No country is immune to the lure of the demagogue. Ireland needs to be very vigilant indeed, says Donal O’Keeffe.
A friend of mine shocked me last week.
She’s a woman past retirement age, deeply compassionate and hugely intelligent. She voted No to repealing the Eighth Amendment, never wavering during the debate from her firm belief that abortion is murder, and no amount of talk about bodily autonomy or gestational developmental stages or tragic circumstances could change her mind.
She’s friendly with gay people, but she voted No to marriage equality because, well, actually, I assumed it was because she’s deeply religious, but she said it was because of a complicated metaphor involving apples and oranges. I dunno. Maybe the Bible says fruits are an abomination.
But she’s a kind person, and I never thought she would say “we’ve let in too many immigrants.”
Taken aback, I replied that native-born Irish people still make up 82.5% of the population.
“Ah yes,” she said, with a certain flint in her tone, “but it’s the next generation coming up that I worry about.”
“But,” I said, “sure they’ll be native-born Irish too!”
The response I got suggested this kind, clever and decent woman had never met before in her life a greater native-born fool.
I thought of her as I listened to Peadar Tóibín TD on Saturday with Katie Hannon last weekend. Tóibín, who resigned from Sinn Féin last year on the issue of abortion, was talking about his new party, Aontú.
I disagree with Tóibín on abortion, but I admire him for sticking to his guns, er, for his principled stand. It’s not long since the phrase “having the courage of your convictions” in Sinn Féin meant Martin Ferris collecting killers from Castlerea Prison.
Tóibín spent a good bit of air-time defending his party’s position on immigration. At its launch, he had said: “There is no doubt there is a growing unease and concern among many people in Ireland around the issue of immigration.
“Our view is very simple, there needs to be sustainable levels of immigration in this country, it needs to be managed.
“There needs to be some link between the capacity of the country and the numbers of people coming in. If there’s not, there’s going to be hardship for indigenous and newcomers alike.”
These comments were condemned by some as a dog-whistle to racists.
Pearse Doherty TD, Sinn Féin deputy leader in the Dáil, said last week of Tóibín: “He never expressed any of those sentiments when he was a member of Sinn Féin.
“He is seeing the rise of this across Europe and some of it was being expressed in our presidential election. He is no fool. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
On the Saturday programme, Bríd Smith TD made the point that Aontú is an anti-abortion party, and as such cannot build to the left of Sinn Féin.
“So he’s moving to the right,” she said. “And you will find as you move to the right, the people that’ll gather around you will also be the ones that will shout the loudest about immigration.”
I don’t think Peadar Tóibín is a racist or a xenophobe, or a demagogue, but Bríd Smith seems certainly correct that he’s courting some terrible people.
Bad ideas tend to hunt in packs.
You’ll rarely meet someone opposed in all circumstances to abortion who favours mandatory ethos-free sex education and free contraception, despite those being the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancies. They tend to prefer pious Ned Flanders hogwash about abstinence.
You’ll rarely meet someone opposed in all circumstances to abortion who doesn’t have a problem with the HPV vaccine. I heard one campaigner against the vaccine tell a public meeting last week “I don’t know what sort of message we’re sending our young girls about their future behaviour”. That got a massive round of applause from the mostly “pro-life” crowd. (I think the message is “You may have sex at some point in your future, and those of us who aren’t weirdly hung up about women’s bodies think it might be for the best that you not die from an entirely preventable disease”.)
You’ll rarely meet someone opposed in all circumstances to abortion who doesn’t have a problem with women who are lone parents, or with women who’ve had children with more than one partner, or with women full stop.
You’ll rarely meet someone who has a problem with LGBT people who doesn’t spend way too much time thinking about sex in general, and gay sex in particular.
You’ll rarely meet someone who has a problem with trans people who doesn’t fit every other category of weaponised unkindness too.
You’ll rarely meet someone who says of refugees “We should look after our own first” who wouldn’t be the first to step over “our own” first.
You’ll rarely meet someone who says “It’s political correctness gone mad” who doesn’t yearn for a return to the days when well-fed middle-class men ruled the roost and could say and do whatever they damn-well pleased without fear of contradiction.
734,300 voted against marriage equality. 723,632 voted against repealing the Eighth Amendment. That’s a not-insubstantial constituency.
If I wanted to be an Irish Trump, the first thing I would do would be to court that crowd.
I’d start by saying I was “pro-life”, but that would be just an opening shot. I’d condemn the HPV vaccine while claiming I wasn’t an anti-vaxxer. Because people who are implacably anti-abortion tend to be anti-sex, (for other people anyway,) except in the most strictly Church and State licensed circumstances, I’d screech “Oh won’t someone PLEASE think of the children?”
I’d ape Trump and claim the media are Ireland’s biggest threat to democracy. Relying on the world’s oldest playbook, I’d demonise a group of “others”. Peter Casey came from nowhere to second place in our last presidential election by having a go at Travellers.
Immigrants would be where I’d start. Muslims would get a lash, of course. And I’d remember the neo-Nazis marching on Charlottesville, Trump’s “very fine people”, chanting “Jews will not replace us”. Talk to right-wing conspiracy theorists, and the name George Soros pops up over and over. The 88-year-old Jewish philanthropist has a secret plan, they pretend, to replace “indigenous” (read “white”) people with “cheap labour” (read “black people”).
You can get away with anything if you claim you’re not what you are, and only talking “common sense”. “I’m not a racist, but it’s only common sense that (insert racist assertion here).” Soon, you’ll get the name for “only saying what everybody else is afraid to say”. From there, you’ve already got the suckers, and you just need to keep them sweet by name-checking whatever crackpot theories they’ve read online. Fluoride. White genocide. Chemtrails. Throw in a few local concerns. Wind turbines. Post offices. Drink driving.
There is a ready-made constituency for an Irish Trump. They identify as “indigenous Irish” and, to be fair, you could scarcely get more “indigenous Irish” than them. They’re angry, and they feel this isn’t their country anymore, and they will believe anything.
We know what happens next, and we need to be very vigilant indeed.