Is it Ireland’s turn to ward off a toxic populism?
The Irish parliament, the Dáil, met for the first day of a new session in September. In scenes that shocked many, the returning members were met by an angry and violent crowd of protestors. Several demonstrators threw up a homemade gallows featuring portraits of various political and civil society figures.
One politician was accosted—and, it appears from video footage, almost assaulted. And a protest blockade kept people trapped inside the building long after the session had ended.
According to The Irish Times, the protest was organized over social media, where it was dubbed “Call to the Dáil,” drawing participants from far-right groups and individuals nurturing a host of grievances and anxieties about contemporary Irish society, from Covid-19 conspiracies to immigration and transgender issues, housing shortages and the economy.
Even if we do not have a shorthand label to describe the kind of political movement represented at the Dail protest, T.D. Marc Ó Cathasaigh says that it is clearly “unified by disenfranchisement and anger.”
“No single policy or party was the target of the protest,” The Irish Times reported, “with politicians across the political spectrum depicted on posters describing them as ‘globalist traitors.’”
Ireland has long been understood as one of the few European nations that has not become home to a populist or far-right movement. But Irish society has changed dramatically in the last generation.
While the truth is more complex than any shorthand account, many Irish people would describe that change as a move from a conservative culture haunted by a dysfunctional religiosity to a liberated, educated and affluent society that aspires to welcome everyone. The scenes outside the Dáil, which evoked in their own way the infamous attack on the capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, alarmed many committed to that liberalizing project.
A nation long known for producing immigrants has been experiencing higher rates of immigration most years since the late 1980s. Immigrant numbers spiked to 121,000 in 2022, a 15-year high, that included almost 30,000 refugees from Ukraine. Many of the Dáil protesters organized through social media hashtags like #irelandbelongstotheirish, suggesting that those increasing numbers of immigrants were the source of their discontent.
Marc Ó Cathasaigh is a T.D. (a teachta dála, a member of Parliament) for the Green Party. He was present at the Dáil and was shaken by the rage expressed among the demonstrators. At the same time, he insists it is important to be “careful not to exaggerate.” The crowds were objectively small, he says. This “wasn’t the fall of the rule of law in Ireland.”
But neither does he want to underestimate the nation’s growing far right. It has been a common strategy across Europe for fascist parties to piggyback on a patchwork of different complaints, then to coalesce around a particular issue, frequently immigration, into a coherent political movement. They “key into different issues which motivate and radicalize people. They look for a wedge issue,” he says.
The protest drew participants from far-right groups and individuals nurturing a host of grievances and anxieties about contemporary Irish society, from Covid-19 conspiracies to immigration and transgender issues.
He has noted a “definite change in the tone of the debate” in Ireland, as the pandemic and the lockdowns that came with it accelerated fragmentation and polarization—with an able assist from social media echo chambers. Opportunities to respectfully debate ideas in Irish society are diminishing, he worries.
Mr. Ó Cathasaigh cites a lecture he recently attended by Stella Creasy, a member of the U.K. Parliament for the Labour Party, who suggested that in the aftermath of the tragedy and upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic the “politics of ideas has been overtaken by the politics of anger.”
Even if we do not have a shorthand label to describe the kind of political movement represented at the Dail protest, Mr. Ó Cathasaigh says that it is clearly “unified by disenfranchisement and anger.”
He argues that when political discourse primarily takes place online, citizens end up having poorer conversations about pressing issues. Part of the problem are the negative feedback loops implemented in social media algorithms; part of it is the disembodied nature of the beast.
Mr. Ó Cathasaigh recalls that Pope Francis often focuses on the importance of human encounter. “The encounter with an individual is something we have really lost as we moved online,” he says. “The interaction is mediated. A screen stands between us and them.” This makes empathy and mutual understanding harder to achieve, leading to mere argument, never dialogue, because of the insider/outsider dynamic.
Mr. Ó Cathasaigh does not present himself as someone who has all the answers. Indeed, it seems one way to frame his concerns is that Irish culture is losing its capacity to even ask good questions.
When political discourse primarily takes place online, citizens end up having poorer conversations about pressing issues.
Some have suggested that the response to these increasingly threatening protests should include rendering any protest outside the Parliament impossible. A more productive approach, Mr. Ó Cathasaigh believes, may be to find ways to relocate power in the hands of citizens. The Irish political system is very centralized in the capital city, Dublin; Irish local governments are among the worst-funded in Europe.
Having government functions so centralized has a dual effect, explains Mr. Ó Cathasaigh: “It is disempowering for the citizen and it leaves very little room for thinking for the [member of parliament].” The reality is that much of a T.D.’s time is taken up remedying issues that could be more effectively handled at a regional level.
By consciously moving decision-making power closer to the people, much of the feeling of powerlessness evident among the protesters could be remedied, he says.
Mr. Ó Cathasaigh proposes that some form of participatory budgets could be introduced, creating a context where the money spent in a region is more responsive to the views and wisdom of those who know the place best. Instead of an opaque bureaucracy making decisions, citizens would have the chance to thrash out the practical realities of how to build a better society.
With no screen or algorithm mediating the encounter and having been drawn together by what we might describe as, adapting words of the theologian Oliver O’Donovan, “the loves we share in common,” such an approach might generate empathy instead of enmity. This subsidiary approach, suggesting a foundational component of Catholic social teaching, would be one “that grounds people.”
The Irish State already has a prominent form of deliberative consultation known as citizens’ assemblies. These are conversations about matters of significance that might require new legislation or policy, conducted by 99 representative citizens chosen at random, which are informed by a range of expert opinion.
By consciously moving decision-making power closer to the people, much of the feeling of powerlessness evident among the protesters could be remedied.
But as the prominent Irish Jesuit Edmond Grace explains, the assemblies tend to address issues at such a high level that they do not remedy this sense of disconnect between the average person and the decisions being made in his or her name.
“If you take the biodiversity citizens’ assembly—it came to over 159 recommendations,” he says. When the conversation is that diffuse, the functioning reality is that the ruling party receives the recommendations and uses them as a license to act on the issues they had already identified as priorities, ignoring the others.
After decades working in Ireland and at the European Union on building democratic institutions, Father Grace agrees with Mr. Ó Cathasaigh that one direct way to head off the threat of rising populist movements is to generate new modes of participative engagement. His suggestion—becoming more popular across the continent—is the establishment of citizens’ juries (often called citizens’ panels in a European context).
A citizens’ jury, is, like a citizens’ assembly, “designed to bring together groups of people from different sectors of society, different genders, ages, geographies, socioeconomic backgrounds.” And just like the assemblies, they are “designed to bring them into contact directly with people in power.”
What Father Grace proposes is no longer a fringe idea. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, called for such mechanisms to become “a regular feature of our democratic life” in last year’s State of the Union address.
The juries do not replace their national parliaments, which would still debate and pass legislation. They do not intrude on the responsibility of political representatives to determine policy. But they do promise to put the deliberation about how those policies are enacted back into the hands of the people directly affected.
Many of the protestors who assailed the Dáil were concerned about the lack of services and infrastructure in their regions. Typically, for example, their anti-migrant rhetoric is framed in terms of how “this influx will put massive pressure on an already stretched system.” In that situation, Father Grace explains, when a set of projects have been identified by the national government, it “would be for the jury to decide where in their county these things will go.”
The topics that together generated the fury outside the Dáil—migration, changing understanding of gender, the limits of public health interventions—might remain contentious.
But there is hope that these experiments in more deliberative, participatory government might dissipate the politics of anger and head off the risk of populism by restoring a sense that power still resides with the people.