Even by the unedifying standards of social media culture wars it was a saddening spectacle.
A bunch of primary school kids in Longford had their photo taken for the local paper after winning a green award. Most were of a complexion that was rare in Ireland a generation ago.
Framed in a tweet by Gemma O’Doherty, a former far-right presidential candidate, they became unwitting poster children for the thesis that immigration is destroying Ireland and the Western world more broadly.
The cruelty was appalling. Only the purest of bigots could take a photograph of children, a photograph they could have been proud of, and use it against them because of the colour of their skin.
But the episode shows that the far right has an Ireland problem more than Ireland has a far-right problem.
O’Doherty shared the picture on social media and later retweeted a message by Blaise Ashton, apparently an actress and US alt-right figure: “This is an elementary school in Ireland. Within a decade I guarantee the Gaelic language and culture will cease to exist.”
For O’Doherty and her ilk, the kids represent an Irish iteration of the Great Replacement. The Western world’s indigenous populations are being “replaced” through a deliberate policy of mass immigration and population control.
But who is being replaced? The dark irony was that O’Doherty talking about a traditionally Protestant school — a school for a community, a culture some would say, that is a shadow of what it once was. As the native-born Protestant community withered, some 20,000 or so largely non-Catholic Africans arrived. This is the more nuanced story that O’Doherty was blind to.
O’Doherty last week doubled-down and visited Longford to speak to James Reynolds, a senior figure in the National Party, a fringe far-right group. They live-streamed their chat. One video began with O’Doherty filming a derelict home with an overgrown garden as evidence that folk don’t want to live in what Reynolds says is “no longer an Irish town”. Later, O’Doherty says that the Celtic Tiger never came to Longford and Reynolds adds that the resurgence of the Irish economy only served to transform it into a “multicultural hub town”, which has “ravaged” and “destroyed” it.
This template of conspiracy ill-fits the Republic of Ireland. Just look at Co. Longford’s population over time. Far fewer people live there than in the 19th century and the population only started rising again in the 1990s. This is a pretty typical graph for rural Ireland (note that the Irish population peaked before the famine, half a century before the start of this graph).
The causality is the reverse of what O’Doherty and Reynolds argue: a booming economy drew immigrants to the Republic of Ireland in the 1990s. Immigrants helped fill and repair empty buildings like the one that O’Doherty accused them of causing.
The rhetoric is pernicious: it ensures that the immigrant population, both a symptom and cause of economic growth, face a backlash in future economic downturns. The Economic and Social Research Institute said in a report last year that “views on the impact of immigration on the economy closely followed the economic cycle”. So in the years leading up to 2008 the Republic of Ireland had a more favourable attitude to immigration than the Western European average, but the crisis marked a souring in attitudes.
Attitudes in the Republic began to grow more favourable as the economy recovered towards 2014, the last year for which European Social Survey data is available.
There are deeper reasons, though, why the far right can’t get Ireland right.
Identitarian politics assume there is an uncomplicated indigenous “we”. O’Doherty, drunk on a globalised culture of political conspiratorialism, has crashed headlong into this assumption.
What does she mean by “our” culture? The culture of Longford’s Protestant minority whose population that fell by 90 per cent? Or a culture synonymous with Catholicism, the Easter Rising, the Irish language and opposition to Britain? Clearly the latter.
In other words, she picked on the wrong school.
The far right’s trouble with Ireland is encapsulated in this image from the UK homepage of Generation Identity — the Renaud Camus-inspired “far-right hipsters” whose aim is to “preserve our ethno-cultural identity” through repatriation and “reversing migration flows”. You’ll notice that the map is something of a muddle: they do not mark out Northern Ireland as a separate UK nation, though they have subtly shaded it a lighter green. But not as light a green as Scotland or Wales. Confused?
Why so coy? What is the ethno-cultural identity that these so-called identitarians want to preserve in Ireland? Are Irish people part of a British family of nations? Or a misbegotten, distinct group whose land was despoiled by an impure wave of 17thcentury planters? If the “ethno-“ of “ethno-cultural” is to mean anything, these questions have to be answered conclusively. You can’t be on the side of ethnically-motivated republicans whose slogan is sinn fein — ourselves alone — while standing in solidarity with an ethnically-motivated loyalist bellowing “We are the People”. If you have an essentialist worldview, you begin to look a bit silly if you can’t identify the essence you’re prepared to die on a hill for.
Others have nailed their colours to the mast. Nick Griffin, the former leader of the BNP, associates himself with Ulster loyalism and has risibly tried to defend his public use of the words “fenian bastard”, while Derek Holland, his old associate in the National Front, now lives in Ireland under the Gaelicised name Deric O’Huallachain and writes about traditionalist Catholicism.
Far right identitarian politics loses any internal consistency when it goes global. It rests on the absurd fantasy of “ethno-cultural” nation states, homogenous and neatly tucked-in behind secure, uncontentested borders. . The internet-fuelled, globalised version of this ideology is bound to come unstuck when it is forced to choose between rival conceptions of “us” and rival claims to territory. The alt-right’s garbled arrival in Ireland offers a perfect illustration.
At one point in O’Doherty’s livestream she and Reynolds approach two historical plaques commemorating 1916: a long list of names of Longford men who died at the Somme and a shorter list of those who served in the Easter Rising. They offer a small reflection that on an official level the Republic of Ireland is beginning to recognise a diversity of national experiences rather than a monolithic foundation myth.
For a moment O’Doherty’s camera hovers uncertainly between the two before zooming in on the list of the Easter rebels and the words of Patrick Pearse, the most avowedly Catholic figure in republicanism’s pantheon: “The generations shall remember them.”
She adds sardonically: “The generations shall insult them.”