In the wake of recent attacks on migrants, Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin argues that we need to counter the far right on the streets in order to defeat it.
The attack on a camp in Ashtown shows us the new dangers we are facing in the wake of recent racist agitation by the far right. The camp of six homeless men – from Poland, Croatia, Hungary, Portugal, India and Scotland – was attacked by a gang of men with dogs, sticks and a baseball bat. This happened after a video of the camp was circulated on social media. In the aftermath, a campaign of lies was mounted to claim the attack never happened and to smear Kitty Holland, the journalist who reported the attack.
Last Monday, two days after the Ashtown attack, an old school in the North Inner City was set on fire. The building was set to be used to accommodate asylum seekers.
These incidents mark an escalation in the anti-migrant atmosphere that has been generated by far right agitators in recent months. They follow numerous anti-refugee protests in East Wall, Ballymun, Clondalkin, Drimnagh and elsewhere. In Finglas, in particular, the protests have been characterised by a particularly aggressive atmosphere, which has been ramped up by fascist agitator Graham Carey. Carey has spread lies about sexual assaults committed by migrants, interspersed with insinuations of a violent response, with posts like:
“Buy hurls, helmets and balls
Big game coming up”.
A march of about a hundred men through Finglas held the same clear threat of violence. Called by Carey supposedly to protect women and children, marchers stopped outside the office of Sinn Féin TD Dessie Ellis, targeting him as someone who supports bringing refugees in the country. Afterwards, Carey explained that the marchers had “moved as one angry mob”, saying,
“I understand action needs to be taken but tonight wasn’t about that. We put fire in the bellies of the FIGHTING IRISH tonight so be proud of yourselves”.
Dangerous New Terrain
It is clear that we are now in a new period when it comes to the far right in Ireland. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, they were a marginal force in Irish society. They used the pandemic to spread conspiracies about lockdowns and vaccines and gain a hearing. Importantly, they capitalised on people’s concern about public health to mobilise on the streets largely unopposed.
Far right groups like the Irish Freedom Party and the National Party are now capitalising on the government’s failure to accommodate refugees in a humane manner. The government’s catastrophic failures on housing are creating the space for racist ideas to gain more traction.
The gravity of the situation is clearly not lost on many people, who have sprung into action and began strategising and building to push back against the racism being spread in their communities. “For All” groups have been set up in East Wall, Ballymun, Drimnagh, Clondalkin and elsewhere. Significant work has been done to make links with asylum seekers who have been treated appallingly by the government, and welcome them into communities. Solidarity protests and actions have taken place at various locations around the country.
All of this work is hugely important, and the commitment and energy shown so far by those organising and mobilising on an anti-racist basis is a real source of hope. But there is one necessary tactic at our disposal that has yet to be deployed to any significant degree – that of directly countering the far right on the streets.
Why Far Right Groups Want the Streets
There are several reasons why this is necessary. Firstly, the hardcore fascists use these kinds of protests and marches to draw people in and harden them up with more explicitly racist ideas. People who might think we should “look after our own first” or “House the Irish” are fed lies about the threat that Black and Brown migrant men pose to Irish women, along with conspiracies about “military aged men” and a secret UN army.
Secondly, these protests contribute to the building of a generalised racist atmosphere and makes our society more dangerous for migrants and ethnic minorities. The risk of random racist attacks increases, along with the feeling of fear among these communities.
Thirdly, the hardcore fascists gain in confidence when they are allowed to mobilise on the streets unopposed. No, not everyone who goes on these protests is a fascist. But we should be under no illusion that there are people around these protests, and often at the very heart of them, whose aim it is to weaponise anti-immigrant sentiment and build the kind of street movement that could pose a real threat to minorities, to the Left, to workers and to democracy as a whole.
Why We Need to Counter Them Directly
To stop them, it will not be enough simply to have the correct arguments to debunk their lies, to build in local communities, to do the groundwork to welcome asylum seekers in our communities, or to build anti-racist solidarity mobilisations. All of these things are necessary, but insufficient.
We must also build direct counter mobilisations to prevent the far right from having a free run on the streets. This should not be simply about bringing out the traditional left, or confronting the far right with a small group of brave individuals. The aim must be to build mass mobilisations that unites workers, migrants, ethnic minorities and different communities to beat the far right with numbers. Whereas the far right and fascists gain confidence when they go unopposed, mass mobilisations can demoralise them, split people who have joined the racist protests away from the fascists, and boost confidence on the side of anti-racists everywhere. It can also have a general knock-on effect across society of pushing back against racist ideas.
The most recent instance of this happening in Ireland was back in 2016, when the far right group Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicisation of the West) tried to organise in Dublin. A major counter mobilisation of over 2,000 people came out to oppose them and prevent them from marching. The anti-racists dwarfed the far right group, who were ultimately chased off the streets. This victory set the far right back years, and it is only with the Covid-19 pandemic that they began to gain a proper hearing again.
Blame the Government, Not Refugees
It is important that this kind of organising excludes government parties. The far right thrives on a false narrative that there are scarce resources and that we must look after our own first. The government has created the space for this through its neoliberal policies that have created a housing crisis, a cost of living crisis and a health crisis. Moreover, this government will make concessions to the racist arguments of the far right about returning those who are “not genuine refugees”. Leo Varadkar in particular has done so in the past, and the establishment may well begin to weaponise racist arguments if they think it will benefit them.
While pushing back against the racist arguments of the far right, we must be able to point out that there are real problems in our society, and that it is government policy that is to blame, not migrants. We must be able to point out that there are 166,000 vacant homes in Ireland, that the government has invited in vulture funds and corporate landlords to jack up rents, and that it facilitates healthcare profiteers like Larry Goodman and Denis O’Brien to the detriment of all of us. It will be impossible to do this with any degree of efficacy if we are standing alongside Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party reps who are responsible for these problems in the first place. Not only will we lack credibility, but these parties will also try to shift the narrative to avoid taking any of the blame themselves.
A Major Challenge Ahead
We are not yet in a situation like Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 1930s, or even Britain in the 1930s, when the fascists led by Oswald Mosley were defeated at the Battle of Cable Street. But we should be under no illusions that we could get there if we do not act, or if we do not make the correct strategic decisions. Across Europe we are seeing far right and fascist leaders make gains, from Meloni in Italy, to Le Pen in France, to Orban in Hungary. As we have also seen in Brazil and the United States, voting out a far right or racist leader does not mean the movement behind them disappears.
Capitalism is proving time and again that it cannot provide a way out of the multitude of crises it has created. The legacy of imperialism and colonialism means that racist ideas are embedded in Western culture. These factors create favourable conditions for far right movements to grow.
Thus far, we have succeeded in preventing the far right from gaining a real foothold in Ireland. But the dangers facing us now are unprecedented and it is imperative that we get our strategy and tactics right. Along with the great work being done in our communities, the building of counter mobilisations on the street should be a key priority.