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‘Ireland is full’: How a far-right phrase went mainstream

Due to deliberate efforts by extremists, such slogans are everywhere

Search the Dáil archives for mentions of the World Economic Forum (WEF) and there’s a very good chance the TD talking about it will be Mattie McGrath.

Whether the debate is about neutrality, forestry policy or credit unions, the independent TD for Tipperary will find a way to bring the Swiss-based organisation into the conversation. Rather than being an ineffectual talking shop for the global elite, the WEF is, in McGrath’s view, a nefarious cabal that secretly controls the Irish Government.

It is a conspiracy theory that has become increasingly common on the far right in recent years, particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Irish Government “is taking its orders from Europe or the World Economic Forum, WEF, or wherever else,” McGrath told the Dáil last February.


The comments, which drew laughter and condemnation from other TDs, illustrated how once untouchable far-right talking points and conspiracy theories are slowly but gradually becoming part of mainstream debate in Ireland.

Driven by the pandemic and, most recently, record numbers of asylum seekers and refugees entering the country, some public figures are now happy to repeat phrases that originated on the fringes of debate and share a stage with right-wing extremists who a few years ago would have been politically toxic.

Some believe there is a deliberate strategy at play. “I thought it was a very telling moment on Saturday,” Tánaiste Micheál Martin said in an interview with this newspaper in reference to McGrath’s WEF comments last December.

Martin claimed McGrath “had a script” and said he suspected “there are those on the far right who are seeking to plant their ideas. I can see far-right ideologues are going to try and penetrate groups in our parliament and get certain ideas across and we have to be vigilant about that.”

People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy has also accused McGrath of “laundering far-right conspiracy theories using his platform in this Dáil”.

The phrase “Ireland is full” serves as another neat example of extremists influencing mainstream discourse. Earlier this week, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, in response to questions from reporters, was forced to deny that “Ireland is full”. In May, the Newstalk show The Hard Shoulder hosted a segment titled “Is Ireland Full?”

The phrase regularly trends on social media and has been used several times in the Dáil and Seanad, although mostly in the context that the country is not in fact “full”.

“Ireland is full” was coined several years ago by Michael O’Keeffe, a Waterford based far-right agitator who has been labelled a “white supremacist” in the Dáil.

A long-time promoter of misinformation regarding immigration, O’Keeffe regularly boasts about coming up with the phrase and using one of his several anonymous account on X, formerly known as Twitter, to insert it into mainstream discourse.

“A year ago, it wasn’t okay to say that. When you said that you were called a racist. Now, fast forward a year, the media is saying it, the politicians are saying it. Everyone is f**king saying it. We’ve pushed the conversation forward enough in Ireland that the regular person is comfortable saying the country is f**king full,” O’Keeffe said in July.

He went to on to detail his plans to popularise the phrase “Ireland belongs to the Irish”, a phrase that now also regularly trends on social media, although many of the mentions come from outside the country.

This week, following the arson of a former hotel earmarked for asylum seekers in Rosscahill, Co Galway, Fianna Fáil councillor Noel Thomas used a festive version of O’Keeffe’s phrase when he remarked “the inn is full”.

The previous month, Independent TD for Co Kerry, Danny Healy-Rae, who along with McGrath is a member of the Rural Independents Group, told the Dáil Kerry is “full of them and we have enough of them” in reference to asylum seekers.

Other anti-immigration phrases that have become firmly part of the mainstream, having been once confined to the far right of political discourse, include “open borders”, “unvetted military aged males” and “men of fighting age”.

The language is not just used by those on the political right. Earlier this month, three Sinn Féin TDs, David Cullinane, Matt Carty and Pa Daly, announced they are against an “open borders” immigration policy.

No such policy exists. Ireland operates extensive border checks, and all asylum seekers are fingerprinted and checked against international databases.

“Like dye in the water of public conversation”, the origin of many of these phrases can be traced back to hate groups in Britain, said Mark Malone, a researcher with the Hope and Courage Collective, which monitors the far right.

In particular, the phrases “men of fighting age” and “unvetted males” were deliberately popularised by the British National Party (BNP), English Defence League (EDL), Britain First and others “as a means of whipping up racism and Islamophobic hate over the last two decades,” he said.

“It comes as no surprise to hear far-right influencers in Ireland repeat the same road-tested phrases. The Irish far right is inspired, at political and tactical levels, by British men such as Tommy Robinson and Mark Collett. These men have been at the hate game for much longer than their aspiring Irish counterparts.”

As concerns about asylum seekers grow, mainstream politicians are also increasingly happy to share a platform or pose for photographs with anti-immigration activists. Earlier this week, McGrath, along with Fianna Fáil councillor William O’Leary and independent councillor Frank Roche, attended an event in Fermoy, Co Cork, billed as a “a mature debate on immigration” along with Derek Blighe, a prominent far right activist and founder of the anti-immigrant Ireland First political party.

The meeting was held outdoors as, according to organiser Peter O’Donoghue, no venue was willing to host it.

In Dublin, the Labour Party has launched an internal investigation into Carol Reynolds, its local election candidate for the southeast inner city, after she posed with a far-right campaigner and said “we have too many immigrants here at the moment”. Reynolds later apologised for her comments, saying they did not reflect her values.

McGrath also has a long history of meeting with prominent figures on the far right, including former Irish Freedom Party chair and anti-vaccination campaigner Dolores Cahill and Andy Heasman, who regularly harasses library and bookshop staff over the stocking of LGBT books.

In response to queries, McGrath said it is “quite obvious” the WEF controls the Government. He said the “whole far-right thing is imaginary” and pointed to comments made by Micheál Martin in the Dáil in 1999 calling for an “informed and balanced” discussion on immigration and criticising people who believe in “completely open borders”.

Regarding the far-right figures he has been photographed with, McGrath said he had no idea who most of them where at the time.

“As for my comments in the Dáil, I will continue to make them,” the TD said.

There is nothing new about once-fringe ideas becoming part of the political mainstream. In the 1990s American political scientist Joseph Overton outlined the idea of the “Overton window”, a phrase used to describe the range of policies that are considered publicly acceptable at a point in time.

Over time and depending on many factors, the Overton window can shift to include policies once deemed too extreme for mainstream politics.

In Ireland in recent decades, the Overton window has arguably been more applicable to left-leaning policies. Ideas once considered taboo, such as gay marriage and abortion, are now firmly part of the political mainstream.

But with the influx of refugees and asylum seekers into the country in the last two years, and the lack of accommodation to house them, the window has been gradually shifting right.

It is easy to blame social media for this trend, says Dr Barry Cannon, a sociology lecturer in Maynooth University. But research has shown far-right talking points previously took hold in the public discourse during earlier periods of high immigration, such as around 2001, when social media did not exist.

In Cannon’s view, this suggests the ability of the far right to influence the mainstream is tied to structural issues, such as a lack of housing or resources. “It may be that social media has just provided a new language for people to articulate these concerns.”

However, in this regard, Ireland is still behind EU countries, such as Italy, Austria or Sweden, where far-right parties have either taken power or have been able to extract policy concessions from governing parties in exchange for support.

Whether this will remain the same after the next general election, in which several Irish far-right parties are hoping to capitalise on growing immigration concerns, remains to be seen.

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Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times