Sinn Féin’s surge was the story of the recent election and the support garnered by the left as a whole was a welcome new development in Irish politics. But these were not the only changes the country’s political system was undergoing. The election was the first in which the Irish far-right had a very visible presence. Relatively new political parties such as the National Party and the Irish Freedom Party brought to the Irish political scene the type of far-right movements that have characterised European politics for decades. Seeking to place the blame for Ireland’s socio-economic woes on immigrants, particularly those from Islamic countries, these parties are arguably the Irish equivalent of more electorally successful European parties such as France’s Rassemblement National (formerly Front National) and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland. Such parties share with the Irish far-right a Eurosceptic stance, a virulently anti-immigration and anti-Islam message, as well as a deep conservatism on social issues, although the Irish far-right is much more conspiratorial in its ideology than its more mainstream counterparts on the continent.
The Irish electorate has, for now, decisively rejected such politics. Despite running in constituencies across the country, the highest share of the vote that any far-right candidate managed to attain was just 2%. Ireland remains part of a very small group of European nations with no far-right representation in parliament.
Nonetheless, there is cause for concern. Ireland has amongst the highest levels in Europe of hate crimes committed against those of an African background and there has long existed a tradition of discrimination against the Traveller community. Ireland does not have any publicly available figures on hate crime, but both the Gardaí and various rights groups have stated that there has been a rise in recent years. There have also been a number of apparent vigilante attacks that could indicate a far-right presence that is becoming emboldened. Early last year, a hotel in Rooskey that was due to host asylum seekers suffered two separate arson attacks, whilst in June a mosque in Galway was vandalized in an apparent hate crime. In October, a Sinn Féin TD who expressed support for asylum seekers received death threats and subsequently had his car set alight outside the family home. All of this has been accompanied by a much-increased visibility of far-right groups; on the streets, online, and at the ballot box.
The comprehensive rejection of these groups by the electorate does not preclude the possibility of a far-right breakthrough in the future. Ireland has already been identified as meeting some of the conditions that could prove conducive for the growth of such movements. Academics have argued that Ireland meets conditions such as “rapidly rising immigration, allegations of job displacement, increased inequality. . .[and] an electoral system that enables small newcomers”, that could make a far-right breakthrough more likely. Whatever the eventual composition of the incoming government, if socioeconomic problems pertaining to housing and healthcare are not tackled, the scope for the scapegoating of immigrants will increase. Many people already link these crises to immigration. Indeed, a group calling themselves “House the Irish First” recently protested against a social housing development.
If we do not have another election for a couple of years or more, there will be ample time for the far-right parties to organise, refine their message, and build support from disaffected segments of society, many of whom may not have voted this time around. There are indications that these parties will not have much difficulty in securing funding with which to run a future campaign. In a few years’ time, it is conceivable that we see a very different force to the one that has just been decisively defeated. The Beacon, a website devoted to monitoring the far-right, got its hands on a planning document which discussed the lessons the far-right must take from the election defeat. The document makes it clear that the forces of the far-right intend to modify their approach to increase their support.
Still, on the balance of probability, it remains difficult to envision the Irish electorate turning to the far-right in any substantial numbers. The overall reaction of many to their candidates was one of ridicule and it is doubtful that in the medium term the far-right can overcome this lack of credibility. What is more plausible, however, is that the more established politicians and parties adopt some of the talking points of the far-right. This has already occurred in a number of European countries where centre-right parties have increasingly adopted the rhetoric and, occasionally, the policies of the far-right.
What differentiates these countries from Ireland is that they all host far-right movements that have become sufficiently strong as to pose a threat to the established order. It might therefore be argued that such a shift in one of our establishment parties is unlikely. However, there are some indications that adopting some of the rhetoric traditionally associated with the far-right could prove to be electorally fruitful and several recently successful centre-right candidates have echoed sentiments more often associated with the far-right. Describing African immigrants as “spongers” did not harm the electoral chances of Independent TD Noel Grealish, nor did Verona Murphy’s comments linking asylum seekers to the Islamic State prevent her from securing a seat in the incoming Dáil. Even Leo Varadkar appeared to be testing the waters regarding rhetoric on immigration when he complained of “a lot of people from Georgia and Albania coming in with fake documents”. That such approaches may prove successful was perhaps best evidenced by the share of the vote that Peter Casey received in the 2018 presidential election, subsequent to his targeting of a minority group.
The state of flux within Irish politics at the present moment means that a mainstreaming of far-right rhetoric should not be ruled out. As long as there exists a considerable amount of racist sentiment in the country, any political party languishing low in the polls may be tempted to appeal to the prejudices of some citizens. Such a temptation would be all the greater were there to be a deterioration of economic conditions in Ireland. As we have seen in the UK, xenophobic discourse can serve as a useful distraction from economic issues.
Were this to occur, it would have the effect of normalising a dangerous discourse surrounding immigration and its relation to socio-economic problems. Under such circumstances, the parties of the far-right might receive a far better reception in future elections.