March 26, 2024 - 7:00am

Anyone with an interest in European politics will have been struck by this weekend’s arresting images of an anti-immigration protest in Coolock, a working-class district of North Dublin, where masked youths on horseback led a large protest against the proposed settlement of migrants.

It is indeed ironic, as the political theorist Philip Cunliffe observed on X, that “after all the anti-Brexit hysteria pumped up by the Irish liberal intelligentsia […] it is in Ireland, and not in Britain, that the populist insurrection is really rumbling from the bottom-up.” But viewed from across the Irish Sea, what is striking is not just how similar to Britain the causes of discontent are, but also how differently the response manifests.

In Britain, populist discontent tends to coalesce around underperforming “tribunes of the plebs” such as Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson, with the aim of seizing control of the system and reforming it from within. This is an approach best articulated by Dominic Cummings, the limitations of which are exemplified by our current government.

In Ireland, by contrast, populist mobilisation has evolved a diametrically opposing strategy. Shut out of representation by Ireland’s political and media class, the mood of growing rebellion manifests in decentralised protests by individual communities. Instead of the unappealing thugs, born out of football hooliganism, who characterise British Right-wing street mobilisation, Ireland’s protests are overwhelmingly law-abiding family affairs, with the archetypal Irish “mammy” well at the forefront. Anxious attempts to characterise the protestors as part of a dangerous global far-Right appear increasingly unconvincing as a result.

Indeed, Ireland’s fledgling Right-wing parties are competing to win the public’s favour, chasing the angry mood rather than shaping it. The likeliest beneficiaries of the unrest may be independent candidates in mostly rural constituencies, a political outlet for discontent which Britain does not share.

While the lack of a popular figurehead means the nascent movement is difficult to decapitate, the competition to win its electoral favour means that aspiring populist leaders are likely to split their potential vote share in the coming local and general elections. This may cause its energy to dissipate — but by keeping it out of the Dáil, this dynamic may also keep the movement in the streets, with unpredictable effects.

Unlike Britain, the generally peaceful protests have been punctuated with occasional bursts of political violence, such as the dramatic Dublin riot last winter and the torching of proposed asylum centres, echoing the “burning the Big House” agrarian unrest of a century ago. Indeed, allusions to Ireland’s troubled history, like the terming of mass immigration as a “plantation”, abound in the nascent Irish Right-wing, drawing on a cultural repertoire of nationalist rebellion unavailable to similarly disaffected Britons.

Sinn Feín, once a beneficiary of such sentiment, now struggles to keep up, with its vote share dropping in recent polls: with 72% of its base supporting immigration restrictions, Sinn Feín voters are — to the apparent surprise of its socially liberal leadership — the most nationalist voter bloc in the country.

While Irish Right-wing activists are buoyant at the growing relevance of their new movement, the inability of Dublin’s political class to address the discontent will increase the pressure on Ireland’s fragile coalition government, whose unprepossessing new leader does not seem destined for a long term in office.

From a zero starting point, Ireland suddenly possesses Europe’s fastest-moving, if inchoate, populist insurgency, to the discomfort of its political class. Britain’s closest European neighbour reveals itself, once again, as an entirely different political universe.

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