Mick Clifford: Unity needed to beat far right

Since last Thursday week, the oft-repeated line is that the riots and all the attendant fall-out have acted as a wake-up call. The jury is out on that, writes Mick Clifford
Mick Clifford: Unity needed to beat far right

Since last Thursday week, the oft-repeated line is that the riots and all the attendant fall-out have acted as a wake-up call. The jury is out on that.

Last Monday on RTE’s Up front with Katie Hannon programme, former senior garda Pat Leahy set out what faces the country. He was talking in the wake of the riots that blighted Dublin city centre ten days ago and, in particular, the threat posed by what is referred to as the far right.

“If we focus on the policing response we will miss the picture,” he said. “This was an attack on our democracy and we either step up and address it properly or we will lose this battle for sure. We have to agree a definition of the problem which we haven’t done so far.” He went on to say that the government has to lead on this.

“What we need now is unity. If we’re not unified in this they are going to be at home, rubbing their hands, saying now we have disunity.”

Former Garda Chief Superintendent Pat Leahy. 
Former Garda Chief Superintendent Pat Leahy. 

He has a point. The riots threw up issues about policing and the alienation of young people in some disadvantaged communities. These are extremely important matters but ones in which it is perfectly reasonable to have different political approaches. Not so the third feature of the riots — the far right. The body politic needs to decide whether this is to be tackled in a unified manner as an existential threat to democracy.

As Mr Leahy said, the first issue is to define the problem. What is the far right? For those who are on the authoritarian strand of the left, the far right is everywhere. They label conservative Catholics as far right, those with strong anti-abortion views, anybody who protests at a centre for refugees, anybody who has questions around issues to do with gender dysphoria. All far right.

In the real world, the far right as it pertains to our democracy is largely focused on spreading hate against immigrants. There is also an element which singles out LGBTQ+ people, but those pulling the strings know that immigration is where the fertile hunting ground is located.

How many of them are there? Last February, at the height of protests outside centres for refugees, the Far Right Observatory’s Mark Malone told a conference that there were about twenty-five to thirty of these individuals creating “fear, noise and panic” from “two or three small political organisations”.

That number has in all likelihood increased. Such a small group of activists do have the potential to disseminate hate but surely a state of 5m people, properly resourced and prepared, can repel this. As of now, unlike most European countries, they have no electoral purchase.

This brings us to unity in the body politic. Is there any real will to tackle the far right collectively? The government has done little to suggest they want to unite with the opposition to deal with the matter. On the other side, some would appear to consider the far right a political project rather than a threat to democracy. Last March, ahead of a rally to counter the far-right protests, People Before Profit let it be known that government figures wouldn’t be welcome at the event. What does that say about unity?

Mick Barry TD.
Mick Barry TD.

This week in the Dáil, PBP’s Mick Barry spoke about an alleged roadblock in Co Leitrim organised by anti-immigrant elements. “Do these people mounting this blockade have the active support of government councillors?” he asked. Was the deputy just asking a question that might coincidentally smear government parties without producing any evidence? That’s standard fare in bread-and-butter politics but surely not if democratic norms are up for grabs.

On the government side, Fine Gael’s Jennifer Carroll McNeill referenced far-right intimidation last summer in Ballybrack in her Dun Laoighaire constituency. She and other politicians from across the spectrum gathered to do something. “The only people who did not help me and did not help deputies Boyd Barrett (PBP), Devlin (FF) and Smyth (Greens) or the gardaí were Sinn Féin,” she said. “They are playing both sides of every argument.” 

Sinn Féin have rejected her criticism as inaccurate but one way or the other there is obvious disunity in tackling the issue.


Then there are the politicians who openly attempt to exploit the situation, “people in this chamber,” as described by Labour’s Aodhan O Riordain, “who used the words ‘criminality’ and ‘immigration’ in the same sentence as often as they can to get some cheap political gain for themselves.” These people need to either cop on or face being deservedly ostracised. For as long as the current climate of disunity persists the chances of far-right ideology reaching into the body politic will increase.

Tackling the central issue on which the hate merchants thrive will be no less difficult. Immigration is defining global politics. There is an argument that we need to talk about it in this country, as suppression will lead to further problems. Yet there is reluctance to do so as it might well merely play into those who want to use the issue to further their aims.

A man was wrongly named as the perpetrator of the knife attack that sparked off the riots across social media on Thursday last following the anonymised publication of details surrounding his asylum application by the news website Gript.

The gardaí had to intervene because the man in question was being targeted as a result of the media report. Gript presents itself as an outlet that is, unlike most in the media, willing “to talk” about immigration.

During the week, its editor John McGuirk was writing about the failure to consult communities when locating groups of asylum seekers in their midst. “They have already been ignored in the inner city in Dublin. As they have in (he mentions a provincial town here), where some pubs and restaurants, I am told, are now advising patrons to take taxis rather than walk due to concerns about public safety”. He is told? By whom? Is there any evidence to suggest that the public in this town should be afraid of asylum seekers? Is it ok to just throw that out there and let readers take what they will from it?

This kind of opinion writing is why there is reluctance among the many genuine politicians and much of the media to start a proper debate on immigration. Yet at a time of growing unease about the numbers arriving here, for the greater part fleeing war or oppression, silence feeds the far right’s agenda. Ironically, the story of immigration into our country has been a hugely positive one, whatever way you look at it.

Since last Thursday week, the oft-repeated line is that the riots and all the attendant fall-out have acted as a wake-up call. The jury is out on that and will remain so until such time as any perceived threat to our way of life is met with a unity of purpose.

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