On Friday evening, The Robinson Subcommittee of the College Historical Society (the Hist), held its first panel discussion of the year. The Zoom event addressed “the rise of political extremism”, through an examination of various issues surrounding the subject, both of the past and present.
The discussion was led by guest speakers Suzanne Lynch, Washington Correspondent for the Irish Times, Conor Gallagher, Crime Correspondent for the Irish Times, historian Prof John Horne, and Emma Taggart, the debates manager for the Student Economic Review.
Although the event was hosted in an informal setting, the gravity of the debate was not undermined. With each speaker addressing the prompt from different angles, pressing questions were raised about the state of extreme politics in our world today.
Perhaps this is why Professor Horne began by addressing a fundamental question of the debate: what do we mean by political extremism? In discussions about political extremism, everyone has their own standard of what they consider extreme. In Europe, coming from the perspective of a liberal democracy, we often fear the rise of right-wing groups. But Horne reminds us that “the standard” of this democracy “can shift”, and has done so over history – democratic principles have changed towards our modern conception of what he defined as a “liberal democracy”.
However, the chapter of extremism in our history is far from over. Lynch was quick to remind the panel of the current polarisation of politics in the United States, both from the far right and far left. The tensions in these extremes are highlighted by frequent protests, social media campaigns, and can sometimes “descend into more destructive events”. Lynch described the summer of 2020 as a “summer of discontent” in America. Since the police killing of George Floyd, American political extremes only garnered more support as discussions of race, inequality and police brutality came to the fore.
Lynch also addressed the problem of gun culture in America, saying that “gun crime puts a different perspective on everything. Right-wing groups are heavily armed”.
Gallagher’s discussion focused on the advances of political extremism in Ireland. The panel assured the audience that “the far-right made few gains in Ireland”, and that there’s “no indication that that will change”.
Gallagher speculated that Ireland’s far-right parties such as the National Party and the Irish Freedom Party have such poor electorate success that they likely will not “be able to expense” their campaigns this year. However, while no official organisation has emerged from the pandemic’s anti-mask protests, Gallagher said it is far-right activists who tend to dominate those marches.
Taggart took into consideration the effects of extremism in Ireland reminding us that, while the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is a step in the right direction toward peace, daily violence is still the reality for many people, not just in Ireland. Taggart said it is important that we “remember these events and look towards them like signalers”.
When the talk finished, the audience was encouraged to ask the speakers questions. The panel were asked about the role of coronavirus in exasperating extremism. Taggart fears that increased time spent on social media and the threat of fake news, which facilitates conspiracy stories, may help to magnify and foster extremism.
The discussion ended on a more hopeful note, as the speakers reminded the audience of the benefits of the European Union and how the far-right was often “unorganised” and centred in the hands of a minority.