Narratives, strategies and left responses (Part 1)
by Mark Malone
Following the recent piece we carried on the role of trade unions in combating racist and far right narratives across Britain, we asked Mark Malone to assess the threat of the far right in Ireland. In Part 1, he introduces the main narratives and organisational strategies employed by extreme right actors in Ireland, their links to international far right networks and how they have sought to exploit the uncertainty and tensions surrounding Brexit.
Events since the Brexit vote in the UK have demarcated a significant up-tick in far right organising in the south of Ireland. These efforts have singularity failed to achieve any meaningful political success. But after more than a decade of austerity – with an attendant housing and homeless crisis, a health service failing to meet the needs of most people and a deep and growing disillusionment with the politics of the largest political organisations of the state – the increasingly coordinated efforts of a few to normalise xenophobic ideologies is a concern of all of us with a vision of egalitarian and emancipatory politics on the island.
Indeed, concern around attempts to manifest an explicit politics around anti-immigrant and extreme nationalism is not limited to socialists and fellow travellers. Just recently former Deputy Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and current Garda (Irish police) Commissioner Drew Harris – not someone many of us would associate with anti-fascist struggle – stated:
“It’s very clear from my interactions with European colleagues, and then also what I see myself, that there is a rise in right-wing extremism right across Europe. The difficulty with it is that it’s spread through the web and spread through social media. And we just need to be very careful, in terms of some of the things that have happened to date here in Ireland. We now see it starting to arrive on our shores. We’re very acutely aware of it and we’re very acutely aware there’s a policing response, and indeed an intelligence response, that we need to have to thwart that particular threat.”
Whilst it may give succour to some that the head of the police force is giving notice to something many of us have observed over the past two years, the broader left should be more aware of and responsive to far right organising wherever it happens, be that in our communities, workplaces, or bubbling on the social media networks we use. It is a social phenomenon that can and will be defeated with direct interventions by a left which must be able to speak to the interests of those who are most susceptible to racist and far right narratives.
Harris’ response was itself nudged given a succession of arson attacks over late 2018 and this year mostly attributed to anti-immigrant sentiment, deliberately stoked up by far right actors as we shall see. Each attack got media attention, though these reached a peak in late October of this year when the Leitrim home of Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny was attacked and his car set alight after speaking out against far right hatred.
The far right in Ireland – a new phenomenon?
It is worth stating that explicit far right organising in Ireland at any scale is a relatively new political phenomenon. Extreme nationalist ideology as presented by its proponents today is a synthetic creation around a fabricated concept of ‘ethnic Irish’. It is notable for any absence of engaging with the ideas and practice of political nationalism and republicanism of the last 50 years and instead depends either on mythical Celticism or invoking cherry picked lines and concepts from leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. Irish Youtubers prominent in an emerging network of propagandists pushing white supremacist conspiracy theories with a genealogy in the US far right are blended with twee Irish folk music, while micro political organisations such as the Irish Freedom Party, Identity Ireland and the National Party reference Pádraig Pearse and cultural nationalist leader Thomas Davis – who died in 1845 – as intellectual reference points. This speaks to the paucity of thought beyond extremist and faux-revolutionary rhetoric. A cursory look at the economic proposals of these groups only confirms this. The presentation and delivery of people like Justin Barrett from the National Party hooks on idolatry strongman authoritarianism, with ‘ethnic Irish’ simply a code for white supremacy.
The terms ‘nationalists’ and ‘republicans’ when applied in Ireland have tended to be understood by as something very different to the way the far right deploys them. Of course, the meanings of the terms ‘nationalist’ and ‘republican’ may have much more nuance to those who directly experienced the conflict in the north of Ireland, but it is fair to say that broadly the terms have for the best part of a century spoken to a politics of support for Irish unification.
Within that sphere of understanding a tension has always existed over meanings and power. In the early days of state formation Fine Gael’s corporatist nationalism had clear links with the far right, something today’s far right actors avoid referencing with as much evasiveness as Fine Gael itself. Yet also within De Valera’s nationalism and that of Fianna Fáil there was a clear deference to socially conservative forces that were explicitly anti-women. This theocratic stronghold has only been thrown off in recent years, the decline of Church authority confirmed by successive referenda on same sex marriage and the liberalisation of reproductive health. Paradoxically, it was these two successes that have contributed to a renewed vigour and viciousness among the Irish far right.
Competing nationalisms in Ireland
Historically, though, a more progressive tradition of nationalism has predominated in Ireland, one which is rooted in an understanding of internationalism and the anti-colonial struggle beyond the island itself. At the centre of this progressive nationalism lie questions of inequality and social injustice, and a politics of emancipation. It is this expression of nationalism in Ireland that has provided a bulwark against the extreme right. The battle for common sense therefore takes the form of competing interpretations and how these find expression in what type of society we live in.
The ideological project of the far right everywhere is to change common sense around what is meant and understood by nationalism. We have to be able to respond to that struggle around the meanings of ‘nationalism’ for those susceptible to reactionary framings by the far right. Language matters. The open question for socialists, anarchists, anti-racists and anti-fascists in Ireland is now how we can best undercut those that are pushing ‘ethnic Irish’ extreme nationalism.
Far right political formations
So, what has actually been happening in terms of far right organising over the last few years? What does it look like? And what have been the responses?
Identity Ireland, a xenophobic party with a tiny base in Cork and lead by a former primary school teacher Peter O Loughlin, advised by Paul Ryder, tried to launch on 22 July 2015. The significance of this is that it was the fourth anniversary of the of the massacre of 77 people – mostly young left activists – by Anders Breivik in a bomb and gun attack in Norway. A number of radical feminist and anti-racist activists effectively shut down the launch in front of the national media. O’Loughlin had previously linked up with UK fascists Stephen Yaxley Lennon (Tommy Robinson), founder of English Defence League (EDL), who visited the group in Cork to share organising tips.
Identity Ireland then tried to launch a branch of Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West), an Islamophobic far right network group set up in Germany, after O Loughlin met with its founder Lutz Bachmann several times. A mobilisation of three thousand people in Feb 2016 against the launch of Pegida Ireland in Dublin meant the launch didn’t happen and the project fell apart.
Later that year Justin Barrett, a life-long extremist with Youth Defence, a far right fundamentalist Catholic group, tried to launch the National Party in the Merrion Hotel, Dublin. Barrett has links with neo-Nazi groups going back more than twenty-five years. As such he has committed most of his adult life to right wing extremism. As leader of Youth Defence, he has been the guest speaker at white supremacist events and in regular attendance at fascist rallies all across Europe.
This launch again was cancelled due to pressure from a wider public once anti-racists made people aware what the plans were. To this day, groups like the National Party, Identity Ireland and the Irish Freedom Party rarely release details of where their meetings will be held for fear of being disrupted. Instead they are limited to using closed communications and posting propaganda afterwards if their events successfully go ahead.
Building anti-fascist strategies
Anti-fascist and anti-racist organising has therefore been successful in stopping far right organising as and when it has tried to emerge, disrupting and squashing attempts by micro-parties of the far right to launch. These efforts on the streets have converged with an organised, strategic approach to monitoring and making sense of far right narratives and groups emerging in Ireland.
In November 2018, an ad hoc group of activists under the banner Far Right Observatory (FRO) came together to pool resources, information and analysis to try and make sense of a newer phenomenon of the far right in Ireland – a shift in the way the far right organised, by promoting a grifter vlogger model seen in the US and UK rather than party-based organising. The FRO was primarily a response to the increasing levels of attempts to intimidate community workers and groups involved in migrant or asylum-seeking solidarity work around the country. The Observatory immediately began uncovering direct evidence of organisational linkages between domestic far right extremists and UK, US and European far right actors.
Alongside this it was clear that many of the talking points of a cluster of far right organisers in Ireland were imported from international far right movements, and deeply seeped in a culture and practice that has have evolved online through 4chan, 8chan and other online image boards where far right white nationalism has thrived.
The FRO carried out a focused piece of work over the course of several months from November 2018 to February 2019, monitoring online far right activity and propaganda promoted via social media, YouTube as well as closed networks on the instant messaging service Telegram. An analysis of the results identified several repetitive themes and meta-narratives, most of which were not specific to Ireland, but instead are part of a broad repertoire of talking points, framings and arguments shared across the global resurgent far right. For the purposes of the Irish far right these are often infused with Irish specific content which can create the illusion of intellectual depth and analysis of domestic conditions. But the extent to which these discourses are imported and replicated from elsewhere should not be underestimated. A list of meta-narratives and specific themes can be found at the bottom of this post. The chances are all readers have seen some of these elements or variations of them online.
As mentioned above, two successful referenda on key social issues provided a rallying point for the right wing social conservativism into which the far right has fully inserted itself. Their campaigns have been largely unsuccessful on the ground but have had the effect of bringing disparate far right groupings into contact with each other online. It would be reassuring to see current far right activity solely as aftershock of those defeats, and the last gasps of a fast-dying reactionary movement. But experience elsewhere has shown how small groupings, if unchecked by effective anti-fascist strategies, become experienced at creating a narrative that influences public opinion and generates momentum around their own agenda.
Brexit and the Irish far right
Another rallying point for the emerging Irish far right was the Brexit fallout in the UK. After the UK vote to leave the EU, the first murmuring of ‘Irexit’ – an Irish exit from the EU – started to appear online. This was distinct from the left wing arguments around a British (followed by an Irish) withdrawal made by some leftists in Ireland and which came to be known by the term ‘Lexit’.
‘Irexit’ has been a much more opportunistic and synthetic affair, one without any base at all in Ireland. The first mention of #Irexit – calling for an Irish withdrawal from the EU using that specific hashtag/label – came from UK based Twitter accounts. Later a Twitter account called ‘Muintir na hÉireann’ (meaning ‘People of Ireland’) linked to a website of the same name emerged as one of the main Irish Twitter accounts pushing Irexit.
However at the end of February 2018, following some shared investigation online, we were able to determine that this website was in fact run by a UK based extremist Jack Sen, a former member of both the British National Party (BNP) and Nigel Farage’s UKIP. This discovery coincided with the launch of a new right wing party called Irexit: Freedom Party, headed by Hermann Kelly. Kelly is a former editor of a Catholic fundamentalist magazine in Ireland. More interestingly, though, he was also Press Officer for the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group within the European Parliament, during which time he worked closely with Farage and other hard right political actors.
Farage and Kelly: Kindred spirits
In Ireland Kelly makes a lot of mileage from the fact of growing up in Shantallow, a working class republican area of Derry City. But the quality of the man is routinely exposed in the media, for example during a now notorious interview Kelly has given to British TV broadcaster Channel 4. During this interview he revealed how he had deliberately used a murderous attack in Brussels to further a right wing narrative that all migrants are potential terrorists, all with the aim of pushing for a higher Brexit vote:
OK here is an example of one which has an explosive effect on public opinion, right. It was on the day of the Brussel bombing. [*reads newspaper headline*] “Horrific act of terrorism shows that Schengen free movement and lax border controls are a threat to our security.” That is all I wanted in, right? You had to do the “Sorry for the families blah blah blah”. I remember that when we were doing the press release, I was saying “This is going to be worth at least one or two percent in the polls,” OK? The Brexit vote went up three percent. So sometimes the press releases and the views advocated in them do have a kinda large effect on public opinion.
Thirty-five people were killed and over three hundred people injured in that attack in Brussels in March 2016. Yet Kelly had seen this act of terrorism as an opportunity to promote the interests of millionaire Nigel Farage.
The extremely close links between Kelly and Farage were demonstrated again, when Farage was the main speaker at the launch of a Kelly’s new party in September 2018. The launch attracted a turnout of a few hundred people, including the Deirdre Tucker, then the leader of the Irish branch of Generation Identity, a European network of young far right activists. What was curious about this launch is the rather grand and expensive venue of the Royal Dublin Society, for a party that had no actual membership base. Initially called the Irexit Freedom to Prosper Party, but quickly changing its name to the Irish Freedom Party, the launch was symptomatic of an attempt to create a media spectacle that sought to will a political organisation into being without the hard slog of building up a base. It reflects entirely the Farage model of politics, which through the use of celebrity name and media stunts parachutes a party or movement onto the existing landscape.
Shaping public discourse
As much as Hermann Kelly wants to present the Irish Freedom Party as a normal, legitimate political organisation – one which recently ran candidates in by-elections in Ireland with a dismal response – the Irish Freedom Party is perhaps better understood as an astroturf project that seeks to shape public discourse around the themes identified above, while creating the circumstances for its figureheads to enjoy personal and political gain.
Kelly clearly is no ideologue, and his performances on Irish media have demonstrated he has neither breadth or depth in questions of policy, political economy or social vision. Rather he is a media player. This is not to be dismissive. We live in times when the walls between media, politics and technology are porous and where the strategic use of social media for narrative creation is much more powerful and immediate than traditional forms of building political organisations and a connected base. Particularly in Ireland, were voting patterns have required larger parties to partner in fragile coalitions, the significance of Kelly’s project may be found in its aim of shaping public discourse. But, as shall be outlined in Part 2, anti-racist and anti-fascist activists are alive to these dangers and the urgent need to counter them.
Mark Malone is a Dublin based anti-racist activist, researcher and communications officer with the campaigning NGO Comhlámh.
Treacherous elite versus the people: A meta-narrative that is closely associated with fascism. The general population is framed as ‘stupid’ and specific target groups as traitors and deviants, while positioning themselves as ‘truth’ holders.
Globalism: As opposed to globalisation, this is a specific far right expression, with ‘globalists’ held responsible for developments from immigration to abortion in a push to impose a ‘new world order’.
Cultural Marxism: A conspiracy theory concocted by radical white nationalists to explain the spread of multiculturalism. It has been adopted by neo-Nazis and nativists and is deeply antisemitic.
Irish cultural purity/Nativism: Promoting fear, this theme sits alongside the dominant ‘take back control’ framing. It emphasises the alleged dilution of Irish culture along with the need to protect ‘native Irishness’, encouraging a fear of change, nostalgic and romantic views of Ireland.
Anti-immigration: Use of the UN Global Compact for Migration as a galvanising opportunity to promote an anti-migration agenda and assert that Ireland is ‘flooded and over run’.
Islamophobia/Antisemitism: A narrative that centres on idea that Ireland is being ‘lslamicised’ and colonised (a new Plantation) – reinforcing a purity narrative and the need to uphold Irish culture. Escalating in 2018 and linked to Repeal of the Eighth Amendment and the UN Global Compact. Closely linked to comments on George Soros and his OSF Foundation, who are accused of interfering in Irish affairs and shaping public opinion.
Direct Provision/Asylum seekers: Targeting of planned opening of Direct Provision centres and Community Sponsorship programmes. Uses ‘Irish first’ and ‘purity’ narratives.
Housing/evictions: Historically the work of the left, we now increasingly see far right discourse co-opting evictions as a catalyst for recruitment and mobilisation.
Pro-life/Anti-abortion: A dominant theme since the referendum to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, linked to traditional values, conservative attitudes on the role of women and the need to push back on the ‘liberalisation’ of Ireland.
Anti-feminism: Explicit authoritarian world view, right of traditional conservatism and replete with references to the social and ideological ‘corruption’ of people’s purity.
Transphobic and homophobic: Internal and external discourse laden with this framing, even when not the core topic.
Anti-EU: Irexit has become intertwined with far right themes. It reflects an Irish ethno-national and anti-European perspective upholding white male European values.
Free speech: Present extreme views in a narrative that upholds the right to free speech. This framing allows justification and legitimisation of any and all opinions and statements.
Anti-NGO/Civil society: NGOs and campaigning community groups come under attack for being ‘pro-immigration’ (i.e. anti-racist) and doing the work of the global ‘elite’. They are labelled as supporters of liberal state policy because they receive grants. Like the media, they are portrayed as paid actors doing the bidding of outside forces.
Anti-mainstream media: Far right attacks on media focus on their place in a wider national and international conspiracy (the ‘new world order’), with explicit and implicit accusations of corruption being run by shadowy forces.
Anti-corruption: Resonates with a wide audience given the multiple crisis of legitimacy at state and institutional level.
Anti-elite: The inability of the ‘elites’ to restore security and alleviate anxiety. This agenda fosters distrust and alienation and sits beside ‘traitors’ versus ‘purist’ narratives.
Conspiracy theories: Escalation in anti-vaccine, fluoridation, 5G, chemtrails conspiracies, along antisemitic claims about Jewish families running financial world systems.