A populist backlash is brewing
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.