On February 18, under the banner Ireland For All, up to 50,000 people gathered in Dublin to challenge those in the far right attacking immigrants.
In the coalition there were activists, grassroots and community groups, NGOs, political parties, and trade unions”. Banners flew for the Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland (MASI), Black and Irish, Le Chéile Diversity Not Division, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, United Against Racism, Dublin Council of Trade Unions, and East Wall For All.
They marched from the Memorial Gardens to The Customs House, where there were speakers such as singer Christy Moore, Black and Irish founder Leon Diop, and Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.
Yes, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey: one of Ireland’s most prominent Republican civil rights activists. Elected as a UK Member of Parliament in 1969. One of the founders of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, which broke away from Sinn Féin, in 1979.
Her presence and her speech marked a movement within Irish Republicanism. No longer is it just positioned against Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain. It is also seeking to be a frontline opponent of the far right in the Republic.
Four days after the march, former Irish Republican prisoners said in a statement, “Irish Republicanism has no affinity with the crude ‘nationalist’ hatred recently being peddled by racist and fascist groups.”
Released as a narrated video and set to the tune of The Internationale, the message was uploaded on the social media pages of Anti-Fascist Action Ireland. Its signatories included Angela Nelson, a former Sinn Féin politician imprisoned in 1973; Liam Hefferman, incarcerated for planning bomb attacks in England; Richard Whyte, a former sniper in the Irish Army punished for his membership in Real IRA; and brothers Colin and Brian Mannion, sentenced in 2017 for manufacturing explosives in their shed.
They linked Ireland’s far right with a racist nationalism opposed to immigration, calling on Republicans to “resist any attempts by Irish fascist organisers to claim the mantle of Irish republicanism for themselves” when they have “played no part in decades of struggle in Ireland”.
Republicanism, they explained, has always maintained an “International and Democratic” outlook. It rejects religious sectarianism as many Republicans “align themselves with progressive liberation struggles worldwide”.
The Rift Among The Republicans
Theobald Wolfe Tone, the father of Irish Republicanism and the descendant of immigrants, called for Catholics and Protestants to be united under the same cause in the late 18th century. Padraig Pearse, a leader in the 1916 Rebellion was born to an English immigrant. James Connelly was born in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Republicans cast their eyes abroad to independence movements with they can identify, such as those in Spain’s Basque Country and Catalonia. In 2017, Sinn Féin called on the Irish government to recognize Catalonian independence. The party pledged that. if in government, it will recognise Catalonia as independent “if that is the decided democratic will of the Catalan people”.
Yet the Republicans cannot be directly aligned with the rest of Ireland’s movement against the far right. It is doubtful that Ireland for All would declare an official link, given the association of Irish Republicanism with violence. It is still not clear if Republicans see a place for Unionists in a united Ireland, putting the “Ireland For All” slogan under tension.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin, once the political umbrella for the IRA, has risen to become the largest party in Ireland’s 2020 general election and Northern Ireland’s Assembly in 2022. Now inside the system of power, the party must remain distinct from the one which had been associated with the IRA’s violent campaigns. So no current leader in Sinn Féin has signed the statement issued by the former prisoners.
Some of the signatories are still associated with groups who rejected the 1994 ceasefire and Good Friday agreement four years later.
Dee Fennell was a founding member of Saoradh political party, founded in 2016 by factions which split from Sinn Féin. It is claimed that Saoradh acts as the political wing for the New IRA. Fennell claims that he has now left Saoradh, but his connection is still viewed with wariness by others within the Republican movement.
The British v. Irish Dimensions
Those Republicans who signed the February 22 statement link their opposition to the Irish far right to their fight against the United Kingdom and a British presence in Northern Ireland. They argue the far-right groups are influenced by “loyalists and British neo-nazis and other far-right elements”.
There is evidence to support the argument. Hermen Kelly, a founder of the far-right Irish Freedom Party, had worked as a press officer for Nigel Farage, former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party. Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defense League, travelled to Ireland to make a documentary praising the anti-immigration protests. Speaking on a popular live stream about the film, Robinson claimed without evidence there have been several high profile attacks and murders committed by immigrants in Ireland. He said that immigration and the attacks have fed a “new nationalism” in an Ireland which is “going to explode in Ireland”.
If the UK Government obtained Parliamentary approval of its Illegal Migration Bill — widely seen as breaking international law in its punishment of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants — it could reinforce the link made in the February letter.
For now, Sinn Féin is not concerned with that linkage. Their focus is at home: as the opposition to the current ruling coalition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, they tie the criticism of the far right to criticism of how it is being addressed by the Irish Government.
Doing so, Sinn Féin is balancing between immigration and Ireland’s housing problem. In January, amidst the accommodation of more than 70,000 refugees, the government announced that it could no longer provide shelter for immigrants without children.
Sinn Féin is challenging this shift. However, much of its support comes from working-class communities affected by housing shortages and rising prices. In many of these communities, where International Protection applicants are being accommodated, the far right is seeking a foothold.
Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald has navigated the situation by arguing that the government’s lack of communication “unnecessarily stokes up concerns and fears” and opens the gap for “openly violent” individuals to exploit the situation.
A Pursuit of Unity at Home and Abroad
While Sinn Féin will continue to combat the far right through politics, Republicans outside of the main arena will take a different approach. Closing their February statement, the signatories called on Irish Republicans of all ages, groups and traditions to become active in your community, workplace and the streets “to try and stem the rising fascist tide”.
Both tactics may be necessary. The far right held 307 anti-immigrant protests in 2022. In February, Ireland First, led by the prominent agitator Derek Blighle, launched itself as the latest far-right political party in the Republic. A message on the party’s Telegram channel included calls for violence: “Movement needs guns and men and all the protests in the world are not going to save us.”
The Republican ex-prisoners hinted at recognition of the challenge in their call to action. Implicitly acknowledging differences over approach, they called on Irish Republicans of all ages, groups and traditions” to unite despite their differences.
And not just Republicans in Ireland. Looking abroad once more, Saoradh invited members of the French Action Antifasciste Paris-Banlieue (AAPB) to participate in a 1916 Easter Rising commemoration in Derry. The 12 French attendees spoke of “the importance of international solidarity and that of the social and ecological movement that we are experiencing in France.”
At a separate Easter commemoration ceremony, councilor Declan Bree, a councillor in Sligo, summarized the line against the far right claiming Irish Republicanism for themselves.
Socialist and Republican activists have a long history of fighting the politics of hate by seeking equality and by tackling racism, sectarianism, and apartheid, and today we send our solidarity to people across Ireland who have shown solidarity with those who come here seeking refuge.