5 min read

The Irish Far-Right Is Testing Your Boundaries

When ghouls try to argue that racism is not racist, they’re testing the public’s boundaries like raptors testing an electric fence

My gut reaction to recent attacks on Hazel Chu was sickening disgust but not surprise. Never surprise. Chu has faced storms of abuse from far-right groups, their supporters, and unaffiliated racists for as long as she’s had a profile and there has been a predictable intensification of the abuse since she became Lord Mayor of Dublin. A particularly disturbing incident recently happened outside the Mansion House, where five people holding placards, one that read “Our Lives Matter,” approached Chu. One woman was arrested for “persistent lack of compliance with public health regulations and directions from An Garda Síochána.”

Far-right groups (and I’ll name them so you’ve no excuse not to send them the way of Hank Scorpio’s moccasins should they ever darken your porch: The National Party, The Irish Freedom Party, Anti-Corruption Ireland) spend so much time attacking Chu, it without question qualifies as an obsession. They are obsessed with her because of what she represents: an Ireland where a woman of color can rise to the position of Lord Mayor. These groups purport to have political aspirations—they run candidates in elections, after all—and still they divert attention from politicians with legislative influence to instead wage a hate campaign on a representative with very limited power.

When I saw Twitter accounts claiming that the Mansion House incident was not driven by race—or serving up the notion that it was, in fact, Chu who was the racist for, among other things, proclaiming that her thoughts were with the family and friends of George Nkencho as they grieved his death—I was immediately reminded of a tweet sent to Chu by National Party politician Rebecca Barrett last November. Badgering Chu on Chinese food and bats, it was a collection of words so unashamedly racist, it’s almost impossible to believe that anyone would post it under their real name, let alone a woman who has run in a general election. You don’t have to be an authority on the complex nuances and historical context of language to see the tweet was offensive. Yet Barrett did try to claim there was nothing racist about it. When contacted about the post by the Limerick Leader, she replied, “It was a joke. Her family own a Chinese restaurant which she herself has advertised on Twitter. Nobody has a sense of humour anymore. False outrage.”

That’s right everyone, we’re supposed to believe that sending an unsolicited message to a person of Asian heritage about Chinese takeaway and bats is not racist. We’re supposed to believe that white people waving signs with the words “Our Lives Matter”—a statement that attempts to derail the specific problems Black people face that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement—is not racist. We’re supposed to believe that the disproportionate about of negative attention, often abuse, Chu receives is not racist. Any normal person’s common sense informs them that in each case the opposite it true.

I've been thinking about Fintan O’Toole’s piece on “trial runs for fascism” or “pre-fascism” relating to the American presidency of Donald Trump. (Apparently it was the most read piece in the history of the Irish Times website, which I assume makes it the most read Irish Times piece ever.) O’Toole argued that Trump was gradually pushing the American public towards fascism—or blooding the population—by testing how much dehumanization of immigrants he could get away with and slowly upping the ante. “You have to undermine moral boundaries, inure people to the acceptance of acts of extreme cruelty,” O’Toole wrote.

Similarly, when the ghouls of the Irish far right try to argue that racism is not racist, they’re testing the public’s boundaries like raptors testing an electric fence. How much contempt of people of colour is Ireland ready to take?

Almost everyone who saw Barrett’s tweet recoiled, and so the far-right try to gaslight them by saying it wasn’t actually racist. Maybe a seed of doubt is sewn. Then maybe next time the words are slightly less extreme and so people recoil less. Then these groups test boundaries again and see how it plays. If you can erode at the established norm that racist language is unacceptable and taboo, the dehumanization of people of colour becomes far easier.

Politicians are emboldened enough to put up huge posters with "There Are Too Many Immigrants" written next to their image

If you can gaslight people into questioning whether the incident at the Mansion House was racially motivated, future harassment is easier to get away with.

O’Toole’s words again: “This allows the members of that group to be dehumanised. Once that has been achieved, you can gradually up the ante, working through the stages from breaking windows to extermination… The tests will be refined, the results analysed, the methods perfected, the messages sharpened. And then the deeds can follow.”

Let me tell you, the public is extremely easy to desensitise. The racial harassment of a politician is a news story; racially harassing her a second time in a less extreme manner ends up far further down the news cycle. Gauntlets are thrown down, bars are set, and a new normal creeps in.

That far-right groups have taken an anti-Covid restrictions stance and been heavily involved in protests has been a woeful affair. These groups will take up every fringe position and use it as a recruiting tool, always with a single goal as their ultimate prize: the racial purification of Ireland. This is not a hyperbolic statement—it’s the only reasonable conclusion to draw when you examine their policies, activism, and actions. There’s no non-racist reading of the Irish Freedom Party leader Hermann Kelly claiming that, “Mass immigration causes trouble for transport, healthcare, education and housing resources,” while also running an American immigrant of Irish descent in the last election. The horror and absurdity of it all. When antique blood links to the island are valued above being born, raised, or naturalised here (Hazel Chu was born in Dublin), it is fascism.

Some people are of the opinion that Irish far-right groups are so small, so on the fringes of society, that they are best ignored and, in theory, starved of oxygen. Others believe light must be shed on their movements so we can stay vigilant. I’ve sympathy for both arguments. Generally, I’ll avoid uttering the name of a certain cracked ex-journalist, but there was a moment when she filmed herself harassing a Muslim butcher that was worth talking about. Here we had an unashamed example of how businesses are often the target of racism. They provide not just a static focal point for attacks, but their very existence feeds into the twisted interpretation that non-whites living here are akin to colonisers.

So I pick this moment to highlight more dangerous far-right activity. These trials runs for fascism, “test-marketing for barbarism,” are at an embryonic stage compared Trump’s experiments, but the rise and fall of a fascistic head of state offers new research material for the serpents to refine their methods. In Ireland, evil forces are attempting to erode the reputations of people of color. If it looks like racism and fascism it’s because it is. Don’t allow your senses to be corrupted.