Government needs to listen to marginalised to avoid exploitation by far right, says President

More needs to be known regarding right-wing elements who have sought to divide Irish society and those who support them financially, President says

The Government needs to ensure it is listening to marginalised elements of society and being seen to do so in order to ensure their concerns are not exploited by elements of the far-right intent on sowing division is society, President Michael D Higgins has said.

Speaking after he delivered the 2023 Geary Lecture at Áras an Uachtaráin on Friday, the President reiterated his concern for the victims of the knife attack at Parnell Square on Thursday which, he said, “is the most important aspect at the present time”.

He said, however, more needed to be known regarding the right-wing elements who have sought to divide Irish society and those who support them financially.

Many of these, he suggested, were “completely unaccountable in their actions”.

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Asked if he feared those promoting fear and division from the margins here might establish themselves as a substantial political force in Ireland as they have in some other European countries, the President said he believed the circumstances here were different when compared with countries in which there had been a long and steady growth of right-wing parties and other groupings.

Sometimes, he suggested, this growth was rooted in the exploitation of a sense among elements of the population that they had “nothing left to lose”.

In Ireland, he said, the Government needed to display a willingness to listen to the concerns of all people so that a sense of marginalisation that might subsequently be exploited would not take hold.

“There is always the possibility of an abuse with huge social consequences when people are taking advantage of other people’s fears and vulnerabilities,” he said.

“I mentioned in my speech that you need to avoid allowing a vacuum to emerge and you do that by moving strategic short- and medium-term policies into those who are given an opportunity of being listened to.

“If they believe that the State is hearing what their position is, that in a way takes away the opportunities from those who are trying to take advantage in a very often hate-ridden way.”

The Geary Lecture is an Economic and Social Research Institute event organised in honour of Roy Geary, the statistician who played an important role in the establishment of both that organisation and the Central Statistics Office.

In part of his address, Sociology and Economics – Towards a Normative Partnership in Analysing and Responding to ‘Globalisation from Below’, the President argued that sociology has an important part to play in the policy discourse as governments seek to address the various crises they currently face, including the rise of the far right.

Policy, he said, “must be formulated and critically evaluated in such a way as to be able to tackle head on the material and cultural contexts that are driving phenomena such as the growth of reactionary and far-right movements.

“This necessary development, challenging as it may be, of offering economic, social and cultural policies that can improve conditions for marginalised groups and help drive the creation of a more equal and inclusive society, while confronting policies that marginalise ‘the other’ can help confront the exploitative targeting of marginalised groups and their scapegoating in conditions of crisis.”

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times