It has often been said that Ireland has arrived to modernity ‘a little breathless and a little late’. Over the past decades, we were seen to be arriving late, if at all, to what was considered the norm elsewhere in western Europe: the left-right divide as the defining issue in political life, free secondary education, universal access to healthcare, motorways and a decent public transport system, to name but a few.
In more recent years, we finally seemed to have caught up and, with the marriage equality and the repeal the Eighth votes, to have become a beacon of tolerance and liberalism. Meanwhile, to our dismay, our neighbours seemed to be moving in the opposite direction, with xenophobic, anti-women, anti-immigration discourses attracting more and more support at the polls. As I write this, we await the breakthrough of the Vox party in Spanish politics, on a platform of values and positions that bear great similarity to those of the era of Franco’s dictatorship.
Apart from the breakthrough of Peter Casey at the very end of last autumn’s presidential election on an anti-Traveller and anti-welfare rhetoric, we have had few signs that there exists among the Irish electorate a base of support for the emergence of an ultra-right party. The troubling findings of the Behaviour & Attitudes Sign of the Times survey published in The Irish Timeson April 27thchanges all that. For it reveals a range of values and attitudes remarkably similar to those that, in other countries, are providing a substantial base of support for parties that, until recently, were marginal and insignificant.
The finding that 61% feel they will have a better life than their parents is welcome and bucks the trend in many of our neighbouring countries. This is driven by a growing economy providing more and more jobs, yet 32% can still say they don’t see the benefits for them. The clouds of Brexit on the horizon are also understandably causing anxiety, with 68% expecting no improvement in their purchasing power over the coming year. None of this is very surprising: remember that the disconnect of many from the growing economy emerged as a major issue in the 2016 election much to the surprise of Fine Gael.
What is new and very disturbing are the responses to questions designed to gauge people’s mood, and introduced this year for the first time. Four in particular are noteworthy given the importance of the issues they cover to the growth of right-wing parties in other countries. While Ian McShane, the executive chairman of B&A is quoted in The Irish Times as stating that the intention was ‘to prompt and to provoke’, the underlying views they reveal should not be lightly dismissed.
The first question links identity to immigration by asking if we are ‘losing Irish identity in face of foreign national influx’ to which 47% responded in the affirmative. The explosive nature of this link in other European countries with longer histories as multi-cultural immigrant societies than Ireland, gives grounds to take this significant minority view very seriously indeed. Equally serious is the fact that 45% of men and 38% of women felt that ‘the #metoo movement had gone too far’.
While these are simply momentary snapshots of people’s views, views likely to quite fluid rather than firm, what they echo are the views that are now finding articulation by ultra-right leaders, such as Santiago Abascal of Spain’s Vox party. He argues for a return to a secure sense of Spanish identity and actively proposes to weaken laws on violence against women. Once a leader emerges giving voice to such extremist views, people’s rather fluid ideas can suddenly take on a sense of certainty and conviction, fuelling a dangerous indignation.
Two other questions elicited majority responses though the issues raised may seem somewhat less politically pertinent than issues of identity and immigration, and of affirmative action for women. Sixty one per cent think ‘everything is changing too quickly’, while 69% think that ‘society is too politically correct’. However, this rather vague sense of unease again finds expression among those supporting ultra-right parties.
Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells, in a number of recent books, highlights the core dynamics involved: ‘The less control people have over the market and over their state the more do they fall back on a core identity that cannot be dissolved in the vertigo of global flows. They find refuge in nation, territory, God. While the triumphal elites of globalisation proclaim themselves world citizens, broad sections of society entrench themselves in the cultural spaces where they find recognition and in which their value depends on their community and not on their bank account. A cultural fracture is therefore added to the social fracture.’
While such a cultural fracture is little evident in Ireland so far, the findings of the Signs of the Times survey show that the seeds of such a fracture are evident. All it would take for the fracture to deepen and widen would be for charismatic leaders to arise giving legitimacy and wider currency to such views. And, as we have seen in other countries, this process can happen very quickly. We need to be alert unless we want to find that, in this regard also, Ireland is finally arriving a little breathless and a little late.