Irexit and the new far right in Ireland?

17 05 19

In 2018, the Republic of Ireland saw the emergence of a new political party. The as-yet unregistered ‘Irexit Freedom to Prosper Party’, described as “centre-leaning” on their Facebook page, are campaigning on the central tenet of a bid for Ireland to leave the EU. March saw the launch of a nationwide billboard campaign to spread their message focused on this Eurosceptic stance.

The priorities of the group, as set out on their website, include that of free speech, wasteful tax-funded spending, the housing crisis and opposing the carbon tax. The ethos of the group is described as “restoring national democracy” and increasing sovereignty by leaving the EU. The party is also pro-life and seem to oppose same-sex marriage, describing themselves as “pro-natalist and supportive of stable families for procreation”.

The group seeks to appeal to many legitimate concerns of Irish people. Rising costs of living, the housing crisis and ever-increasing rates of homelessness have massive implications for the country. However, the group has framed many of these issues as problems stemming primarily from immigration. For example, in Irexit President Herman Kelly’s recent bid for election in Dublin he runs under a slogan of “Open borders = housing chaos”. His campaign explicitly and repeatedly focuses on blaming immigration for the issues of housing in the capital, stating “unsustainable immigration makes Dublin’s housing crisis worse”.

The utilisation of mass migration for scaremongering is nothing new, a narrative echoing trends of other right-wing forces across Europe who are appealing to national concerns with an anti-immigration agenda. Be that radical right and far-right populist parties like Italy’s Lega Nord or on the streets, as with the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant Generation Identity movement (whose Irish branch remain active and attended the Irexit party’s Dublin launch in September 2018).

Activists from the Irish branch of the racial separatist ‘Generation Identity’ group attended the Irexit party launch

The centrality of immigration to the Irexit party echoes the sentiments expressed throughout the Brexit campaign. On 6 December 2018, the party called a “silent vigil” to highlight the UN Migration Pact. This is a list of pledges and objectives laid out by UN members to make a collective commitment and cooperate on issues of international migration. The demonstration drew much attention to the group and was met with significant backlash from the left and anti-racism groups in the country.

Their stance has led to accusations of racism being levelled against the group. An Irexit event, which took place in a hotel in Tralee, faced complaints by residents, rallying against the anti-immigration agenda. People Before Profit Candidate Bec Fahy stated on Facebook: “This group has been openly promoting anti-immigrant policies and has joined with far-right groups on Dublin protests”. This may refer to the appearance of other new Irish far-right parties, like Identity Ireland and the National Party at the silent vigil in Dublin. The Irexit party has been labelled as far right, or sympathetic with far-right agendas, despite their claim to be a “centre-leaning” group.

The small political party have held several events across the country. Their inaugural event “Irexit: Free to Prosper” took place in Dublin, hosting Nigel Farage MEP, and was attended by approximately 600 people. The leader of the party, Herman Kelly, is also the Director of Communications for the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group in the European Parliament. The EFDD is an amalgam of Eurosceptic parties, including Farage’s new outfit, The Brexit Party, and the Italian Five Star movement.

The Irexit party also places a great onus on the notion of ‘political correctness’. April 2019 saw them host the event ‘The politically correct in Irish Media’. A tweet by the party from the same month stated that they are “committed to freedom of speech and an end to political correctness”. The focus on political correctness and free speech echo similar narratives weaponised by the populist radical right and far-right parties and figures across Europe and the US in recent times, as a means to express extreme positions.

Irexit is not the only emerging party in Ireland that evokes ideas of the far right. The aforementioned Identity Ireland, who launched in 2015, now have 700 members but are yet to secure representation at the local or national level. The party brand themselves as being opposed to ‘globalism’, stating on their website they are “against policies that encourage multi-culturalism and ghettoisation”.

Identity Ireland run on a strong anti-immigration and nationalist message stating a “zero tolerance” approach to the accommodation of other cultural practices or beliefs in Ireland. The group are also anti-Muslim and call for the closure of the Clonskeagh Islamic Cultural Centre in Dublin. Like the Irexit Freedom party, the group share an anti-EU stance. Similarly, Identity Ireland frame the national housing crisis as being a direct relation to mass immigration.

The National Party’s Justin Barrett

The National Party, who also appeared alongside Identity Ireland at the Irexit Party’s UN Migration Pact “vigil”, were formed in 2016, and is fronted by former Youth Defence leader, Justin Barrett. The Youth Defence is an organisation formed to oppose legalisation of abortion in Ireland. A controversial figure, Barrett is not only staunchly against abortion but also anti-Muslim; calling for a temporary ban of Muslims from Ireland in 2016. 

He has also been tied to attending events organised by the far-right parties the National Democratic Party in Germany and Forza Nuova in Italy in the 1990s. He has since stated he regrets his attendance and does not stand in allegiance with either group. The Nationalist Party is run based on nine principles, including anti-mass immigration, anti-abortion and the reinstatement of the death penalty. Similarly to Irexit and Identity Ireland the group are Eurosceptic; however, they do not endorse leaving the EU. The National Party was added to register of political parties in April 2019.

An audience in Ireland?

The issue of whether the populist ideas seen spreading in the US, UK and elsewhere are a legitimate concern of the Irish public is a complex one. Ireland has largely avoided the spotlight in the discussions of the global rise of the alt-right. The anti-imperialist traditions of Ireland have seemed to mitigate the effects of right-wing racist groups taking hold in Ireland in the past. Moreover, in recent years it has gained a global reputation of progressiveness due to ground-breaking referendums on marriage equality and legalised abortion.

Nonetheless, as a country with a majority white population, Ireland still faces issues of racism and discrimination prevalent in everyday life. These have been worsened by social problems such as the national housing crisis, which, coupled with ever-increasing levels of homelessness, have led to an increasingly unsettled public.

Furthermore, for certain minority groups coming to Ireland, areas of policy have come under fire. The system of ‘Direct Provision’, for example, represents a failing of the state towards those entering Ireland seeking asylum and refugee status. Direct Provision refers to a system established in 2000 to house asylum seekers in Ireland.

Originally proposed as an interim period of six months while individuals awaited the outcome of their appeals, the average time spent in Direct Provision in 2017 was 23 months, with over 400 residents spending five years in the centres. Residents are provided with a living allowance of €38.80 a week, increased from €21.60 in 2018. The centres have faced criticism from human rights groups as being inhumane, and there have been many complaints from residents of these centres concerning poor living conditions and long wait times which have led to a higher incidence of mental health problems, especially amongst the younger residents.

Mobilisation against such movements by left-wing groups and activists in Ireland has been prompt and encouraging. The Irexit Party’s ‘silent vigil’ on the issue of immigration was met with an equally sized counter-protest by local activists, anti-racism groups and concerned members of the general public. The success of grassroots activist groups that campaigned for marriage equality, legalised abortion and opposition to water charges has fuelled an attitude of protest and an ability to enact change, especially in the young, left-wing Irish population. Recent protests and demonstrations against the housing crisis, in support of striking nurses and against the anti-immigration message of the Irexit Party show a push back against such ideas that needs to be encouraged.

A Lennon supporter at the Belfast demonstration

This is true north of the border as well. In June 2018 there was encouraging mobilisation in Belfast in opposition to the ‘UK Freedom March’. Described as a ‘Pro-Brexit and free speech rally’, it included those marching in support of anti-Muslim activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon AKA Tommy Robinson (the event coincided with similar events elsewhere). This counter-protest mobilisation and a subsequent anti-fascist demonstration have seemed to curtail subsequent far-right demonstrations in Northern Ireland and points to the power of social action and mobilisation.

The Irexit Party itself does not have much public support and does not seem to pose much of a threat of real movement to leave the EU. A post-Brexit poll found that support for the Republic of Ireland staying in the EU had jumped to an all-time high of 92 per cent. It remains that support for such groups in Ireland remains small.

However, the real risk lies in the slow propagation and spreading of far-right, anti-immigration rhetoric, and the subsequent resentment towards immigrants who enter the country. Despite the anti-fascist successes mentioned, we cannot rest on our laurels. Continued attention needs to be paid to whether such groups can increasingly mobilise the spreading of anti-immigration and ethno-nationalist discourse in Ireland that is being propagated by the far-right the world over.

Catherine Baker is a Doctoral Researcher at the Online Civic Cultural Centre, Loughborough University


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