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Irish Exceptionalism: The Nationalist Left

Coming to Ireland from the United States, particularly the United States in 2016 under the looming shadow of Trumpism, the latest incarnation of a nasty right-wing populism that wraps itself in the flag and scapegoats immigrants for its troubles, it was hard to feel that a progressive, leftist nationalism could be possible. And yet, there was Niamh McDonald in Dublin on Easter Monday, explaining this vision to me: “We believe that this is our people’s history and the state has no right to destroy it,” she said. “This building was going to be turned into a shopping center. We feel like there is enough consumerism, enough shopping centers in Dublin.” While everyone in the country was celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising, people like McDonald were fighting to remember the specific politics of the Republic the rebels had hoped to found—embracing migrants from around the world, calling on the remnants of a conservative government to do right by the people or get out of the way, and challenging the domination by multinational corporate powers (from the British empire to Facebook), that leave fingerprints all over the country but contribute little to its people, and much to growing inequality.

The United States has a revolutionary history of struggle against the British Empire, like Ireland. And yet the revolution that birthed the United States was not that of an oppressed people shaking off the colonizer; as has been pointed out many, many times, it was led by slaveholders and fought on land that had been taken from Native people. Our nationalism has more in common with that of the British, celebrating our military might and ability to wield power, than it does with those who fought liberation struggles against them. When Trump proposes to “Make America Great Again” on the backs of black and brown people, we know whose “greatness” he envisions.

Trump isn’t the only face of a looming xenophobic nationalist right, of course—among the many unfortunate gifts the financial crisis left us were multiple parties that expressly draw inspiration from fascism, from Golden Dawn in Greece to UKIP in Britain to France’s National Front to Pegida in Germany—about whom more later. What makes Ireland interesting is that despite having been brutalized by austerity, as much or more than any of these other countries, it has not seen a similar formation.

Many European nationalists might have fallen under the umbrella of “euroskepticism” until the refugee crisis kicked the Islamophobia and racism that usually hovered beneath the surface to another level, taking justified anger at the way the burdens of the financial crisis were distributed, and turning it to the cause of xenophobia and outright racist violence toward migrants, refugees, and anyone who doesn’t fit some sort of whipped-up national identity. The response to the unconscionable moves by the Troika in Greece, from the right, has been simply to demand exit from the EU, preferably while kicking out all the refugees too. The left has a harder time, noted economist J.W. Mason, because historically Europe has been the embodiment of social democracy, the welfare state, the rule of law, tolerance, and other liberal virtues. It remains caught between an EU that believes in and enforces austerity with brutal efficiency, and the abandonment of things it held dear—in Ireland in particular, the EU’s role in bringing North and South closer together, and supporting peace in the North.

The ability of Sinn Féin to capitalize on anti-austerity feeling, expanding its presence in the latest elections to a new high, has been assumed by some to be of a piece with this nationalism, but they are in fact quite different. As economist Nina Eichacker noted in a study of Ireland and Iceland’s economic crises, the boom economy in Ireland served to lift that country out of its political and economic subjugation to England; after the crash, the country has been re-occupied in a way by the Troika. No one was in a better position to understand that situation than Irish republicans, who continue to demand an end to the last vestiges of English control on their island, over the North. But while Sinn Féin is critical of the actions of European elites and the institutions through which they act, the party still argues that Ireland belongs in the EU.

The boom economy in Ireland served to lift that country out of its political and economic subjugation to England; after the crash, the country has been re-occupied  by the Troika.

To Eoin Ó Broin, newly elected to the Dáil for Sinn Féin and a longtime party activist and official, the lesson from Greece is that no one left party or coalition can simply take power in one country and expect to be allowed to actually run their country without interference—they will need to have support in other countries. The message sent by the squashing of Syriza was supposed to be “resistance is futile,” a message that may yet backfire the way the execution of James Connolly did on the British, but it is true that the speed and ferocity of the crackdown sent people already reeling from austerity into shock yet again. In Ireland, the election saw rejection of the status quo but no consensus around an alternative (after ten weeks, a minority Fine Gael-led government was finally chosen days ago), as the massive anti-austerity movement that had coalesced around water charges did not converge at the polls.

While Sinn Féin had a successful election, returning twenty-three deputies to the Dáil and capturing a chunk of the working-class base that had gone to the Labour party previously, they did not get near enough to run a government. Part of that is certainly because they remain, even in the South, associated with the IRA and armed struggle. Gerry Adams, the party’s leader, inspires frothing rage in commentators (and scrutiny by security forces even when traveling in the United States) for his part in that struggle, which he’s always denied. Sinn Féin placed itself in the context of anticolonial, antiracist national liberation struggles, particularly since the 1960s, the time to which Ó Broin dates the party’s current incarnation, its politics and its disciplined organizational culture. (Because of this anticolonial identification, in Ireland as in no other country in Europe, support for the Palestinians is common.)

While the shadow of violence hangs over the party, Wendy Lyon, a solicitor and former Sinn Féin member and Dáil staffer, noted that it likewise hangs over every major party in Ireland. Fine Gael had as one of its founders Eoin O’Duffy, who also led Ireland’s short-lived “Blueshirts,” inspired by Mussolini. O’Duffy took a brigade to fight on Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War (Ireland, in fact, sent brigades to both sides). Fianna Fáil was founded by Éamon de Valera, who fought in 1916, in the war for independence and on the anti-Treaty side during the Irish Civil War, before finally agreeing to enter parliament rather than follow the Sinn Féin policy of abstention. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael at this point are nearly impossible to distinguish on their political merits, but after coming out as the largest two parties in the 2016 election, still could not simply agree to go into government together—those Civil War tensions still have weight, a hundred years on.

So for younger people who don’t remember the Troubles or for those who simply have not been served by the parties that meted out austerity, Sinn Féin and a series of further-left parties and independents have stepped up to fill in the gaps, and together made up the largest number of left deputies ever elected. (For reference, in 2007 Sinn Féin had just four.) The new deputies, including Ó Broin, largely come from the party’s left flank; Lyon, who was working in the Dáil at the time, remembered Pearse Doherty’s speech ripping the budget in 2010 as a pivotal moment for public support for Sinn Féin. “He was clearly speaking for all the angry people of Ireland.”

The water charges were the final straw that sent those angry people over the edge and into the street. “While disparate parts of the left had been trying to mobilize people against the various austerity measures of Fine Gael and Labour,” Ó Broin said, “it was really when that space was created by the Right2Water trade unions that people who wouldn’t necessarily be affiliated with any political party or people who might have been Fianna Fáil voters or Labour voters felt there was now space that was open to everybody to mobilize against not just water, but water as a symbol of the broader austerity.”

Fianna Fáil adopted the water issue and used it to negotiate government power, but there is little sense that on a broader level they have grasped the deep anger and pain that austerity brought. The challenge for the left now is not to let things slip back to “normal,” which has been dominance by one of two center-right parties for most of a century. The collapse of the center in Greece allowed for the rise of Syriza; it has not completely collapsed in Ireland, though it did fall to a historic low in this election.

But more importantly, what has not happened in Ireland is a rising ultra-right party. There is no Irish Trump or Irish Marine Le Pen. In the centenary year of the Rising, Irish patriotism has not spilled over to any real degree into the kind of nationalism that we tend to expect and fear in the United States. Eoin Ó Broin suggested that the rise of right-wing nationalism has been overplayed. “In some senses I think that the elites at the heart of the EU integration project want to create this idea out there that this threat is a bigger threat than it actually is,” he said. There’s a way, in other words, in which it suits the ostensibly-more-progressive centrist parties to play up the threat from the nationalist, xenophobic, proto-fascist right. As Mason noted, the center has its own ideology. “They’re not neutral brokers, they’re not just interested in the integrity of the financial system, they want neoliberalism and labor deregulation and austerity and the rest of it,” he said, and when they have hard-right opponents who threaten bloody violence in the streets, the slow violence of homelessness, joblessness, and dismantled social services is harder to see. It has suited the center to pretend that their left flank is as dangerous as their right, whether that be false-equivalence columns breathlessly comparing Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump in the United States, or European elites hand-waving about Syriza.

When neoliberals have hard-right opponents who threaten bloody violence in the streets, the slow violence of homelessness, joblessness, and dismantled social services is harder to see.

When we consider Ireland, it seems the existence of that left actually helps inoculate against the rise of such a right. “Where you have a strong left-of-center, community-oriented, antiestablishment, antiracist, progressive political party on the ground there is no space for the xenophobic racist right,” argued Ó Broin. Sinn Féin and the smaller left parties and independents do that work in particular among the working class, so that the collapse of the Labour party (just 7 percent in this latest election) has not left so much space for right-wing populists to claim. “Sinn Féin occupies that space in terms of the demographics but the message is very different,” Ó Broin continued, “which is that the small amount of asylum-seekers and migrants who have come to this country aren’t the cause of our social and economic woes, it’s decades of mismanagement and cronyism and corruption of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael supported by their allies in the European Union.”

In particular, it’s the fact that Sinn Féin has articulated a nationalism “which saw itself as part of anti-imperial, anti-colonial struggles internationally,” according to Irish journalist Ronan Burtenshaw. Because Ireland was a colony that won its freedom through resistance to British rule, its nationalism was different than that of former imperial powers like France, Germany, and of course Britain—“states where nationalism is much more clearly identified with a kind of chauvinism and imperial intention.”

“I’m one of these people who is proud to call myself a nationalist,” Eoin Ó Broin said. “Without nationalism you wouldn’t have had a vote, you wouldn’t have had Republics, you wouldn’t have had the kinds of democratic feelings that exist today. The problem isn’t nationalism. The problem is racism, is xenophobia, is empire, is those negative ideologies.” To him, the value of the Republican tradition that dates back to 1916 is that there is a tradition of nationalism separate from empire, that draws from the history of Protestants like Wolfe Tone as well as Catholics and socialists and feminists, that is part of everyday discourse, not just political theory. It is a nationalism that draws on the line in the 1916 proclamation about “cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

That’s not to say Ireland is free of conservatism, but that at the moment it seems to be in retreat. New party Renua, which was formed mostly by breakaway members of Fine Gael who split with the party over the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, a 2013 bill that allowed for the first time the termination of a pregnancy if it presented an actual risk to the life of the pregnant person. (Yes, Ireland’s abortion law is really that strict—the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution winds up affecting women’s healthcare because the fetus is given the same rights as a person.) But Renua’s members, those who had been TDs, lost their seats and the party did not pick up any new ones.

As seen in abortion politics, the Catholic Church has shaped the lives of women, in particular, in a deep-rooted way. Lyon, a lawyer, noted that she had clients who were in mother and baby homes run by the church, that the Magdalene laundries for “wayward” girls didn’t close until the 1990s. And because Catholicism was a vector of Irish oppression, because Catholics were restricted in property ownership, holding elected office, as well as freely practicing their religion, the freedom to be Catholic held special meaning. Though this has changed, Lyon noted, the politics of abortion for years revolved around the idea that “this is something that distinguished Ireland from those evil brutes across the Irish sea.” The church’s control wasn’t seen as oppression, by many, though Irish feminists continue to fight to make its excesses known.

From outside, she noted, the role Catholicism plays in Ireland is often misread. The conflict in Northern Ireland, for example, is often rendered as simply sectarian infighting, battles between Protestants and Catholics, separated from a history of colonialism and denial of rights to the Catholic population. Within Sinn Féin too there is tension between people who are Catholic nationalists first, some of whom might be quite conservative and religious, and the left-Republicans. “That tension controlled for a long time, for example, the abortion issue, where even though Sinn Féin’s abortion policy was for a long time more progressive than any Dáil parties, you’d never know this because they didn’t talk about it,” Lyon said. She eventually left the party in part because its abortion politics did not keep up with changing views—these days, repealing the eighth amendment polls at 64 percent, though not all those who want repeal would consider themselves pro-choice.

Lyon is herself an immigrant to Ireland, from the United States, and has seen the country changed by immigration since she first visited in 1996. There were almost no people of color to speak of then, she noted, but a few years later that began to change. But for Ireland, historically the problem has been emigration, as famine, British occupation, recessions and lately, austerity have driven generations from Ireland’s shores to find better fortunes. “I was an emigrant, my parents twice during their adult life were emigrants. Their parents on both sides were emigrants,” said Ó Broin. “We have been a nation of economic migrants, so who are we to say that other people doing exactly what we have done in our lifetime and our parents’ and grandparents’ lifetime have done, that they shouldn’t be able to do that too?”

While racism and Islamophobia, then, do pop up in politics—Burtenshaw noted that a referendum in 2004 eliminated automatic birthright citizenship and “was fought on a racist basis against this idea that migrants were coming into the country to have children to get Irish nationality and citizenship.” That referendum was supported by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the center-right parties, and rolled back what had been the EU’s most liberal citizenship laws to what is standard across Europe. But there has been no new party and little organized movement on that front. Collins pointed out that many Irish people remember that the neofascist parties of the 1970s and 1980s, the National Front in England, for example, were anti-Irish as much as anything else and in fact found common cause with some of the loyalist (to Britain) paramilitary organizations in the North for a time.

The lesson from Greece is that no one left party or coalition can simply take power in one country and expect to be allowed to actually run their country without interference.

And so it makes sense that when Pegida, the German anti-Islam, far-right movement (the German acronym stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West; they’ve also printed posters that proclaim “Trump Is Right”), came to set up in Dublin this past February, they were literally chased off the streets. (You can watch the video of them holing up in a 2-euro shop). Everyone I spoke to on this subject mentioned this with pride, that thousands of Irish turned out to support the Muslim community, that members of the Dáil spoke against racism and Islamophobia, that People Before Profit and Sinn Féin and workers’ groups and others came out to say that migrants were welcome in Ireland.

Burtenshaw credited “very strong work that has been done in the Irish anti-racist space towards building a kind of identity around being Irish which has been open to the large numbers of Eastern Europeans and Africans who’ve come into the country since the 1990s and early 2000s.” Ireland, he noted, now has people who were not born there as a larger percentage of its population than either France or the United Kingdom and yet has managed to keep the far right at bay.

And it has been work, the kind of “on the ground, door to door, street to street” work that Ó Broin talks about, the work of engaging with people who might be tempted by Islamophobia or anger at or fear of refugees from Syria (Ireland promised in 2015 to take in 4000 Syrians, though nowhere close to that number have actually arrived; public opinion seems to still be in favor of accepting them). “I think when you meet people where they are and you have the discussion with them at that level you can talk the vast majority of people around to adopting a much fairer more progressive position and, by and large, I think we’ve done that,” he said.  

In the end, that’s probably the best lesson to take from Ireland: that it is work to build an anti-racist, anti-scapegoating anti-austerity coalition. It takes the work of organizing, of going into communities and talking with people about their problems and building up solutions together. And yes, it takes the work of standing up to the far right when they come to your neighborhood, of collectively saying “no” to racism and racist laws and media coverage and policies. Other countries can’t import Ireland’s particular tradition of left nationalism, cannot lay claim to the legacy of 1916, but that history alone doesn’t tell the story. We cannot change our history, but we can change our future.