Covid-19 and the far right in Ireland

9 October 2020

One of the peculiarities of COVID-19 has been the opening of opportunity structures for far-right and reactionary conservative groups to advance fringe perspectives, including in Ireland.

David Kitching
Ezell Jordan / Shutterstock.com

Nationalist exceptionalism is having something of a moment in advanced democracies. In the UK, this is exemplified in Brexit-fuelled nostalgia for bygone imperial and industrial glories; in Hungary and Poland, it is a drive for “traditional values”; while the economic moralism of the Netherlands during negotiations for the EU budgetary framework tells  its own story of positive self-stereotyping. Ireland has a peculiar relationship with exceptionalism. Given the country’s position as a western European former colony, the idea of a unique history and polity is indulged by both nationalists and cosmopolitan liberals alike. Amid the fourth wave of post-war far-right politics in the new century, in 2008 Dr Eoin O’Malley pointed to special circumstances to explain why Ireland had not yet had a significant far-right party. He cited Irish nationalism’s mythology of ongoing struggle for equality between groups within Ireland, and its complicated relationship with party support, especially for Sinn Féin’s.

The water under the bridge since O’Malley’s article has included a devastating recession, increased emigration and immigration, liberalising social trends, Brexit, and now a pandemic.  Fringe ultra-conservative and nationalist groups have sought opportunities throughout this time, and have been broadly sidelined. However, some have recently found their voice, which has been amplified in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of COVID-19 restrictions. This article looks at the extent to which this is a cause for concern and the broader political dynamics at play.

Notwithstanding cultural markers, Irish political nationalism has often been defined by what it is not. Given the country’s history, this has primarily been in reaction to British and, more specifically, English nationalism. Added to this, for social conservatives in Ireland, the moral degeneracy of other foreign influences, including factors such as globalisation and EU integration, has also been a soft target. Ironically, these groups are also very much products of that which they rail against, deriving much of their platform from Anglosphere influences, and many of their networks and methods are strengthened by Ireland’s position as a highly globalised society. US conservative groups have bankrolled anti-abortion campaigns in Ireland, while the far-right corners of YouTube have seen cross-pollination of Irish and international vloggers.

There have been some efforts at Brexit spin-off projects in Ireland, most notably with the Irish Freedom Party, led by Nigel Farage’s longstanding Irish consiglieri, Hermann Kelly. Kelly’s political outlook is an amusing exercise in conceptual gymnastics. An ultra-nationalist, conservative Catholic from Derry, he grew up seeing the European project as the antithesis of his idealised version of Irish nationhood and saw UKIP as a catalyst to undermine it. He became Farage’s communications director in Brussels and, following Brexit, he returned to Ireland to try to import its lessons. However, as with Eurosceptic movements elsewhere, his position has been weakened by the embarrassing incompetence of the UK government to execute its Brexit transition. Given the cold reception for a copycat “Irexit” – Ireland remains consistently among the most Euro-enthusiastic member of the bloc – Kelly has shifted his focus to seeking attention through far-right tropes such as the racist Great Replacement. This white nationalist conspiracy theory asserts that the white population of Europe and North America is being systematically replaced by non-whites, with the complicity of liberal elites. In this, he is in some interesting company.

One of the peculiarities of COVID-19 has been the opening of “opportunity structures” for far-right and reactionary conservative groups to advance fringe perspectives. Described as an “Infodemic”, fringe groups have posited conspiracy theories ranging from that of the Great Replacement, the pandemic as an elite conspiracy and 5G masts as a means to make the public docile. Some far-right figures have undermined public health advice on wearing face coverings and social distancing while others advocate QAnon conspiracy theories that global elites are dominated by paedophile cults. The most pernicious local manifestation of the paedophilia conspiracy was seen in the “March for Innocence”, which targeted the new Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman in a protracted homophobic attack that linked his sexual orientation to child abuse.

There has been a significant media focus on these groups, and some of the more probing, analytical coverage has resulted in the intimidation of journalists both on and offline. Coverage has included substantial primary research on the various players among the nationalist far-right, including entities such as the National Party, Anti-Corruption Ireland, the Yellow Vest movement Ireland, and the aforementioned Irish Freedom Party. Still, the nature of other coverage, including that of the national broadcaster RTÉ, has been problematic, exaggerating the influence of far-right groups and hosting “false equivalence” debates on key tenets of public health advice. This comes after several years of similarly skewed coverage of local opposition to Direct Provision asylum centres in small towns throughout Ireland. The effect has not been to expose and weaken the far-right, but to amplify a fringe body of opinion. In an increasingly diverse Ireland, it undermines stories of positive cross-community relations and creates a hostile environment for minorities, especially those who enter the public eye.

To see if there is potential for the far-right to grow in Ireland, it is more apt to examine mainstream politics and in particular the role of the nationalist Sinn Féin party. There may be a temptation here to focus only on events since last February’s general election which saw Sinn Féin make unprecedented gains, becoming the largest party in terms of popular support. The intervening months saw a caretaker government followed by a tripartite coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (the two historically dominant forces in Irish politics) and the Green Party. Sinn Féin now leads the opposition, and polling since the election has seen the party’s support grow further, especially among younger voters.

Sinn Féin occupies a peculiar position in the Irish political firmament since the end of the Northern Ireland conflict allowed it to normalise somewhat as a party. A nationalist party, with a populist style of politics, Sinn Féin has historically drawn support from voters with a similar profile to populist radical right supporters in continental Europe, that is, those with the lowest levels of trust in politics. To be fair, the party leadership has not capitalised on this profile, despite occasional controversy. As an outsider, Sinn Féin has been able to balance various dynamics, absorbing distrustful voters, avoiding positions antithetical to liberal democracy and advocating left-wing economics. However, in leading the opposition, Sinn Féin is increasingly part of the establishment, while its expanded voter base has brought many young, middle class, socially liberal voters. What it gains from the mainstream, it may lose on the fringes and the landing spot for these disenfranchised supporters remains a key question.

At one level, the February election should not be seen as the big rupture, but rather as a continuation of the ongoing political fragmentation that has been evident in Ireland in each election since the 2008 financial crisis. Sinn Féin is merely the latest beneficiary, one whose strategy coincided with exceptional timing and good fortune. A crucial point is that while the past decade has been politically volatile for Ireland it has been systemically stable. Constitutional and democratic norms have been maintained and even enhanced with innovations such as the Citizens Assemblies and the successful conduct of referendums on the previously divisive issues of marriage equality and abortion. For the new far-right groups to make genuine inroads, they will either have to peel voters away from liberal democratic norms or to insert themselves more into the political mainstream. Even at that, despite exaggerated coverage, they remain poorly organised and politically weak.

Still, there is no place for complacency. COVID-19, and the background noise of Brexit, have brought a short-termism to Irish politics which has shown the capacity to destroy or revive political careers in a flash. Fine Gael leader and then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suffered badly in the general election, but a mere six weeks later, his caretaker government enjoyed impressively high approval ratings for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

The new coalition government has been chronically error-prone and its greatest blow to political authority came from a mass gathering of the Irish parliament’s Golf Society, which contravened numerous public health restrictions. The elite nature of the attendance list, from the highest levels of politics, media, business and the judiciary, was an incendiary invitation to popular backlash. It heralded the resignation of Irish EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan, Minister for Agriculture Dara Calleary, and the defenestration of numerous other prominent figures. The saga has intensified the levels of mistrust in the broader population, and Sinn Féin has continued to benefit, having had no association with the event.

The road that lies ahead depends to a large degree on Sinn Féin’s own actions, and those of the supposed systemic challengers recounted earlier. Irish politics since 2008 has shown that a rise from a low base, alongside increased political responsibility and scrutiny, can just as easily be followed by a crashing fall. The fortunes of the Green Party and the Labour Party in recent governments demonstrate this emphatically. Sinn Féin’s golden moment looks set to continue for quite some time. Having become the primary port of call for voters frustrated with mainstream politics, Sinn Féin’s encroachment on the centre opens a potential gap on the left, but also in the darker corners of right-wing nationalism, and it is here that the uncertain future resides.

Ireland is not exceptional in terms of the “opportunity structures” that exist for far-right politics. Parties and media wedded to liberal democracy had better not wait around in the hope that Sinn Féin makes the right moves or that the far-right remains so poorly organised. Furthermore, Ireland has been lax in addressing racism and hate speech outside of party politics, and effective legislation is long overdue. There is a major job of work to be done in rebuilding trust with the electorate. The unprecedented societal flux wrought by COVID-19 and the economic and political uncertainties make the task ever more complicated and essential.