9 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

Did they f**k!

David Ryan
David Ryan
9 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

No, is the short answer

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
9 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

Quisling government

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago

This only serves to illustrate the uselessness of citing “Right-wing” as a label for those who oppose unfettered immigration.
As a second generation son of the Irish diaspora to the UK, i have some skin in this game. It seems to me to be entirely plausible that the reason for hitherto lack of Irish opposition to unfettered immigration stems from the huge benefits which the sons and daughters of Irish soil have derived from mass emigration: to the British mainland, to the USA, perhaps to Australia too. Movement across borders isn’t therefore something that might be traditionally opposed. (Let’s leave aside the border within the island of Ireland here.)
Does that mean those who now wish to turn the taps off, or down, are of a right-wing political disposition in general? Of course not. A perfect example of those without a shred of right-wing heritage doing the same would be those Brexit voters from red wall seats. This article is simply another example of the paucity of insight which so-called political commentators have over issues such as these.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve Murray
T Bone
T Bone
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Is it though, Steve? If we define Right as an opposition to radical social change and Left as an enthusiasm for radical change, wouldn’t your opposition to unchecked immigration put you closer to the “Right Wing” camp.

The Right/Left scale is not fixed it is sliding. That is why as people age they tend to grow more conservative. It’s not that they’ve become more resistant to change but more resistant to the pace of change.

What you’re describing sounds like the classic case of becoming a conservative not by political transformation but resistance to ideas that fail to consider negative consequences.

Last edited 9 months ago by T Bone
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

It’s not about me though. I’m not, for instance, a former Labour-supporting Brexiteer (of all ages) from a red wall seat that decided to vote Conservative at the 2019 election, but who will probably return to the Labour camp next time round. These are real world examples of the Left/Right fallacy, which serves to obfuscate as often (or more so) than it illuminates.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I think a bigger problem is that what is a left wing opinion in one scenario and right in another is increasingly held by a plurality of people. Immigration is a key example of this, whereby the accepted definition is you lean right if you’re anti immigration, and Jean left if your largely pro. However people can be anti immigration (right) for left wing reasons such as protectionism in regards to workers wages. Likewise others can be pro immigration (left) because it keeps wages down and helps businesses increase their profits which is a right wing position financially.
The old binary left and right isn’t much use to describe the parties or public anymore in my opinion, as it overlaps too much. I’d argue a majority of Britain is actually left leaning financially whilst being reasonably conservative socially

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
9 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

People become more conservative as they age because they no longer view the world through the eyes of a child.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

People only become conservative if they’ve got something to conserve. Pricing the youngsters out of homeownership, making it ruinously expensive to start a family and leaving them stuck in poorly paid insecure employment isn’t going to lead them towards becoming more conservative later in life

Josie Bowen
Josie Bowen
9 months ago

Born and bred in Ireland I feel so angry at the government for what it’s doing. Not only with immigration, but citizens’ assemblies where they abdicate their responsibilities and get others to do their dirty work and changing our constitution to a point where it’s almost unrecognisable. I feel angry about the fact that there’s no real opposition and dread the thought that Sinn Fein will be in charge in a year or two.

D Walsh
D Walsh
9 months ago
Reply to  Josie Bowen

I won’t be voting for Fianna Gael in the next election, I don’t think I will vote for any party. But I agree, Sinn Fein will be worse

David Ryan
David Ryan
9 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Yes, we have nothing much in the way of alternatives

D Walsh
D Walsh
9 months ago
Reply to  David Ryan

Sinn Fein in power could well be a disaster, but there will be lots of laughs at the next election, its possible that Varadkar loses his seat, which would be hillarous, the same will probably happen to Ivana Bacik, the Labour party will no longer exist, thanks Ivana

Paul Curtin
Paul Curtin
9 months ago
Reply to  Josie Bowen

I’d agree completely with that.
Born in the UK, my parents were both from Ireland and I look at what is now prevailing there in horror.
I don’t have rose tinted views of the Ireland of the past, but It seems that Ireland has spent centuries trying to escape the shadow of one empire only to be swallowed up in a decade or two by another – the EU.
I am troubled there is no conservative nationalist voice of “Ireland first”, it’s just a poodle for the EU. I don’t understand it.

Paul T
Paul T
9 months ago

Pulling out “right wing” to silence inconvenient voices and truths is starting to lose its potency.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago
Reply to  Paul T

Starting – but it’s got a long ways to go, yet.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
9 months ago

I hope not. If it drifts too far to the right it’ll crash into Wales.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago

Excellent! We should blame the EU for continental drift.

Martin Dunford
Martin Dunford
9 months ago

You can’t even comment on any article in the Irish Times. They suddenly stopped allowing it in 2020. RTE and Irish Times just spew the government line. Ireland has or soon will have the most draconian “hate speech” (read censorship) laws in EU. Worst Covid lockdown in EU too despite being least at risk thanks to the nation’s biggest plus, a very young population (in a rapidly ageing EU). A once rebellious and fiercely independent nation is now a nation of docility and compliance. Political correctness is the new creed and it is as intolerant as old Catholicism. It is spooky, perhaps it is the Irish stoicism until things reach a boiling point. I sure hope so.

David Ryan
David Ryan
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Dunford

Yes that about sums it up Martin.

AC Harper
AC Harper
9 months ago

Perhaps yet another worked example of how the Political World has drifted away from the Ordinary World.
You could reasonably argue that if the Political World doesn’t care to include many of the concerns of the Ordinary World then democracy is only partial. How far can the two worlds drift apart before some corrective action is necessary?

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
9 months ago

This is a very accurate summary of Irish politics at the moment, well done to Aris Roussinos.

Dick Barrett
Dick Barrett
9 months ago

What worries me most is the disjuncture between views that are considered acceptable in Ireland’s mainstream politics and media, and views that are common in the population. This is a deeply dangerous and unhealthy development.

Martin Dunford
Martin Dunford
9 months ago
Reply to  Dick Barrett

Ireland’s media is a mere mouthpiece of government and authority. You can’t even comment on an article in the Irish Times. Heartening to hear the population at large are maybe not buying it.

D Walsh
D Walsh
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Dunford

On the bright side, the Irish Times is in serious decline, not many are willing to pay for Una Doollay’s pearls of wisdom, and RTE is in serous trouble with falling revenue

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
9 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Back when the Irish Times used to allow comments, I would from time to time splice together different Una Mulally articles and repost them below the line. The results were intriguing. Unherd readers can see for thmselves below.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
9 months ago

Despite narratives to the contrary, people are inherently good and selfless. The mealy-mouthed pseudo-explanations that were designed to throw the hotel under a bus are ridiculous. The Government is populated by Ministers who do not appear to have a handle on their briefs. Ireland, like all countries, has specific desires regarding what its public wants from its politicians. Fairness, empathy, accountability, and competence are top of that list. In order for us to survive this moment –in every sense –we need to stop fighting the context, and create new forms of being, working, socialising and thriving that work within it, or that aren’t overly hindered by its oppressive force. This reconstruction will happen from the bottom up.

This is a momentary diversion parallel to the broader cycle of ongoing change. There is little context in the episodic churn. A subconscious tactic of discombobulation. The good news is, there is a way out. Throughout history, empires fall, societiesimplode. But just because it’s a damp squib doesn’t mean the heat has gone out of the moment.

Something I’ve noticed about writers over the years –both in conducting and reading interviews with them –is that many seem to have a curious thing in common. In many quarters there seems to be a shallow analysis of the desire for “change” coupled with an insinuation that the electorate is naive, patronised by a “father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” tone.But we also know that “us” versus “them” feelings rarely lead to a pleasant atmosphere. The temperature of this heightened moment will potentially be increased by talk of Sinn Féin “rallies”.Deals are struck between families who often split their time across a few days in multiple locations, with multiple visits planned across multiple neighbourhoods and counties.Sinn Féin’s base, with nothing to lose, could well be if the turgid marriage of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil comes to pass.

Leadership is not about preaching to the converted. It’s not about kicking ass and taking names.It’s about creating the conditions for those with reservations to be heard, respected, and then basically converted, while incorporating their constructive criticism to challenge and improve your offering, and to encourage the kind of dissent that confronts conventional thinking and orthodoxies, and creates the sort of robustness diversity of thought provides.Even reformers such as Ruairí Quinn, Jan O’Sullivan and Richard Bruton could get relatively little over the line in their tenure. The paradox at the heart of the Department of Education is that it controls and oversees everything and nothing, that reform is resisted while the department simultaneously defaults to the autonomy of individual schools,the vast majority of which are still under the patronage of religious organisations and the mysterious oversight of boards of management.

The Spinal Tap-style rhetoric –always turned up to 11 –of Sinn Féin is running out of road, yet Fine Gael’s obsession has allowed Sinn Féin to stay relevant. More likely, a Fine Gael ideology rooted in a delusional sense of meritocracy that magically seems to only benefit people very like them, has cascaded to the point of it feeling like a reality or an absolute truth. Fine Gael are still the money men and women. The ridiculousness of this discourse -that those who are already suffering render themselves even less deserving of assistance -also suggests the lie that those who are rich deserve their wealth, thatthey earned it fairly, that they received no handouts, leg-ups or help, when we know that familial wealth, nepotism, inherited opportunities, access to power, and generational social networks that spin out from private schooling, for example, provide an infinitely greater level of social supports to the types of privileged people who actually think nothing of putting their hands out to ask for more.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
9 months ago

The Irish haven’t got over the last major immigration about 400 years ago so be interesting to see how quickly they get over this one.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
9 months ago

If Ireland drifts too much to the right, it will bump into Wales. 😉

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
9 months ago

As I keep saying, Europe is not drifting to the right, it’s drifting, or moving quite quickly indeed, away from the self-evidently useless incumbents. Hence Labour’s lead in the UK polls.

Kevin Dee
Kevin Dee
9 months ago

I wouldn’t expect anything drastic to change any time soon for a variety of reasons. 1. We don’t really have a right or left wing here. There is very little diversity of opinion about politics and people vote for local personalities and typically for the same parties. 2. Our population is absolutely riddled with American democrat lefty liberal types. 3. Times are too good economically. A big political swing like this probably requires a recession.