'Keep Ireland Irish': Say hello to Ireland's growing far right

Niall McConnell at an anti-abortion protest.
Niall McConnell at an anti-abortion protest. Copyright Niall McConnell
By Joshua Askew
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Anti-immigrant protesters claim that "indigenous Irish are being racially discriminated against.”

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The far right in Ireland is rising.

It is a broad church – encompassing religious fundamentalists, nationalists and many shades in between – but the movement has recently coalesced around one thing: immigration.

There were 307 anti-migrant protests in 2022, while in 2023 there have already been 64 demos, according to the Garda Síochána, Ireland’s police force, calling the numbers an “exponential increase”.

“Ireland’s borders are wide open,” Niall McConnell, leader of the Irish Nationalist Catholic Party, told Euronews. “There is no restriction on immigration.”

“The indigenous Irish are being racially discriminated against,” he added.

McConnell, who espouses views that many would consider as far-right, takes issue with immigration, alleging migrants receive preferential treatment for social housing, commit crimes – often of a sexual nature against women – and lie to claim refugee status.

All are largely baseless accusations.

The self-described “Irish Patriot” told Euronews immigration risked another “plantation”, in reference to England’s colonisation of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, where land was seized and settlers were brought in to ‘anglicise’ the local population.

“History is repeating itself,” he said. "The blood of our holy martyrs seeps the Irish soil. The indigenous Irish will continue in our ancestors' footsteps. We will oppose this new plantation as they did in the past."

“God save Ireland.”

Ireland is a major immigrant-producing nation. Today, nearly 70 million people around the world claim Irish ancestry, according to the government in Dublin – more than 10 times its own population.

‘Far-right politics is symptomatic of a country in a spot of bother’

While the rumours about sexual assaults and crime are typically unfounded, Aoife Gallagher, an analyst at ISD Global, told Euronews: “the far right has been able to rally support by tapping into people's very real grievances”.

She pointed to the failure of Ireland’s asylum system to process applicants quickly, leaving some waiting for several years for a decision. This backlog has led to a “desperate scramble for housing”, with local authorities resorting to hotels, old office blocks and sports halls as other forms of accommodation fill up.

The far-right has protested outside asylum reception cases, at times scaring and intimidating the people inside, including families.

Brian Killoran, CEO of the Immigrant Council, links the growth of the far right to several crises gripping Ireland, including a housing emergency and crumbling health services, traced back to the 2008 recession and the period of austerity that followed.

“The far right is a lightning rod,” he told Euronews. “They are harnessing dissatisfaction in communities and blaming migrants when actually there are much bigger structural problems.”

He said the movement was losing sight of the “bigger picture” and proposing “simplistic and short-term solutions”.

Nationalist leader McConnel told Euronews: “We want the Irish Government to completely halt immigration. Deport all foreign criminals in Ireland.”

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“Any resources available in Ireland should be given to the indigenous Irish people first,” he continued, suggesting free housing, social welfare, health care and education should be taken away for migrants.

‘Big changes'

Anti-migrant protests have been most common in “ignored and deprived” areas, says researcher Aoife Gallagher – which also happens to be where asylum-seekers are disproportionately housed.

Though organised by a well-established small cadre of agitators, many demonstrators are “ordinary people” protesting for the first time and a significant proportion of them are “working-class women”, she says.

The story of Ireland’s far right is long and convoluted.

Throughout much of its history, Ireland was under the “iron grip” of the Catholic Church, explains Gallagher. Then, during the 90s and 2000s, the country “threw off these shackles” and went through a rapid social liberalisation, legalising abortion and marriage equality.

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“The far right is a mixture of the reactionary forces in response to these liberal changes in the country… and the old school Catholic conservatives,” she said.

Yet, external forces are also at play. Using the internet, Ireland’s far-right has been able to “borrow the strategies and tactics” of their European and American counterparts, according to Gallagher.

During the pandemic, the analyst explained how far-right agitators set up anti-vax groups, which later became vehicles for spreading propaganda, ranging from tirades against multiculturalism to conspiracy theories.

Cooperation between the English and Irish far right has been particularly pronounced, with the agitator Tommy Robinson – whose parents were Irish immigrants in London – visiting Ireland in February.

‘A small, but vocal, minority’

Ireland’s far-right remains a minority, on the fringes of politics.

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“They have suffered humiliation again and again in elections,” says Killoran of the Immigration Council, though he recognises they “should be taken seriously”.

Meanwhile, there has been significant pushback against the far-right, with counter-demonstrations frequently drawing in much larger crowds.

“There's a huge movement of support going on that's not making it into the headlines,” he says. “Good news, unfortunately, doesn't sell as well as the bad.”

“There's a risk that we could take this far-right movement as being more representative of some kind of negative public opinion than it is.”

Attitudes towards immigrants in Ireland are among the least positive in Europe. 

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Among Irish-born adults, some 58% support white foreigners moving to the country, but only 41% for Muslims and 25% for Roma people, according to a study by the Economic and Social Research Institute.

For the bulk of its history, Ireland was an ethnically homogeneous society. However, over the last 20 years, the country’s population has changed dramatically.

Net migration last year increased to 61,100, while those rates stood at 11,200 in 2021, representing a 445 per cent increase.

The far-right is in many ways a byproduct of Ireland’s failed political system that has failed to get to grips with the multi-pronged crisis gripping the country, claims Gallagher.

The country’s two main political parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael — have ruled for a century.

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They are both centrist, with the former appealing to more traditional and working-class voters, while the latter is more secular and pro-business.

“We have had the same parties in power in this country forever,” Gallagher told Euronews. “Generally across the country, there is a feeling that there is no one in power with the solutions needed to bring the country off its knees.”

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