Creeping Neo-Fascism in Ireland and the “Open Borders” Question

Photo Source Ron Cogswell | CC BY 2.0

Apparently, so I have read, pop/rock band Coldplay are due to release fresh new music under a fresh new name. The venture will be undertaken in collaboration with the singer Pharrell, who recently revealed himself as a shameless supporter of the Israeli ‘Defense’ Forces; but that is neither here nor there, for now. The terrifying reappearance of Coldplay reminded me of some wise words once uttered by fictional character Superhans, a comical drug-taking party fiend from Channel 4’s Peep Show, which aired between 2003 and 2015.

In a back-and-forth with one of the other chief protagonists of the show, Jeremy, on the subject of setting up a pub somewhere in London and what food and beverages ought to be stocked in it, it is put to Superhans that the old dependables of lager and nuts should be considered, as ‘people like larger and nuts’. Superhans’s response is almost apoplectic; ‘people like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis! You can’t trust people Jeremy!’

An underbelly of intolerance

There seems to be some truth in that exclamation, especially in this climate of burgeoning neo-fascism, which we are bearing witness to across the globe today. In Ireland, in the recent presidential election campaign, a formerly marginal, Trump-like figure and crank named Peter Casey managed to secure 23.1% of the vote based on nothing more than anti-Traveller (Ireland’s only indigenous ethnic minority) and anti-immigrant rhetoric and hearsay. Crime rates certainly appear to be higher among Travellers per capita, but so too are school dropout rates, suicides, early mortality, and a host of other problems. These problems stem from decades of officially sanctioned exclusion from society’s institutions – justified in the 1963 Commission on Itinerancy Report – conveniently ignored by Casey.

In recent days, we have seen a meeting of ‘concerned’ locals in County Wicklow voicing their opposition to a direct provision centre for Syrian asylum seekers fleeing war in their home country. The ‘issues’ these locals raise – vocalised in thinly veiled racist terms – are about ‘safety’, despite there being no evidence to show correlations between other centres of this type already in operation and a rise in crime. Their other primary grievance is along the lines that, in the midst of a housing crisis, ‘we must look after our own first’.

This is not the first case of controversy stirred up around the opening of such centres, as a small protest by ‘concerned’ locals in Killarney, County Kerry, in 2017 demonstrated. Whether it be in Wicklow, Kerry, or elsewhere, these ‘concerned citizens’ are often encouraged by local political figures who cynically foster division and fear in order to maintain their own fiefdoms, while small-time local media outlets hungry for exposure, hits, and likes, have also played their part in enflaming volatile situations.

Social media activity

More troubling, however, with regards recent developments is the likely involvement of hardened neo-fascist activists – of both domestic and international origins – in stoking tensions. Having failed to organise publically in Dublin in 2016 after being met with large crowds of counter-demonstrators, Ireland’s neo-fascists have slinked back to their pathetic online ‘white pride’ forums and anonymous Twitter accounts. But it now appears as though they may have taken to attempting to infiltrate and influence public meetings posing as regular punters.

As a consequence of this mesh of online and ‘real world’ activity, it seems as though – only days after the Wicklow gathering – a hotel that had been intended to be used to house Syrian refugees in Moville, County Donegal, was attacked in the dead of the night by racist arsonists, perhaps leaving it uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. Gladly, the response in the immediate aftermath of the attack by numerous locals, who rallied in solidarity with the asylum seekers and condemned the arson, has been commendable.

The (neo)liberal response

Indeed, the powers that be, and neoliberal figures such as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar in particular, are doing the work of the neo-fascists for them. Varadkar exudes a sneering upper-class attitude, regularly scapegoats the working class and welfare recipients, and possesses absolutely no desire to address the ubiquitous housing crisis through the construction of public housing or even through regulating landlordism and soaring rent levels in some way.

It is thus easy for the far right to link immigration to the housing crisis when Varadkar tweets about 3,000 new Irish citizens being sworn in at a ceremony this week. Not that the far right should deter him from doing so, and all right-minded people will welcome these new citizens, of course. But, Varadkar, in typical neoliberal fashion, by failing to invest in the public good, yet at the same time appearing to champion multiculturalism, further embitters that section of the working class who hold xenophobic views and quite likely adds more to their ranks.

This cohort understand the housing crisis not in terms of an utter failure by those wedded to market ideology to build public homes and distribute wealth more evenly, but as a locally played out zero sum game of who gets what. ‘They got a house and I didn’t’, they complain. The chorus then rings out, ‘we must house our own first’. But immigration or not, the market will not provide the necessary homes to alleviate the crisis, nor will it allow the so-called rights of property to be subverted so that the thousands of vacant dwellings standing idle might provide shelter to those sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation.

The Left’s Response

It is therefore incumbent on the left to articulate the actual source of these various crises, particularly in housing, to those disgruntled people and to the wider public in general. It is imperative that the neo-fascists do not steal a march on the left in Ireland as has occurred elsewhere. Nonetheless, global trends demonstrate how quickly far-right populists can become acceptable to the mainstream and rise to power.

Calling for ‘open borders’, as some leftists are prone to do, will only enhance the appeal of neo-fascism for the working class. The neoliberal states of the First World have no intention of providing decent living standards to the workers and destitute who already reside within them. Hence, it is clear that without fundamental societal transformation and the advance of real economic equality – both within and across the countries of the First World and the Global South – the concept of ‘open borders’ is based not on a sober socialist analysis, but rather on liberal notions of almsgiving.

It is easy for ultra-leftists to sloganize and call for ‘no borders, no nations’, as has been witnessed in recent days during the furore over Angela Nagle’s article, “The Left Case Against Open Borders,” published lately in the quarterly journal American Affairs. Whatever the contested economic spats around cheap foreign labour driving wages down, or the counter-argument that immigrants can enrich domestic economies through their labour and tax contribution, it is clear that sustained migration from the global south to the global north would have a profound social, cultural and economic impact on both hemispheres; one which neoliberalism is not equipped to deal with in a humane way. Furthermore, it would provide the perfect opportunity for neo-fascists to undermine left-wing struggle and make inroads into the support bases of the left.

Ideally, the objective for the left should be to achieve the free movement of people from south to north and vice versa. The reality of global inequity created chiefly by historical (and contemporary) white Anglo-American imperialism – and where the lion’s share of wealth is concentrated in the north – makes this impossible at this stage.

However, agitating towards such an ideal scenario in the future and campaigning for substantial reforms to immigration policy in the here and now are not mutually exclusive. In Ireland, the abolition of direct provision (effectively the modern version of the laundries and industrial schools) must be achieved and refugees must be allowed to integrate and work. These asylum seekers want to work and contribute, but are being prohibited from doing so due to the strict prison-like conditions of the centres.  Moreover, the Irish state, for its part, must live up to its international humanitarian responsibilities.

The callous actions of the EU, and states such as Italy in particular, in downgrading rescue efforts in the mass graveyard that the Mediterranean has become also need to be challenged. In America, the asylum seekers at the Mexico/US border need to be welcomed and processed, the hundreds of thousands of ‘undocumented’ already inside ought to be given their papers, ICE needs to be abolished as a matter of urgency, and any attempts to build Trump’s permanent wall opposed.

It is essential, too, that imperialism is consistently combatted. Decades of US interference in South America has created the context for the migrant caravans from Honduras, while the recent interventions of NATO in North Africa and the Middle East are directly responsible for increased migration to Europe from those war-torn regions.

Whom to trust?

But to return to, and conclude with, the question of trust. Superhans was wary of placing trust in ‘the people’ due to their track record of supporting fascism during the 1930s. Now, during the 2010s, we see vast swathes of people in the US, France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Hungary, Finland, and, most recently, Brazil, once again lurching to the far right.

The real question, however, is not whether we should ‘trust’ people to do the right thing and expect them to denounce fascism out of some innate decency. In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008 people are gravitating towards this cancerous ideology for the very same core economic reasons that they did in 1930s Europe in the wake of the Great Depression: mass unemployment; underemployment; precarity; inflation; low pay; the cost of living and so forth. Only this time the scapegoat is different.

The vital question, then, that demands asking is whether the left is prepared to engage in a clearheaded analysis of how to combat the neo-fascists, who will play on immigration as a bone of contention, while continuing the work of building socialism in local communities where xenophobic views – or at least the seeds of them – exist. Can it do this, or will it continue to pass liberal and ultra-leftist ‘open borders’ rhetoric off as a realistic answer to the issue of immigration and the threat of the far right? Does the global left trust itself enough to have the necessary debate on immigration without consuming itself and branding anyone who dissents from a policy of ‘open borders’ a fascist or a racist? Time will tell.

Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His most recent publication, Rathcoole and the United Irish Rebellions, 1798-1803, charts the emergence of radical Irish republican thought, and consequent military action, in his hometown.