Alan O’Kelly is a political activist based in London.
Last weekend, one of Irelands largest far-right parties, the National Party held their annual conference at the swanky Lough Erne resort in County Fermanagh, famed for hosting the G8 back in 2013. Things did not go smoothly; far left protesters broke into the conference, brutally attacking delegates and disrupting the conference.
A number of people were arrested but one of the main results was far more media attention for the National Party that would have probably attracted otherwise. It has once again prompted a discussion in Ireland about far right parties, their potential rise in Ireland, and what mainstream political parties should do about it.
The lack of media attention for the National Party is neither unexpected nor unreasonable. It currently has no TDs (MPs), and more generally far right parties have a pretty dismal record in Irish politics. At the last election in 2020, various parties that could be collectively considered, some version of, far right got less than two per cent of the vote.
Indeed, Ireland is increasingly an outlier in Europe in that no far right political party has ever been able to create a sustainable and ongoing base of support.
Over the last four decades, there has been no significant equivalent surge of parties of the far right or populist right, despite a global recession, rising immigration and other factors that have, in many other European countries, been cited as explanations for the phenomenon.
There are several competing theories as to the reason for this.
First, immigration never really took hold as a major political issue, thus depriving some of these groups of a key issue to motivate potential supporters. This despite the country starting from a position where the country was extremely homogenous, whereas recent census data shows that 17 per cent of Ireland’s population were born outside Ireland. Nonetheless, immigration has never been a serious or major political issue.
Commentators point out a range of potential reasons for this. Firstly that that rising immigration coincided with a period of significant and sustained economic growth as the Irish economy transitioned to focus on a more international, services-led economy, thus there inward immigration in fact helped sustain the economic boom of the noughties. It is also probably fair to say that emigration plays a huge role in Ireland with most families knowing someone who does or has worked abroad.
It is also worth pointing out that In 2004, the then Irish Government got out ahead of the issue and passed an Immigration Act that placed some restriction on inward migration which took the potential steam out of the issue.
The very structure of Irish politics probably helps as well; both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail would be considered conservative parties in an Irish context but would be considered very much centrist parties in European standards. (There are, of course, more conservative elements within each party). Sinn Fein, the main opposition party would be considered left (or quite left) of centre, terrorist affiliations notwithstanding, and there are various left wing populist parties too.
Nationalism, another issue that tends to be used by the far right, in an Irish context has always been more associated with Northern Irish question, and any debate on that topic tends to be absorbed by parties within that context.
In theory, the structure of the Irish political system should encourage smaller parties. It uses a single transferable vote with multi-member constituencies which in theory allows for smaller and diffuse party representation.
The Irish political system has thus created a much broader spectrum of parties and allows for far more non-party independent representatives. This is a particular issue on the left of Irish politics where, as well as Sinn Fein and the Labour Party, there are nearly half a dozen smaller left-wing parties and groups.
With a likely oncoming global recession, the question once again is if there is space on the Irish political spectrum for a far-right party. There are three or four registered parties and groups who occupy this space, but they don’t have any elected representatives and no momentum yet.
While the left side of Irish politics is well served by a range of parties, there may yet be space for some of these far-right parties to grow – particularly against the backdrop of a potential recession and with over two and half years to go to an election.