The new year has opened in much the same vein as the old year, with far right agitators stirring up protests and hatred of migrants across the country. In this article, Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin examines what the anti-fascist movement have gotten right and wrong over the past couple of years.
As we enter the new year, we find ourselves at a crucial juncture in Irish politics. The far right, having gained a toehold in Ireland during the Covid-19 pandemic, has succeeded in increasing its following by ramping up hatred and fear of migrants. They are beginning to announce themselves as candidates for the 2024 local elections – something which they hope will grant them some legitimacy.
Over the past year in particular, far-right agitators have upped the ante. The Government’s failures on housing, coupled with its inhumane direct provision system, have created the conditions for them to stir up hatred and fear of migrants. Any news (or rumours) about new accommodation centres for asylum seekers provide the far-right with an opportunity to stir agitate in local communities. The centres become a direct target for their rallies and there has been an increase in arson attacks on buildings that the far-right says are going to be used as accommodation for asylum seekers. Whether this is true or not is immaterial – in the case of the Shipwright pub in Ringsend, false rumours were spread that it was to be used to house dozens of asylum seekers. Several protests took place in the leadup to the burning of the pub on New Years’ Eve.
The riots in Dublin on 23 November were a high point for the far-right. They capitalised on a horrific knife attack on three school children and a care worker and incited a pogrom against migrants. A Telegram message in a far-right group chat urged people to “tool up” and “kill” any foreigner they found. Workers in the city centre, in particular migrant workers and people of colour, were terrorised as people burned cars, buses and a Luas.
There have been competing narratives about the Dublin riots – some dismissed all the rioters as “scumbags” burning their own city. Others explained it in terms of the alienation, poverty and powerlessness felt by people in the inner city, who then lashed out. In my opinion, neither of these narratives provides a proper explanation for what happened, nor a roadmap for tackling the root causes.
Far-right and fascist agitators have been gaining a following for the last few years now, both online and in local areas. There is no mystery about who these people are – we see them pop up all over the country whenever they get a sniff of an opportunity to spread their poison. They instigated the riots, riling people up with their lies about the danger posed by migrants. Some of them were also in the riots, attempting to further incite people to attack migrants.
Not everyone who was in the riots was a fascist, however. The agitators have a layer of people in their orbit, who listen to their message and are sometimes won over by their lies. Street mobilisations are a key tactic for the far-right to draw people further in and further radicalise them. There were also likely people who simply took the opportunity to loot shops in the inner city.
But it is this relationship and this dynamic, between the hardened far-right agitators and those they are trying to pull towards them, that we need to be concerned with and form strategies to prevent it from happening. Within this, we need to understand both the tactics of the far-right, and the underlying conditions that allow them to make gains.
Since the Government lifted the eviction ban last March, homelessness figures have been increasing every month. A new record was set in November, with 13,514 in emergency accommodation, including 4,105 children. This constitutes a staggering increase of 55% since this Government took power in June 2020. It is all the more scandalous when you consider that these figures only include those who are in emergency accommodation. They don’t account for the hidden homeless – people sleeping in cars, on couches or on floors with family or friends. A report from Simon Community found that 5% of respondents had experienced this within the past 12 months.
No matter how the Government tries to spin this – that they’ve turned a corner, that they’ve built this or that number of houses, that the situation is complex – there is no dressing the housing catastrophe up. If housing people is the goal, their tenure constitutes an abject and unmitigated failure.
Whether because of ideological blinkers, a naked defence of capitalist interests, or a combination of both, this Government has pushed a market-driven housing policy that is good for corporate landlords, property developers and speculators, and bad for human beings who need somewhere to live. Instead of proper rent controls, huge amounts of money are handed to landlords in the form of subsidies – these now exceed €1 billion a year. Vulture and cuckoo funds are being allowed to spend billions hoovering up property, outbidding families who wish to buy a home. The building of homes is being left largely to the private market, instead of having the state build social housing at scale, as it has done in the past. Even social housing itself is increasingly privatised, and the Irish Property Owners’ Association has been expounding the benefits for investors if they lease to the state.
Meanwhile, the Government’s treatment of asylum seekers is no less disgraceful. Before this Government came to power the direct provision was a blight on Irish society. The system was designed as a short-term emergency measure in 1999 but has been continued for 25 years. It is considered, by human rights organisations, to be a scandal. The Programme for Government committed to ending the system by 2024 and the Government published a White Paper on this in February 2021. Instead of ending the cruel treatment of asylum seekers, the system has been expanded and the end target has now been revised. Not only this, but the Government has also presided over the ugly spectre of asylum seekers being made homeless on arrival – given a €20 food voucher and told to find their own accommodation.
The housing crisis combined with the Government’s system for accommodating asylum seekers has created a space for the far-right to capitalise. New buildings where asylum seekers are to be housed provide a focal point for action. The housing crisis means the far-right can misdirect anger, drawing people in with the idea that we need to “house the Irish first”, before going on to spew vile, racist lies about black and brown men.
Racist and Irish?
In 2020, the Dublin singer Imelda May made waves with her poem, You don’t get to be racist and Irish. The poem draws on the history of colonisation, migration and racism faced by Irish people in the past. It has provided inspiration for many Irish anti-racists and clearly resonates with many people as a stark reminder to remember our history and learn from it. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that one can indeed be racist and Irish, and that this narrative is a contested one. We should examine why this is.
It is not simply that there is a far right out there stirring up hatred and fear. Anti-migrant racism is currently the primary weapon being used by the far right, but it could not gain this kind of purchase for their ideas if it weren’t for the pre-existing racist systems and ideologies in our society. Contrary to what the establishment would have us believe, this doesn’t come from ordinary working class people, but from the top.
It was Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, for example, who introduced and won support for the 2004 Citizenship Referendum, which means that people born in Ireland to foreign parents do not have the automatic right to citizenship. It is Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Green Party who have upheld the inhumane direct provision system. It is the current Government that has been making asylum seekers homeless on arrival, and that created a two-tier system for asylum seekers when the war in Ukraine began.
There may be a history of anti-colonial struggle and migration away from Ireland, but equally, there have now been decades of integration into an imperialist European Union responsible for barbarism at its borders and beyond. The celebration of open borders within the EU hides the reality of increasingly harder, militarised borders at its periphery. The promotion of a common European ‘identity’ is done in opposition to what is not considered ‘European’ – something that is nicely summed up by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s racist juxtaposition between the “garden” of Europe and the “jungle” outside it. The more the Irish State draws us into this project, the more space is created for the far right to exploit.
Sinn Féin’s Fudge
There are no inevitabilities in any of this – either that Irish people will draw on the best anti-colonial, anti-racist traditions of this island and reject the far right, or that Ireland will succumb to fascism. This will all be fought for, and our strategy in this matters. To this end, it is important to look at the strengths and weaknesses over the past year or so.
Since the far-right threat became a reality, there have been approaches taken by different organisations and parts of the Left. The party with the most significant support among working class people, Sinn Féin, has tried to fudge the issue. When the protests in East Wall first began in late November 2022, Eoin Ó Broin made a principled appeal on Morning Ireland for people to protest the Government rather than refugees. Mary Lou McDonald did likewise in February 2023 in an article in the Journal. Unfortunately, outside of this, they had precious little to say about the far right for much of last year. They eventually put their name to the Ireland For All march last February, but did not promote it once on their social media in the lead-up to the march – only a post from McDonald after the rally. Some individual members and representatives have taken a stronger stance, but as a whole the party has hedged its bets.
In the wake of the Dublin riots, Sinn Féin’s justice spokesperson Pa Daly argued that nation states “can and should manage their borders”, and that “You have to have an immigration system and some of that is about kind of ‘controls’, to use the term. […] Does the system need reform? Absolutely. All of those conversations need to be had.”
When you put into context that the riots were sparked by the far-right taking advantage of a knife attack, these comments constitute a needless concession. The person behind the knife attack was an Irish citizen who has lived here for years. What kind of immigration reform could have prevented this brutal attack? This plays into the argument that we can somehow stop crime by properly managing migration – as if foreigners are more likely to be violent than Irish people.
We cannot know what an alternative strategy would have resulted in from Sinn Féin, but we do know what the current fudge has led to. Polling at the beginning of last year showed that 61% of Sinn Féin voters answered Yes to the question, “Has Ireland taken in too many refugees in the last year?” More recently, internal polling by the party has them worried that they will be vulnerable to far-right candidates in the upcoming local elections.
Sinn Féin’s strategy of saying as little as possible on the subject isn’t working. You can try to ignore the far right, but they won’t ignore you. And if you give any concessions to their rhetoric, it plays into their hands. Sinn Féin might say that they are talking to people and engaging with them ‘on the ground’. This is important, but it is insufficient. We need to take the far right head-on.
An Irish Times headline from last September reads, “How to combat the far right in your neighbourhood. Step 1: Don’t counter-protest”. The article is an interview with the Hope and Courage Collective, (formerly the Far Right Observatory). The group has done some excellent work in documenting the growth of the far right over the past number of years. I consider us to be firmly on the same side when it comes to opposing the far right. However, on this question of strategy, I strongly disagree with the message.
Those who argue against countering the far right say that we should be careful about calling people far-right or fascist. In one sense they are correct about this – most people who go on anti-migrant protests are not fascists. We should be clear about that. But we should also be clear that street mobilisations, rallies and marches are crucial for fascists to build their organisations. They use them to draw people into their orbit and feed them lies. A generalised fear of foreigners gets converted into belief about a new “plantation” in Ireland, pushed by the UN, the EU and the Irish State. The protests contribute to a more racist atmosphere in society, making daily life more dangerous for migrants and ethnic minorities for whom the risk of physical attack increases. And the hardcore fascists at the heart of the protests grow in confidence when they are allowed to mobilise on the streets unopposed.
Hitler himself spoke about the utility of mass fascist demonstrations:
“Mass demonstrations must burn into the little man’s soul that, though a little worm, he is part of a great dragon.”
The antidote to this cannot simply be to counter misinformation – we must do this, of course, but it is not enough. Nor can we rely on Gardaí to deal with the far right. They have treated the far right with kid gloves so far – allowing people to burn a migrant camp, escorting them into libraries past counter-protesters to terrorise staff, and taking no action to prevent a headcount of asylum seekers on a bus.
If we want to stop the growth of the far right, we have to challenge them directly with numbers on the street. I wrote about this last year:
“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.”
The most successful action against the far right in more recent years was last February’s Ireland For All march. About 30,000 people took to the streets in a resounding rejection of racism and the far right. Crucially, the march also opposed the Government and called for housing, healthcare and services for all. In the aftermath, the far right were demoralised and had no major successes for a period of a few months. There have also been successful counter-mobilisations against them in Cork, Limerick and parts of Dublin.
These are the kinds of successes that we need to draw on and learn from if we are to prevent the far right from further spreading their roots in our communities. We cannot allow them to have the streets, and we should seek to build counter-mobilisations against them wherever possible. This must go hand-in-hand with a fight on economic issues – housing, healthcare, the cost of living, and public services. Only by fighting on both these fronts at the same time can we break people away from the orbit of the far right and push the fascist core back into its box.