As far-right groups try to use a UN migration pact to agitate in Ireland, Eoghan Ó’Ceannabháin argues why it is important, now more than ever, that the left must be unambiguously united in anti-racist activity.
On December 6th, the far-right ‘Irexit Freedom’ party called a “silent vigil” to highlight the UN Migration Pact—a toothless, non-binding agreement that guarantees little for migrants but has nevertheless been used as a mobilising tool for the far-right to stoke fears and spread hateful lies about mass immigration.
A large crowd of people came out to oppose them at extremely short notice. We managed to match them for numbers and we were much louder and livelier than they were. A broad range of organisations were represented, as well as a lot of unaffiliated anti-racists. It was heartening to be among so many people who refused to allow hatred and bigotry to stand.
The far-right demonstration was quite organised. And the large, glossy placards they had indicate that there is some sort of funding behind them. It was also the largest number they have managed to mobilise in Dublin in decades. Until now, they haven’t been allowed to grow, and were run off the streets the last time they attempted something like this via Pegida in 2016.
Ireland’s anti-imperialist tradition and various anti-racist movements have meant that the far-right do not have a foothold in Ireland in a way that they do in historically imperialist countries like France, England, Germany and Spain. However, we are not immune to the global effects of Trumpism, Bolsonaro’s victory, and the rise of far-right leaders like Orban in Hungary and Salvini in Italy. One of the banners on the other side of the Dublin demonstration was a “Lega Salvini” banner. The growth of the far-right globally gives racists in Ireland oxygen and confidence that they can build.
The situation therefore requires a thoroughly unambiguous, anti-racist response. There has recently been some equivocation by some sections of the left in this regard, with articles calling for border controls as some sort of ‘leftist demand’ being circulated. The argument goes that open borders are an aspect of the free market and the globalised economy, that migration is used to lower the wages of indigenous workers and in order to protect these indigenous workers, we will need to have some controls within the capitalist system. This is thoroughly misguided on several levels.
Firstly, whatever the rhetoric of the capitalist class about open borders and freedom of movement, the reality is that they do not follow through on this at all. The major capitalist powers all have tiered, hierarchical immigration systems in practice, where it is more or less difficult to get a visa depending on where you are coming from. The ruling politicians claim that this regulation of immigration is to protect workers in their own country, but the reality is much different. The more difficult it is to get a visa, the more easily exploitable a worker is. A worker who needs their boss to apply for a work permit for them is not going to go on strike. If they’re working illegally, you have no chance at all.
“He owns me now”, a friend of mine said to me of his boss, after he had chosen to overstay his visa and work cash in hand in New York. The relationship completely changed the minute he was a day over the visa expiry date, and now he lives at the boss’ beck and call. He works for much less than what a US citizen might earn, I might add. So how on earth did immigration controls protect workers in this case? It is the “immigration regulation” and the “border controls” that allow bosses to lower wages. The exploitation of immigrant workers and the knock-on effect on wages occurs precisely through a system of managed, hierarchical immigration. If all of the people working in any given country had equal status, it would be much more difficult for this kind of exploitation to occur.
Secondly, this argument is a total concession to the right. I listened back to one of the fascist speeches on YouTube after the far-right demonstration in Dublin. He made the exact same point that ‘left-against-open-borders’ articles are making—”immigrants lower the wages of Irish workers”. This is patently untrue, of course. Immigrants cannot lower wages, because they don’t decide wages. The bosses decide the wages! And they decide to pit migrants against Irish workers for the sake of their own profits. If we make the slightest concession to this argument, we give them oxygen and allow racist ideas to propagate and grow.
Moreover, in a political climate where the far-right is growing, any kind of equivocation in this respect is not only weak, but also highly irresponsible. Angela Merkel, in an effort to cling to power, surrendered to the far-right and reversed the policies that had brought a million refugees to Germany. Hillary Clinton has recently called for the EU to tighten its borders in order to stop the growth of the far-right. Leftists who find themselves in the same camp as these two champions of neoliberalism ought to reconsider their position. Closing borders and bringing in harsher immigration laws does not halt the rise of the far-right. It is tantamount to an admission that the far-right is right about immigration. The far-right will take this and run with it—they can do racism, closed borders and anti-immigrant fervour much better than Merkel and Clinton can.
Thirdly, who are we to decide who goes where? Who are we to decide, on a planet where war, famine and poverty are rampant, where climate change is going to make large swathes of the planet uninhabitable within decades, that people do or do not have the right to pass over borders drawn up by various different rulers? Or as a friend of mine from Turkey put it a few weeks ago, “Do you think I should be regulated?”
Why on earth should we accept the legitimacy of “immigration regulations” enforced by the same people who allow free reign for the vulture funds, banks and landlords? We are somehow meant to believe that the same right-wing politicians who allow vulture funds to swoop in and take people’s homes might somehow have ordinary people’s best interests at heart when they close borders. Finance is to be deregulated, and people regulated. Money can cross borders unchecked while children are put in cages in the US or Direct Provision in Ireland. We should absolutely reject this.
Lessons of Belfast
Having said all of this, the most important thing about the counter-demonstration on December 6th was the united approach between various different groups with differing politics in order to confront the far-right. There were representatives there from parties who will not agree entirely with the views above. However, we stood alongside one another to reject the extreme racist position facing us. Though we matched them, the racists will take encouragement from the fact that they were able to get nearly 100 people out. If they organise again, we must be more prepared.
There are important lessons from the struggle against the far-right North of the border; where organised fascist forces like Britain First and Generation Identity have been attempting to gain a foothold in the last year or so. For some time, these groups were holding small rallies, usually under the guise of opposing ‘terrorism’, in an effort to incite Islamophobia in the city. On every occasion their protests were met with opposition, usually from the organised Left. The far-right had more success, however, in pulling numbers to a ‘Free Tommy Robinson’ demonstration, and later to far-right pro-Brexit rallies. This development necessitated a sustained and wide-ranging response from anti-racists.
Firstly, groups like UAR set out to build rallies beyond the small confines of the Left. They reached out to trade unions, NGO’s, student groups, migrant groups and other organisations to ensure that there was a broad response to the far-right rallies, and to out-mobilise any rally they called. Secondly, UAR also set about bringing together a broad coalition of over 20 organisations, to host a large anti-racist rally in the city; significantly out-numbering any racist march, and lifting the spirits of many in the city fearful that the fascists where gaining the initiative. This dual strategy is incredibly important, as there is a temptation on the Left to imagine that we can beat the far right by going it alone; mobilising small numbers of dedicated activists, who are willing to physically confront the right. Certainly, dedicated activists will be the core of any anti-racist movement. But the experience in Belfast shows the necessity of creating an atmosphere where we can mobilise the greatest possible numbers on our side, thus demonstrating the lack of support for the fascists, isolating and dividing them in the process.
This strategy worked with considerable success in Belfast, with the fascists being outnumbered 5-1. A later ‘Diversity Carnival’ organised by UAR increased these numbers further, scoring a considerable victory for the anti-racist movement. Since then, there has been a noted decline in efforts to mobilise far-right rallies in the city. Indeed, on the last two occasions that Robinson and co have called demonstrations in Britain, no corresponding rallies have been called in Belfast. This is testament to the success that the anti-racist movement has had in isolating these organisations, and exposing their fascist agenda. Of course, we cannot be complacent, as the far-right will attempt to mobilise again in the near future. And the fact that they have been driven out of Belfast poses new strategic questions; particularly how to force them out of areas where the Left and Labour movement are weaker. But for now we should take heed of this progress, and ensure that a similar strategy is employed across the island in future.
We must also ensure that unequivocal anti-racism is part of the spine of the housing movement, which is where the far-right will make their false arguments about scarcity. There are more than enough resources to house everyone. The problem is with distribution and inequality. The problem is lies with those who control those resources.
Allowing the far-right a platform puts us all at risk in the long term. They start by targeting migrants and ethnic minorities, but if they grow they will attack LGBT people, women, trade unionists and anyone on the left. They held a “silent vigil” on this occasion, because they don’t have the power to do any more than this, but if they grow it is us who will be silenced, permanently. We have to be prepare to stand up, united, to prevent their racist poison from spreading.