Back in 2009, Irish voters were going to the polls in the re-run of the Lisbon Treaty referendum. Ireland had voted no to this treaty in 2008 but as was the case with the Nice referendum, the authorities of the European Union did not accept ‘no’ for an answer. A democratic plebiscite was fine and applicable, just so long as those eligible to vote didn’t say ‘no’ again. Unsurprisingly, the majority of those voting ticked yes the second time around.
That decision was secured only after a strong public relations campaign, which featured many prominent figures of Irish political and cultural life; TD’s, celebrities, and GAA figures all urged the Irish public to vote ‘yes’. Yet at that time a strong enthusiasm amongst young people to resist that urge was also prominent. For many young millennials saying ‘no’ to the Lisbon Treaty was a very symbolic act, a mark of resistance against the totality of pro-EU discourse, as well as saying no to the increasing bureaucratisation of the Union. At that time, discourse against EU interests in Ireland enjoyed widespread support from across the political spectrum, including strong input from what was then the “left” on the matter.
Nine years ago might seem like a short space of time, but a lot has changed since then. Such public enthusiasm has now found itself spent and invested into campaigns such as the “yes” vote in the marriage equality referendum of 2015, and the upcoming referendum on whether the public should approve to repeal the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution, which would liberalise Ireland’s current abortion laws.
These issues, whilst less vague than the EU treaty referenda, find themselves energised through currents of left-identitarianism, particularly in regards to the LGBT and feminist movements. These movements maintain the façade of being “anti-establishment” by protesting and publicly advocating their views, all the while the political, cultural and media elites of Irish society concur with their views. It would appear that the country is now back in a “boom” position economically, and this is where all the radical energies are now channelled.
After marriage equality in 2015, Brexit then happened in 2016. And ever since the shock has caused widespread fear, panic and sentimental discord within the EU’s institutions. The global press, cultural outlets, and the Irish political scene have since shifted to a position that is adamantly pro-EU and anti-Brexit. To many people in Ireland right now, the notion of exiting the EU, or even questioning the idea of Ireland’s allegiance to the EU, is to bring up the spectre of British unionism and irredentism over the republican part of this isle, though principally trade and customs is of general concern in the pending exit negotiations.
The current Fine Gael Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, whose individual and collective interests in the North have never been prominent until now, has weighed in. With the inevitable help of spin and positive public relations, he has done a good job of convincing the Irish public that he is diplomatic, moderated and statesmanlike. He seems to take more than a leaf or two from the book of the current French leader Emmanuel Macron. Ireland now berates the UK from a position of European Unionism, with many using Ireland’s position of economic recovery as a position from which to indulge in a passive-aggressive pseudo-nationalism, haranguing the UK purely for the sake of doing so. This all comes after the Irish state having accepted an €85 billion bailout from the IMF and the EU, with €3.84 billion of that coming from the UK.
Such was the political situation during which the controversial Irexit Conference took place a couple of weeks ago in the RDS. I personally felt some skepticism about this event initially. Perhaps owing to a lack of information, other than the event location and who the main speakers would be, or that the title of the event “Irexit: Freedom To Prosper”, implied that economic, over cultural and civic issues would dominate the proceedings. The presence of Farage also suggested that the event would placate the interests of pro-Brexit unionists and would undermine any sort of authentic Irexit push that would come from an authentically Irish and Republican perspective.
Arriving just before midday, I witnessed the last half of a speech by Dr Karen Devine of Dublin City University. An expert in political science, international relations and foreign policy, her speech addressed various concerns, but chiefly that of Ireland joining PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation), an EU body last December. To its advocates, it constitutes a “common defense policy” whilst to its opponents, it forms a subtle and coercive plan. One that would centralise the militaries of small member states in order to bolster the interests of large EU states, such as Germany and France. It is therefore of utmost concern, owing to Ireland’s neutral foreign policy and small size as a state, that it should retain the ability to make military decisions in the face of a wider EU defence project. However the motion to join PESCO was supported by our political elites and passed via majority vote in the Dáil, all without any real public awareness or critical discussion of its implications.
The issues of nearly half a million Irish citizens emigrating after the 2008 economic crash, the consequent filling of that demographic gap with mass migration, and Ireland having the fourth highest rate of youth suicide in the EU were also highlighted. Devine further cited how much of the Irish political class and its public seem to have developed a form of Stockholm syndrome towards the EU. That Ireland is for some reason impervious to low levels of public trust in EU institutions, which are otherwise found in the bailout countries of Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal.
In his speech John Waters delivered what was essentially a cultural call to arms, addressing a need to affirm what it means to be Irish, and what Ireland ought to be. Waters stated that Irish society should essentially operate on three pillars: family, church, and nation. Addressing the Irish nation and its people as “sovereign”, he bowed stating that “the judge is supposed to bow to the people” in reference to the Irish political class. He also stated that these politicians have failed to serve the Irish public, and instead favour the EU elites, hence distorting what it means to be a republic.
Waters evoked Pádraig Pearse’s conception of the nation as a “spiritual” concept, as “a power alive in the land […] into which all of those who live in that land can become connected”. Waters then spurned the multiculturalism, atomisation and arbitrariness of what is now inhabiting and defining Ireland, as the “postmodern sum of influences brought together in the population”. Stating that whilst European culture, and its cross-fertilisation is a fundamental cornerstone of what enriches national cultures, one should not think that this idea of “European” is synonymous with the EU’s use of the word “European”. Rather, the EU has “contaminated the well of European culture” and therein created a sense of governmental dependency amongst its peoples.
The mass immigration policies that are advocated widely within the EU, Waters argues, has led to, and continuously leads to an environment wherein a Europe that should be European, is instead a Europe for the whole world. In an environment where millions of people from strong, assertive cultures are making Europe their home, the host cultures of these nation-states have a doubtful, uncertain, passive culture. One that doesn’t know its direction, its status, or its future, and doesn’t question the consequences of a lack of integration. In Ireland such a conversation is not permitted into mainstream circles, according to Waters, and we inhabit what is a “dying culture”. The barrier to reviving this dying culture is the mass media, who will not permit such a conversation to take place.
Farage, as the main attraction, served a rhetorical function. As a charismatic, persuasive and humoured public speaker, it could be admitted that he at times relies on sensationalist rhetoric in order to sway an audience. It is indeed a very common argument that Farage is himself an “elite” despite catering to anti-elitist rhetoric. Or for critics to “call him out” simply because as an elected MEP, Eurosceptic or otherwise, he accepts a salary. He has already been criticised for having supposedly veiled unionist interests in the Republic, yet has recently branded Leo Varadkar a “European Unionist”.
Praising the rise of Eurosceptic parties in both the right and the left, Farage appears to be more keen on exercising pluralism and a sense of mutual cooperation of nations and cultures. This is in contrast to a Europe united under an anthem, a common series of bureaucracies, and whose sole concern is that of finance. Elaborating on what Waters brought up in the previous speech, the idea of “Europe” is a concept that these elites claim a monopoly and ownership on, and thereby to love Europe is to love the EU, and to distrust and disdain the EU is to dislike and spurn Europe.
To Farage, most, if not all concerns for national sovereignty, particularly Irish ones, will be met with accusations of homophobia, sexism, racism, xenophobia and bigotry. Or else a type of ad hominem politics whereby those who deride the Eurosceptics “go for the man and not the ball”. Calling for people to mobilise and organise in person and online in accordance with the principles brought up throughout the event, Farage then used the example of Donald Trump courting the media spectacle, as a means to try and dominate discussions and narratives about the issue of Ireland and the EU. In the speech he also refuted the notion that Ireland is a “very pro-EU country”, stating that it is in fact the political, business, and media elites of the country that filter through this notion.
Rather than being a one-sided affair, this gathering was effectively an umbrella of different opinions and ideas, with speakers coming from both the left and right sides of the political spectrum (economically and socially). The rhetoric that speakers engaged in rekindled a fire of sentiments that people have long since forgotten in “post-depression” Ireland. Also, this event acted, and will continue to act as a clarion call for people to speak out and not to feel belittled or afraid to speak such sentiments in an environment where doing so upsets the balance caused by convenience.
Having read “opinion pieces” on this event where the writers made their pre-judgements clear from the start, it is clear that many of them overlooked most of the wider discourses that were present there. They overlooked certain points so that their critiques would fit their ideological point of view, and in particular the prevailing notion that these movements constitute a “loony fringe” within the Republic. It’s as if these critics completely forgot about the Nice and Lisbon treaties, and that nearly half a million Irish people left this country in the past ten years. Whether or not that adds up to fully legitimising the notion of an Irexit, it most certainly proves that the European Union has never valued Ireland’s recent democratic decisions. It seems Ireland is only valued as a nation when it votes in the direction demanded by its hierarchy. Memory of these referenda amongst the Irish public is selective, especially when it wants to be, and such examples should serve as a wake-up call and a warning for us all.