With populist politicians gaining support in Europe and the United States, Gary Ibbotson asks why the Irish people haven’t welcomed the far-right.
With French elections due on 23 April 2017, Western Europe’s most fragile and divided nation goes to the ballot box to determine who will be their 25th elected president.
At the time of writing, according to the polls, the front-runner in the race is independent centrist Emmanuel Macron with 26 percent of the vote. Controversial leader of the Front National party Marine Le Pen is following closely behind in second at 25 percent.
Le Pen and Front National’s support among the electorate is indicative of the current European political landscape – the rise of the far-right.
— Financial Times (@FT) March 27, 2017
Marine Le Pen’s party was founded by her father, Jean-Marie, in 1972 who led Front National until 2011 before his daughter took over presidential duties. The party, with over 85,000 followers, has gained a loyal support on the back of an anti-EU and anti-immigration ticket.
In The Netherlands, Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom won 13 percent of the vote in the recent parliamentary election, making them the second biggest party in the country. In Germany, federal elections are scheduled for later this year with center-right Free Democratic Party (FDP) and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) contesting for seats with Angela Merkel’s Union parties and other left-wing groups.
With extreme conservatism and far-right parties on the rise, the question has to be asked, why isn’t Ireland jumping on the bandwagon?
Eoin O’Malley, professor of political science in Dublin City University (DCU), says that “we have populist nationalists – Sinn Féin is one such party.” However, it is important to recognize that Sinn Fein are progressive on issues of immigration and racism; unlike the former colonial powers of France and Netherlands, our nationalism stems from a different source.
There’s no Make Ireland Great Again… we built our national myths on the idea that we were the underdog
– Eoin O’Malley
“For historical reasons our nationalism is different. It’s what I call “small guy nationalism”. So there’s no Make Ireland Great Again…we built our national myths on the idea that we were the underdog. Blaming immigrants would be inconsistent with our national narrative.”
The island of Ireland is no stranger to far-right wing movements however. Eoin O’Duffy, who was a former Garda Síochána commissioner, lead the Army Comrades Association (later named the National Guard) in the early 1930s.
The ACA provided physical protection to Cumann na nGaedheal from anti-treaty IRA and campaigned for patriotic realism while only accepting Irish people with Irish parents into their ranks.
The “Blueshirts”, as they were also known, were declared an illegal organisation in 1933 with existing members and other groups aligning to form Fine Gael. After disastrous local elections in 1934, O’Duffy left the party and formed an Irish brigade that fought alongside General Franco’s men in the Spanish Civil War.
The anti-immigration ticket that Trump, Wilders and Le Pen have ran on the back of has gained support through their claim that more immigration equates to more crime.
However, this claim has been found to be baseless, with a recent report carried out by criminologists at the University of Buffalo and University of Alabama stating that “research has shown virtually no support for the enduring assumption that increases in immigration are associated with increases in crime.”
France has been the target of numerous terrorist attacks over recent years with a foiled assault recently occurring in Paris on Saturday 18 March.
This rise of terror-related attacks have swayed many French voters to back Le Pen and Front National who have promised to ban all Muslims from entering French borders and it’s their belief that this will eliminate the threat of terror strikes.
The Front National’s surge in popularity since 2012, where Le Pen won 17.9 percent of the first-round votes, has been mirrored and runs parallel with other far-right political parties in Europe and the United States.
Even with a local far-right-wing policy maker adapting a parallel rhetoric, O’Malley can’t see a duplication of the success.
“It could change it, but it’ll take time. The narrative is to look after immigrants. Somebody could come around to sell this idea, but I’m not sure if the parties would welcome them in.”
One of Ireland’s recent far-right-wing groups, the National Party, was founded in 2016 by former Youth Defence member, Justin Barrett. According to their website the party, “is a new, dynamic political venture” and will “free Ireland from generations of debt and protect both the nation’s resources and the nation’s culture.”
The NP is driving debate on Islamic extremism in Ireland, even among Muslms. Yesterday's extremism is today's centre, and tomorrow's policy!
— Justin Barrett (@JustinBarrettNP) December 19, 2016
The National Party’s manifesto includes similar policies to that of Front National in France and Party for Freedom in Netherlands. “The National Party opposes unrestricted immigration, placing above all the preservation of national identity and culture as the bedrock of a principled patriotism,” it reads.
Identity Ireland, a similar party established in 2015, also carries a populist rhetoric saying that “jobs and prosperity can only be created by retaking full control of our economy” and a “return to the punt” would aide the economic recovery. According to their website the party has 700 signed up members.
— Identity Ireland (@AitheantasEire) December 27, 2016
The party state that they believe in a “zero tolerance approach towards demands to alter national life, culture and traditions to accommodate minority held beliefs and cultures.”
Both parties have been contacted by The City for comment on far-right policies in Ireland but neither have replied at the time of publication.
Niamh Hardiman, a political scientist at University College Dublin (UCD), says to understand the lack of far-right-wing representation on the island, we must “look at the supply and demand for right wing politics.”
“Ireland doesn’t have some of the conditions that have seemed to conjure radical right populism in a number of other countries. We don’t have a big rust-belt sector of declining industry, we don’t have a big ‘left behind sector’ in quite the same way and we don’t have the challenges of the absorption of mass immigration,” she tells The City.
“We have political parties that are very anxious, always to cater for the spread of opinion. Very un-ideological parties on the whole that have been quite responsive to a lot of grass roots opinion and a welfare state that is, very incomplete, but hasn’t left behind great geographical divide in the same way.”
Regarding the future potential that such right-wing parties have of establishing themselves within the mainstream political sphere, O’Malley sees that window of opportunity closing with the economic recovery. “The circumstances in the last ten years were probably ideal, but the problem was the small guy nationalism I spoke about,” he says.
O’Malley also believes that the support Wilders and Le Pen have gained within their respective populous would to be difficult for figures such as Barrett to replicate. “Trump, Le Pen, Wilders etc. were known before, or had a party base. You do it from within a party, or you are already a ‘somebody’.”
The experts suggest that for a far-right-wing party to attract sections of the Irish populous, major societal and economic changes would have to occur – and the way those changes are responded to by some Irish people would also have to shift radically.