When reading about the emergence of the ‘far-right’ in Irish political journalism and opinion pieces, one is left feeling like they’re in the film Groundhog Day.
Generally, a quick once over a few Wikipedia pages serves as the research basis which goes into the churning out of such articles. They’re distinguished not only by their extreme unoriginality but a tendency to parrot each other. Probably an AI programme could write these articles at this stage.
But occasionally an effort is made to explain the contemporary Irish ‘far-right’ within a more nuanced historical perspective, contextualising the current groups and individuals by reference to the political history of twentieth-century Ireland. This was what was promised in an article by Damian Lawlor and Dieter Reinisch, published in German in Junge Welt on 24 April 2022. It’s not what we got.
The article was largely overlooked until it was translated and republished in June on the website ‘Antifascist Europe’, an initiative of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which is itself the think-tank of ‘Die Linke’, a communist party in Germany.
Being co-written by Reinisch, an Austrian academic with a strong track-record of research centred on Irish Republicanism, and Lawlor, whom I am led to believe authored a book on the Fianna Éireann, the reader would assume this article would present new research into the origins and trajectory of radical right-wing Irish political thought. But alas the reader will be left disappointed. No mention is made of key figures or groups like Fr Denis Fahey or Maria Duce, Gearóid Ó Cuinneagáin, Ailtirí na hAiséirghe, or even right-wing polemicists like D.P. Moran or Brian O’Higgins among others. Instead, we get a mush of bad history and barstool left-Republican mythology.
The article opens with a common trope of its ‘genre’, that the far-right has never been a considerable force in Irish politics. They write that “at no time was an extreme-right party represented in the Irish Parliament.” But the article’s central argument, which was obvious from its masthead photograph depicting the Blueshirts saluting, contradicts this early claim.
According to the article’s overarching narrative, Fine Gael, at least under the brief leadership of Eoin O’Duffy but probably before and afterwards too, was a far-right party from which the modern Irish far-right’s pedigree can be traced.
Not only was Fine Gael represented in the Irish Parliament, but it was consistently the second largest political party from 1932 onwards.
This contradiction demonstrates a wider dissonance within left-Republicanism on the Irish far-right in general —on one hand it was never a significant force and was never popular, yet on the other hand it was secretly at the core of the counter-revolutionary Irish Free State. A state made possible via a shadowy coalition of the Catholic Church, the political establishment, and big business.
But the authors feel confident in definitively stating the reasons why fascism and the far-right never found “fertile ground” in Ireland. Their reasons are remarkably polemical in nature, taking the view that Irish Nationalism and society generally is essentially left-wing. This is backed up exclusively by clichés which hardly bear repeating, we’ve heard them all before: “the Irish went abroad, so we’d be hypocrites to turn away immigrants” and so on. The point is that this article is simply not honest, it’s a polemical screed. As it progresses, it becomes obvious the authors’ main intention is to gate-keep the holy grail of “Irish Republicanism”, lest it fall into the clutches of the supposed Irish far-right.
The central thrust of the article is a comparison between the National Party, founded in 2016 by Justin Barrett and James Reynolds, and the Blueshirts, most notably led by ex-Garda Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy in the early 1930s.
For an article penned by historians, there are major pitfalls in the factual accuracy of several of its claims. For example, the claim that the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December 1921 “led to the partitioning of Ireland in 1921.” With highly publicised centenaries last year, there can be no excuse for academics to write such sloppy history. After the Government of Ireland Act 1920 was passed by the British Parliament, the Northern Ireland parliament was officially opened in June 1921, which solidified the partition of Ireland —six months before the Treaty was even signed. Of course, it’s ignored that O’Duffy was actually one of the most belligerently anti-partitionist IRA leaders who supported the Treaty, being part of a three-man military council alongside Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy which schemed to supply the IRA north of the border with guns and support.
Another example of sloppy historical writing is the claim that “As with the ‘Blueshirts’ movement of the 1930s, the formation of the National Party in the 21st century is largely the initiative of one man: Justin Barrett.” But O’Duffy never founded the Blueshirts, officially the Army Comrades Association. He only became its leader after his sacking as Garda Commissioner by Éamon de Valera in September 1933.
The organisation had been formed in February 1932. O’Duffy was actually expelled from the Blueshirts by Ned Cronin, which led him to later found the National Corporate Party or “Greenshirts”. This gave him the freedom to repudiate any of the pro-Commonwealth statements he was pressured to make by soft pro-treaty nationalists and ex-Home Rulers during his brief stint as Fine Gael leader in 1933-1934. But this historical nuance is lost on the article’s authors. Its implication that the Blueshirts or the National Party for that matter is a “one man band” is a bogus comparison.
For the rest of the section about the National Party, the historical comparisons take a back seat. An astounding ignorance is evident throughout. The writers claim that the 2018 abortion referendum was concerned with the “liberalization of the legislation”, when in fact it was about changing the Irish constitution to remove the Eighth Amendment and not a referendum to liberalise unnamed legislation —this is the prerogative of the Oireachtas.
They then claim that the National Party “has about 200 members”, without citation or evidence. But the party must have many more members than that, as to be legally registered as a political party it’s required to have a minimum of 300 members. So where is the figure of 200 coming from? Pulled from the sky no doubt.
An astonishing claim is made that “Ireland’s extreme-right groups are funded in part by hundreds of thousands of dollars from alt-right circles in the United States.” It’s ironic to make these extraordinary claims of sinister foreign bankrolling when the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung itself is heavily funded by the German Federal Government as the think-tank wing of ‘Die Linke’, the successor to the former East German Communist Party. Last year, they posted a job advertisement for a paid position investigating and monitoring the far-right in Ireland. Clearly there’s lots of money flowing around anti-fascist slush funds with questionable funding sources.
As for the claim that the Irish ‘far-right’ is funded to the tune of hundreds of thousands of US dollars, the authors should produce some evidence. But we all know they never will.
The article finishes with a very tired trope in a section headed “Loyalists and English Nazis”. After the obligatory self-congratulatory fairy tales about Irish fascists being “run out” of northern towns and housing estates by “republicans” and “community activists”, the article turns to a bizarre and largely irrelevant ramble about Loyalist links to the National Front in Britain. While this is all very interesting, it’s utterly irrelevant to the topic supposedly the focus of the article —far-right Irish Nationalists.
Any reasonable person could obviously tell that there’s a stark difference between an Irish Nationalist and a British Loyalist, the same as how an Irish left-Republican would be in contradiction to a northern left-wing Loyalist. Bear in mind, the UVF often postured as left-wing and socialist, as glowingly described in the book Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity by Tony Novosel.
It’s worth remembering that the UVF’s political front, the Volunteer Political Party, was one of the first political parties in Ireland to support the legalisation of abortion. Funnily enough the only prominent Irish politician to share this view was socialist Limerick TD Jim Kemmy, whose anti-Republican attitude towards the North probably reflected yet more UVF sympathies.
In fact, the links between Unionist ideology and the Irish far-left runs deep —certainly a lot deeper than the supposed shared space between the Irish far-right and Loyalism. Both People Before Profit (Socialist Workers Network) and Solidarity (Socialist Party) have their origins with British Trotskyist parties and have been largely dependent on their British counterparts for ideological and strategic direction. The SP still officially subscribes to a policy that Ireland should be reannexed by Britain and a Federal Socialist Britain formed, which amounts to a leftist home-rule-all-round policy. But they’d probably rather you didn’t know about that.
After ending its detour of discursively throwing irrelevant anecdotes about 1980s Loyalist-NF links into the pot, the article finishes by performing a screeching U-turn and bringing back the worn-out O’Duffy parallel. Just as the IRA “crushed” the Blueshirts, so will today’s anti-fascists crush “the rise of Irish neo-Nazis”. Hurrah! But in the final analysis, what is the impression the reader is left with? Certainly a very skewed image of the state of play of modern Irish politics.
For an article penned by two historians, at least one of whom has published peer-reviewed articles and held posts inside the Academy, it’s startlingly obvious there was a huge lack of research or intellectual engagement with the phenomenon of right-wing Irish political thought and its incarnations across many groups and individuals in this article. Instead of a serious endeavour to research and understand this overlooked and grossly misunderstood aspect of Irish Nationalism, we’re left with the written equivalent of a 2 am rebel ballad night where old boys swivel on their barstools and drunkenly mouth along to the words of “Viva La Quinta Brigada”. Play it again, Sam. And again… and again… and again.