Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dublin, Ireland (Photo by Niall Carson - Pool/Getty Images)

The Irish experiment

Irish politicians are seeking “modernisation” without a clear sense of what that means

Artillery Row

On 3 May, Reporters Without Borders published its annual press freedom rankings, with Ireland sitting proudly in the number two position. RSF noted, “The overall climate for press freedom in Ireland is positive, with journalists able to work freely and without interference. This will come as a shock to Elon Musk, who the previous week had called out the Irish government for its impending Hate Speech laws. His attention was drawn when an Irish commentator tweeted out specific clauses in the legislation, indicating that possessing what the act defines as hateful material will be a crime in itself. In certain circumstances it will be up to the “offender” to prove their own innocence.

What is driving the push for these laws? Some have noted the sudden rise in anti-immigration protests over the last year, alongside some activity on the self-ID front, and conclude that these outrages are the key. This gets the causal pattern back to front, however. These eruptions are the sort of thing that the government was worried about when it got the ball rolling on hate speech laws several years ago, exactly the sort of crises they wanted the laws in order to manage. 

The primary appeal of hate speech laws is as a tool to manage demographic change. In the past 30 years Ireland has gone from an emigrant nation to an immigrant one. The current official statistics put Ireland’s proportion of non-national residents at 13.8 per cent. The Irish Government’s official plan is for the population of the Island to increase by a million people — around a fifth — by 2040. Ireland’s below-replacement fertility rate and a limited stream of returning emigrants means that this number will overwhelmingly be made up of migration from outside. 

Disruptions prompted by demographic change are going to get much worse

For better or worse the Irish state has a commitment to rapidly increasing immigration that is partly practical and partly ideological; every major party and basically every minor one is in agreement on this. We’re a peripheral country that will succeed by attracting investment from outside, which naturally means attracting people to come and live here. Ireland doesn’t have the size, military power or wealth to throw its weight around. We long ago made the rational decision that we could succeed within the EU by being the most fearless and faithful advocate of its institutional goals: the free movement of goods, capital and people.

The Irish government knows that we are at the beginning of our immigration journey. Disruptions prompted by demographic change are going to get much worse in the future, not better. Increasing our population by whole per centage points in the space of a couple of months and in the midst of a generational housing crisis, as we did last year, is at the far end of the sorts of turmoil we can expect. There will be many more events of that type, if not that size. Hate Speech laws are a tool to control the reaction.

The second factor is the relative power of activist non-governmental organisations in forming policy in Ireland. Ireland is not unusual in its reliance on NGOs or their penetration of the state. It does spend an unusual amount of money on them (about 5 billion euros a year), and the uniformity of opinion between political parties, the press and activists means that a sort of impenetrable cultural feedback loop has formed. The government pays for partisan activism, the products of that activism are reported uncritically by the media, and the whole package is taken by the government as the output of a robust debate in the public square, to be enacted in policy. 

That includes Hate Speech. The government has stated the purpose of the new law will not simply be on the books in case it’s needed — the intention is to prosecute more people. Whilst there is no doubt that many NGOs want hate speech laws for philosophical reasons, it is also in their material interests. More prosecutions mean more funding, more chances to partner with the government, more calls to expand their remit. The government undertook a public consultation prior to the drafting of the legislation. Reading the submissions from groups they more or less paid for means we can trace how their demand for more stringent laws became a reality.

They genuinely don’t know why anyone could object to such laws

The final driver of these laws is the most elusive but perhaps the most important: the Irish state’s commitment to modernisation as a good in itself. Many Americans or English people would happily snap their fingers and return to the 1950s if they could. That is reflected to some degree in the political discourse — there is a constituency in those countries who think that the past was simply better. That constituency is vanishingly small in Ireland, and the further up the hierarchy you go, the less you find it. Irish people remember what it was like to be poor but “soulful, and richer but a bit emptier, and they understand that the choice is not as clear as your average tradposter would have you believe. 

How does that relate to hate speech laws? Our political media and activist class have come to understand that these are the kinds of laws that a serious, upwardly mobile and modern country has. Modernity has been good to Ireland, and the features of modernity should be pursued for their own sake; further justification or thought is not necessary. 

In part this explains the incuriosity on the part of the media in relation to these laws; their passage through the Dáil was unremarked upon until Elon Musk commented on it. It also explains the listlessness with which the proposed laws are defended — listening to government spokespeople try to tackle objections, you get the impression that they aren’t familiar with the issues and stake and have not thought deeply about their own proposals. In part this is because, on cultural issues, our largest parties are Theoden-like husks who will only sit passively unless an activist Wormtongue is telling them what to say. The other side of the story is that they genuinely don’t know why anyone could object to such laws. 

Reporters without Borders seem to be of a similar mindset — they don’t know how anyone could object to these laws either and can’t see how anyone could consider them limiting. Is their assessment of our level of press freedom wrong? As of today, it’s probably not. That’s not to say that a wide variety of different opinions are available in the mainstream media or that dissent is encouraged; more that things restraining dissent and argument are philosophical and held in place by an unspoken consensus amongst the powerful. Hate Speech laws will, ironically, change that. Suppressing speech through arrests that you were mostly successful in suppressing through consensus might prove a tactical error. Who knows what next year’s rankings will hold? 

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