The carefully placed cordon sanitaire around certain issues is breaking
The Irish political establishment has long feared the connection of our housing crisis with issues of immigration and demographic change, and over the past month that Rubicon seems to have been crossed. Protests on the housing of asylum applicants began in East Wall, an inner-city Dublin neighbourhood, during November, with no sign of slowing.
Were this another European country, everything would seem poised for a populist Right-wing party to ride this situation to electoral success. In Ireland, to the perpetual confusion of onlookers, there are no parties in a position to do so. Why is that?
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Obstacles to Right-wing populism in Ireland come in three types. The first is that such a position sits uncomfortably with our new national story; the second that such a stance would be impractical given our size and status in the world. These two are often blended together. The final obstacle is the artificial one erected by powerful people to prevent such a force from cohering.
A Right-wing populist programme normally encompasses factors such as economic protectionism, limited migration, and the centrality of organised religion. This sounds eerily like the Ireland of the 1930s to the 1960s, of Éamon de Valera and John Charles McQuaid. To most Irish people this is a failed model and an unhappy road we have already been down.
Whether that’s an accurate assessment of the Ireland of that time, of de Valera and McQuaid as public figures, or of Right-wing populism as a programme, is still contested. Life was bad, but Ireland opened up to the world, and now it’s better: we went from a mean country to a nice one. The number of people who would embrace a movement to swap the Ireland of the present for the Ireland of the past is not large.
In other European countries, Right-wing populism often coalesces around opposition to the EU as a proxy for globalism. There is little appetite for such an approach in Ireland. In part this is a rational calculation that, as a small and peripheral country, we will never be a global powerhouse: our ability to influence the world will be dependent on our membership of other blocs, and to our ability to present as exemplars of faithfulness to their aims. Older people also recall Ireland prior to substantial EU investment.
Brexit, Russian military manoeuvres off our coast, and our participation in the EU’s vaccine purchasing scheme during Covid have made our sense of vulnerability more acute. There is no substantial constituency in Ireland for leaving the Union; hence it is a poor launching pad for a larger populist movement.
Ireland is, after all, a consensus-based society, and the consensus has been to wax lyrical about the EU while avoiding more difficult problems at home.
One of these problems is housing and its overlap with immigration. There is a sense that Ireland’s elites have embraced migration and asylum policies that make a bad housing situation catastrophically worse, and they have sought to remedy a situation they created through solutions that were never offered when Irish people were going unhoused.
The anger about housing means that the emotional and practical factors mentioned above may no longer be sufficient to keep Right-wing populist sentiments at bay. As a precaution, the Irish establishment has tried to close the matter off from public discussion by gaslighting people through a continuous invocation of the far-Right.
It’s hard to convey to an outsider what a constant rhetorical presence the far-Right is in Irish mainstream political discourse, despite having no representation at any elected level, anywhere. Irish commentators are obsessed with Trump and Brexit, and by extension with the hysterical conversations they inspired abroad.
The hard edge of this gaslighting is the introduction of hate speech laws and legislation limiting freedom of expression in Ireland, which members of the government parties have explicitly stated they hope will be used to further limit discussion in this area.
Perhaps the best comparator is not the US or UK, but Sweden. Here was another small country with a powerful emotional commitment to immigration and an image of itself as open, liberal and progressive. A consensus-based society whose leaders erected a cordon sanitaire to make sure certain views were held definitionally illegitimate.
The challenge to Irish leaders presented by protests in East Wall is to do what their counterparts in Sweden failed to do, and find a way of accommodating a range of normal opinions about these topics within the political system. If Irish politicians’ concern for migrant welfare, social stability and “reasonable concerns” are sincere, it needs to rely on something that will not crumble when stress-tested. The bulwarks are audibly creaking.