Misreading the Irish Right

Can the Dublin rioters actually convert their populist energy into political power?

Irish politics is impenetrable to outsiders at the best of times. When the riots kicked off in Dublin last week, it was therefore inevitable that many external observers would attempt to understand what was happening by viewing events through a framework imported from the US or the UK. 

Amongst some Right or populist X-accounts, a narrative began to take hold that what we were witnessing was Brexit or Trump-style wave of populist sentiment finally breaking free of establishment control and rending the country into two relatively equal camps. Accompanied by footage of the riots, posts from Elon Musk, commentary from Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon, and others, claimed that “anger in Dublin has boiled over,” and that the footage emerging was of “Ireland demanding action.”

But Ireland isn’t the UK or the US. That’s not to say there’s no discontent over immigration, or that the riots meant nothing, but that more context is needed to understand the key questions: will this happen again, and/or will any popular energy bound up in the riots be converted into political power? 

The first thing an external observer needs to understand is that, at the electoral level, the presence of immigration-restrictionist sentiment within the Irish political system is zero. Consequently, the reaction to the riot in the media has been closer to a reaction to a natural disaster, as opposed to a political event. 

Politicians and journalists report on how bad a disaster is: they don’t try to sympathise with it or understand what it means: to do so would be neither possible nor desirable. This has generated some strange scenes. The Dáil – the Irish parliament – condemned the riot this week, which reflects popular sentiment. But it seemed, as it often does when topics like immigration and “The Far Right” come up in Ireland, that the discussion was occurring in a void. Rather than being considered as an active political agent, the “Far Right” seems to loom over proceedings as a menacing spectral force; everything is about them, everyone hates and fears them but no one knows them, has seen them, or has met anyone who supports them. 

This bizarre figure reflects the fact that, to the very limited extent that the riots represented a coherent political force, it’s one without a foothold in the legitimate public sphere. There is no “Trump-whisperer” equivalent in Ireland, no elected representatives, no parties or media outlets vocalizing the voice of the riots as the voice of the unheard. It’s not seen as a popular uprising by any substantial part of the population. People who rioted were instead seen as mostly ‘scumbags’ out to burn shit for the sake of it – this is a popular view, and not just with the press or some deracinated urban elites. 

It might be possible to separate the two elements of the riot – the violence and the politics – but there is no desire to do that. As is often the case with small, geographically marginal countries, consensus is a sacred value in Irish life, and for entirely practical reasons. People who are seen to maliciously or carelessly rock the boat are not easily forgiven. Any association with violence and destruction will damage the effort to grow a populist movement long term, and will be difficult to shed. 

Ireland also has a strong natural connection to the figure of the emigrant, and therefore the principle of welcoming migrants. Those factors mean that a movement that is (or can be painted as) callous or straightforwardly violent towards migrants will face greater difficulties making inroads in Ireland than they might elsewhere. This issue is compounded by the success of the political system in creating a barrier to keep cultural ideas it doesn’t like on the margins.

None of this is to say that some variant of right-wing populism cannot win power in Ireland, or at least win enough power to influence the national direction of travel. But any successful movement will need to thread the needle of some local limiting factors that don’t exist everywhere else. The 2004 referendum to remove birthright citizenship – one of the most decisive results in Ireland’s history – shows it can be done. But the riot of last week stands in direct opposition to that. So rather than a populist uprising, it’s perhaps better to see it as a morbid symptom of a system that is out of ideas.  

That being said, there is an overwhelming factor which ensures that in the next decade Ireland will either get a powerful populist Right party in power, or close to power, or will have adopted a far stricter immigration regime of the Denmark type to ward it off. That factor is “Material Conditions”. Ireland increased its population by 2% last year in the middle of a housing crisis; around 20% of Ireland’s population was born outside the country as per the most recent census. It is no longer a matter of simply being pro- or anti-immigration – it’s just not possible to go through demographic changes of this scale, the biggest since the Irish famine, and expect that opposition can be completely excluded from respectable politics and media. The shift is too deep for dissent to not eventually break through. The only question is when it will happen and what form it will take. 

One possibility is that one of the three biggest parties (Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, or Sinn Féin) will begin to make a policy pivot. This would not be driven by a belief that the rioters or their supporters are right but a recognition that suppressed sentiment about demographic change is deforming the national discourse and driving people crazy in a way that is damaging business as usual, and the way to control it is to bring it back inside the system.   

If opposition remains outside the system it will need the right kind of outsider figure to drive it. Conor McGregor is exactly the sort of figure who has been successful in this role in other countries, but the support that he enjoys amongst the wider Irish public is unclear. He also has tweeted things that could be perceived as incendiary, and may come back to haunt him.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the riot (and McGregor’s role in it) because it seemed like a historic event. It may not seem that way in a year if things like it keep happening, and they might. The question is what is driving immigration-related discord in Ireland. The stance of the political system is that sinister rabble-rousers whipping each other up into a frenzy on social media, and infecting others, like rabid dogs. 

If that’s what is actually happening, then the favored solution of the political system – that is, to unplug the internet and charge anyone who disagrees with hate speech – will work. But if, as seems more likely, the conversation is driven not by itself, but by the scale, speed, and depth of demographic change in Ireland, then the system is already failing, and in a couple of months Dublin will be burning again. 

Conor Fitzgerald is a writer from Dublin. He writes on TheFitzstack.

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