Are protests bringing Right-wing populism to Ireland?
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.
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.
My suspicion is that populist opinions are only Right-wing in relation to Left-wing Elitism – and that is an unnecessary political complication over non-political matters. Of course the Elite see everything as political but populism is grounded in the practical matters of jobs, housing etc.
I just roll my eyes when I see ‘right wing populism’ used in articles, even when they make some good points. ‘Right wing populism’ is generally used as a term of condescension and I think it immediately detracts from the conversation.
I agree. Populism is generally defined as “offering people what they want.”
So, populism is politics, really.
Is this not constitutional, because the centrality of organised economics is historically based on breaking humanitarian laws, laws that date back to the centrality of organised religion. Land gift in charity to God to provide social justice and humanitarian services to the indigenous poor, removed from the jurisdiction of all but God, and the masters of the religious service providers being the poor. The Ladies of Poverty won that legal argument against Napoleon, and Britains’ recognition by signature in 1950 under the International Human Rights Act to the law, means they are in breach of the treaty. A lot of frauds registered on land registry masked by trusts, so the Land Registry does not have to see the Deeds, relying on lawyers acting for members of the House of Lords. Lawyers and accountants now being held accountable under new money laundering laws. These trusts have now a register having to name the beneficial owners, How many Ladies of Poverty will be on the register? How much land is being used to house and feed the Poor? Henry V111 especially refers to the sisters of poverty not being dissolved so as to carry on their charity work.
Interesting comment – but I can’t see it has any relevance to the point under discussion; the likelihood or otherwise of a right-wing populist party competing for power in Ireland.
Great article; thanks! One additional factor is the way that Irish radio, T.V. and newspapers collectively fail to examine what is happening criticially. It is not a conspiracy, but it is the converse of group-think: group-unthink might be an apposite neologism. An example from after the banking crash. In 2010, my wife and I were in Dublin for a few days. We were amazed at the lack of discussion in the media about the economic crisis. Echos of Jim Callaghan: “Crisis, what crisis?”. Whilst wandering around Dublin, we saw a crowd of about 300 people in a shopping centre, apparently there to see Katie Price launching a new brand of perfume. Then we saw 3 people outside the Dáil Éireann protesting about the fact that the “Troika” (IMF, European Central Bank and the European commission) was just about to arrive in Dublin to take away the independence for which Ireland had fought for hundreds of years. Hardly a squeak from the don’t-rock-the-boat mass media.
Probably because your “Troika” didn’t actually take away Ireland’s independence and were never perceived to be doing so. Sorting out bank finances is not the same as taking away independence.
‘The phrase ‘sorting out’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence! As with Greece, prioritising the interests of largely French and German bankers who made bad loans over the interests of the ordinary people is precisely a fundamental political question and indeed one of national sovereignty.
Nah it’s a poor article as it fails to reference the significant impact on the Irish economy and culture of the ‘have your cake and eat it’ Common Travel Area escape route to the U.K.
I’m surprised this doesn’t get discussed more. Ireland was effectively blocked from joining the Schengen zone by the Common Travel Area.
The dependency of Ireland (and perhaps Luxemburg) on corporate tax rate arbitrage is something else – the sort of competitive advantage that’s based on little more tangible than tax laws that might be changed. That said, it may have built up enough critical mass to survive that (as London will survive Brexit). But quite why the rest of the EU puts up with Ireland doing this is beyond me.
‘effectively blocked from joining the Schengen zone’ by the calculation that, at that time, the cross-border economy between Ireland, NI and the rest of Britain was too large, and the opportunities within the rest of the EU too uncertain, for Ireland to choose Schengen over the CTA.
I don’t think they like it, but haven’t yet got majority voting powers over national taxation.
I know people rail against the CTA, but, really, is that a major factor in 2022? I’m not aware of hordes of Irish people coming to Britain to escape Ireland’s woes, which is a huge difference from say the 1950s.
This is a key detail. Ireland is a bit behind the times as a lot of people still trust the national broadcaster as evidenced by an unreal level of Covid hysteria. All I’ll say about our independence is that we probably abandoned that a lot earlier than the Troika.
Great comment. You call it Group Unthink, my phrase would be internalised consensus. Because of our size and peripherality, there’s a cost from dissenting from the consensus that doesn’t exist other places, so people make a rational choice to keep their heads down
The state broadcaster does a lot to police wrongthink: the East Wall Protests don’t get a look-in on the TV news… you are supposed to think that the main arterial route through the capital, and the nation’s main bus station, are being blockaded due to some random force of nature.
Not a lot of nuance was permitted from the yellow vests in France, though they did feature in the TV news
“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.”
Isn’t it the issue that mass immigration is rapidly transforming the nice Ireland of the present to something the Irish never asked for?
And to put it bluntly, mostly with a Muslim diaspora with no cultural empathy or connection with Ireland at all.
They occupy 25% of Irish hotel rooms at taxpayers expense, and viral videos of the behaviour of many of them on social media are not very flattering.
Actually, the mass migration might make the tiny golden circle that runs Ireland a bit more diverse intellectually and less prone to groupthink. It’s a slim hope but it might work.
Are you seeing any reason for that hope anywhere in the world?
None of the established parties will touch this issue. Sinn Fein normally plays the role of populists, but they are now busily angling towards the centre, although some Sinn Fein figures have guardedly made contentious remarks on the subject. The lack of an electoral outlet for views such as those of the East Wall protestors may ultimately do more harm than good.
I think a SF govt in Ireland would be hilarious, a bit like the SNP but with balaclavas and even more clueless about how to solve real issues affecting voters.
They have found an acceptable angle now, though: the draw is entirly down to the CTA and opportunities for asylum seekers to get across the invisible border and into NI – ie, dastardly Britain damaging Ireland again.
Protectionism is left wing populism.
Also, nationalism is far more prominent in Irish politics than most other modern democracies.
And there has been grumbling from locals about housing of asylum seekers, in non-Dublin parts of Ireland anyway, for at least twenty years.
What will happen when the new global corporate tax rose kicks in and the US HQs leave Dublin?
Back to “Dirty Old Town”?
The ‘Dirty Old Town’ of the song is actually Salford, not Dublin.
Although if those HQs do move and the cash dries up we could see another generation of Irishmen heading across the sea.
Is the confusion because The Pogues and The Dubliners both released popular covers of the song? It was written by Ewan MacColl, father of Shane McGowan’s long-term collaborator Kirsty.
All very confusing, but I thank you!
Yes I think so, and the Dubliners also changed the lyrics from “I smelled the spring on the Salford wind” to I smelled the spring on the smoky wind” so it was probably deliberate. But that’s folk music.
Thanks. I had no idea – always assumed it was Dublin.
Salford is the “Dirty Old Town” in the song
Looking at net migration figures as an index of prosperity and opportunity attracting immigrants, it seems the Celtic Tiger started around 1988 and peaked in 2003.
Then dropped precipitously from 2008, bounced off the bottom, then from 2013 starting a slow recovery as they paid down their debt.
Now it’s declining again and heading towards negative territory. So the emigration has resumed. Asylum-seekers are an unknown quantity , literally, but it’s unlikely that any more than a celebrated few will make a positive contribution to Ireland , enough to replace the emigres.
I suspect I’m being naive and displaying my ignorance of Irish economics, geography etc, but it does seem odd that Ireland should have a housing crisis considering that it’s geographically large with only one large city. The next few largest cities (namely Cork, Galway and Limerick) are about the size of places like Norwich and Southend over here. Surely some investment into those cities and creating opportunities there might alleviate the pressure on Dublin and ensure younger people need not emigrate far from home so to speak?
Didn’t the so called “Celtic Tiger” produce large numbers of housing estates scattered ALL over the country?
I gather many have now been demolished as surplus to requirements!
A lot were never finished. Many still standing only half built. Developers went bankrupt and “downed tools” for 5-10 years, big exodus of construction workers and other trades (both Irish and others) and not all have returned since, land banks “sold” to NAMA (a government rescue fund) and even if sold on we are still years behind in meeting demand. Immigration this year north of 60,000 (including Ukrainians ? Temporary, who knows? ).
It’s also got a cumbersome planning process subject not just to NIMBY inspired appeals but also, not infrequently, prolonged court challenges and now, just recently revealed , corruption. Planning for houses in “the countryside” now almost impossible to get even if you’re local or a farmer. Local authorities seem reluctant to build anything except office space.
You’ve got several good answers already. But I think it largely boils down to planning. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are a lot of similarities between Ireland and the UK – not least the fact that we have the same legal and commercial heritage. Irish towns also look quite like English ones – the ride from the airport to the centre of Dublin always felt to me like entering a city like Leicester (from the south).
There’s also been a huge amount of investment by US multinationals shopping for lower corporate tax rates for their HQs and EU billing centre offices. Result: better paid jobs pushing up house prices.
That and the population increase. This has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. A lot of people keep denying that increasing population from immigration raises house prices. They’re mad – not lying, but mad and deluded.
The Irish deserve their politicians.
Brexit does indeed loom large over this topic. Not alone are protests deemed to be “far right” but the very policies being protested seem to derive from a desire by Irish politicians to distance themselves from Brexiteers. If they’re against it, we’re for it, in other words.
The population of the little village in West Cork where I live has almost doubled in the past two weeks from 170 to 300 owing to an influx of Ukrainian immigrants.
I do not know what the state media have to say about the matter since I stopped listening to or reading anything from them sometime around the last general election and the first cough of Wu ’flu.
Thanks for the article. So important for us Brits to know what’s going on in Ireland and as 3rd generation, I’m not being facetious. I wonder why you didn’t mention Sinn Fein. Do they not have any role as a conduit of protest on housing and migration?
Here’s my prognosis for Ireland. SF come to power, run as ultra woke and incompetently – a large right nationalist group appears.
Where have the Irish Nationalists gone?
…I’ve always felt “Irish Nationalism” meant “We hate the English” as opposed to “We love Ireland”…it makes all these issues a bit unfathomable…as there is no obvious way in which the English can be blamed for asylum seekers using EU rules to get to Ireland…
Irish nationalism really only memes anti-English sentiment nowadays. It isn’t a real thing, except as a joke or a football thing
Already happening: it’s the draw of England and the open border of the CTA that fuels the influx of asylum seekers to Ireland. QED
Like any nationalist sentiment it’s being absolutely crushed by liberalism which now holds all the power in Ireland. This article is describing the beginnings of a fightback so of course expect the “far right racists” labels. Luckily, Irish people don’t feel guilty about being Irish as a lot of English seem to, so maybe we have a chance.
Ireland has too small a population to make taxation in any way work: Ireland can and could be, literally overnight, a Switzerland cum Liechtenstein and Turks and Caicos tax haven and would become Europes richest country in very short order….
Tax havens: posting profits where they cannot possibly have been meaningfully earned and paying only those very low rates. Ireland does in fact actually have low corporate taxation.
Singapore and other East Asian countries seems to make ‘taxation work’ – the issue is competent government not ideologically low tax rates. I’m opposed to tech giants avoiding tax through this kind of fiddle, which you would seem to support.
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