Far right parties have become major players in European politics.
Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, in power in Hungary since 2010, now has allies within the European Union. Giorgia Meloni, who claims Benito Mussolini was good for Italy, and her Brothers of Italy are in power after September’s general election. Two weeks earlier, the far right Sweden Democrats became the second-largest party in a country once considered a bastion of socialist politics. There have been strong far right performances in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and France in recent years.
Meanwhile in Ireland, the far right Freedom Party and National Party ran candidates in 21 of 39 constituencies in the 2020 general
election. In every instance, the parties failed to garner more than 2% of first preference ballots. They remain on the fringes as an irrelevant outsider.
While no single factor can explain the Irish firewall, relatively positive attitudes towards the European Union and immigration — as well as the rise of the left-wing Sinn Fein — prevent the far right from flourishing as they have on the continent.
A Different View on the EU
Anti-immigrant sentiment and Euro-scepticism run through far-right groups. They reject the centralized power of the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties, claiming this has eroded national sovereignty.
In comparison, the 2020 Irish General Election centered on housing, health and the environment. The Freedom Party’s manifesto of an EU exit and restrictions on immigration did not resonate with the Irish electorate.
A report by the European Commission in February 2020 found that Irish people have the most positive image of the EU among all member states. The 63% approval rating is much higher than the EU average of 43%, with only 8% holding a negative image. About 73% of the Irish public believed the interests of Ireland are well served in the EU.
The figures reinforce that membership in the EU has been seen as part of Irish prosperity, despite the unsettled economic situation in both Ireland and the continent since 2008. Ireland, with an English-speaking workforce, is a gateway to EU markets for large American corporations.
A Different View on Immigration
The positive attitudes towards free movement of goods and capital are linked to support of free movement of people.
Before the rise of the economic Celtic Tiger at the turn of the 21st century, Ireland was not a destination favored by immigrants. Ireland’s history of forced emigration, including the experience of famine and deprivation, arguably made the Irish people more sympathetic to immigration as it rose in the past 20 years.
A study by the European Institute in 2016 reveals found negative attitudes towards European immigrants is lower in Ireland than in any other EU country.
Ireland had a distinctive position in the 2015 surge of 1.3 million migrants across the continent. Germany received 745,545 asylum applications in 2016, almost 1% of the population. In contrast, only 2,244 people applied for asylum in Ireland — 0.05% of the population.
With immigration largely absent from the political agenda, the Irish far right has been unable to whip up emotive support. It has faced the challenge, and failed to meet it, of showing how anti-immigrant action is pragmatic politics.
The Sinn Fein Factor
The far right in many European countries has defined a “nationalism” which has been positioned against immigrants. Irish nationalism has traditionally been based on a unity positioned against the United Kingdom.
Sinn Fein, the party most associated with Irish nationalism and anti-British sentiment, is rising in the polls. The catalyst for its surge, possibly becoming the largest party in the Republic, has been a focus on economic and social conditions which has not included a blame of immigrants. The core issues have been housing and health, with the message that only Sinn Fein can deliver amid the failure of the ruling “grand coalition” of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
So while lower-income voters were more likely to back Sinn Fein — and probably continue to do so — the positioning has been far different from the Brexit phenomenon in the UK, let alone from that of the European far right.
Paradoxically, however, it may be a Sinn Fein government that finally opens a window of possibility for the Irish far right. Should Sinn Fein fail to deliver on their promises of economic justice and social welfare, the question will be where its supporters go next. Would they return to the post-1922 “establishment” of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, or would they embrace the insurgency of the Freedom and National Parties?
There is another twist with immigration. In addition to experiencing its highest levels of asylum applications, Ireland has welcomed an influx of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. That has put pressure on public services, particularly accommodation. In October, Irish politicians and officials began to speak of a limit on admission of Ukrainian refugees.
That discussion, while it may affect immigration, still points to a pragmatic rather than an emotive approach. However, should the high levels of influx continue — and should Ireland experience an ongoing economic downturn — the far right may have a chance to coordinate its campaign and its message.
But for now its message is failing to resonate in an Ireland which can legitimately claim to be a country standing against political extremism. In an increasingly divided and antagonistic, there is some credibility for tolerance, understanding, and acceptance in “The Land of a Thousand Welcomes”.