Politics

Ireland Thought It Was Immune to the Far Right. It Was Wrong.

A little after 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 23, a man stabbed three children and a woman outside a primary school in downtown Dublin. The woman and one of the children, a 5-year-old girl, were seriously injured. The suspect — who was injured while being subdued, and has yet to be interviewed — is originally from Algeria, a naturalized Irish citizen who has been here for two decades. The motive for the attack is still unclear.

Messages speculating about the man’s nationality quickly started to circulate on the social platforms X and Telegram. Other messages called for people to descend on the city center. One widely shared voice message from a Telegram group called Enough Is Enough encouraged people to go downtown at 7 p.m. and just “kill them,” referring to anyone perceived as a foreigner.

What happened afterward left police officers injured, more than 30 arrested so far, buses, a tram and police cars burned, and a country reeling from the realization that there are far-right agitators here, too.

Ireland has frequently been cited as an outlier in Europe for not lurching toward the far right in any significant way since the 2008 economic crash and the austerity that followed. The country does have far-right parties, like the National Party, but these exist on the fringes and have never won seats in the Dail, the Irish Parliament. Instead, in the last decade and a half, large progressive movements emerged, fighting and winning referendums on marriage equality (in 2015) and women’s reproductive rights (in 2018).

When people wondered how Ireland had resisted the pull of far-right populism the usual reply was that a nation of emigrants would never demonize immigrants. A popular poem by Imelda May, “You Don’t Get to Be Racist and Irish,” summed up the idea: “We emigrated/We immigrated/We took refuge/So cannot refuse/When it’s our time/ To return the favor.”

But anyone who has been paying attention to the far right online in recent years knew that this was not a sentiment shared by everyone.

Aoife Gallagher, a Dublin-based senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who focuses on far-right extremism, disinformation and conspiracy theories, told me that “the number of channels and chat groups on Telegram associated with the Irish misinformation and disinformation ecosystem increased by 326 percent since 2020.”

A housing crisis is perhaps the country’s main political issue. Rents are rising, homelessness is increasing, and Ireland has one of the largest generation gaps in homeownership in Europe. Housing, a cost of living crisis and stretched public services have been fodder for those who want to blame immigrants for all the country’s ills.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased the number of Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers coming to Ireland, and many Irish people have welcomed them into their homes. But the sense of national pride in that solidarity was undermined by mobs that showed up, outside refugee accommodation centers, chanting, “Get them out.” In May of this year, a row of tents where homeless asylum seekers were sleeping in south Dublin was burned.

When the Dail returned from its summer break in September, far-right groups organized a rally in which a mock gallows with photos of prominent politicians was erected.

On Nov. 22 Conor McGregor, an ultimate fighting champion star with a large and fervent fan base, posted “Ireland, we are at war” on X. The following day, in the hours after the knife attack, it felt as if something that had long been simmering was finally boiling over.

It started with a small, loud group gathered near the crime scene. Someone carried an “Irish Lives Matter” placard. As more people arrived, the violence quickly escalated. Sporting goods stores were looted of clothes and expensive sneakers. One widely shared video showed a young man throw a flaming box inside a police car and closing the door, the protesters around him cheering as the vehicle caught alight.

As awful, odd and opportunistic as the riots were, it’s worth remembering that the scale of the problem in Ireland, compared with many other countries, is still small. Ireland is not the “powder keg” that Steve Bannon described to Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News host, on an episode of Mr. Tucker’s show on X.

We have an opportunity now to have a conversation about immigration, housing and the cost of living that manages to avoid the demonization of “the other” that Irish people are intimately familiar with. There are reasons to worry we won’t, like Mr. McGregor writing last week, in a reply to Elon Musk on X that he’s mulling a run for president in 2025.

But there is cause for optimism, too, like the GoFundMe to buy “a pint” for Caio Benicio, a Brazilian Deliveroo driver who intervened in the attack, to which people have donated almost $400,000.

Many people in Ireland were comfortable in the knowledge that the far right couldn’t exist here — until they watched the far right instigate a riot in the capital. Now, at least, we can acknowledge we have a problem. What happens next depends on which version of the national psyche — empathic or exclusionary — wins out.

Una Mullally is a columnist for The Irish Times.

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