Virgilio Fernández del Real, at almost 100 years old, knew how to deal with fascists.
After the far right Spanish party Vox went into local government in Madrid in 2019, del Real texted historian Giles Tremlett and told him what was required. “We have to prove that we are the immense majority and those fascists can start getting ready to ir a tomar por culo,” meaning stick it up their arse.
Del Real, originally from Mexico, had been a volunteer in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He fought alongside people from all over the world, including the Irishmen eulogised in Christy Moore’s Viva la Quinta Brigada. Men like Robert Martin Hilliard, an atheist Church of Ireland pastor and Olympic boxer, a founding member of Trinity College’s hurling club, a man described at a training camp for the volunteers who’d signed up to fight Francisco Franco’s forces as “a communist, a great drinker, one who had friends of all classes”.
Hilliard died in 1937 of injuries he sustained while fighting Franco’s tanks with just three fellow volunteers armed only with light weapons.
What brought the international volunteers together was that, “They were anti-fascists. The crucial binary choice for foreigners in the Spanish Civil War… was between fascism and anti-fascism,” wrote historian Tremlett. According to Moore’s tribute to Hilliard, “No pasarán,” meaning they shall not pass,” was “the pledge that made them fight.”
These volunteers were unequivocal on the stakes and their demands. Ireland’s political and media establishment, addressing its own far right threat, are less so.
Michael McDowell isn’t owed anything
Something I don’t want to be at in 20 years’ time: alternating between protestations that my most significant contribution to the world around me wasn’t racist and demands of apologies from the people who say otherwise.
This is Michael McDowell’s life.
His political legacy is the 2004 citizenship referendum, passed by almost 80 percent of the electorate, which he introduced as justice minister in a Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition. The Guardian was blunt reporting on the result at the time: “Ireland has massively endorsed its government's plans to strip African and eastern European children and their parents living in the republic of Irish citizenship.”
That was it in a sentence – a reactionary referendum that served to narrow the definition of Irishness to those with the right blood.
McDowell now, almost two decades later, is still calling criticism the referendum was racist "threadbare and offensive". In its aftermath he told the Times Irish edition he was “owed an apology” from those who called it such – despite an exit poll showing that 36 percent of Yes voters thought the country was being exploited by immigrants.
I don’t think he’s owed anything, not when the government campaign that returned such an overwhelming result featured exaggerated claims about foreign women giving birth in Irish hospitals, pullulated personally by McDowell. He got his result and he should own it rather than whinge.
Not only is McDowell not deserving of an apology, I don’t think he’s a suitable candidate for leading a conversation on immigration in Ireland.
At a time with far right boots on our streets, McDowell decided to write in the Irish Times of the country’s “national right and duty to determine migration policy. Our government must exercise that right carefully. Half thought-out proposals to extend asylum rights to climate refugees are not helpful.” He also had the confidence to say we need to do this “to avoid creating a space for far right politics in Ireland”.
I think it’s helpful to consider the class interests of someone like McDowell – Gonzaga old boy, former minister in a right-wing government, a senior counsel and current senator – in seeking to influence public debate on immigration, with comments divisive in nature.
During the citizenship referendum campaign Juliet Bressan, a doctor who advocated a No vote, said McDowell’s government “has now clearly tried to scapegoat women and their children for the failures of the Celtic Tiger to address poverty, housing and health care in Ireland.”
The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself.
Which Fine Gael leader ‘bluffed much and promised much whilst performing little’?
Joining McDowell in the arena is taoiseach Leo Varadkar, someone who in the past has embraced the anti-intellectual and far right-friendly “horseshoe theory”.
“The far right and the far left aren’t very different to me,” said Varadkar during a 2020 Dáil exchange with People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett.
To try to understand Varadkar’s difficulty distinguishing between the far right and far left – between the people threatening to burn down refugee accommodation and the people opposing them – we should recognise that before babies can understand language, they can understand tone of voice.
This could explain why Varadkar told Boyd Barrett that when he considers the two political tendencies, he considers them similar. “It’s anger. It’s rage,” as he said, suggesting a struggle to understand actual words rather than how they're spoken.
Varadkar this week did however tell reporters that he is “very concerned about the rise of the far right” and that some of the protests it’s been responsible for is “not the Irish way”.
Now he’s concerned. Last month he spoke of tightening the country’s borders and played to unfounded fears of people entering “illegally”. “Some of the things we’ll examine in the next couple of weeks is how we can make sure that we have more appropriate and more robust border controls to make sure that people aren’t able to enter the country illegally, because the vast majority of people who come here from overseas do so legally,” he said in the isolationist intervention.
To further explain Varadkar’s weakness on the issue, we could look to his political forebear, fellow leader of Fine Gael Eoin O’Duffy, a man who Franco himself said “bluffed much and promised much whilst performing little”, much like Varadkar. O’Duffy rejected how many people considered the civil war in Spain, saying, to explain his decision to organise brigades to fight not for the Spanish Republic but for Franco, “It is not a conflict between fascism and anti-fascism but between Christ and anti-christ”.
Another man who struggled with identifying fascist threats, much like Varadkar.
‘A nasty right-wing element’
Matt Cooper is another who’s decided he is of sufficient gravitas to chair the debate. “We do not need,” he wrote in the Business Post, “a nasty right-wing element emerging in this country to disrupt and divide everyone else. We must deny them the oxygen of self-righteousness. But not having the necessary conversations is not the way to do that.”
“A nasty right-wing element” that seeks “to disrupt and divide everyone else” is an appropriate description of every government that has ruled Ireland since the state came to be. It’s fitting too for a national broadsheet that speaks in euphemism about the “necessary conversations” we need to have about immigration, in a country sitting on a €5 billion budget surplus and that has never returned to its pre-famine population figures.
For the last 100 years the state has been successful in dividing working people, just like other developed, so-called liberal democracies across the world. “How skillful to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor, building resentment on top of humiliation! How adroit to bus poor black youngsters into poor white neighbourhoods, in a violent exchange of impoverished schools, while the schools of the rich remain untouched and the wealth of the nation, doled out carefully where children need free milk, is drained for billion-dollar aircraft carriers,” as Howard Zinn put it in his People's History of the United States.
The far right movement to which people like McDowell, Varadkar and Cooper now suggest concession is a gift to Ireland’s ruling class. It’s a movement that endorses the division that has always been state policy.
I’ll take emancipation please
How bathetic that where once a true Irish revolutionary, in James Connolly, said, “Our demands most moderate are: we only want the earth,” Ireland’s far right, whose leaders claim revolutionary status, seem happy to, rather than seize the world for themselves, just stop it progressing.
With its celebrations of the burning of proposed refugee centres and its affirmation of biological determinism over free will, it’s a nihilistic rather than emancipatory movement. Connolly’s articulation of his demands self-consciously acknowledged the scale of his vision; the Irish far right and their fellow travellers, with their ‘Ireland for the Irish’ – without suggestion of what that country would look like beyond the birth certificates of its citizens – show how meek at heart they are.
To put in terms they’ll understand: these people are profoundly, spiritually, cucked.
The protests the movement is involved in typically typically take place in working class (in the liberal sense) areas. I reject the condescension with which these communities are treated, communities that returned among the highest Yes votes in Ireland’s same-sex marriage and abortion referenda, communities that came together to defeat the regressive proposed Irish water charges. To hear even ostensibly sympathetic political leaders and commentators describe these places, you’d think they comprise amorphous and unreasonable emotion rather than actual people.
When people from these communities articulate and act on racist sentiments, it’s every bit as conscious and deliberate as when the good people of Dún Laoghaire and Dalkey voted to strip foreigners’ children of their citizenship rights in 2004. Like their counterparts in south Dublin suburbs, these people have been subjected to the same establishment media and led by the same establishment politicians, all of whom have done their utmost to divide working class (in the true sense) people.
We make our own history, after all, even if we don’t make it as we please.
But we have choices, just like Bob Hilliard had the choice of fighting for the Spanish Republic or Eoin O’Duffy’s Irish Brigades. Like James Connolly had the choice of fighting for the earth for all or setting it alight.