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The lessons Ireland missed about resisting the far-right

Europe Letter: Current anti-immigration protests in Ireland are the late arrival of tactics long honed elsewhere

An armed soldier walks near the new wall on the Polish-Belarusian border, which the Polish government calls a 'physical barrier'. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images

“Protest against accommodation for asylum seekers: ‘130 asylum seekers is far too many’.”

“Fire confirmed as arson: the house was intended for asylum seekers.”

“Violent protest against reception of asylum seekers.”

These headlines from Belgium in 2019, Finland in 2015 and the Netherlands in 2016 reflect that Ireland’s recent protests against refugees are the belated arrival of tactics long-practised elsewhere in Europe.


In 2015, the German news programme Tagesschau reported on the role of right-wing extremists in fomenting local protests against refugee accommodation. They had a playbook of organising “citizens’ initiatives” in minor towns through Facebook groups. A neo-Nazi splinter group distributed a 20-page guidebook to preventing the opening of asylum-seeker accommodation, including a “blueprint” for mobilising protests.

In the town of Freital, the local anger culminated in riots, attacks on refugees and the torching of the car of a left-wing politician who was vocally opposed to racism, Tagesschau reported. In Tröglitz, extremists menaced the house of a local mayor who advocated taking in refugees and a building intended to house asylum seekers burned down.

During Ireland’s 2020 election there were concerted efforts by extreme online influencers to spur the kind of radical right, anti-immigration movement that had yet to meaningfully feature in Irish politics so far.

These efforts largely failed at the ballot box. But at the time, I spoke to Cas Mudde, one of the world’s leading experts in radical right movements, to ask him what Ireland could learn from other countries that had already experienced similar trends.

He told me that any notion that Ireland had a special immunity to such politics for cultural or historical reasons was a myth.

When you look at the values of the population, then you see that there is a breeding ground in almost every country for the radical right

“I come originally from the Netherlands, and we felt very superior in the 1980s and 1990s about being so tolerant that we wouldn’t have a strong radical right,” he told me. “By and large, our politics has been dominated by far-right issues and parties and politicians since 2001.”

“When you look at the values of the population, then you see that there is a breeding ground in almost every country for the radical right.”

What turns people with mere misgivings about immigration into those willing to support extreme measures is the “perception of a crisis” that “creates a sense of urgency”, Mudde said. For this reason, how politicians and the media respond to the situation is crucial.

Leo Varadkar, speaking to TD Mick Barry's claim that the housing issue is a "gift to the far-right", said that there will be an action plan on racism shortly.

Whereas elsewhere the huge wave of migration caused by the Syrian civil war occasioned the sense of crisis, in Ireland the conditions seem to have finally been created by the challenge of accommodating Ukrainians and asylum seekers alongside the long-festering housing crisis.

Anti-immigrant rally in Finglas ‘totally unrepresentative’ of community, locals sayOpens in new window ]

A major error made in other countries was to accept at face value the claim by the far-right that their views reflect a “silent majority” and that they speak on behalf of the population. Even during times of tension over migration in Europe, surveys such as the 2018 Pew survey have shown strong majorities in favour of taking in refugees fleeing war and violence.

We are now witnessing the actions of a vocal minority that has learned to be effective by borrowing tactics that worked elsewhere. Virally spreading claims of sexual assaults by migrants on social media, demonising journalists and picketing accommodation centres are all tried and tested. The description of people as “unvetted” uses a word borrowed from the long-running immigration rows of the United States.

The sequence of events that has played out across Europe since 2015 has been as follows. The logistical challenge of accommodating an influx of new people is exploited by those who are were opposed to immigration already. They use local tensions to promote their views and wear down taboos about discrimination against people from abroad.

When EU national leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday, their discussion on migration will reflect how much migration policy has shifted since 2017

Political opportunists take up the issue, using shock tactics to court media attention and amplify their profile and message. To compete with these upstarts and avoid being painted as ”soft” on migration, established political parties echo and often ultimately adopt their positions, shifting the centre-ground of politics towards the anti-immigration right.

When EU national leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday, their discussion on migration will reflect how much migration policy has shifted since 2017. Back then, EU leaders and the European Commission were vocally critical of the ”build a wall” pledge of then-US president Donald Trump.

Now, they are expected to jointly agree that EU funds should be used “to support member states in reinforcing border control capabilities and infrastructure” – that word “infrastructure” is the closest the EU can get to its own “build a wall” policy, without losing political face.