Recent months have witnessed a growth in far-right organising in Ireland, but also the spread of major anti-racist mobilisations in response. Pádraig Mac Oscair examines these developments and puts them in historical context.
In recent months, the inner-city Dublin community of East Wall has seen a series of protests against the potential housing of refugees in a disused office building in the area. Initially, protestors claimed to object to the lack of community consultation over the proposal, and to be concerned for the safety of local residents. A number of those protesting were angry at the prospect of refugees being housed ahead of those in emergency or homeless accommodation in the midst of the worst housing crisis in the state’s history.
Similar protests erupted elsewhere in Dublin and in some rural areas in the following weeks, professing similar concerns. A combination of long housing waiting lists alongside soaring private sector rents, a dysfunctional refugee accommodation system and failures to consult locals when housing refugees fleeing the Russian assault on Ukraine hadn’t helped, and had been breeding resentment towards these policies for some time.
It soon became clear that there were darker forces aligned with this wave of protests. A protest broke out in the Dublin suburb of Drimnagh over the unsubstantiated rumour that a local primary school would be used to house refugees, and a building in Sherrard Street was set ablaze following speculation it was to be used to house refugees. As members of far-right groups such as the Irish Freedom Party and the National Party became increasingly visible, it became clear that these protests fit within a tendency in recent years for far-right activists to agitate around sites proposed for direct accommodation centres, aping their British counterparts’ strategy of exploiting public concerns about asylum seekers being moved into an area. This was confirmed as prominent far-right activists such as Hermann Kelly of the Irish Freedom Party used the East Wall protests as occasion to talk about tampons in the men’s toilets at the Dáil and another organiser, claiming to be a supporter of the National Party, threatened to burn down a hotel in Kildare housing asylum seekers. The arrival of veteran British racist organiser Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, cosplaying as “Tommy Robinson”, provided further evidence that these protests were at least partially the result of British agitators exporting their tactics of scaremongering and disinformation into Ireland.
Irish fascists imitating their counterparts abroad is nothing new. The infamous Blueshirts of the 1930s were founded as a craven imitation of Mussolini’s movement before fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. British and American white supremacist movements repeatedly sought to organise in Ireland throughout the 1980s, and European anti-Islam group Pegida’s made an ill-fated attempt to launch a Dublin branch in 2016. None of these efforts gained significant traction, and Ireland was spared a fascist party along the lines of the BNP or Front National for decades.
One prominent explanation held that Sinn Féin and the broader republican movement took up this space within the conversation by providing an anti-establishment message which wasn’t anti-immigration. Dublin City University lecturer and journalist Eoin O’Malley went so far as to argue in an 2008 article that Irish nationalism, rooted in colonial oppression and recent memories of mass emigration from Ireland with accompanying anti-Irish racism in Britain and America, was incompatible with anti-immigrant bigotry and that the new arrivals to Ireland were not, by and large, perceived as a threat.
However, this was wishful thinking. Mass immigration to Ireland began in the mid-1990s, and had managed to spawn an anti-immigration party named the Immigration Control Platform by 1997. Whilst they garnered a mere 0.06 percent in the 2002 general election, they represented a symptom of emerging anti-migrant racism within Irish political life. Analyses like O’Malley’s, focused on electoralism, missed the phenomenon of far-right street politics. Ireland has had an element of fascist street organising and violence since the 1930s. The relative weakness of these groups owed far more to a proud tradition of antifascist organising which prevented fascists from building critical mass. The Blueshirts of the 1930s were made an irrelevance by losing street fights to a united front of the left and republican movements, who later complemented their flight to Spain by joining the international brigades to fight against fascism. This was immortalised in song by Christy Moore’s ballad “Viva La Quinta Brigada”.
This was followed by counteraction to British efforts to organise in Ireland throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which culminated in the creation of Anti-Fascist Action Ireland in 1991. The group had a number of major successes in breaking up far-right groups in Ireland throughout the 1990s, and had particular success in stifling the Immigration Control Platform’s attempts to organise. These activists had a history of participating in antiracist struggles alongside the trade union movements such as the Dunnes Stores workers strike against apartheid in the 1980s, showing an intersectional and internationalist dimension from an early stage. This was identified by Jonathan Arklow in a 2019 article as key to AFA Ireland’s success and relevance in a country with a minimal far-right presence. Anti-fascism offered a rare area of left convergence between the Marxist, republican and anarchist traditions on the Irish left, providing a common cause of preventing fascists from gaining traction through a combination of direct action and activism in working-class communities to counter efforts by racists to exploit fears over immigration.
However, Ireland was not spared the gradual introduction of racism and anti-immigration sentiment to public life. This culminated in the 2004 Citizenship Referendum, which ended the right of anyone born on the island of Ireland to claim Irish citizenship. This ugly episode was characterised by a campaign dominated by misinformation about widespread “birth tourism” by Polish and Nigerian women to take advantage of immigration law to claim state benefits in Ireland. The referendum was passed by 79% of the electorate, disproving any idea that recent memory of anti-Irish racism made Irish people immune to such appeals. The significance of that referendum was to define Irish citizenship in exclusive terms, legitimising criticism of what became referred to as “non-nationals”. A more respectable form of racist politics emerged, characterised by an emphasis on excluding new arrivals and blaming them for social problems such as the housing crisis. Aided by social media and the upheaval caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the far-right was able to disseminate and organise far more efficiently and on a much wider scale than before. The recent housing protests in East Wall demonstrate how effective groups like the Irish Freedom Party had become in exploiting social problems to press home their own agenda, couched in the exclusionary rhetoric of “citizenship” normalised by the citizenship referendum and the bogus claim that a country with 92,000 vacant houses could be “full”.
Thankfully, the proud Irish tradition of antiracism has continued. The #IrelandForAll counterdemonstration in Dublin on 18 February was a major success, uniting groups from across Irish public life. This has been replicated with smaller demonstrations across Ireland, showing that the basis for a mass antiracist movement exists. A key element in this coalition has been a movement called Le Chéile, which translates as “together”. Le Chéile represents a broad working group of many organisations ranging from the housing group Community Action Tenants Union (CATU) to Dublin Council of Trade Unions to campaigning groups like United Against Racism and Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, alongside numerous trade unions, artistic collectives and political parties across a wide range of progressive causes. It may well represent the most important civil society organisation to emerge in opposition to the mainstreaming of racism in Irish public life.
Civil society organisations, unlike political parties, provide the means to counter a racist narrative rooted in an exclusive idea of citizenship by providing the basis for an alternative model. As Anna Krasteva argues, such organisations allow reimagined ideas of citizenship based on participatory practices of solidarity, everyday activism (such as within workplaces), creative mobilisation in our recreational and social lives and confrontation with unaccountable elites, which can make antiracism a daily practice across society. It is not enough, in a society where 17 percent of the population was born abroad, to challenge only overt manifestations of racism. Antiracist politics in Ireland must engage with the broader understanding of racism and antiracism developed by Ibram X Kendi in How To Be An Antiracist, and challenge the ways racism informs power dynamics and injustice across society such as gender, sexuality, housing and social class. Civil society activism, such as that advanced by Le Chéile, could advance antiracist ideas and practices across a wider range of existing progressive activism in Ireland to provide a genuinely compelling and inclusive counter narrative to the exclusionary idea of citizenship and nationality that motivates contemporary Irish racist organising.
To do so would be to build on the best of Ireland’s antiracist tradition, which has always been characterised by inclusivity, internationalism and intersectionality. Just as the united front of leftists and republicans beat back the Blueshirts and AFA Ireland kept fascists in hiding through grassroots-based activism, Le Chéile provides the basis for a diverse challenge to a mainstreamed racism across the many spheres of daily life in which it may manifest, be it in CATU challenging racist slum landlords or trade unions challenging discriminatory employment practices. Nothing less is required in this difficult period.
Pádraig Mac Oscair is an author and activist based in Ireland. His writing can also be read in Mionlach, Rupture and Socialist Voice. He can be found on Twitter at @PMacOscair