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Dreck of the Irish

The far right is gaining ground
A bus in flames on a city street with a crowd of onlookers in the foreground.

In May of this year, a group of far-right agitators attacked a small tent encampment on Dublin’s Sandwith Street. They hurled eggs and vicious abuse at counter protesters and set the camp alight, destroying the makeshift shelters of homeless refugees who’d been driven to the street in the first place by the state’s failure to house them. The Irish police (An Garda Siochana, or the Gardai) did little to stop the mob, and less to protect anyone. The assault generated some headlines in Ireland, but like the wave of harassment of library staff by reactionary figures over ginned-up LGBTQ book panics, and recent attacks on migrant accommodation, it was dismissed in many quarters as the excesses of a small, crank constituency, of little threat to anyone, to be ignored lest the publicity encourage them.

Few are making that claim now. On November 23, the far right took to the streets of Dublin in force. Pressure that had been building for several years exploded into spectacular violence. After a knife attack in the city center, the identity of the suspect—a long-time resident and citizen of Ireland who was born in Algeria—was leaked, possibly by someone inside the police. Anti-immigrant influencers, of which Ireland now has plenty, openly incited racist violence, MMA fighter Conor McGregor among them: “Ireland, we are at war,” he tweeted. This call was enthusiastically taken up. Vehicles, including a tram and a bus, were torched, businesses looted, windows smashed. The north inner city briefly became a conflict zone. The Gardai came under serious attack.

Any list of failures leading up to the riots must start at the level of the police, who have long pursued a hands-off, softly-softly approach to the far right. The repeated warnings of anti-racist activists who have been keeping close tabs on them for years have gone basically unheeded by state security, who have continued to downplay the threat of this organizing, even as the vigilantes have set up illegal checkpoints outside various towns where refugees live or were purported to be moving to. Garda commissioner Drew Harris defended the lackadaisical approach as recently as May, insisting that the far right was “not growing.”

Notably, this light-touch policing does not extend to those on the left. No deference was extended to striking workers at a Dublin department store when their peaceful picket clashed with the desires of the stock liquidators. Nor have PR concerns stopped police from facilitating (frequently illegal) evictions of people from their homes. That’s because major policing in Ireland has historically had two primary focuses: organized crime and dissident Republicanism. Just days before the riots, police were executing yet another raid of Republican activists who had carried out a protest at a British Navy ship docked in the city.

To an international observer, these scenes might be confusing. Is this not the same Ireland that is moving leftward electorally? The one that has turned out crowds in the tens of thousands in solidarity with the people of Gaza? The impression of Ireland used to be that it was uniformly conservative; now, talking to some in the United States, one might get the idea that it’s a bastion of tolerance and solidarity. There are times when this simplistic understanding of Ireland irritates me, and there are times when I wish it were true.

Lacking an obvious fascist or imperial past, or indeed military adventurism abroad, Ireland hardly seems like fertile territory for the sort of violent revanchist politics that grow in the murky depths of this benighted continent. But while riots are relatively uncommon in Ireland, they are not unknown. In 2006, an ill-advised and provocative Unionist march was organized for Dublin. Furious Republicans protested, and the protests became street clashes. Sinn Féin, representing the bulk of Republican sentiment in the country, condemned the riots. Seventeen years later, the party, running on a broadly left liberal platform, continues to absorb many voters who in other European countries might have backed the far right.

Like most fascisms, the Irish variety is bizarre, syncretic, and somewhat comic.

Republicanism and the memory of armed struggle have served as something of an inoculation against far-right organizing. In its militant days, Sinn Féin was linked to the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the ANC in South Africa. Theirs was an ideology, however flexible and instrumental, of international solidarity that was broadly incompatible with real xenophobic politics. Republicans also used to provide a good number of street fighters who would happily chase the far right off. But in Sinn Féin’s path to respectability and power, they have demobilized, leaving a vacuum in physical politics that is increasingly being filled by the extreme right.

Skeptics of the threat tend to point to the abysmal performance of self-conscious right wingers at the last general election, where no candidate from any of our many fascist parties received more than 2 percent of the vote. But pan-European politics since the 2008 financial crash have taught us to be cautious when dealing in absolutes. Portugal and Sweden were also thought to be unlikely far-right strongholds. Portugal’s extreme right is ascendent, and reactionary parties are in power in Sweden, as well as in Hungary, Italy, and Finland. Decades of normalization work has transformed once-toxic street fighting parties into respectable and influential members of Europe’s anti-immigrant elite.

And the situation in Ireland is already changing. Since the 2020 election, the far right has made significant strides in recruitment and mobilization, driven in large part by the Covid-19 pandemic and the attendant state response. Right-wing voters previously found their home in the historically dominant center-right Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties. As their electoral strength wanes, those voters are moving in all directions, including to right-wing independent politicians. In the last presidential election, 23 percent of voters backed a reactionary candidate, with most of his support coming from historic Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael heartlands. Focusing on the poor performance of far right parties also elides the significant successes they have had in getting visible support from fellow travelers in the Dáil, like Mattie McGrath and Danny Healy Rae, or in electing sympathetic independents like Verona Murphy. There is a far right in parliament, just not one with a party label yet.

Like most fascisms, the Irish variety is bizarre, syncretic, and somewhat comic. This is part of the reason that so many have struggled to take it seriously, despite the manifest harm done to people in its firing line. Contemporary far-right groups are historically rooted in the anti-abortion networks that have existed in the country since at least the 1980s. The most prominent of these groups is Youth Defence, a vicious outfit with links to not one but several European neo-Nazi parties, and the former employer of current National Party leader Justin Barrett. Having been roundly defeated in their quest to keep abortion illegal—Ireland’s Eighth Amendment was overturned in 2018—these dubious institutions and their coterie of well-funded militants have turned to organizing full-time against immigration and queer people instead.

The splinters of the Irish right express varying degrees of open admiration for fascism or Nazism, but all share an absolute hatred of immigration, an obsession with racial “purity,” and a fanatical loathing of LGBTQ people. They have adopted many tactics from their friends and idols among far-right groups in the UK and United States, along with much of their terminology and pet fixations. Imported rhetoric about “groomers” and “white genocide” is bolted to a greasy Irish nationalism based on a Fisher Price history of the Irish War of Independence and a healthy dose of weaponized misinformation, which can be packed into easily shareable chunks for mass forwarding in WhatsApp groups. McGregor, now under investigation for incitement, is the perfect avatar for these politics. He is a man for whom being Irish means nothing other than violence—a racist caricature, refracted in the lens of British and American stereotypes. Because fascism appeals to an imagined past, admission to the far right typically entails some apologia for the many brutalities of the Irish state in the twentieth century, which were principally directed at non-conforming women, children, the working class, and queer people.

Beneath the shock and horror of last month’s riots, there is another uncomfortable truth. Many of those in the streets had no special connection to the far right. Indeed, some looked about fifteen years old. We have had over a decade of governments whose policy toward Dublin and other urban areas in the country has been one of almost total neglect. If there is a single continuity in Irish politics, it is doing the bare minimum, paying for the bare minimum, and hoping for the best. We have a non-functional mental health care system, a housing system in total permanent crisis, mass and growing homelessness, and a host of other social ills that no one near power seems to have any interest in dealing with. Dublin is governed centrally by an unelected figure with the grim title of “Chief Executive,” as if the city were a mid-sized corporation.

Activists and social workers who engage with working-class young people have been sounding the alarm on just how destructive the last few years have been to their communities, their psyches, and their lives. The pandemic was unfathomably grim for these young people, who were trapped at home during multiple extended lockdowns with little to do but wait, and little opportunity for release. Many of these homes were cramped and inadequate; some were violent. The effect on educational outcomes in particular was catastrophic. After lockdowns ended, few people showed much interest in checking if there would be any consequences for isolated youth. It is little wonder that their frustrations would be vented in the streets the moment that something kicked off.

We should be wary of our immediate impulses. Any broad legal changes taken in haste to confront the right will inevitably be deployed against the left the next time it’s convenient. This problem will not be fixed by giving the Gardai more power to violently suppress working-class communities; of those arrested during and after the riot, most were not even from the north inner city. The far right will not be defeated by police but through acts of solidarity by organized labor and organized people. They will be defeated when Ireland becomes not merely a playground for tech money and tourists, but a fit place for everyone to live, regardless of their nationality or social background.