Michael Clifford: Alienation can be exploited by both ends of political spectrum

The pandemic, and the evolution of global and national politics since 2008, has resulted in more alienation which, Michael Clifford writes, has the potential to be exploited by violent elements on the far-right and far-left. 
Michael Clifford: Alienation can be exploited by both ends of political spectrum

Anti-Lockdown protesters clash with gardai at last Saturday's demonstration in Dublin. Photo: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

There may be trouble ahead. Last Saturday’s lockdown protest in Dublin, which resulted in violent clashes, could be a harbinger of sorts. Various sections of society are feeling alienated, particularly arising from restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

The impact of a likely recession on the far side of lockdown has the potential to greatly increase alienation. In such a milieu all it takes is a touch paper for violence to flare and spread.

One example of this was the Love Ulster riots. Love Ulster was a group claiming to represent unionist victims of the Troubles. The group travelled to Dublin for a march in February 2006 but protesters attacked the march and things turned ugly.

Thereafter, the violence spread right across the city from O’Connell street into neighbouring arteries and over to the Leinster House area on the far side of the Liffey. For most of the afternoon, the city centre was under siege. 

While the initial protesters were associated with Republican Sinn Féin, it soon became obvious that scores of local youths took advantage to riot and loot.

This was at a time when the country was allegedly “awash with money”. Most boats were carried on the rising tide. 

But some disadvantaged areas were left behind. So when an opportunity presented itself, youths, alienated in a country doing well, lashed out against the system.

The pandemic, and the evolution of global and national politics since 2008, has resulted in more alienation, particularly, but not exclusively, among the young. Social media has provided the ideal echo chamber in which alienation can be massively exploited by extremist elements.

One feature last Saturday was the presence among the 2,000-odd protesters of activists in the anti-immigrant National Party. A number of these individuals were recorded distributing leaflets, mingling, feeling the pain of the protesters.

The National Party and like-minded entities are active online, spreading hate, conspiracy theories and lies. Vigilance is required to monitor their activities.

Crucially, none of this crowd have any political traction. Listening and observing last weekend to some who style themselves as anti-fascist one might conclude that we had just witnessed the first moves in a coup d’etat.

Comparisons have been made with other countries where this stuff has manifested itself, particularly the USA. There, and in other quarters where extremism has flourished, there has been a noticeable political shift to the populist right. 

By contrast, the centre of gravity in Irish politics has shifted to the left, and the populist left at that.

Right now, you’d be hard-pressed to find as much as a town councillor spouting any level of anti-immigrant and conspiracy theory sentiment. As long as that pertains, the rise of the right remains a law and order issue, in which the greatest threat could be from a lone wolf-style attack by a radicalised individual.

Apart from that, the notion that alienation will automatically congregate around right-wing extremism in this country remains untested.

In fact, there is an argument to be made that it could well, for some at least, find a home in left-wing extremism. As things stand, there is barely an acknowledgement that there are violent entities at that outpost of the political spectrum.

Last Saturday, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris initially stated that “elements of both the far left and the far right” had been at the protest.

There were no far-left elements present. The commissioner was mistaken but for some inexplicable reason, mention of the far-left was taken as a slur by political elements who self-identify on the mainstream left.

Sinn Féin senator Lynn Boylan tweeted: "The left is not the same as the far right”. This is an accurate observation but why it required airing is a mystery. The left is not the same as the far left either.

Her party colleague Padraig MacLochlainn tweeted a homespun civics class of what constitutes left wing politics. This was a puzzling tweet. 

Socialist Mick Barry and People Before Profit’s Paul Murphy both took the hump as well.

One might well think from the reaction that any notion of far-left extremism in this country is, well, a conspiracy theory. In reality, that brand of extremism has been there for all to see for some time.

Garda sources briefed crime reporters at the weekend that the commissioner’s error was attributable to a belief that the far-left republican outfit Saoradh had been present as it was on previous counter-demonstrations. Saoradh is linked to the dissident group, the Real IRA.

One such counter-demonstration occurred last October outside Leinster House when a group including the dissidents attacked a gathering of the National Party. This was thug-on-thug violence. It was ugly and extreme. Only luck, and quick action by the gardaí, ensured that nobody suffered serious injury or worse.

A celebratory account of the violence on the Anti Fascist Action Facebook page that evening stated that the “NP (National Party) and their allies know well that in their first encounter with Anti-Fascist Action and Left Republicans, they were the ones found wanting.” 

The page linked to another site, Republic Media, which frequently gives updates on “news from the armed struggle”, listing in an approving manner all violent incidents currently being carried out by dissidents. These groups believe they have a right to kill human beings in pursuit of their political aims. The extent of the overlap between Anti-Fascist Action and the dissidents is unclear.

Last Saturday’s lockdown protest in Dublin could be a harbinger of the alienation being felt by various sections of society, particularly amid the pandemic. Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
Last Saturday’s lockdown protest in Dublin could be a harbinger of the alienation being felt by various sections of society, particularly amid the pandemic. Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Many who consider themselves “on the left”, and even others who simply abhor racism, implicitly and explicitly approved of the attack on the National Party last October. Social media was alive with glee from the kind of people who would never engage in violence themselves but believed that the National Party had it coming to them.

No doubt the dissidents were thrilled at such mainstream approval. And no doubt the vast majority of those who did approve were unaware that their heroes for a day were associated with murderous thugs, once described by Martin McGuinness as “traitors to the island of Ireland”.

This is precisely how extremism inveigles itself into the mainstream. Just as right-wing extremists use the cover of the lockdown as a recruiting exercise, so left-wing extremists draw support by aligning with, and even inciting, those who see themselves as simply opposing anti-immigrant entities.

There may indeed by trouble ahead if the economy tanks coming out of this phase of the pandemic. Alienation has the potential to be exploited by violent elements at the far reaches of both sides of the political spectrum. 

Pretending that only one exists because the other contains the term “left” would be silly if it weren’t so dangerous.

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